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updated: 11/19/2013 5:11 AM

Columnist pins down teenage thief, and he's not proud of it

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  • Police officers are trained in ways to handle all the tricky aspects of crime fighting. Civilian amateurs just do what seems right at the time and hope nobody gets hurt.

      Police officers are trained in ways to handle all the tricky aspects of crime fighting. Civilian amateurs just do what seems right at the time and hope nobody gets hurt.
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Even before the cops arrive, I am wishing that I were somewhere else. The young thief I have pinned to the pavement is thinking the same thing, only more so.

"Get off him!" screams the first police officer who responds to the 9-1-1 call. He's talking to me, as I am the adult sitting on the belly of a boy in the middle of our street. I rise, grateful that the officer firmly grabs the boy's arm and not mine.

I'll tell you what I told the police.

I am raking leaves in our front yard in the late afternoon when I hear girls screaming. A pack of boys is sprinting my way. Two hysterical neighbor girls, maybe 13 and 10, are in their pajamas, chasing the boys and yelling "Call 9-1-1!" I step into the street and raise my hands, indicating that I want everybody to stop and calmly tell me what this is all about. They don't.

A boy clutching a pink iPhone sees me and throws down the cellphone. He fakes left and seems surprised when I, too slow to react to his first move, remain close enough to grab him with my right arm. We spin to the pavement and end up with him on his back and me sitting on him and holding his wrists. Neither of us wants this.

The girls are crying. The boy is yelling, "Let me go! I don't have her phone!" My wife hears the commotion and walks out to see how my raking is going. The boy's buddies stop at the corner. Huddled around the biggest boy, they have a decision to make, too. The boy I have pinned to the ground weighs half as much as I do. He might be 13, maybe younger. He's a boy, not a hardened criminal. I am embarrassed.

Speaking in the same calm baseball coach voice I once used to comfort tee-ballers who cried after hitting into an out, I tell the squirming boy that we all need to calm down and everything will be OK. But I have my doubts.

Is this just about a pink iPhone that now is back with the girl who owns it, or am I holding an accomplice to some more serious crime? Where are these girls' parents? Could these kids have anything to do with the recent burglary at a vacationing neighbor's home? Are the boy's friends waiting to see if he'll break free? Are they worried that I am some martial arts expert looking for a chance to use what I've learned? Are they scared I might whip out a gun? Or are they figuring out which one is going to have to shoot me?

I'm aware of how others might see race as a factor in this situation, and I hesitate to bring it up. I'd do the same thing and entertain these same thoughts if this boy looked more like my sons or I looked more like his dad. Gender is a different matter. I might have grabbed a fleeing girl of any color, but I can't imagine pinning her to the ground. Age also plays a role. If this boy were 17, might I have jumped out of his way and stopped the girls from chasing him to make sure no one gets hurt?

Neighbors mosey out of their homes to find the girls still crying and me still sitting on a boy. As a crowd gathers around the girls, the boy's friends duck around the corner. They don't come back.

The boy is more hysterical than the girls by now, pleading with me to let him go. Thinking he might be the son of a neighbor who isn't going to appreciate my crime-busting effort on a kid who might have some emotional issues or is guilty of nothing more than one stupid moment, I ask his name and address. Sensing I might be merciful, the boy tells me his name is Michael. He says he doesn't know his address.

"Let me go," he begs.

I consider doing that. Maybe this could be one of those life-changing moments that leads to a grown-up Michael making time in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech to thank me for giving him a second chance and helping him see that the world is a wonderful, kind and forgiving place. Or maybe he would run home while calling me names and vowing revenge.

Where are those cops? And why couldn't this kid have run past me or broken through my arm tackle like a normal kid? Had he eluded me, we'd both be free. He'd have the freedom to brag about how he dodged a hulking, crazy man wielding a rake, and I could be granted poetic license to recast him as a rough-looking teenager who fled rather than mess with the likes of me.

The girls' parents return from their neighborhood walk to find their daughters talking to the cops. They thank me for jumping to the aid of their girls. The boy sits in the back of a squad car. The police don't scold me or explain how my actions could have made things worse, but I know they don't want suburban dads taking the law into their own hands.

Are neighbors right about me doing the right thing? Or did I traumatize a child just to teach him a lesson he probably didn't learn? Did I renew the girls' faith in human beings? Did I twist something in my knee tackling that kid?

I still wish the entire episode hadn't happened, but I am glad that nobody got hurt. I am grateful to return to raking leaves.

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