Inspiration in Our Ancestry
Timken grew up in northern Ohio with a life of privilege. His father was
the CEO of The Timken Company, a Fortune 150 multinational corporation
known for steel and ball bearings. The company had been founded by
Kurts great-great-grandfather 100 years ago. Kurt followed in his
fathers footsteps to the Phillips Andover Academy, and later to Harvard
Business School. He was being groomed to fill his Dads shoes at the
company, just as his father filled his grandfathers shoes, and so on.
He trained four years at the family company, and then another three years
in management at Rockwell. But the long hours destroyed his marriage to
his college sweetheart, and when he got divorced he started asking the big
questions about why hes here and where he could make a real impact.
30 years old, he spit the silver spoon out of his mouth, listened to an
inner voice, and after a major test of his conviction, hes now a police
officer working the graveyard shift in El Monte, California, which is a
few highway exits east of East Los Angeles, one of the highest crime
cities in the state. He works the graveyard shift because thats when
the hot 911 calls come in, and the drugs are moved, and the transvestite
prostitutes work the streets. Its when the beer hits the bloodstream,
and under the influence of alcohol or coke or meth or greed, people do
terrible things to each other. The graveyard shift is when he can make an
shift begins at 6:00 p.m. with a briefing from the sargeant, and runs
twelve hours and fifteen minutes. Most of that time, he is alone in his
patrol car, hunting for bad guys. He had me sign a waiver, and
issued me a flashlight and Level 3 body armor, similar to the one he wore
underneath his uniform. Handgun rounds will not pierce the armor, but will
still cause blow trauma. He explained where the different gang turfs were
divided, and rattled off the addresses of seedy apartment complexes where
crimes were commonplace. He taught me how to approach a car of gangbangers
and use my spotlight to blind them. Then he rechambered his shotgun, which
is kept locked to the grill above our headrests. He pointed to a button.
This is the switch that unlocks it, in case something happens to me out
there, and you need a weapon. It was around then that I stopped
thinking what Kurt has done is really cool, and I started to wonder
whether the risk was worth it. Did I really need to witness an El Monte
night? Yes, if I was going to rid my TV-inspired, schoolboy fantasy
preconceptions. Yes, if I was going to understand Kurt and tell his story.
getting dressed in the locker room, Kurt said, Everybody needs fuel for
their engine. Making seven figures on Wall Street is cheap wood, it burns
up too fast. I need something that burns well. Thats substantive.
Thats real. By the end of the night, I understood what he meant.
is five-ten, thick, tanned, freckled, with a solid jaw and brown hair
swept over the side. When remembering his past, he speaks slowly with his
eyes nearly closed, like hes going back to that old place in his mind.
He still has many friends from the world he left behind, and in a way, he
returns to his past every day to get away from what he sees in El Monte.
He lives in a spotless luxury condo on the oceanfront at Venice Beach.
Theres a hot tub on his deck and a restored antique Brunswick pool
table in his living room and upstairs, in the center of the master
bedroom, a two-person steam shower. After a shift hell sit in there and
forget, and wash the night away. He calls the condo his countervailing
force. Kurt likes the dichotomy. Theres no shame about his
background. He drives to El Monte in a Mercedes ML 320, license plate
great-great-grandfather built carriages. He had some ideas about how
wheels and shafts turn, and the kind of stress that is put on ball
bearings when there is a heavy top load and side load. This was going to
be even more important in automobiles. He pencilled out designs for the
first tapered roller bearings, which could handle those two loads better
than standard bearings. It took awhile, and the auto industry was
reluctant, but Timken bearings became the new standard, and are used to
this day in every vehicle where wheels meet shafts.
When Kurt graduated from
Pomona College, he spent four years at The Timken Company. They sent him
to France and India, and he found it fun and interesting, but with his
whole life ahead of him he didnt hold it to that high of a standard.
