I was by no means a father of the year candidate when my three kids were finding their way through the formative years. But I was big on repeating the same messages over and over to the point of absurdity. You do drugs, you’ll end up dead or in prison. That one is fairly easy to follow. Would you rather work for ten dollars an hour or twenty dollars an hour? That one was the constant reminder to take their schoolwork seriously. And while I outright demanded that they treat the people they’d encounter with courtesy and respect, there was always that reminder about what they would likely encounter out there on the streets that went as follows: There’s no shortage of assholes.
Yeah, there’s no shortage of assholes. What a lovely thing to be telling young people who have their entire lives lying there before them. Basically, be nice, hope for the best, but expect the worst and react accordingly. If you’ve ever worked in retail for any appreciable length of time, you already knew as much. And if you’ve ever been paid to wear a badge and carry a gun, you’ve got to be nodding your head in agreement right now. Which is not to say that police officers do not respect the great majority of those they are sworn to protect. It’s just that they accept the reality they were given: There’s no shortage of assholes. And short of ethics violations and the like, with that reality comes a certain amount of job security.
Last night I did a police ride-along here in Wilkes-Barre, my third such attempt to grasp a better understanding of the reality that police officers face. Theirs is not a thankless job, but there are those times when it can feel kind of thankless, in that, they are under constant pressure to get it right. During every shift, and during every call, the have to deal with unrelenting scrutiny from the media, from the general public and from within their own ranks. Meanwhile, during every shift and every call they could face what might be life-altering or life-ending circumstances.
And if that’s not enough fun, add to that the fact that every citizen wants every single law enforced to the letter of the law until they get caught running a red light. Yes, as it pertains to you or I, we want the lawbreakers corralled, but not when we’re the ones breaking the law. But when the minor violations are ignored, they then become de facto legal. So what’s a cop to do? Enforce the law? Or play public relations?
My “shift” started at 1:30 at police headquarters. After announcing why I was there to the desk officer, I was led to the meeting room where role call is commenced before the platoon hits the streets. In there was one officer watching Police Academy on a television. And on the front wall behind the podium were various APBs and pictures of persons of interest. One of which was a guy who once shot a Wilkes-Barre police officer in the face, but has since been released from prison and has returned to Wilkes-Barre. And as the minutes passed, other officers appeared and some aimless banter ensued.
Even though I had done this twice before, this part was new to me. In Plains Township I hit the streets with a police officer I had known for many years, and with only two others. Yep, a weekend midnight shift and three officers, one of which was a dog. And when I rode with Wilkes-Barre’s Viper unit, I did not attend a role call. Rather, I hung out in a detectives room with a couple of officers devoted to routing drug offenders before hitting the streets. Anyway, while sitting with a room full of cops before going on a ride-along, I was left to wonder how many of them would rather deal with a serious illness than to be saddled with a civilian for an entire shift. I guess it didn‘t really matter since I was scheduled to ride with Officer Rolman, whom I have known since…say, 2001? But I did wonder about that.
Officer Rolman has had people ride along with him before, and he said that after some of his previous passengers got to looking a little flushed after blazing down tight side streets at near light speed, he’d look at them and say, “Welcome to reality.” The reality being that policing usually amounts to moments of peaceful sanity sandwiched between dangerous outbreaks of reality. And if you’ve never been in an Impala slicing flat-out through traffic, you might not know the reality I am referring to.
So, the zone assignments were set with the Watch Sergeant presiding. We had six zone cars and a paddy wagon. In other words, one car in each of the city’s six zones and with the paddy wagon free to patrol until a prisoner was taken, at which point the officer with the wagon becomes the jailer. And barely a half hour had passed before we had ourselves a prisoner. And there were a couple of other cars manned by two officers on “extra details,” the details of which need not be examined. And with the assignments set, everyone grabbed their weighty gear and a shotgun from the cabinet and we were off.
We had Zone 5, the Nord End. And after a quick vehicle check, we were rolling northward. Now, during the run-up to this event, I had the police scanner on just to gauge what I might be in for. And I listened to what I would call a quiet day. And our shift in the Nord End was unusually quiet. With that said, even when the streets are quiet, they aren’t necessarily behaving. There is always something nefarious afoot. And if it doesn’t find you, you have to try to find it. That we would.
