Duty calls- spending a night on the town with police

Friday, December 3, 2004

At 10 p.m. on a recent Saturday night I was 10-41.

In police parlance, I began a tour of duty -- 10-41 -- riding in a patrol car with Cape Girardeau police Cpl. Rick Price, who by that time already had put in three hours of his 12-hour shift. In the course of four hours I would get a firsthand glimpse of law enforcement.

In police work, three words hold true: You never know.

"You should have ridden last night," said David Valentine, on the desk that Saturday night as station commander. "We had two high-speed crashes, and someone broke into the bowling alley."

That wasn't all of it, Price said.

"A 39-year-old guy walked into Southeast Hospital and said he was having chest pains," he said. "Then he dropped dead."

A man robbed a stripper at a local "gentleman's club" and crashed his car escaping from police.

The radio traffic was so busy, Price said, it was nearly impossible to stay in contact with dispatchers.

"They say police work is 95 percent boredom and 5 percent sheer terror," Price said. Mostly, he said, he sees his job as helping people.

Price had suggested a ride-along on a Saturday. Usually a lot happens on a Saturday night, so it would be a good night to see what officers do. It turns out it wasn't nearly as eventful as the night before.

But that's police work. You just never know.

Excitement comes in spurts, but the work is steady. Price noted that so far since Jan. 1, officers have made more than 3,000 arrests. Later in the evening, when he calls dispatch for a report number at Money Time pawn shop on Independence Street, where a break-in was attempted, he discovers that the number of reports officers made this year has topped 10,000. He was assigned number 10,014.

The city is divided into four zones, each patrolled by a car. As second in command after Sgt. Carl Eakins, Price is driving the backup car. He's not limited to any one zone. He goes where he's needed. A K-9 officer is also on duty, and an officer who is paid from a grant to look for drunk drivers is also working and providing backup assistance when needed.

We're still at the station when the call comes from dispatch: A distraught Spanish-speaking man has been knocking on a door on North Sprigg Street, looking for help. He's bleeding, crying and obviously drunk.

Responding officers find that the man lives across the street with two other Mexicans. A neighbor in the building says the three are always fighting. In a back room, blood on the wall shows how serious the fight was. The crying man alternates between lunging at one of the others, also bloody from the fight, and crying into his own shirt tail.

The three men say they don't speak English, but it is apparent they understand more than they speak. An interpreter comes in, asks a few questions. The men have been fighting over beer.

Through the interpreter Price is respectful but authoritative: The men are advised to sleep it off. If police are called again, he tells them, they'll be arrested.

Back on the street, Price heads for downtown. The bars are full but the streets are empty. The police are ready for whatever may happen.

"We've got experienced officers on this shift," he said. "We'll answer calls and back up the younger inexperienced officers."

As we cruise along Good Hope Street, Price notes that few people are out.

"There used to be 100-200 people moving in this location," he said. "It's all cleared up now."

Most of the action moved to South Hanover Street, but a trip down that street revealed a few people gathered on a street corner, but little else.

It's cold outside. Nobody loiters on the corner or gathers in a yard when they can stay inside where it's warm.

Price is a veteran officer. He has nearly 19 years with the Cape Girardeau police, and five before that with the Butler County Sheriff's Department. Prior to going to work in Butler County, he was a military policeman for three years in the Army.

"I've really been caught up in law enforcement," he says. "I've always been interested in it."

Experience teaches officers how criminals operate. While he waits for Joe Wilson, the owner of Money Time, to come turn off the burglar alarm, Price checks the premises and finds pry marks on the back door. He can tell it looks like the work of the same burglar who got inside the bowling alley the night before. Evidence technician Daryl Ferris photographs the door with the pry marks on it and says it looks like the burglar used a tire tool to attempt the burglary. How does he know?

"It's about the size and leverage needed," Ferris said. "I've seen enough of them."

On South Ellis Street, Price notices a car with a malfunctioning brake light. He runs a license plate check, gets back the information, then turns on the red lights. The older model Oldsmobile turns onto Jefferson Street and stops. Price takes out a pocket-sized tape recorder -- all stops are recorded, he explains -- then speaks with the driver whose luck just ran out. A broken brake light is the least of his worries. His driver's license is revoked. The driver gets a ticket and has to walk home.