That changed after Harvard Business School. You come out of HBS thinking
that you can change the world in an instant, and youre hungry to find
the place you can make that happen. The years start to add up, and pretty
soon its natural to wonder, Is this really the choice I want to
make? The family expected him to train at Rockwell, and come home when
he was 30. But Rockwell had Kurt working 80 hour weeks, and so was his
wife, at Disney corporate. They rarely got to see each other, and when the
marriage fell apart, Kurt was bitter about what work had wrought. It
seemed like you have to choose, do you want a marriage or a career? He
would have preferred a relationship, but it was too late.
I spent almost ten years in
business. I was at great, innovative companies, with super management, not
trapped in layers of bureaucracy. I received great evaluations, and
frequent promotions, and was always challenged and given responsibility.
And I was still not hopping out of bed in the morning, excited to get to
Kurt had always been
interested in law enforcement. He didnt know anything about it. Hed
never known a police officer. Hed never seen a trailer park, never hung
out in a bad neighborhood. He felt it in his gut, not his brain. Business
was about growing the bottom line; if it helps people, it does so
indirectly. Kurt needed to serve people directly.
At Harvard, Kurt took
marketing with a fairly famous professor named John Quelch. Quelch taught
the Monkey Law. The monkey swinging through the jungle must never let go
of an old vine until he has a firm grip on the new one. Thats how
businesses operate, and thats how people trained in business operate.
I decided to violate the
Monkey Law, Kurt said. And plunge into the jungle, without a plan. I
went into Rockwell and gave them my pink slip and said thanks.
His father tried to be
neutral, but it was very hard for him to understand. Hed invested a lot
in Kurt. They were of two generations; Kurts Dad never had a choice
about whether to fill his own fathers shoes. Kurt tried to explain that
in our generation, its important to look around a little. Kurt, though,
couldnt get hired in law enforcement. He went a whole year being
rejected. It was the first time anyone had ever said no to him. It was a
real shock. You come out of Harvard thinking the world works for you. In
business, you can move laterally between industries, and most of your
skills are transferable. But in law enforcement, as in medicine, you start
over from scratch. The FBI
turned him down, the LAPD turned him down, the LA County Sheriffs turned
him down. They took one look at him and saw a bookworm. He didnt need
the job; would he be there as backup in a gunfight? Law enforcement is a
nepotistic career; most officers got into it through a cousin, uncle,
father. Kurt kept taking the different cities physical and mental
tests, and polygraph tests, passing them all, and thats when Kurts
Dad came in with unexpected support. He was offended that nobody would
hire his son. Keep taking the tests, he urged. Itll happen.
Finally, Kurt paid his own way
through the Rio Honda Police Academy. He graduated fourth in his class,
and still nobody would hire him.
It was a test of my
resolve, Kurt said. It was not going to be handed to me.
guys that Kurt went to the Academy with were hired by El Monte. They
bugged their Chief to hire Kurt. The Chief sent Kurt over to the Community
Relations Anti-Gang Unit. This was the prevention arm of their task force,
and it tried to get ex gang members jobs and teach them life skills. They
told Kurt if he would volunteer for a whole year, hed have a job on the
force at the end.
you went two years without a job?
even any real idea what was involved?
was learning. In all my interviews, I was learning. And at the Academy I
learned. And at Community Relations I learned.
he feel like he belonged in the community of cops?
really. I live a different life than most of them.
was hungry to do it. I thought the glove would fit. Im a bulldog, real
tenacious, and a quick thinker I would be good at it and it would have
though. Two years. Its amazing he didnt give up.
reached for his wallet and pulled out a photocopy of a note. It was
written by his great-grandfather to his great-great-grandfather, the
inventor. The sons were having trouble getting the auto industry to adopt
their fathers tapered bearings. The note read, Dear Father, I hate
to think we are putting troubles on your shoulders. Well hang in there
like grim death. Weve got grit if we dont have sense.