After riding across the zone for a spell, we got our first call at 2:22. Pine Street, a guy wants to report a burglary. We were on scene--“23“--seven minutes later. Turns out, my sister lived in this modest haunt for a few years. But it didn’t look like this when she lived here. And the smell, the smell that is numerous dogs confined to a smallish place. Nice. We were confronted by the caller, a twenty-something guy who was on the phone during the entirety of our visit. He wasn’t ranting and raving, but he was closing in on it. He offered a spoken list of what was taken. He speculated about who might have taken what. And then he upped and announced right in front of a police officer that he was going to lay a beating on them. Smart.
Officer Rolman listened intently and scribbled away on the appropriate form. He offered good advice, listened some more and then told the complainant what to expect next. And before leaving, the complainant, who was well known to Rolman, reminded him that he’s basically a good guy, since he’s never been arrested for anything more serious than fist-fighting, public drunkenness and the occasional DUI. We were out of there--10-8--at 2:48 and I fully expected to be called back after the promised retribution got underway. Didn’t happen.
Next we headed over to Butler Street to check on a medic unit that requested a manpower assist from an fire engine. This usually amounts to the person being transported being obese, but this was not the case. Never know. They might need some help with traffic control. Turned out, they did not need any police assistance, so we rolled on and eventually stopped at Turkey Hill for some liquid refreshments.
And no sooner was the car in park did a lady appear at the window telling us that a juvenile previously known to Rolman had run away. I didn’t ask. Honestly, I didn’t care. But as we can clearly see right out of the proverbial gate, too much of policing amounts to returning to the same addresses until the occupants and the police officers are practically on a first name basis. Problem persons. Problem addresses. Call them whatever you like. But remember this when and if it takes the police too long to get to you when you report some nuisance you can stand no longer. Because, in all likelihood, they are busy babysitting the same old people at the same old addresses.
We received a lengthy stare down and more than a few chortles from a couple of black teens parked right next to us. Who knows, who cares? And next came a quick personal break, as your author had consumed way too much tea before reporting for duty.
From there we headed into the East End, as Zone 5 takes in all of the North End, as well as all of East End. And at Home Depot we spied this errant helium-filled balloon with a promotional card dangling at the end of it’s long string. No, it wasn’t acting suspiciously. But it was darting in and out of the steady traffic. And wouldn’t be something if a five-car pileup resulted because of a wayward balloon? How would they write-up that accident report? How do you reconstruct that scene? Weird.
From there we found ourselves at the abandoned Red Carpet Inn. And when some kid of, say, 12, appeared from behind the backside of the rear buildings, we bit. And when we turned the corner, other kids were hurriedly sprinting away from us and out of sight. When I was a kid, this conversation would heave been much more heavy-handed. But Rolman simply told the kid to scram, and he pointed out that he was concerned for his safety in such a dilapidated environment. The kid claimed he was just there to meet his friends and kept walking at a brisk pace.
Since we were there, we explored what little now remains of the inn. I have a history with this series of buildings. During the 80s, while managing the restaurant out front, I chased people who were trying not to pay their bills down some of these very corridors. And just last year, before it closed for good, I did some work here for my employer. But never did I see this place looking like this. If your goal is to shoot a realistic-looking “Battle of Fallujah” film, this is the set for you.
It’s been stripped of it’s recycles. It’s been ransacked. It’s been vandalized. And there is broken glass practically covering the entire property. And it’s obviously home to someone, since we ran across a burning scented candle. Can you say “working structure fire?” We put the candle out and searched the remaining rooms. Nobody. Who knows? Maybe they jumped out of where the glass windows used to be. Maybe they were off begging for spare change somewhere. My guess? In line at the soup kitchen. Whatever.
As we were heading back to the car at 4:00, we got this call about cars trapping another car right next door at Cole Muffler. Huh? Here we go, north in the southbound lanes and there we found four cars and people milling all about. And, for the life of me, I could not figure out what had happened. None of the cars were damaged. Yet, some effeminate male was pointing to a spot on his undamaged and unblemished white bumper.
