Bryan Stascavage ’18 ventured down to the Middletown Police Department to observe how it conducts its business.
Last October, when brainstorming projects I could do over our long winter break, I came up with the idea of doing a ride-along with a police officer. My reason for wanting to do this was two-fold: to see with my own eyes what policing is like and to learn how the police collect information. I was driven mainly by my own curiosity, my desire to understand a world that is largely foreign to me.
With the help of Posse mentor Professor Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, I contacted the Wesleyan Director of Community Partnerships, Cathy Lechowicz, who forwarded my request to the Middletown Police Department (MPD). After playing phone tag with the police captain, who I’ll call Captain M, I decided to go down to the station to meet him face-to-face. After a brief introduction, we transitioned to the topic at hand, and he agreed that I could go on three day shift rides with officers E, A, and J.
I tried to approach the experience with an open mind. I had a laundry list of assumptions that I wanted to confirm or disprove. I knew I was going to ask a lot of questions, and whenever a conclusion popped into my head, I would tell the police officers and see if they agreed or disagreed with me. But mostly I was going to let them do the talking and let them run the show. I was curious what they were going to show me, and what topics they wanted to discuss.
“I have instructed the officers to not answer any of your questions about how we collect our information,” Captain M said. “So please don’t ask them. But I can tell you a little about what we do.”
According to Captain M, police intelligence is nothing like how it is depicted in the movies and on TV. Most information comes from people simply telling officers what they see in their neighborhood, and the police follow up on tips. Captain M said that due to the cost, legal requirements, and restrictions on phone taps, they are rarely used.
My first ride along was with Officer E, who helped me understand the theories behind police work. In many ways, his job is to weigh the costs and benefits of every situation and then make a decision.
He told me something that surprised me: he rarely solves problems. The police are called when people have no other options, and their job is to assess the situation and find people the help they need. For example, when there is a car accident and Officer E sees that someone is hurt, he calls an ambulance, which takes that person to a doctor who can solve the problem. He writes up a report, which can be used by insurance companies to pay for the medical expenses and fix the car. Similarly, if he catches someone who is robbing a store, he arrests them and sends them to court. The court then decides if the arrest and evidence collected were done properly, and determines guilt or innocence. The officer is simply the intermediary.
He said that the hardest part of his job is responding to domestic dispute calls, especially on the holidays. During the holidays a family is supposed to be having a good time together, but if the police are called, it will stand out in the minds of those people forever, with the flashing lights outside and possibly someone being arrested and taken away.
When it comes to speeding tickets, Officer E told me that studies have shown that the only way to modify driving behavior is through issuing infractions. The police see the results of speeding far too often. A car driving too fast hits a kid, ruining the lives of not only the child and the driver, but also their families. The tragedy could have been avoided if people simply didn’t drive so fast.
Additionally, traffic stops allow the police to check on cars and their operators to make sure they are being safe, are in compliance with state laws, and are not criminals being looked for by the police. A couple of hours before Officer E picked me up for my ride along, he pulled over a driver whose license plate was hanging off of his car and discovered that there was a warrant out for his arrest. This is the real reason for tickets; it has nothing to do with quotas (which don’t exist anyway) or power trips.
“Everyone loves the fire department, because all they do every day is help people,” Officer E told me. “They put out fires, they rescue those in trouble. That isn’t the case with police. A large majority of people’s interactions with police are negative.”
It’s true: most people who interact with the police are going to have a bad day. It is easy to see why the police can be so despised, and why they are harshly judged. For a time, I fell into the pitfall of thinking the police were power-hungry fascists who got their enjoyment from handing out speeding tickets to teenagers and pestering minorities. I thought that the police should spend their time catching rapists and murderers instead of harassing people over minor infractions.
But catching criminals is not the main job of the police. Their primary mission is to ensure the smooth operation of the city or town to which they are assigned. This means ensuring that the rules of the road are followed, guaranteeing that people are being safe, and deterring crime. They are the societal custodians, or societal facilitators, making sure that the rest of us can go about our lives with minimal interruption. The officers I talked to not only know and understand this, but are happy to do it. They love helping people and making sure that everyone is safe, happy, and able to go about their business.
With quite a few misconceptions about police operations corrected by Officer E, I now turned my attention to more pressing topics: police abuse, racism, profiling, and conduct.
I was riding around with Officer A. Officers, she told me, don’t wake up in the morning hoping that someone mistreats them so they can break out the nightstick or draw down their pistol. Instead, she said, they simply react to the situations presented to them, and it is the actions of people that escalate the situation, not the officers.
She asked a sergeant to tell me a story about how he broke his ankle. A few years ago, a man, who had been drinking, pulled into a gas station with his girlfriend. He struck his girlfriend several times, and she ran into the gas station bleeding and asked the cashier to call the police. The sergeant responded to the call, and after asking the boyfriend to talk to him about what had happened, the man attacked the sergeant. During the ensuing fight, the sergeant stepped back awkwardly and snapped his ankle; however, before the suspect could flee his backup tackled the man and put him under arrest.
