Hawthorne Cop Relives Heroism for Television : Law Enforcement: Roosevelt Matthews Jr., who chased down gang members shooting at rivals, will tell his story tonight on ‘Top Cops.’
When he heard gunshots sprayed into a park filled with children two years ago, Hawthorne Police Officer Roosevelt Matthews Jr. forgot his own safety as he ran after and captured one of the gang gunmen.
His heroism earned him the South Bay medal of valor and some ink in Los Angeles newspapers. Tonight the 10 1/2-year police veteran gets a larger dose of fame when his story is told in an episode of “Top Cops,” the CBS network program that airs at 8 p.m. on Channel 2.
Matthews, who was wined and dined in Toronto during the filming of the episode there in November, said the reality of the risk he took finally hit him when he relived the scene before the cameras.
“When they dressed the gangbangers up, it sent chills through my body because normally you don’t get that close to these type of guys unless you have 10 or 15 cops backing you up,” Matthews, 33, said. “They looked the part really well.”
The episode shows Matthews--who was off duty that July evening in 1988--just sitting down to dinner at his fiancee’s when he heard automatic gunfire. Out the window, he sees gang members ambushing some rivals who were playing with their children in a park across the street.
Matthews, a South Central Los Angeles native who once belonged to a gang, chased two of the gunmen before help arrived, capturing one.
“Top Cops” producer Sonny Grosso was impressed by Matthews’ heroism, but said it was Matthews’ former life as a gang member that elevated the story beyond other equally compelling tales of valor.
“This is a kid who came from the ghetto, worked hard, lived in a clean house, had a nice girl that he cared about . . . and when he looks at the (gunman) he sees himself and says, ‘My God, that could have been me,’ ” said Grosso, a former New York City police detective.
In the episode, which Matthews narrates, he describes how he turned to gang life as a way to survive and how he later became a lawman. Except for a few dramatic touches at the end, almost all of the 10-minute scene is accurate, he said.
Grosso, who got started in show business when he and his police partner were portrayed busting a heroin ring in “The French Connection,” said he tries to make his police stories as faithful to the truth as possible.
As the episode’s paid consultant, Matthews taught the actor portraying him how to jump a fence holding a gun and how to run in a staggered pattern. He also coached the “gangbangers” how to dress and speak.
“Some of the phrases they were using didn’t fit,” Matthews explained. “In one scene they were supposed to say ‘Let’s liberate these wheels from this vehicle.’ Now, maybe an upper-middle-class person would use that word, ‘liberate.’ But I told them to say, ‘Let’s rip these wheels off the car.’ ”
During the week of the shooting in Toronto, where “Top Cops” is based--Matthews was put up in the five-star Sutton Place hotel, ate in pricey Italian restaurants and was chauffeured in limousines while he studied his lines. For his efforts, Matthews received what he called a modest fee.
But at the Hawthorne police station on Tuesday, Matthews’ co-workers couldn’t help ribbing him about his slice of celebrity. After viewing a sneak preview of the show that afternoon, fellow officers turned the squad room into their own version of a Siskel and Ebert movie review.
“Overall, we ended up with an aggregate of about one thumbs up, maybe a thumb and a half,” said Matthews’ supervisor, Sgt. Bob Cooper. “One was a wobbler who couldn’t decide whether it was up or down. Maybe it was a little over-dramatic in just one or two scenes.”
Matthews, who gave his performance a top rating, wouldn’t mind following Grosso’s example of bringing his police background to television and film. He says he is about three-quarters through a project that he hopes to peddle around “before everything fizzles out and I’m just another pebble in the sand.”
The story? For now, Matthews isn’t telling.