A second police officer arrived, listened to the tales of all involved and told everyone to leave, except for this kid who looked like a skinhead. That’s better. The skinhead, the beat-up Subaru and the moth-eaten Camaro. Now we’re getting somewhere. Turned out, the Camaro was as illegal as illegal gets. And the kid said he intended to drive this completely illegal vehicle all the way to Massachusetts. And since the Subaru had front and rear Massachusetts plates, why not take one off the front of the Subaru and put it on the front of the Camaro. Them the Camaro takes the lead, the Subaru sticks to the bumper of the Camaro, and the cops will never get between them and notice a thing. The kid said he didn’t know it was illegal to take a plate from one car and put it on another. Yeah!
So, Truck 51--LAG Towing--showed up with a flatbed and the dragged the jalopy on board. And that’s when the gasoline started squirting out of the gas tank and all over the ground. The way I see it is, the kid may end up having to pay some fines and the like. But with the price of gas inching up towards 4 dollars a gallon, I figure the WBPD saved this kid a helluva lot of money. Still, he didn’t look very happy. Ah, you can’t please everybody. At 4:35, we were out of there.
Back into the North End we went, and we were headed south on Washington in the shadow of the former Guthrie School when at 4:40 the radio did report: 14 East Chestnut…motor vehicle accident…car versus motorcycle with injuries. Down went the pedal and up flew the speedometer. And for a second or two, I was shocked. Jeez, it’s right around the corner a ways. Take it easy. There’s freaking cars all over the place. Then again, “car versus motorcycle with injuries” could mean that time is of the essence as someone’s life ebbs right out of him. If someone is in danger of dying, seconds matter. I’d say we arrived on scene within 30 seconds, but we’ll log it in as being 4:41. Whew!
After blocking East Chestnut with our vehicle, we were surrounded by leather-clad Harley riders, a growing crowd of onlookers and a biker lying flat on his back in front of a damaged Blazer, and who was smoking a cigarette. Okay, maybe he’s going to make it after all. Two more cars responded to help block traffic. And before too long both a medic unit and an engine arrived. The Harley looked undamaged from my vantage point. Oh, but a stroll across the street and a glance at the other side painted a very different picture. This custom bike was seriously messed-up and gasoline was spewing out of it at a steady pace. Down went the kitty litter.
The medics immobilized the riders head and they had his left boot and sock off. They boarded him and off they went to General Hospital. And as soon as he was off of the pavement, the accident reconstruction was well underway. Basically, he took the corner way too fast and ended up on the wrong side of the street just as the Blazer appeared in his way. He laid the bike down, dislocated his left ankle and that should have been that. Although, since he was not wearing a helmet, he suffered a sizable hematoma to the back of his head. And as a result, he was being diverted to the trauma unit at CMC in Scranton. And being that he was whisked out of there before his information could be gotten, we were on the road and following him to Scranton at 5:01.
We arrived at CMC at 5:23, and made for the trauma unit. Surprisingly, Officer Rolman seemed to know half of the people we encountered. I guess there’s no shortage of trauma going on. You’d have to see this place in operation to believe it. They put the traumatized in a smallish room, with darn near a dozen health professionals poised right outside. Therefore, no matter what they encounter, they are prepared to deal with just about anything and fast, too. It’s really something to see. Although, I suggest you not visit it, unless you do so as part of a police ride-along or something.
Once our patient was good enough to talk, we got our information, headed back to 81 and arrived here in Wilkes-Barre at 6:21. Not what I expected, the ride-along turned road trip.
After a bit of cruising the streets, we landed at the drive-through window at Burger King just shy of 7:00. From there, we drove back into the North End and settled on a spot from where we could monitor the busy road in front of us, and eat in the car.
As we ate, we listened to the radio chatter. A woman was assaulted by 3 white males under the South Street Bridge, who were now reported to be fleeing the scene. A couple of units were probing the area, and Rolman mentioned some guy named Charlie who might be a part of this. According to him, Charlie is strong like ten men and does not shy away from fighting with the police. End lunch break at 14 minutes. Due south on Penn Avenue we go.
