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Monday, 14 March 2016 17:39

Behind the Thin Blue Line

By | News

 

My Night on a Police Ride Along

SARATOGA SPRINGS —Sergeant Mark Leffler’s experienced ears responded quickly to the voice I hardly noticed on the radio, breaking off our conversation about local DWI incidents. The lights and siren went on, and I could feel a slight increase in G’s as our vehicle sped down Broadway, traffic quickly moving out of our way. 

“Ambulance in route,” came dispatcher Aneisha Liska’s calm voice into the unmarked vehicle. That, I heard. It was about 3:15 a.m. on Saturday morning, March 5, about the time my ride-along shift with the Saratoga Springs Police Department was about to end, and it sounded like it was about to end on a sober note.

Up until this point, it had been fairly quiet, a routine night in Saratoga. I had arrived at the double doors on Lake Avenue leading to both the police station and the department of public works at around 8 p.m. Friday, March 4. The air was country-crisp and clean, wrapped in the welcoming twilight of the city lights that held the cold night at bay. I remember thinking, no wonder people make the drive from Albany up here after the bars close there. Saratoga Springs is quite pretty at any hour, and it smells nice. 

I paused at the security window of the Saratoga Springs Police Department and was welcomed by Officer Jonathan VanWie, 29, who wore his uniform with the ease of someone twice his age. “I love it here,” he told me. “It’s a great department to work for – very much community-based policing.” 

We started in the dispatch office, where I met Aaron Deuel and Aneisha Liska, who field the calls as they come in.  The room was softly lit, with most of the glow coming from the multiple monitors at each desk. One wall was lined with a glass partition between the front of the office and dispatch, and Sergeant Robert Dennis leaned in through the window to sing the praises of the dispatch department. 

“There aren’t that many cities left that still have local dispatchers,” he said. “The 911 calls are routed through the county sheriff’s office directly to the officers, but our calls are routed here.” 

Dennis explained that local dispatchers are supreme multitaskers. They not only dispatch the call quickly, but they simultaneously research the call and keep the officers updated with their findings, such as whether there might be a gun registered to the homeowner on a domestic dispute call. According to Dennis, county dispatchers don’t have time to provide that level of background, and that work provided by local dispatch has saved time, money, and lives.

The station was bigger than it appeared, and tours are commonly held for schools and other groups. I was taken to the interview rooms where suspects and victims were questioned. We then visited the initial intake area where the personal belongings of suspects were inventoried and their photos taken. Hanging on the wall were sturdy shackles that made me immediately think of every prison movie I’d ever seen. I saw the digital fingerprinting station, the breathalyzer that was set and ready to go,  the roll-call room that doubles for training, and the storage area for firearms. We also visited the room where the body cameras were recharged and downloaded for future review or to be deleted, as the case may be. 

VanWie drove a marked police vehicle that was equipped with the standard dashboard camera, computer monitor and printer for checking license plates and inputting traffic tickets, and secure places for firearms. As we drove along, he demonstrated how he could flip a switch to see the speeds of all the cars coming toward us or going away from us, easily distinguishable at a glance. 

We drove through different areas of the city as a standard check, pulling through the train station, down Broadway and through different neighborhoods. We spoke about his training at the police academy, and the regular firearm training all officers receive throughout the year, even though state law does not require additional training for officers beyond initial firearm certification. VanWie’s training has prepared him for everything from domestic disputes to active shooter situations, and even to notice, in the few seconds that a car drove past us, that its inspection sticker was out of date.  

Around 11:30 p.m., after a few routine calls, I was handed over to the care of Sergeant Mark Leffler, well-known for his numerous DWI arrests and named 2014 Officer of the Year by the Saratoga Springs Police Lieutenant’s Police Benevolent Association. He had a hand in the background checks and training of some of the young officers working that night, and in his capacity as patrol supervisor on the midnight shift, we took his unmarked vehicle to back up some of the traffic stops of other officers. 

Just as VanWie did, we took a tour of various neighborhoods and businesses, checking that all is normal. By 1 a.m., Caroline Street had a strolling crowd of laughing people enjoying a relaxing Friday night with friends and coworkers. I couldn’t help but smile as we slowly pulled past the wave of people out having a good time. 

Some, however, were having too good of a time. Leffler and I pulled in behind one DWI stop, watching while Officer Joe Hughes put a driver through a sobriety field test. The sergeant explained each step to me as the driver walked a line, balanced on one foot, and finally turned and put his hands behind his back to be handcuffed with a rueful smile, knowing he’d been caught fair and square. Leffler inventoried the vehicle before the tow truck took it away, and as I watched him pull open the door, we were both hit by the smell of alcohol pouring invisibly out of the SUV. 

There was a domestic dispute call that also looked like it involved alcohol, as the man on the front lawn could barely stand. There were two other cars on the scene, and after checking with the officers, we went on our way. Another call came in about a man seemingly asleep behind the wheel of a parked car, and we drove up in time to see one of the patrol officers stepping back from the man as he bent over and lost his dinner. “At least he had the good sense to not start his car,” said Leffler, after he confirmed the officer didn’t need his help and we moved on. 

