By Chad Nance
“Arrows of neon and flashing marquees out on Main Street.
Chicago, New York, Detroit and it’s all on the same street.
Your typical city involved in a typical daydream
Hang it up and see what tomorrow brings.”
- Robert Hunter
The raggedy, tin-ear sounds of the police band radio chattered in the background mixing with the sound of rain hitting the windshield and another radio tuned to a local classic rock station. The Grateful Dead were truckin’ like the do-dah man while we were headed to Winston-Salem’s South Side to follow up with a citizen’s complaint that drivers had been boogieing through her neighborhood at speeds that were less than safe. It is the kind of trip officer Walker makes over and over again every shift. It is 90% of what Winston-Salem’s finest do. They follow up on our complaints, concerns, fears, and mistakes. Like teachers, EMS, sanitation workers, park maintenance workers, and a number of other professions, the WSPD keeps the wheels greased and do the best they can to smooth over the rough spots while the rest of us go about our business only noticing them when something goes wrong.
The Squad offices are a labyrinth of cubicles upstairs in the Public Safety Building. Unlike the bustling, chaotic energy of TV squad rooms it is quieter, more orderly, and has a great view of University Parkway and the neighborhoods to the north. Second shift began with Squad 252 gathered around Sgt. S. A. Karboski’s cubicle. He briefed them on my presence- coming across more like a college professor than a tough-guy movie cop. Karboski’s thoughtful approach is immediately apparent when you speak with him. His warmth for the men and women who work with him is real.
Sgt. Karboski introduced me to the officer I would be riding along with. Officer Walker is an intense young man with short red hair and the compact, confident energy of high-school basket ball guard. The Squad discussed a drug bust that occurred on the previous shift. Apparently the suspect had tried to hide crack cocaine inside of cigarettes. This criminal mastermind had taken the tobacco out of the end of the smokes then shoved crack rocks inside of the papers. Not exactly Lex Luthor.
Another officer asked Walker’s advice regarding the seizure. Later in the evening while we were checking out another citizen complaint of suspicious behavior, Sgt. Karboski told me that Walker has a bright future as an investigator- an area the young policeman excels in.
Next up is the shift “line-up”. All of the 2nd shift officers gather in a cramped briefing room. Wall to wall men and women in blue exchanging greetings, writing in notebooks, and sipping on coffee or energy drinks. Officer Walker’s desk had a coffee cup sitting double barreled and loaded next to a tall, sweating energy drink can. At the front of the room a projection screen ran a steady stream of mug shots and information about various people of interest officers might run into during their shift. Unlike the power-points at most of the offices in Winston-Salem, this one mentioned that one of the mug shots was known to carry a firearm and should be considered “dangerous” if encountered. I sat there trying to remember the last time I encountered anyone in the course of my work day that could be consider “dangerous” and came up goose eggs.
Asking everyone to quiet down a police Captain took the podium to read a poem titled We Carry On.
The uniform is not armor. It won’t stop bullets, knives, bricks or sticks. We have gone in burning buildings, burning cars and icy waters to try to save lives. Some of us lose our lives in the process.
But, We Carry On.
We are part mediator, problem solver, professional driver, weapons expert, guidance and marriage counselor. We are part analyst, lawyer, fireman and doctor, and sometimes boxer and wrestler. Does your job require this much and sometimes even more? I doubt it. We know all of this.
But, We Carry On.
We’re not expected to be the one thing we are – human beings. Sometimes, though, we forget and act like them. We get angry, we say or do something we shouldn’t. Please forgive us. But if you don’t…
We’ll Carry On.
As he read the final words the Captain had to pause, his lips pressed tightly together, in order to hold in emotion. He carefully folded the piece of paper he was reading from while he told the younger officers that it was written by a retired Winston-Salem policeman named Dallas Pruitt. The Captain then announced that earlier in the day Mr. Pruitt had finally succumbed to a long battle with cancer. The room was quiet as those assembled seemed to take a collective breath in contemplation. After a brief pause the Captain said, “Let’s get to work.”