Kurt explained, I carried
this in my wallet, and whenever I despaired, I read it again. I knew it
didnt make sense that I wanted to be in law enforcement, but I had
his year volunteering, Kurt revamped a defunct tattoo removal program, and
it turned it into one of the most successful in the country. He put in 20
to 40 hours every week. He became a gang specialist, building an
intelligence base about the five gangs in El Monte. At the years end,
the El Monte Police Department kept their word. A job was waiting.
his Sam Brown (his belt) he carries a Colt 45 pistol with seven rounds in
the magazine and one in the pipe. He carries pepper spray, a flashlight, a
tape recorder for statements, a key ring for his baton, two sets of
handcuffs, a department-issued cell phone, and a small holder for five
rounds for his backup pistol, a 38 Special jammed into his back pants
pocket. In his pockets he carries gloves for a fight, a leather sap, and a
second cell phone. All of this adds weight. The weight is not measured in
pounds. The weight is measured in the somberness and seriousness of his
Around the department and
before the briefing, the office chatter was of the five new bonus
positions that Chief would be hiring, and of the acting-Sargeants
promotion that night to Sargeant, and of who would take the fourth K-9 if
his partner became a detective. Kurt slipped into this chatter easily. He
didnt quote Hegel at these guys, didnt throw out business school
maxims. They all put Timken Bearings in their boats, but they dont
connect Timken Bearings with Kurt Timken.
sooner did we leave the lot than Kurt had me running license plates
through the on-board computer, hoping to find a GTA, grand theft auto.
Every Honda and Toyota I saw, I ran their plate hoping for a hit. It was
the lottery. The more plates I ran, the more likely Id get a hit. We
did this with zeal. If we spotted either make, Kurt would gun his cruiser
and ride up the cars ass until I could make out the plate. This would
scare the shit out of the driver, which was the whole point.
Sometimes they freak out
and take off, and then youve got probable cause.
There were a lot of Hondas and
Toyotas. We were looking for bald heads, or ski caps pulled low to hide
bald heads. It was night, so we flashed our spotlights on every face that
passed. Every pedestrian on the sidewalk, every juvie hanging out on their
front stairs, every bicyclist crossing the street we blinded them with
the spot. We watched their hands, to see if they threw anything away. More
You couldnt do this in
Beverly Hills, Kurt said. Theyd be on the phone complaining to
the city council a second later.
We were on our way to
investigate a report of a potential child abuse case. Reading the
statement, which was taken from the 9-year-old boys teacher, it was
very likely his big sister had simply kicked him in the groin before
school. But we had to make sure, which would mean ruining some nice
immigrant familys night. This was a Level 3 Priority call, and not the
most effective use of our time. Before the shift, I sat with the 911
dispatchers for an hour, watching the calls pile up. Level 1 calls were
for imminent bodily harm, Level 2 for imminent harm to property, and Level
3 for sleepers. Kurt decided we needed to pick up the dispatchers
dinner from Dennys, so that theyd cut us some slack the rest of the
night and leave us to hunt bad guys.
On the way, Kurt barked
known prostitute and spun a u-turn on Garvey and pulled tight to the
curb, where a transvestite was standing under the bus stop sign. We talked
to him/her for awhile. I recognized her from the intelligence database
Kurt had assembled in 3-inch binders he kept in his trunk. There were
about 70 transvestites who worked El
Monte. Most came in from Hollywood; only a dozen lived in the
You working tonight?
Im waiting for the
Have I arrested you
. Wait. Maybe. At the
donut shop that time.
Are you on any drugs?
We stepped out for a chitchat.
Kurt held a pen light to her dull eyes to check her pupils, which were
constricted, indicating heroin. But her pulse was racing, indicating meth.
I found a tie-off strap in her purse, but no needles. Kurt talked to her
long enough to conclude her small pupils were a chronic condition, from
overuse, and the pulse was from codeine, the poor mans methadone. He
checked her for tattoos and showed me on the back of her hand, where the
heroin crusted up under the skin like extra knuckles when a vein was
missed. Many times he assured her he wasnt taking her in, and tried to
use this to pry a little information out of her for her profile in his
database. She was friendly but didnt trust him.
