Riding with the blues

Officer Bryant Singley walks into the glass and metal headquarters of the Sarasota Police Department with a shell casing in a surgical glove and heads upstairs to the evidence room. Someone found the brass in a yard and called the police. It’s a minor matter, no crime has been reported, but Singley takes his time to get the paperwork right.

He fills out a property report, puts the casing in a plastic bag, seals it, fills out an evidence sticker, notes the case number on a paper log and puts the bag in one of the black lockers. “In case they need it in another case.”

Singley is a veteran of the U.S. Army and the Austin Police Department. He’s worked for the SPD for the past 11 years. Today he’s doing light duty, hauling a writer around in the passenger seat of his cruiser on what law enforcement calls a ride-along. He gets to fight crime; I get to watch.

He’s not even out of the building when he gets a call on his radio. I can’t make out the assignment, just his summation to me. “We’ll clear the call and then it’s crossing-guard duty.”

The car is black inside with a molded gray plastic backseat with seatbelts and a plastic partition and, in front, a computer mounted on a tray within easy reach of the driver. I squeeze in next to it and we roll.

Sign of the times
The first stop is the 1800 block of Loma Linda Street near Sarasota Bay. Two property owners are having an argument over a stolen NO TRESPASSING sign. We park on the narrow street with a pest-control vendor on one side and dump trucks rumbling down to the cul-de-sac to excavate for a new home.

“Stay by the car until I introduce you,” Singley says and walks to the door of a brick and beam house with a metal roof.

We meet a woman in running gear with a bright cap pulled over her eyes who says the neighbor in back of her lot keeps taking her sign. She’s early fifties with a low, calm voice and a slight curl to her upper lip. She’s holding a new sign with a stapler tucked under her arm.

The officer introduces me to the woman—we’ll call her Becky. We stand in the sun in the neighbor’s driveway and look at the lot, a stretch of that light gray sand that covers most of Florida. A wooden fence stands in back. A tall man with a water bottle and a gray T-shirt depicting a sailfish wanders into the conversation. Maybe the husband. The neighbor, a middle-aged woman with broad blond hair and a smile to match, joins the group.

Singley looks at the fence that separates Becky’s lot from her neighbor’s house and asks for the story. Becky says she knows the neighbor took the sign she’d tacked on the fence, but she can’t prove it. Singley says, “You two have had some troubles before.”

Becky think about this revelation. “Yeah,” she finally says and accuses the woman in back of tossing her lawn clippings over the fence and wandering into other people’s yards. “She’s crazy.”

Sidewalk diplomacy
Singley dismisses the comment. He asks for details and says he’ll be back. We get in the patrol car, drive around the corner to Bahia Vista Street and stop at a wooden house we later learn is 100 years old. A wooden fence surrounds the house, garage and shed. We stand on the gravel landscaping and try the gate. It’s locked. The officer and I walk up two concrete strips to the garage and he shouts “Hello?” but no one answers.

We find the woman we’ll call Linda around the other side of the house, near the shed. She’s mid-sixties, short and thin with dark hair and eyes that bounce between us.

Officer Singley says, “You know why I’m here,” and asks if she took the sign. She shakes her head vigorously and says she didn’t even know there was a sign and begins to delineate her property lines. She wants to show us the fence so we walk to the back of the house and she points to a tree on her land. Someone has sawed off the limbs that would have hung over the fence. Linda accuses her neighbor of doing that, when she wasn’t home.

Singley tells her how it’s going to be: she’ll agree to keep to her side of the fence and Becky will do the same. “Just ignore each other,” he says and we return to the empty lot, where Singley says the same thing to Becky, who looks up and down the street and shakes her head and frowns.

We sink back into the car and bathe in the air conditioning and head to our next assignment—lunch at Nancy’s BBQ, where we sit outside and eat pulled pork sandwiches and talk about the Temptations, Bobby Womack and early Michael Jackson, “Before he fixed his nose,” Singley says. How about Etta James? “That’s my mama’s generation.”

I ask him about recent incidents involving police and the use of force. He declines to comment, saying “I wasn’t there.” His philosophy about policing is simple. “I don’t comment on what I don’t know,” then adds, “I just want to go home at the end of the day.” Go home alive, he means.

Hitting the road
At Southside Elementary School, it’s hot and getting hotter, with temperatures and humidity in the upper 80s. It’s the kind of day where if you stand outside, you find a patch of shade. In the middle of the crosswalk, there is no shade.

This morning Officer Singley got word that the crossing guard at Southside couldn’t work so his lieutenant assigned the duty to him. I can’t tell if this is scut work or part of the chief’s community policing policy. Probably neither.

We arrive before 2:45 p.m. for a one-hour shift. Officer Singley parks on the grassy shoulder and hits the roof lights to slow traffic. Then he gets out, dons a yellow vest and whistle and waits at the corner of South Osprey and Webber by the signal box for pedestrians. On the rough concrete sidewalk someone has spray painted in perfectly straight letters the words, “Wait here.”

We wait.

When the kids show up, Singley’s ready. He watches everything—cars going too fast through the school zone, cars parked on the sidewalk, a guy driving with a phone to his ear, a man on a ladder half a block away. He yells at a young female driver to buckle her seatbelt. He’s got eyes in back of his head. He’s also got a cheerful banter going with the people leaving school, and not just the mothers and grandmothers with their younger kids and strollers and umbrellas. He asks the kids what grade they’re in and why they’re carrying a basketball and whether they or their younger sister has more freckles. And then he punches the button on the pole and blows his whistle and walks to the middle of the intersection and wishes them all a good day.