The Winston-Salem Police Department patrols the city in three districts. These districts are in turn divided into two zones a piece. Each zone is divided into four beats. “If your beat is busy you don’t get food or toilet breaks. Sometimes I’ll pick up lunch for another officer if their beat is really busy that night. We try to help one another out.”
Officer Walker worked District 2 Zone 2 that evening. Our first task after filling up with gas for the shift was to drive to the far southern edge of the city. Many citizens imagine that when they call the police with a concern nothing will be done. Police are often seen as being reactive rather than pro-active when it comes to day to day enforcement. This wasn’t the case when I went out with Officer Walker. We headed south because a citizen had called in concerned that there were people driving through her residential neighborhood at dangerous speeds. “We are responsive.” Sgt. Karboski told me later that night, “People just always don’t see it.”
The Grateful Dead played on the radio while we drove slowly through a neighborhood with large, grassy lots and comfortable, middle-class homes. Walker drove completely through the neighborhood once. “It’s hard to really set up in here.”, he told me. It was easy to see why. The neighborhood dates back to the early 1980′s and when the developers and land-owners put houses up on the lots they stripped the place bare of all but the smallest trees. There was no where for us to set up without the cruiser being so easy to spot that it would eliminate the opportunity to catch anyone. A citizen had voiced a concern, however, so we did sit for a while just watching. That’s a lot of what police (and journalist) do. Sit and watch.
After about a half hour we pulled out and followed up on another complaint of suspicious persons. Neighbors had called the police department because they had seen a car dropping men off on the street. These guys then went door to door claiming to be selling security systems. That could have truly been the situation or the guys could have also been casing the neighborhood learning who had security systems and getting a look inside some homes.
The rain had stopped for a few minutes while we drove through the neighborhood. Officer Walker waved at some kids who were walking home from the bus stop. “We don’t have a lot of problems in this neighborhood.” He said scanning from side to side. “People need to feel safe in their homes, though. When someone gets their home broken into it is… it is a violation. Taking their things and coming into the place their children sleep. It can really damage a person psychologically. Their sense of security.”
After we left that neighborhood we drove to an apartment complex that Officer Walker said produces more calls than almost any other in the city. Piedmont Circle is made up of old, brick buildings with several apartment units in each. The yards in front are spotted with grass, but are mostly patches of red dirt that were mud holes the evening we drove through. “It’s all kinds of calls.” He said as he drove slowly. “Domestics, theft, fights, you name it. If we get a report of a stolen car one of the first things we do is ride through here and see if we spot it.”
The rain had stopped, but a mist hung in the air thick enough that Walker still had to use the wind-shield wipers. Two young boys were playing on the playground while a small, black dog was rooting around in the mud while we set up in a small parking space next to the dumpsters. “A lot of times when we come here we do PSA’s. That stands for Problems Solving Activities.” Officer Walker told me. “Days like today when the weather is bad it keeps people inside, but other times we’ll get out and talk to people. Do a foot patrol. We don’t go door to door, but we’ll talk to people who are out.”
Again… we sat and we watched. We did what guys do when they sit around. We talked about TV and video games. Both Walker and I are big fans of Breaking Bad and we both like the game LA Noir. I tried to sell him on my contention that The Wire is the best television show ever produced and he told me his wife had given him the Batman Issue #1 from DC comics The New 52 relaunch for his birthday. Exactly what happens when two human beings sit down to talk happened. No longer was we a rightfully wary of the press police officer and a journalist nervous about getting in the way and being a pain in the ass. We just became two guys who like TV, video games, and comic books.
We were driving out of Piedmont Circle when the first call of the night came through. A man called 911 saying that he needed an ambulance to take him to the hospital claiming that he was “Hearing voices.” EMS was requesting police assistance. For the first time of the night Officer Walker turned on the blue-lights as we drove through the streets of Winston-Salem.
To be continued…
Please check back next week for Part Two.