First on the scene was a female police officer, so were the 3 fleeing white males, one of which was Charlie. Down went the pedal again. We were 17--in route--and in a big, big, big freaking hurry. Too, too big of a hurry for most people’s tastes. I think they call it protecting their own. Behind Corba’s Beverage? Nope. Back onto Penn Avenue we went, this time even faster. And as we were racing toward the backs of the cars stopped at the light we were fast approaching, I found myself bracing myself. Jesus H. Christ! The pulse picks up. Around them we cut with the siren wailing overhead, and an abrupt left turn took us behind the shuttered Murray Complex. And with tires squealing underfoot, we arrived on scene only to find five other cruisers had beaten us there.
They had Charlie and his 2 sidekicks already handcuffed and sitting upright on the ground. And the police officers milled about surrounding them, but with this alert attention as if they half expected trouble anyway. So, if trouble might be afoot, I figured I best stay right where I was, in the car, and not get anywhere near what had the cops on guard for. I needed not be a distraction. This isn’t a heavy bag, or a target range. Out here, people do punch and shoot back. And you never really know when the reflexive games might be about to begin.
Some rather salty language was exchanged, but nothing more. Yes, police officers have been known to curse on occasion. Consider where they ply their skills, no? After being summoned to the scene, the paddy wagon took the lot of them off to police headquarters.
One had outstanding warrants. And they were all being charged with public drunkenness as well as trespassing. But they claimed they had not assaulted the woman who set this all in motion. Instead, they said she had simply fallen backwards, smacked her skull off of the railroad tracks and then got to making up this assault story for the cops. Who knows, not me. It was 7:40, we were 10-8 and headed back to our zone, but after a circle or two through the downtown.
I don’t know who was scheduled to appear at the Kirby last night, but the downtown was seriously awash in well-dressed people. My first hint that this was a show I would likely skip? Suit and tie? Count me out. Tour shirt with the sleeves removed? Now we’re talkin‘.
We ran across a group of Guardian Angels who had taken up a position at the corner closest to Rite Aid. This is the first time I have seen them out and about. They made it a point to wave at Rolman, as the Angels are trying to convince the WBPD that they are on the same side and with the same goals in mind. We discussed their sudden insertion into Wilkes-Barre, the details of which I do not believe were meant for publication. We shared a word or two with the group’s leader, who knew I would be out there last night and he said he figured he’d see me out there somewhere. To which my sidekick with the gun said I’m usually found riding along in the back seat…in custody. Laughs all around.
If I had a criticism of what I saw there, I’d have to say that a couple of the Angels had taken up an almost menacing position. Standing at the curb’s edge as if standing at attention. As if they were watching someone they suspected of wrongdoing. I think somebody needs to ease up just a tad. Relax, man.
Before too long, we were dispatched to North Main Street on a report of a domestic situation in progress. The 911 lady said something about a “psvche” patient being involved--a teenaged girl--and we were moving at 7:49. We arrived at 7:52, the second of two cars.
The police officers went on in and I stayed on the sidewalk. It was loud at times, but it was kind of hard to follow. There was crying, there was moaning, and a few laughs here and there. Near as I can tell, the grandmother and the mother of the upset teen were in there. And as they arrived at the front door, the teen was now wailing with, “I don’t wanna live here anymore.” Among other indecipherable things. Back inside they went.
The mom and the sergeant had a quiet conversation dealing with the overall good of the girl and how to arrive there. And he eventually requested of 911, “Tell mobile crisis we’ll be bringing in one juvenile.” And at 8:12 we were off to General Hospital. Since we had a caged-unit, she was placed into the rear of our car. And she uttered not a word while on the way, but she did make a few unintelligible sounds.
When we got there at 8:14, she was let out of the car and seemed to be fairly upbeat, despite everything. And she was led into the emergency room area, out of sight and then I found myself staring through a window at the very room in which my brother had passed away exactly one year ago to the very day. It never occurred to me that I might end up there on the 1st anniversary of his death, but I guess it was a distinct possibility while going on a police ride-along in this city. I need not explain what ran through my mind from there on.
