Jeremiah Knupp -- April 20th, 2011
Friday 9 p.m. – I haven’t even gotten my seat belt buckled and Officer Scott Jones of the HPD is explaining to me that our first call of the night is serving a warrant for assault and battery. HPD has dealt with the suspect before who, Jones notes, is known to possess firearms and sometimes skips his meds. Jones’ uniform shirt bulges with his police issue bullet “resistant” vest (nothing is bullet proof). I have the option to stay in the car if I want to he informs me.
9:15 p.m. – We arrive on a scene that is already awash with blue lights. Two HPD units arrived ahead of us and already have the suspect, who surrendered peacefully, in cuffs. Standing head down between two towering officers, his slight build and bashful demeanor don’t profile him as a girlfriend beater. Jones volunteers to haul the suspect to jail.
9:30 p.m. – The ground level of the Rockingham Regional Jail is the temporary holding facility, where inmates may sleep it off over night, wait until they can make bail, or get booked into the long term cells on the higher levels. The facility’s tile floors and painted cement block walls give you an educational feel, except that the windows are barred and the doors to the “classrooms” are steel with a large deadbolt. Four deputies lounge behind the counter. It’s Friday night and they’re expecting plenty of business.
It’s the arresting officer’s job to process their detainee, which includes finger-printing and photographing them and taking them before the magistrate to determine their bail. Our suspect seems strangely comfortable in his surroundings. As his background check confirms, he’s been here before. He smiles slightly into a camera that captures the gray background mug shot that would look familiar to anyone who has ever watched the evening news on TV3.
An hour after arriving, our charge is given an unsecured bond and told that he is free to go home. He sheepishly asks Jones for a ride. “It’s only my job to bring you here,” is the reply.
11:15 p.m. – The neighbors call 911 and say there’s a fight going on. All they can hear is the screaming and the sound of dishes breaking. When we arrive in the trailer park a crowd is out, directing us to the residence in question. While another officer approaches the front door Jones and I approach the rear. A burst of shouting and cursing sends us sprinting around the front.
It’s our COPS moment of the evening. Extended family living in a small space. Mom is drunk by the time Girlfriend gets home from work. Exhausted Girlfriend spanks her misbehaving two-year-old. Mom tells her to stop. And the fighting starts. It appears the only casualty is Boyfriend, who stepped between the two women and promptly received a roundhouse from Girlfriend that is already blackening his eye. Now they’re all out on the front porch and Jones and Officer Chris Ray are refereeing a Jerry Springer-style war of words between Mother, Son and Girlfriend. A neighbor holds the crying two-year-old as a pit bull leers from one of the trailer windows. The officers send Son and Girlfriend to a friend’s house to spend the night and warn Mother that if they have to come back, people will be arrested. It’s three generations on a gerbil wheel of crime and poverty. “This is the stuff I hate seeing,” Jones says as we drive away.
Midnight Saturday – We’ve finally made it back to Area 3, the southeastern section of town composed mainly of student housing that Jones is assigned to patrol tonight. He will drive nearly 100 miles on a normal night within a few square miles of the city, less if the night is busy and he’s stopped often responding to calls. We’re just about to make our first pass through some town houses when the police radio gives two loud tones. It’s an emergency signal calling all nearby units. There’s a fight in progress and one of the suspects may be carrying a gun.
Sirens on. Blue lights flashing. The Ford Police Interceptor’s V-8 screams as we dash the few blocks to the scene on streets that are still busy with traffic. The narrow one way street is already clogged with cruisers, a fire truck and an ambulance. We race down the hill to the basement level apartment. One suspect is already face down and spread eagle in the gravel. Officers are shouting to the apartment’s occupants through a broken window that they had better open the door. An officer arrives with “the keys to the city,” a wood-handled sledge hammer, and the door is forced open. Jones and I check out the neighboring alleys by flashlight but there’s no sign of the armed suspect.
1:15 a.m. – “Did you see that?” Jones asks me as he hangs a U and heads in the opposite direction. In the parking lot in front of the bar a person hangs onto the mailbox to keep from falling into the roadway. The young man is disheveled, his pants unbuckled. One foot wears a flip-flop and the other is barefoot as the other flip-flop was abandoned ten yards back in the parking lot. No I.D., he can remember his name and age, but not his birthday. He keeps repeating “This is bad,” but despite his predicament he’s drunk enough to be calm, cooperative and happy.
Jones runs his name and determines that he is in fact, 24. Happy Drunk is a few moments from going to jail for being drunk in public when two of his sober friends walk across the parking lot to collect him. They promise to take him home and put him to bed. As we leave, they’re carrying Happy Drunk between them, his arms draped over their shoulders, back to their car.
1:30 a.m. – The neighbors are complaining about the noise from the party and claim the revelers are climbing the trees. By the time we arrive they’re out of the trees and dancing in the parking lot with the broken branches. The party organizers are apologetic and cooperative. They chat it up with Jones and Officer Tim Wright, but their nervous laughs belie the fact that they’re afraid of getting in trouble this close to graduation. Keep your friends inside and keep them quiet, Wright warns them. If we have to come back here you’ll get a summons. By the time we drive off the parking lot is deserted, except for discarded leaves and branches.
2:14 a.m. – For the second time tonight we get the ominous two long tones. There a fight at a gas station and someone has a knife. Lights and sirens. The nearly empty streets mean we’re there in moments. By the time we arrive three other HPD units are already on the scene and the knife-wielder is long gone. While the first responders talk to witnesses Jones runs the plates of some of the cars in the lot.
Early Saturday Morning – The police radio has chatter almost non-stop. Drunk in publics. Traffic stops. Loud parties. As the bars let out, parties rev up and intoxication levels hit their peak, HPD members are scrambling all over town. Most officers work alone, but when one gets a call the next closest unit shows up for back-up. Jones is going non-stop.
3:15 a.m. – The car that speeds by us in the opposite direction clocks 48 mph on Jones’ dash mounted radar unit. He’s out of sight and all we have is the sound of squealing tires to know that he pulled an evasive maneuver into a residential neighborhood. We guess at his direction and swing onto a side street, cruising slow and looking for occupied vehicles. A group of smokers on a front porch offer us a cold stare, but no information.
Officer Wright and his K-9 unit show up. He was following the speeding suspect too and lost him just before he passed us. We spend nearly half-an-hour working our way through the maze of residential neighborhoods looking for the suspect until we decide he’s long gone.
4:30 a.m. – For the first time all night, absolutely nothing is happening. The last parties have fizzled out and a light rain has driven the crowds from the streets “I love this time of night shift,” Jones says. “Just riding around. You don’t see any people out. The city is so peaceful.”
5:15 a.m. – My ride is over, but for Officer Jones there are two more hours of work until his 12 hour “day” is completed. Much of that time will be spent writing reports on the night’s activities. Despite what seems like a frantic night to me (my notes detail about a quarter of the calls we responded to) it’s been a slow night by Jones’ standard. Jones drops me off in the parking lot and he’s heading into his office at the Public Safety Building when his radio squawks. Another call. A fight has been reported in the city’s northeastern district. Jones heads back to his cruiser. I head home.
hburgnews.com photographer Holly Marcus and writer Jeremiah Knupp are currently taking the Harrisonburg Police Department’s Citizen Police Academy. The nine week course is designed to help local citizens better understand how HPD works and what individual officers face in their day-to-day jobs. The ride-alongs they took with Officer Alan Dyer and Officer Scott Jones were part of the curriculum. Ride-alongs with members of the HPD are available to any member of the community. Interested individuals must fill out an application and go through a background check. They can contact HPD at 540.434.2545.