“It’s hot,” he says on his way back and looks for more pedestrians and punches the button and does it all over again.

Remains of the day
At 3:50 p.m. the sidewalk empties and we pile into the squad car and head for headquarters. As we drive on Osprey, something about the black VW Jetta in front of us catches his eye. In the 1600 block of Main Street, Singley calls in the tag number and pulls the car over.

“Wait here,” he says.

Approaching the driver’s side of the car slowly, he places a palm on the rear window to mark the car and leans forward to talk to the driver. When he gets back in the cruiser he says, “She says she doesn’t know why I pulled her over,” and punches the license number and tag into the computer. Up comes a photo of the driver’s father and a yellow block of type that says the tag has expired. Singley compares the woman’s information on the screen with her license and through a series of drop-down menus completes the ticket. He clicks a button labeled “issue citation” and a printer between the seats spits out two copies of what looks like a grocery-store receipt. He gives one copy to the driver.

Then it’s back to the glass and metal headquarters and we’re done. I thank him for the ride. We shake hands. It’s still hot and he’s got another hour-and-a-half to go before his 12-hour shift is up but he smiles anyway.

An uneventful day, but at least we both get to go home.

Next: graduation from the SPD Citizens Academy.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.

 

Officer Bryant Singley ticketing VW Jetta 72dpi

Traffic stops: the good, the bad, the nightmare

It was supposed to be a routine traffic stop. Two Middlefield, Ohio police officers pull over a Saturn sedan for running a stop sign in March of 2013. In the video, the sky’s a typical washed-out winter blue. Cars keep rolling down the street as if nothing’s happening in this town of 2,700, located 45 miles due east of Cleveland.

Suddenly the driver opens his door and unleashes 37 rounds from an AK-47. The patrol car’s windshield splinters. Smoke drifts across the dash-cam as the officers return fire. “Kill me!” the man shouts and collapses in the street.

Police had pulled the driver over for a simple moving violation. The stop turned into an armed attack that resulted in the death of the driver and the injury of both officers.

Most traffic stops don’t end like that one but the danger exists–witness the killing of two officers in Hattiesburg, Mississippi on May 9. So does the legal hazard of police violating a citizen’s Fourth Amendment right to protection from illegal search and seizure. For the Sarasota Police Department, where three officers face investigation after a man pulled over for a moving violation died, traffic stops are anything but routine.

Officers Helios Blanco and John Vanik show the Middlefield video to members of the SPD Citizens Academy to make a point: that when it comes to traffic stops, the operative word is safety. Police must protect themselves when approaching a vehicle. Drivers should keep that in mind when evaluating an officer’s behavior . . . and their own.

Danger all around
There are three types of traffic stops: routine; redirect, where the stop becomes a criminal investigation; and pretext, where police use a legitimate traffic violation for a closer look at the suspect. Call them the good, the bad and the really ugly, the Middlefield shooter the poster child for the latter.

“Every traffic stop is different—the person, the weather, the location,” says Vanik, a patrol division officer who specializes in DUI checks. “When I stop a car, I don’t know who’s in the car, their race, their nationality, even after I run the tag and make contact. Everybody has tinted windows and when it’s two in the morning and it’s a dark street, I can’t even tell if there’s a person in the car.”

An officer’s first step is to determine the number of occupants and whether they are moving in an effort to hide guns or conceal drugs. After that, police look for signs of trouble. “Bumper stickers are a giveaway. NRA stickers tell me there’s a gun in car. Stickers like ‘I hate government’ and ‘I hate police’ . . . tell me how they feel.

“Most of the time,” Vanik says, “people are polite to us.” Still, he and other officers park so they can shine headlights on the suspect’s car and use theirs as a shield. They will order suspects out of the vehicle and have them walk backwards. They will stand where a shooter would not expect to find them.

“Always, keep eyes on,” says Blanco, a gang officer and Spanish-speaking translator. “Those few seconds can make the difference between me going home or going to the morgue.”

Proceed with caution
Since 52% of all encounters with police occur during traffic stops, SPD offers this advice:

  • When you notice lights behind you, pull your vehicle to the curb and stay stopped.
  • Keep both hands on the steering wheel until the officer approaches.
  • Provide your license, registration and proof of insurance.
  • The officer will tell you the reason for the stop.
  • Back in the patrol car, the officer will check DMV records to determine if the vehicle is stolen or if the driver is on inmate release.
  • The officer will say whether you will receive a citation or a warning.

If the officer smells something coming from the car, he or she may have probable cause to search the vehicle. “The window is down,” Blanco says. “I get an odor. It’s not Febreze. If it’s marijuana, we have probable cause to search.”

Not so with alcohol. Vanik says police need at least two behavioral cues to conduct a field sobriety test, such as the smell of alcohol and slurred speech.

Regardless of whether the stop results in a warning or something more serious, the encounter is usually stressful for everyone.

“I never say ‘have a nice day,’” Blanco says. “I say, ‘take care.’”

Good advice . . . for all concerned.

Next: marine patrol and drug awareness.

Jeff Widmer is the author of The Spirit of Swiftwater and other works.