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Riding Along with the Columbus Police

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea Riding Along with the Columbus Police
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“I’ve got a 37”

“You missed an interesting run.”

Officer Wil James finds me in the parking lot of the police academy on Hague Avenue at about 6 p.m. and immediately tells me I’ve already missed what will likely be the most important call of the day for the Columbus Division of Police’s Precinct 15. A suburban man was just arrested by a task force on child pornography charges. The man apparently sobbed profusely, another officer later mentions, as they removed his wedding band.

columbus-police-ride-along-02James’ Precinct 15 is housed in the same building as the academy on Hague Avenue. His cruiser, a Chevy Impala, is car 150B, the “B” meaning second shift. Second shift, says James, is usually the busiest and Precinct 15 generally has “a little bit of everything” when it comes to incidents that require police attention. Accidents, shoplifting and domestic disputes are most common.

Officer James and I have to wait in the parking lot of Precinct 15 while another officer processes a woman who was involved in an accident without carrying a valid license.

James explains how officers tend to work in different ways within the parameters of CPD’s rules. The police department has what James refers to as its “bible;” the duties and regulations that all officers are expected to perform and operate within. But everyone has his or her own interpretation of it, “just like the Bible.”

“Everybody has their systems and the way they do their jobs,” says James. This is his way of explaining that the other officer’s system takes a little longer than his own probably would.

Soon the other officer is done with his paperwork and we’re clear to leave the parking lot. James alerts other units on his position and tells them “I’ve got a 37 with me.” I tell him I suppose I’m the “37” and he tells me it’s the code for a ride along.

“You catch on fast,” he says.

Footprints Aren’t Like Fingerprints

The man and his son are both very friendly, and even though neither of them speaks much English, both know enough to translate for each other.

They had been out of their ground-level apartment all afternoon and during that time somebody kicked their door in so hard it left a footprint. They stole two laptops, a few hundred dollars in cash and two televisions. One of the TVs was ripped right off the wall from its perch beneath a pair of long fishing poles crossed like decorative swords.

The two men show Officer James every place the burglar or burglars had been, pointing out footprints around the outside of the building.

“Footprints aren’t like fingerprints,” warns James.

The two men invite Officer James and myself on a tour of the apartment, showing him their identification cards from both Ohio and Mexico, as well as the former location of every stolen item. At one point the son, a man in his late twenties, tells me somewhat offhandedly, “I’m a DJ.” Then he shows me a back room full of his music and sound equipment. Luckily for the DJ, the burglars don’t seem to have touched this room.

James takes detailed statements from the two men, which takes some time due to the language barrier. Then it’s time for him to depart and they each shake his hand, and shake my hand as well, which I was not expecting.

Back in car 150, James does his paperwork on the cruiser’s laptop, filling in different categories by scrolling through predetermined entries. Under “Method of Operation” one automatic entry is the surprisingly simple criminal tactic “wore wig.”

James knows there’s not much to go on in terms of finding a culprit for this break-in, which is why he warned the DJ and his father about footprints and fingerprints.

“A lot of people think they’ll get caught up with CSI,” says James. But in reality, not finding any fingerprints at a burglary means there’s not a whole lot that can be done. When officers search the scene of a break-in, James tells me, they focus on things that are seldom touched, like the outside of a windowsill. Otherwise, most of the fingerprints at a location will likely belong to the victim.

James also tells me criminals often target immigrants they think are in the country illegally, banking on the notion that the victims will not call the police for fear of deportation. But CPD is not in the business of deporting undocumented victims, only undocumented perpetrators.

James finishes his paperwork, and paperwork on a computer is no less boring than paperwork on paper. Soon after the burglary report is submitted, car 150 is called to Hilliard-Rome Road for the next run of the night.

The Man in the Red Shorts

Kohl’s is the only store that calls the police while a shoplifting is in progress. Other stores like Walmart or Target usually wait until the shoplifter has left, but Kohl’s does not. It puts the police in a bind, says James, because a person has to leave the point of sale before he or she has committed a crime.

At 8:11 p.m. car 150 is parked in front of the Kohl’s entrance while another cruiser waits in the parking lot.

“And now,” says James, “we wait.”

We’re waiting for a man wearing red shorts, who, according a Kohl’s employee, has just stuffed a good deal of Nike merchandise into a bag and doesn’t appear interested in paying for it. Even so, the Man in the Red Shorts hasn’t left the store, so he isn’t a criminal yet.

He also keeps changing his movements. The laptop inside car 150 flashes with new updates – he’s walking to the south entrance, now the north entrance, now somewhere else. Finally, the computer says he’s dropped his bag of Nike gear in the middle of the store and walked out. James and I look up from the screen and there he is; the Man in the Red Shorts has emerged.