Officer A told me all the boyfriend would have had to do was talk to the sergeant and explain the situation. He probably would have still been arrested, but at least he wouldn’t have had assaulting a police officer added to his list of charges.
I got her message. On every call, officers have to be amicable and respectful while still aware that at any point they could be faced with a rapidly escalating situation. I remember thinking that it must be difficult to maintain that dichotomy day in and day out: as calm as a monk, but prepared to defend oneself in an instant.
After the sergeant’s story, a call came in over the radio—a man had stolen some items from Rite Aid on Main Street and had fled. A description of the man was immediately available on the onboard laptop. Officer A detailed step-by-step how she was responding to the call, including looking for areas to which the suspect might flee. I was looking out the window, trying to see if I could spot someone who matched the description.
In a wave of guilt, I immediately realized what I was doing was eerily close to profiling. Only, was it profiling? It was responding to a description given by a Rite Aid employee and we were simply looking for someone who matched. While we didn’t find a person who matched the description, if we had, Officer A would have gone to talk to them. And if the person decided to run away or attack her, she would have had to respond in kind. The situation could potentially escalate and escalate, with Officer A having to match that in order to ensure her safety and those around her. I understood how a situation could get out of hand so quickly, and that in those few seconds critical decisions would have to be made. That’s why I feel the video showing the death of Eric Garner doesn’t even come close to explaining what really happened that day. It was just a small snippet, and utterly meaningless.
If Officer E was the theoretician and Officer A was the clinician, then Officer J was the community-oriented officer. His area included north of Washington Street, a small area of one square mile.
He told me that Middletown has one of the highest populations of individuals in Connecticut who have some form of mental illness or disorder, or have had some kind of addiction. He also seemed to know all of them by name. More impressively, he also knew their life stories. He would tell me that this person was an alcoholic who was battling cancer, or that this person struggled with narcotics addiction, and so on. He treated these individuals as people, not threats, and as a result he proudly stated that if he were ever to get into a fight with a suspect, there were dozens who would come to his rescue.
Every officer I rode with pointed out dozens of infractions for which they could have pulled over a driver. But Officer J explained best why he didn’t: the infraction was minor, and pulling that person over would only cause more consternation between the community and the police. Instead, he simply issued friendly warnings: he told a driver to put on her seatbelt, he told a daughter to tell her mom not to talk on the phone while she was driving. To him, a soft touch in these situations is better than pissing off the community by being a ticket-writing machine.
We patrolled the same areas repeatedly. When I asked him why, he said it was where most of the calls originated from. He made sure to have a presence there as much as possible during his shift to deter people from crime. This neighborhood calls the police a lot, so the police spend time there when they have no other calls. It has nothing to do with demographics—not race, ethnicity, or wealth. It simply is the result of an experienced officer knowing that a neighborhood needs more of his attention because they call him relatively often. What the critics won’t write about is how he also spends a lot of time in front of the soup kitchen during the busy hours to make sure that its process is going smoothly.
This is also why I have a hard time believing the common narrative that the police are racist because of their profiling. If the MPD receives several calls from a neighborhood claiming that there are a lot of white males aged 18-21 in the neighborhood selling drugs, then the MPD are going to stop white males aged 18-21 in that neighborhood to see what they are carrying. They wouldn’t waste their time checking females, non-white males, or older white males. Similarly, if a predominantly black neighborhood calls 911 more often than other neighborhoods, then the police are going to spend a lot of their time patrolling there.
This simple observation has rendered most of the statistics that I’ve read about the police being racist completely meaningless. The statistics leave out so much of the context, so much other information, that it is impossible to trust the numbers as valid. It is like if I read a quarter of a textbook and took a final on the entire textbook; I’d be missing too much of the information to expect a passing grade.
I asked Officer J about police brutality, a sensitive subject to say the least. He said that anyone for any reason could raise an issue with how one was treated by an officer. He tapped me with his finger and said that I now could go write a complaint about him, it was that simple. That complaint would then go to his bosses, who would then sit him down and have him explain what happened. The case would then move to trial, and a judgment would be made. The media reports on the complaints, but never reports on the fact that in 99.5 percent of the cases, the officer is cleared.
All the officers I talked to had messages to give the Wesleyan student populace. First, lock up your stuff. They respond to call after call concerning stolen laptops, bikes, and other items. Second, it isn’t personal when they have to shut down a loud party. All of them know what college life is like, and that students are just trying to have a good time, but the officers are just doing their jobs and enforcing the rules.
I’m convinced that if we treat the police as professionals then our interactions with them will be more than amicable every time.
Bryan Stascavage is a member of the class of 2018.