Do me a favor, he said.
Dont work here tonight.
Okay, she said.
Kurt works the prostitutes
because nobody else on the force was doing it. It was how he was trained
in business find where you can add value and improve the situation.
Make an impact. A few have become priceless informants for Kurt.
Prostitutes are both perpetrators of crimes and common victims of crimes.
Not only hooking; theyll move drugs, steal wallets, and set up johns to
be rolled by gangs. The johns drive in from all over Greater Los Angeles.
Seventy percent of the prostitutes are transvestites, because thats
whats popular, and because the transvestites seem to enjoy their work
more than the women do. El Monte is one of the last places in Southern
California that hookers still strut the streets. When he started on the
force, Kurt wanted to crack down right away, but thats not how its
done, and hes had to slow down, build the database, and wait until the
Chief tells him its time.
Law enforcement is 20 years
behind the corporate world, in terms of its culture. Here they promote by
seniority, not by contribution. We dont have a customer, other than the
city council. They dont demand better performance. So the culture is,
dont stick out, dont rub elbows, stick to what is. Work your beat
and dont come up with new ideas. A lot of officers in El Monte are good
enough to wow our bosses, but they dont.
Kurt hasnt let this mindset
infect him. He is never just working his beat, never playing it safe,
never hesitates to be the backup when another car is assigned a call. We
never code 7 to eat. My idea of law enforcement is not pulling cats out
of trees, he said. Thats why Im in El Monte.
a deadly cycle of violence here. Kids grow up watching their mothers and
fathers drink and fight, and then they do the same. The El Monte Flores
gang runs El Monte, except for when it cowtows to the MA, the Mexican
Mafia. The Mexican Mafia is a prison gang. When inmates get parolled,
theyre often sent to El Monte, and given housing vouchers which are
good at a number of seedy motels on Garvey Street.
here we go hunting.
lights off, we gun into the parking lots of these motels, hoping to
surprise someone. The attitude is always suspicion; we presume guilt and
look for probable cause. Kurt pushes me to learn this.
could I pull that car over?
flashes his spot into the car. Four young men. Another U-turn. We pull
them over, blind them, approach. I shine the light on their hands. We do
their wallets one by one. We run them for warrants. Kurt chitchats. He
asks them flat out if theyre gangbangers.
the driver says. Just four guys getting off work at the plant. One
admits hes on parole.
could ticket them for the license plate, but then they wouldnt have a
car to get to work. The tough call is when they dont have a drivers
license, or their license is suspended. Kurt doesnt want to take them
in, but people who dont have drivers licenses tend to flee the scene of
an accident, and nothing pisses citizenry off more than being the victim
of a hit-and-run.
scare the life out of a drunk driver, but dont take him in. We tell a
pregnant woman at the bus stop not to work this corner tonight. We tell
two juvies to get home, its after curfew. One of his transvestite
informants tells him that the driver of Green Valley Taxi cab #765 is
moving dope; the soda can hes carrying has a false bottom with a lot of
meth inside. We scope out every Green Valley taxi we see.
work trains the mind. To be a good cop in El Monte, you need to be
suspicious. You need to believe that every bicyclist is moving dope, every
woman at the bus stop is a man selling blow jobs, every ski cap is hiding
a bald head. Every tattoo is gang-related. Every hand you cant see is
holding a bag of dope or a weapon. Every Monte Carlo belongs to a
gangbanger, every El Camino to a Title 8, every Lincoln Continental to an
MA. Every windowless Toyota minivan is a possible getaway vehicle for an
armed robbery. In every car parked behind a warehouse is someone sleeping,
or someone getting their dick sucked. Every restaurant, unless otherwise
known as friendly, will have someone working in the kitchen who will piss
or spit in your food because you locked up her brother. The number 13 is
for the 13th letter in the alphabet, M, or Mexico, i.e. the
Mexican Mafia, the real bad guys. Apartment complexes breed criminals. A
mouth whistle is a sign that weve been spotted. It probably sounds
terrible, to live night after night in this frame of mind, but the
alternative is worse. Catch them before they commit more crimes. Make it
hard. Crack down on the little things. When all youre doing is
harassing guys coming home from their busboy jobs, it feels like a power
trip gone bad. But when I catch a bad guy, and take him off the street,
it feels so incredibly rewarding. Its what I live for.