The dispatcher called us to back up one of the officers who had stopped a car with a handgun in it. Protocol requires backup in such cases, even for licensed guns. As the officer put the driver through a sobriety field test, Leffler removed the handgun from the car. “There’s a passenger,” he told me, so they couldn’t leave the gun in the car in that case. It occurred to me that much of police protocol was based in the common sense adage, better safe than sorry. 

And then it was after 3 a.m. and we were being called, along with an ambulance, onto Caroline Street. 

Leffler was assessing the situation well before he stopped the vehicle, and he decided he could allow me to get out. There was a crowd of about 30 people on the south side of the street, and a few onlookers on the north side, where I first went to find out what was going on. 

The temperature had dropped considerably, and angry voices bounced like a thousand ping pongs through the cold night air, mingled with the lower but firm responses of the officers. 

“He’s bleeding, can’t you see he’s bleeding?”

“You get your hands off me – don’t you tell me what to do!”

“Ma’am, I need you to stand back.”

I counted five police officers, including Leffler, and two first responders from the ambulance that had arrived. The officers were trying to separate the crowd, asking the onlookers to disburse so they could get to the heart of the problem, which appeared to be a group of women of various ages who were angry about the treatment of a young man who was sitting on the steps of a vestibule holding his head. He appeared to be okay except for something on his head that I couldn’t see because his hand was over it. 

The onlookers on the north side of the street told me they hadn’t seen a thing, so I moved back across the street to see and hear better. The young man was taken to the back of the ambulance and when next I saw him, he was holding a square white bandage to his head and yelling at the EMT who had a clipboard, “I’m only 17. I’m not signing nothing!”

The group looked like family and friends dressed to celebrate something, and the party got out of hand. One of the bouncers at a nearby bar told me that the group had tried to get into one of the bars and the bouncer refused to let the young man in, and got punched in the face for his trouble. Another bouncer pulled the kid off the first bouncer, and somehow the youth ended up on the ground. It wasn’t clear if he was pushed, thrown, or fell, but he hit his head on the way down.

The crowd had grown as people were leaving the bars either to find out what was going on or to end their evenings. I was shivering and had to put my gloves on to keep writing, but the crowd didn’t seem to notice the cold. Men and women with varying degrees of delight or disgust on their faces passed by, watching as the officers continued to move the original party further down the street away from the spectators, who weren’t making things any easier for them.

One sandy-blonde haired man of about 30 years old was practically skipping through the crowd, laughing and shouting something in slurred words with his arms out for balance, weaving in and out among the onlookers and the angry partiers. I could see the officers looking at each other to see who could get a handle on this guy, but there wasn’t one to spare – they each had their hands full with an angry person in their faces, refusing to go home or calmly explain what happened. 

Another onlooker, who smelled strongly of stale beer, began jeering and chanting at the top of his voice. The way the sound bounced between the buildings on the narrow street, I’m not sure people could really hear him above all the other voices crowding the night, but it suddenly occurred to me that there were not enough police officers to handle all these people if things did get ugly by something like the incendiary words this drunk was throwing. Looking at the officers’ faces again, it was clear they knew that, too, and I could see all their energies were concentrated on keeping the crowd calm. 

The scene appeared to be a lesson in the consequences of too much to drink. Caroline Street at 4 in the morning was filled with people stumbling, designated drivers supporting them out the doors, bouncers standing firmly with their arms crossed but ready, people shouting for cabs that couldn’t get through because of the police cars and ambulance, and the original group of about seven or eight women who would not disburse after the officers arrested and took away their young suspect. 

I glanced down at my notes for a second and looked back up to see an officer had pinned one of the women against the trunk of a police vehicle, having cuffed one hand and was trying to cuff the other. She was yelling and fighting with all her strength, and it took three officers to hold her down and get her cuffed. 

The bouncer near me said the officer who had initially tried to handcuff her had the patience of a saint. It was hard to see much beyond their shadowed forms with the bright, flashing police lights behind them, but it looked to me like they were just trying to hold her still to get the cuffs on, but she used her whole body to fight them off. It was a far cry from the drunk driver earlier who ruefully smiled and gave himself up easily.

I would later speak with Police Chief Gregory Veitch, who told me that it was standard procedure to hold an internal investigation with every use of force to assure that those incidents were being conducted appropriately. “I’m very proud of the officers and how we handle things,” said Veitch. “They could lose their tempers, and we train them not to. I’m very proud at how well they handle themselves in these situations.” 

Once the cuffs finally fastened, the middle-aged woman slipped between the officers down to the ground and huddled there, laying at the edge of the cold sidewalk next to the police car. At least four smartphones appeared in the crowd and began shooting video. The officers tried to help her to her feet, but she refused, saying she couldn’t breathe and had asthma. They immediately signaled for the EMTs to step forward and the ambulance rolled up closer so she could be placed in a stretcher and taken to the hospital.  

The street began to clear, then. It was as if it were the end of a movie, with all the tension suddenly drained as people walked away in different directions, chatting about what they’d seen. I was so cold my teeth were chattering, but I didn’t want to get back in the car just yet. Caroline Street had changed. Officers were getting into their cars or ushering onlookers on their way, bars were shutting doors and locking up, and the noise and smell were beginning to fade in the pre-dawn. This was the street that hours earlier was filled with people taking a break from everyday life to enjoy each other’s company, the same street that became a tinderbox waiting for a match by 4 a.m., a match that never lit because of a thin blue line. 

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