"I don't give warnings for no operator's license or speeding," Price said. "You know when you get in your car whether you have a driver's license or not."

Where you see one police car, there's often another. As Price was talking to the driver of the Oldsmobile on Jefferson Street, another patrol car drove slowly by. A few minutes later another appeared.

"We like to keep an eye on each other," he said. "You never know."

Later in the evening he would stop a Mercedes from Dexter on Main Street, just north of downtown. That driver gets a warning for having an expired license plate. Price said he has learned when to write tickets and when to let go with a warning. The city doesn't have a quota on tickets. Each officer uses his own judgment. An expired license plate is no danger to other motorists. Besides, it's getting late and he has an uneasy feeling about the crowd at the Phat Cat, a bar on Broadway.

Driving up Broadway, Price waves at Patrick Buck, owner of the Phat Cat, who flags him down. Price talks to him and a man on the street in front of the bar. A few steps away a woman is crying into the shoulder of a friend. The man and the woman have had words, but it doesn't escalate. Throughout the night over the radio in Price's car the dispatcher mentions that a police presence is wanted near the Phat Cat. Again, you never know. But all is peaceful.

Other calls include a suspicious vehicle someone sees in a residential area in the north part of town. A young man and a young woman decided to stop there and talk for a while. Someone sees a prowler near Alma Schrader Elementary School, so he directs his spotlight on the grounds while other officers check out the premises.

While Price is ticketing the man with the revoked license, we miss a call to a fight between two women at Show Me's bar on Independence Street, but catch up later at the station with one of the women involved. She sits crying in the booking room after having been fingerprinted. She has just caught her husband with another woman, and the two women took it outside. She's not only humiliated, but she's the one arrested. Price stops a minute to ask her how she is and if she's been released.

We patrol the downtown area as the bars are closing. Another patrol car is parked near the floodwall gate at Broadway keeping the police presence known. No trouble downtown, just a few revelers who are asked to walk back to their cars on the sidewalk instead of the middle of Water Street.

At one point, Price stops to talk for a minute with officer Jeff Bourbon, who was on patrol with his dog, Toben. Bourbon and Toben work a swing shift, Bourbon said. While most officers work 7 to 7, he works 3 p.m. to 3 a.m., so he can back up both shifts. He patrols the high-drug, high-crime areas. Toben goes with him when he serves search warrants. He also sniffs for drugs in stopped cars. The two are on call 24 hours a day seven days a week, as are another officer and another dog. Toben is friendly and responds to a little attention, but he's a working dog. Bourbon says Toben knows when he sees Bourbon put on his uniform that it's time for him to go to work.

"He loves to work," Bourbon said.

An officer never knows what's going to happen. A red truck parked in a quiet street could have been a prowler as easily as it was two young people looking for a quiet place to talk.

It is a young man's game, Price says. He's slowing down a little, it's harder to chase suspects than it used to be, but he's planning to stay another nine years until he's eligible to retire at 55. He likes the work, and has found that while the people whom he sees at their worst don't always appreciate police officers, there are others who make up for that. He said the two proudest moments for him as a policeman came when the public rallied around officers Keith May and Brad Moore when they were shot in the line of duty at the Super 8 Motel during a drug bust, and when the public voted so overwhelmingly for a tax to support the fire and police departments.

He likes the Cape Girardeau Police Department.

"It's too small to act like a big city department and too big to be a small town department," he said. "It's a good department. Chief Strong cares for his men and fights for us. That means a lot."

Price carries a Taser with him, but said he has never used it. Nor has he ever used his weapon.

"I have nine more years and I would like to do it without shooting anybody or getting shot," he said.

After four hours of a fairly uneventful Saturday night, my tour of duty ended at 2 a.m. Sunday. Had I stayed a few more hours, Price said I would have seen a little more action: a call to assist across the bridge with a fight at the Purple Crackle. And a call to Frederick and Jefferson streets, where two men were fighting and one bit off the other's lower lip.

"We spent 45 minutes looking for that lip, but never could find it," he said.

That's police work. You never know.


335-6611, extension 160

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