James follows the man, who is now talking on his cellphone, through the Kohl’s parking lot and toward his car. The officer in the other cruiser approaches slowly from the other end of the parking lot. Finally, James confronts the man and his two companions in the car.

As it turns out, the other officer remembers the Man in the Red Shorts. He was arrested just a week earlier for trying to steal a bicycle right out of the store. This time, the Man in the Red Shorts is indignant about being suspected of shoplifting and swears to Officer James he has learned his lesson. Perhaps he has; this week he left his merchandise inside the store, so the Man in the Red Shorts is free to go with his companions.

“I’ll see you next week,” he says before departing.

James and the other officer laugh about the man’s boldness later. James tells me that whenever someone asks him what the most realistic cop show on TV is, he always says, “Reno 911.” He’s not joking either; it’s encounters like the one with the Man in the Red Shorts that make real policing more of a comedy than a drama.

The 12-Pack Burglary

This is James’ first week back on the streets after attending the United States Police and Fire Championships in San Diego, California, where he led CPD’s basketball team and was hit a couple of times in the face during the games. He tells me when he posted pictures of his injuries on Facebook some of his friends jokingly commented, “Police brutality!”

James’ CPD basketball team benefits Get Behind the Badge, a nonprofit that supports families of fallen officers and firemen. This is the team’s second year with Get Behind the Badge and James hopes they can branch out to other charities as well.

As for the future, James aspires to be a sergeant and have his own precinct. He knows that being a sergeant means being a dependable and reliable leader who can handle the kind of personalities that come with the job.

“A lot of officers have big personalities,” says James. “You can’t be shy or bashful. As soon as someone senses that, they’ll take advantage of it.”

With no military or law enforcement background, James was a substitute teacher for a year and a half before deciding to become a police officer.

“I love teaching,” says James. “I love working with kids.”

James still encounters kids regularly on the job, especially in the summer and especially in Precinct 15, which is comprised mostly of suburban areas.

James tells me a story from just a few days earlier about a group of 12- and 13-year-olds who came upon an open garage in their neighborhood. Inside the garage they noticed a 12-pack of Coca-Cola and decided to take it.

These were good kids for the most part, and the owners of the garage certainly didn’t want them punished, just scared a little by the police.

“That’s where discretion comes in,” says James. “Could we go arrest those kids for burglary? Yes. But would that have been the best course of action?”

When the police confronted the children, they told the officers another boy told them it would be OK to take the 12-pack. After finding this other boy, James asked him what he wanted to be when he grows up. James was surprised when the boy told him he wanted to be a doctor.

If you want to be a doctor, James told the boy, “You need to think about the decisions a doctor would make.”

Hit and Skip

As the sun starts to go down, the screen inside car 150 keeps lighting up with “43A” – reports of gunshots. What’s really happening is it’s two days before Independence Day and people are shooting off illegal fireworks.

James drives past the Hollywood Casino and through Hilltop. Everything is quiet for the most part. On La Vista Drive, we encounter a family on their front lawn firing Roman candles into the air. “Put ‘em away,” James tells them, and we continue.

I can tell James was hoping to have something more exciting to show me, but as he tells it, this a pretty typical day. Some days can be better, some can be worse.

“Some days are just bad to be a police officer,” says James, lamenting the days when it’s raining and a traffic light goes out, leaving officers to direct cars in a downpour. Other times, a major crime like murder can take up an officer’s whole day. But still, there are perks.

“You know that dead-leg feeling you get on long car trips?” James asks me. Apparently that doesn’t happen to police officers.

Finally James gets what will be his last call of the night. Unfortunately it’s nothing particularly climactic; a hit and skip at the Kroger on Hilliard-Rome Road. We arrive at the parking lot at around 10 and start searching for the silver minivan described in the report, but all of the minivans appear unoccupied. James begins to worry the caller might have tried to follow the car that hit her – “A lot of them do that.”

We end up sitting in James’s cruiser for a while, thinking we might have to leave soon if we don’t find this silver minivan. Eventually, though, a girl in a softball uniform appears at James’ window and directs us to the car.

The caller did not follow the car that hit her, but is still in her parking space with her silver minivan full of kids. The softball player and her younger sister take pictures of James’ cruiser while James takes their mother’s statement. The softball player asks why I’m riding with James and I tell her.

“Is he fun to hang out with?” she asks me. I tell her James seems pretty cool.

As James continues talking with the mother, a group of young men walk past dropping some heavy profanities. James shouts at them to cut it out.

“We got kids over here!” he yells. The young men apologize and shut up. The softball player turns back to me.

“Yeah,” she says. “He seems pretty cool.”

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