the law of business is the Monkey Law, the law of the street is, Nobody
Tells You the Truth.
couldnt believe this at first, Kurt explained. Where I grew up,
you always told the truth. In business, you always told the truth. Id
never been lied to before. Here, nobody ever tells the truth. Even to a
police officer. Especially to a police officer.
tests me on this. When we question people, he continuously tosses the
situation my way: Do you believe her?
shake my head. A second ago she said she got off babysitting. Now she
says shes waiting for her sister whos in the laundromat.
who would wait outside on a cold night like this?
another. Do you believe her?
pointed that way but now shes walking the other way.
Do you believe him?
he was beat up by his roommate with a pipe?
he was robbed.
not? There was no money in his wallet.
had a Big Gulp and two bags of chips hed just bought.
are drunk. They lie terribly when drunk. Just by not being drunk, were
sharper than them, faster, quicker.
wont tell us where he lives.
follow his dog home.
use our brains. This was my big
surprise. How much we had to use our minds to get the jump, to process the
situation, to assess the risk, as it was happening, before bad things
happened, to read the signs, to call for backup and the stakes were
shockingly high. You had to play it right. You had to be a move ahead.
Before anyone gets suspicious of an informant, make a big show of taking
her away in handcuffs. Before cruising into a apartment complex known for
gang activity, send another out back to catch any runners as they jump the
fence. Before going into a warehouse with the alarm blaring, call for the
helicopter to patrol the roof, and call for the K-9s to sniff the burglars
underworld exists. But why choose it? Not for the eight weeks+ vacation,
though that sure makes it nice. Not for the 3-day workweek, though
thats sweet too. When I was up in the police helicopter, an off-duty
officer was filling his tank at a gas station and witnessed an armed
robbery of the station attendant. He pulled his gun, was shot in the leg,
and still managed to take down both perpetrators and get them into
custody. We were above the scene in a minute-and-a-half. Patrol cars had
already reached the gas station and had it under control. It was big deal.
Its very likely that if the officer hadnt been so ready to
intervene, he wouldnt have been shot.
this a way to live, being suspicious, always hungry to intervene? One of
the things Ive learned from this book is, dont pretend what you do
doesnt shape you. Can a steam shower and the Venice Beach sun wash off
what gets rubbed in at night? Kurts been in a lot of fistfights and
scrums, and hes pulled his gun many times, but hes never had to fire
it. This is his third year on the force. I told him about Cynthia Ringo, a
sex crimes investigator in Atlanta who had to quit after two years because
it was making her jaded about the human character.
Was she young? Kurt
Yeah. Early twenties at the
time, I think.
If I was in my early
twenties, doing this, it would get to me, too. But you learn how to
protect yourself, keep your distance, and you just know yourself better,
And when youve had to fight to know yourself, you dont give that
ground back, not to anything.
is a good man; he doesnt seem poisoned by his calling. If anything, the
work seems to intensify his goodness, refine it, give him a spine,
strengthen the spine, straighten it. Hes working his turf, a turf
defined by city limits on the east and north and Peck Road and Interstate
10 on the west and south. Its a bigger challenge to tackle than any he
could face in business, but its not so big that he cant make a
significant impact, and not so big that he doesnt feel, every night,
like he made this world just that
much better, taking that bad guy off the street, protecting that woman
from her drunk husband, steering gang members into the workforce, giving
the new Americans in this city a chance. Crime is bad in El Monte, but
crime is down in El Monte; there are many reasons for this, but when Kurt
steps out of his steam shower at dawn, and crawls into bed, he knows hes
one of those reasons. And after five or six hours sleep, hell wake, and
hop out of bed, and be excited to get back there.