As a final part of the Citizen’s Police Academy I attended this spring, it was recommended that we ride-along with an officer to get a feel for the actual work of a policeman. The small town where I live has no such program, but Chief Pat Connolly of the Urbana (IL) Police graciously allowed me to do the ride-along with his department.
Sgt. Adam Chacon helped me with arranging a time. When I arrived, I signed a release relieving the department of responsibility in case I got damaged on the ride-along. Then Sgt. Cory Koker found a bullet-proof vest for me to use that actually fit (which is an accomplishment!). The vest is warm to wear – my shirt was pretty damp from sweat when I took it off – but I admit I felt kind of cool wearing it.
The policeman I was assigned to ride with, Officer Matthew Mecum, was delayed because he was stuck helping with a situation at a local hospital. An elderly woman had been brought in by her family for an evaluation, but she decided when she got there that she didn’t want to be admitted and lay down on the floor, refusing to move. Earlier she’d told people that she was going to Charlotte, NC, to kill President Obama so that her daughter could take his place, which did necessitate a visit from the Secret Service. As Officer Mecum told me later, the things she was saying could be seen as funny taken on their own, but then you see what her family was going through and it was just heartbreaking.
Our first stop was at the scene of a recent fire. The house had been locked up but a neighbor saw a light on inside. Sgt. Koker also responded, and the officers circled the house in opposite directions, making sure it was still secure. Through the windows they saw a fire restoration company had a large fan going; the lights were likely left on by those workers.
We then drove to the newest Walmart in Urbana to take a shoplifting report. The actual theft had occurred around 2 a.m. the previous night, when a man carried two 32 inch LCD TVs out of the store and put them into his accomplice’s car. They were repeat offenders, who had removed the front license plate from the car and knew the angles of the security cameras so the rear license wouldn’t be seen. Officer Mecum had a good observation: “If these guys would apply themselves positively as hard as they work to break the law, they could do great things.”
The Walmart had had a severe problem with shoplifting when it opened, but the police had cut the losses way back by creating a presence at the store and prosecuting the shoplifters. As I’d mentioned in a previous post, there’s no “shoplifter’s” law – if you enter a business intending to steal, it’s robbery, a felony. Officer Mecum recalled capturing a man at the store. He’d seen Officer Mecum and took off running. Mecum pursued the man and caught him in the greeting card section – much to the surprise of the elderly couple standing nearby. They came in for a card and instead saw a demonstration of how to handcuff a suspect.
Most of the police cruisers for the Urbana police force are Ford Crown Victorias. All their cars are equipped with multiple video cameras that will come on automatically, such as when the bar lights are activated. The cars also have a holder for a Tough Book laptop computer that’s hooked into the 911 dispatch system (METCAD) as well as county and motor vehicle records. The older cars use to have a hard-wired terminal, but now the laptops have a wireless connection and are portable. A couple of times Officer Mecum ran plates to show me how the system worked. Besides registration information, it will often bring up driver’s license information on the registered owner. “If I run the plate, and it comes back that the owner is a white male who has a suspended license, and there’s a white male driving that car, I’m going to pull him over to check if it’s the owner behind the wheel.”
We talked a little bit about writing. Officer Mecum had thought about keeping a log of some of the crazy things arrestees said, thinking it would be a great source for a book. He also told me about the strangest call he got, which was a DUI where the vehicle involved was a self-propelled basket lift used in construction. When he caught up with the driver, at least the guy was honest. “Oh yeah, I’m drunk,” he told Mecum.
At the end of the week, Officer Mecum is leaving the patrol force to switch to community policing. That’s a plainclothes assignment where, when necessary, they can flood an area with police to cut down on illegal activity. At other times they concentrate on drug enforcement. The highest concentration of drugs in Urbana is centered at the University. A lot of the students bring drugs with them from their homes. Marijuana/cannabis is a given, but powder cocaine is also popular, along with ecstasy and new designer drugs like bath salts.
Officer Mecum had done a one-day temporary assignment with community policing, and knew then that it was the work for him. He pointed out a convenience store/gas mart as we drove by. As part of an operation to find people with outstanding warrants, an officer sat in an unmarked car at the pumps and, on a laptop, ran the license plates of all the cars that came in. They caught so many wanted criminals that they had to double up when transporting the arrestees back to the station so some officers could remain in the field.
Officer Mecum told me that the work usually didn’t get to him. In fact, he felt like he hadn’t worked a day since he joined the force, since the job is so varied – it never becomes routine. There was, though, a two-day stretch that was hard to take a couple of months earlier. On the first day, he responded when a 3-year-old was shot accidentally by his pre-teen uncle. The older boy was shouting at the officers to help his nephew while still holding the gun in his hand. He was pointing the gun at himself, but if he’d pointed it at the officers it would have escalated into a deadly force situation, and might have meant the uncle would be shot as well. Officer Mecum told him to put the gun down, and thankfully the boy followed the direction. The next day he responded after a drunk driver hit a 17-year-old girl who was riding her bicycle. The girl is still in the hospital and may not make a full recovery. Officer Mecum was scheduled for overtime the next night, but at dinner he was sitting at the table staring a thousand yards away. He didn’t take the overtime that night and spent the evening with his family.
Our last call of the night was for a robbery. A woman had returned home and found someone had taken gold and silver coins, diamond jewelry and about $100.00 in cash – around $20,000.00 or more total. Officer Mecum and I arrived, along with another officer, and we were soon joined by Sgt. Koker. They had me wait outside while they checked the house to make sure the thief was gone.
The reading of the crime scene was interesting. First, the point of entry was likely the front door. When the woman returned home, she found the door was unlocked, but was sure she’d locked it. There were no open windows or signs of forced entry. Second, to get to the coins, the perp had to walk past a laptop computer, two flat panel TVs, a WII game console and a component stereo system. They weren’t touched. Third, the coins were hidden away in the woman’s closet in a steel case. Fourth, she had large dog in the house. “Robbers usually leave houses alone where there’s a dog,” Officer Mecum said, “because the dog will likely take a DNA sample out of them with its teeth.”
It pointed to a family member as the thief. She was going through a bitter divorce and her daughter is abusing drugs. It could also have been a play for insurance money. Officer Mecum had responded to this residence other times in the past three years, particularly for domestic disputes. And this is where fiction and fact diverge. I recently read a book where a police officer jumps to the conclusion that the hero is guilty of the murder of his wife (and other crimes that come later) because of a past history between them. It’s a common plot device in books, movies, and TV shows. But the reality was that Officer Mecum conducted the investigation like it was the first time he’d ever been to the house. He was professional, compassionate and respectful of the woman throughout the time we were there.
He carefully inspected the scene, took pictures, and collected evidence to be processed by the State Police Crime Lab. The good news is the level of sophistication at the lab allows for the lifting of a fingerprint even when it’s been covered over by another print. They can also get a DNA result from fingerprints these days. The bad news is it can take six months to get the results. They don’t have the budget that producer Jerry Bruckheimer has for filming the C.S.I. shows.
We returned to the station at 11 p.m., three hours after I’d started the ride-along. I was going home, but Officer Mecum had another four hours of his twelve-hour shift, a portion of which would be tied up with writing the reports for the Walmart shoplifting and the burglary of the house.
The ride-along was the exclamation point at the end of the Citizen’s Police Academy experience for me. It brought home the reality of a policeman’s daily life and their work to protect and serve the community. I’m grateful for this. My best wishes to Officer Mecum on his new assignment and my thanks go out to all the fine officers and staff of the Urbana Police Department.