We sat there for a spell as Rolman filled out this longish incident report. There’s no shortage of paperwork with this job, while dealing with people at their worst, or their lowest points. And just as soon as we informed 911 that we were available again, we were immediately dispatched to Weisman Park in East End, as a crime watcher had reported seeing Code 18 activity--drugs. And we were also told we had a few calls in our zone backlogged. It’s dark now, and in this business, it’s almost always busier after dark. It was 8:46.
So, at 8:50, we arrived on scene and told 911 to “clear it out.” There was not a single person in, or anywhere near that playground. In my mind, it was probably a white person calling because a black person was somewhere nearby. Whites in this area call the police on the black folks out of fear, and even when nothing is really going on. And who gets the blame for the perceived hassling that follows? You got it. The police.
And we again rode past that original call on Pine Street, and still no beatings going on. Surprised me, it did. I really thought we’d be going back there at some point.
At 8:51, a backlogged call. A landlord/tenant dispute on North Main Street. Upon our arrival at 8:53, we were joined by the Zone 6 officer and his fierce K-9 partner. Sorry, I forget his name. This one was a mess. The 3 black female tenants were hurling rapid-fire insults and accusations at the white landlord, and he was sending nonstop return fire bordering on inflammatory racist remarks. I’m of the opinion that he was trying to goad them into getting themselves arrested. He already had the eviction underway. It was previously delivered to the girls by a constable, and they have until Monday to vacate the premises. So, I’m thinking, what’s the point of this call?
The other thing is, these people have absolutely no idea how many hundred of times these two police officers have heard the exact same arguments being made. The same, tired stories being told. And with the same predictably laughable embellishments. This would be a yawn fest, except for the fact that one or all of these people could turn ugly and brandish a weapon at any moment.
They said he was harassing them. And he said they were harassing him. And back and forth it went. He didn’t give us the keys. They paid the first month’s rent, but not the security deposit. They have unchecked traffic in and out of here all day long (a drug house reference). What? We can’t have visitors? You know what kind of people we have moving into this area (a quasi racial taunt?). This was going nowhere in a great, big hurry. The harasser cries harassment. The question being, who the hell is the one doing the actual harassing?
With no end to this needless and relentless bickering in sight, the K-9 officer shouted the shouting girls down and reminded them that they have until Monday, and then they need to get out. And with that, at 9:07, we were all 10-8. And good riddance.
You tell me. 3 young girls with no belongings rent an enormous home and then the nonstop traffic begins. And males start living there, while claiming that they are not living there. And they say they know their rights. And one of them knows his way around rudimentary legalese. A drug house? A stash house? I certainly would not bet against it. I’ve seen the very same thing right here on my smallish street. It all sounds very familiar to me. Whatever. Time for us to hit the streets again. Fight nice.
After another half hour or so of riding around trying to maintain order, this shift was just about over. We headed back to headquarters, disposed of our trash, and then Rolman packed up his gear, grabbed the shotgun and headed on in. The Watch Sergeant asked me if it was everything I had hoped for. And I told him it always is. And from there, I walked home.
On the way home, I received a phone call advising me that I had better talk to the captain before posting any of the many pictures I took. I took pictures and posted pictures after the last ride-along and nothing was said. Plus, I made sure that no one’s face was caught in any of those pictures I took. But, if that’s the way it’s got to be, then that’s the way it’s got to be. I posted some pictures here, of course, but nothing that could raise any liability issues or concerns.
Last night I rode with a guy who has been “poked” with a knife and who had his wrist shattered to pieces on a Christmas Day past. Still, he loves his job. We talked about how he has to bite his lip when the overweight people nail him with yet another donut joke. And we also discussed how the public and the local media always, predictably second-guess and criticize police officers when their actions result in a fatality, or something very close to a fatality. The scrutiny, the pressure is unrelenting. Still, he goes to work every day, and claims it’s not work to him. And that’s what they say, if you work at doing something you truly enjoy, it’s not like working at all.
All too often, police officers are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. They are damned if they will, and damned if they won’t. They expect no adulation, and very rarely do we give them any. They accept the risks, while we play Monday morning quarterback. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s something that needs to change. And other than providing a few rare insights into what, why and how they do what they do…I’m powerless to change any of it.
Anyway, welcome to reality.
Thanks for having me along, Pat.