Monday, November 26, 2012

On the highway with OPD

By Alannah Allbrett

“Up against the car; hands behind your back! Feet back, and spread ‘em!” Just kidding! Those weren’t the words Orofino Police Department (OPD) Officer Matt Russell (pictured above) said to me Nov. 2 when I stood beside his 2009 Dodge cruiser with St. Michael on the sun visor. What he actually said was, “You’re the first person to ride with me in a long time, who I wasn’t taking to jail.” I came armed with a laptop, a tape recorder, a notebook and pen, and a lot of curiosity as I joined him for a ride-along on his swing shift in Orofino.

What did I expect? Well, I sort of pictured us s*l*o*w*l*y cruising through sleepy neighborhoods, an occasional dog barking in otherwise quiet streets, routine drives down back alleyways and a little boredom thrown into the mix. What I got was carsick trying to write in the dark on my lap – in a sometimes fast moving and rarely standing still vehicle.

First I’m going one direction down Hwy. 12 – nope, now we are going the other way. What’s that? There’s something in the road? We turn around and stop in the middle of the highway, lights flashing. It turns out to be a bunched up tarp somebody dropped or blew off of a vehicle. Officer Matt retrieves it quickly and stows it in the trunk. Later we swing by the police station to drop it off; he hasn’t got room to haul around extra stuff.

I soon found that cramming into the tight fitting passenger side of the car, with a Tough Book laptop mounted to my left, a long flashlight mounted by my left kneecap, a radar gun (looking like a remote control with a curly telephone cord), a hand-held drivers’ license scanner, and some other gadgets I was afraid to touch – that this was not going to be an easy night. I resorted to taking notes the old fashioned way, with a notebook and pen.

‘I’m tough,’ I told myself. ‘If he can take it, I can take it!’ So, with my laptop case as a desk, and my purse on the floor between my feet (hey, I’m old, gotta have a purse) – I proceed to play reporter asking lots of questions of this nice young man who has helped me out in the past, more than once.

One time, on a hot summer day, I locked myself out of my car (I know, I know) while getting gas at IGA. I went into the store wondering what to do. It was after business hours, so I couldn’t call a locksmith, even if I knew of one. I was tired, thirsty, and embarrassed to have done such a stupid thing.

Karen Wolfe, at the service desk, bought me a bottle of water with her own money and said she’d call the police for help. ‘The police?’ I thought. I’m from a big city, and it never would have occurred to me to call the police for something like getting locked out of one’s car. Soon, Matt was on the scene to help me. It was tricky; he didn’t want to break the automatic locking system, so he called in Mickey of JV Lock & Key to help. (Thanks Mickey. Thanks Karen!) Another time, my car was vandalized, and Matt was there taking pictures and writing a report.

We make a stop to fuel the car then are heading past Tri-Pro to pick up a service revolver from another officer. One of Matt’s jobs is to perform regular maintenance on service weapons to make sure they are in proper firing order. As we pass the mill, Matt says that he grew up playing in back of it with other kids.

It was never part of his plan to come back to his hometown after finishing POST training in Pocatello’s Idaho State University. But he worked for Clearwater County Sheriff Department as the resident deputy in Weippe before joining OPD. ‘How’s that going for you?’ I asked him. “So far I approve,” he answered. It’s challenging enough to be in law enforcement without serving in the town where you grew up; where a former classmate might think he gets special treatment instead of a deserved DUI.

With the service revolver picked up and secured in the trunk, we are heading back towards town on Michigan Avenue. Up ahead, a small sedan has a white light showing on the rear end below the taillight. “Local 32090, white Subaru” Matt says into his mic. The dispatcher comes back with the registered owner’s name and city of residence.

Matt thumps the keyboard of his built-in laptop and verifies the driver’s information. He waits until the driver is in a straight area with room to pull off, then turns on his lights. One can almost feel the driver’s heart thumping as she slows down and pulls off the road. “You know you’re giving her a heart attack,” I say. “Mmmmhm” comes the reply as he steps out of the squad car, closes the door, and carefully approaches the stopped vehicle.

With the observation camera filming the scene in front of me, I watch as he reaches down and checks the tail light area and then steps forward to talk to the driver. Turns out to be a middle aged lady from Lenore. No, she did not know she had a backup light stuck on. She is given a courtesy warning and the opportunity to fix it, Matt calls in “clear” on the radio, finishes entering information in his computer, and we move on.

‘Do you run a regular circuit around town?’ I ask. He replies in the negative, “I try not to get into predictable patterns or habits.” We make another run down the highway and back before heading towards the high school. Matt turns on his spotlight, and checks the doors and windows at the school. He responds to the dispatcher many times during the night, turning the radar on and off with the approach of passing cars. He explains what the lights on the radar equipment stand for and the various beeps it makes. One kind of chirp indicates a misreading on the radar that might happen as three cars approach at the same for instance.

We are in the downtown area of Orofino, it’s a Friday night, and three teen-aged girls are laughing and yelling to each other as they meander toward the theatre. Another woman hesitates by a car. Matt watches to make sure she is not in trouble. He explains that her behavior looked curious, and he wanted to know that she was alright. A couple more loops on the highway, and we are back downtown again. By this time I had gotten myself good and queasy from trying to write, ask questions, and watch the road as we traveled.

It’s very dark, and I’ve abandoned any type of note taking, I switch to my tape recorder as we ride along – except for the radio, it’s quiet for the moment. We cross Orofino Bridge, and Matt is checking out a pickup in front of us that has some kind of metal object sticking up behind the rear window. He gets closer to take a look. From my angle, it looks like the side of a tool box that is open; it doesn’t appear to be a problem.

We loop through town and I ask to be let out of the car to catch my breath. Matt drops me off and tells me when he will pick me up again. I offer to give him my cell number – silly me, of course, it’s right there on his screen when he enters in my name. I decide to sit on a bench, and get my stomach back where it belongs by sucking in some cold night air.

A car comes by where I am sitting; it occurs to me how odd this must look, a lady sitting on a bench downtown on a cold night. The car comes around the block a couple more times. I begin to wonder how smart my idea is. I stow my bulky computer case in my car so that I have more leg room when I get back on board with what the police do on a regular basis, night after night. I ask Matt if it’s unusual to see a car repeatedly circling the block like that. He tells me that sometimes, in the course of a night, he will pass the same car several times while making his rounds.

Deer are everywhere – in the park, on street corners, behind the bank on Michigan Ave, in the cemetery, up behind the high school, in front of the library. Oh look, there’s a buck standing on a slope watching us as we go up the hill into a Riverside subdivision. Matt tells me what a common problem they are and how easy it is to hit one. One rolled across his hood not too long ago, putting him on the infamous list of officers who have collided with Bambi.

I was not feeling too friendly towards the ungulate population myself after having an encounter of that kind the week before. They are a known problem in this area, especially this time of the year, and don’t make it any easier for him to get to where he’s going.

It turns out to be a night of “vehicle violations,” broken tail lights, only one head light, no lights – over and over again. Matt pulls a pickup over near the transfer station road. He knows the entire family in the pickup. He tells me afterwards that his job is mostly “talking to people.” Whether that means talking to them about broken equipment, giving them a citation, or booking them and taking them to jail – basically, he still has to communicate the problem with them.

He doesn’t always gain agreement, but in the case of a warning about a broken light, he’s doing them a favor. Besides making it safer on the road, it saves the driver money. “A part that might cost them $12 to $15 to fix is a lot cheaper than a ticket,” he says. Unfortunately, they might have been warned several times already and have ignored the problem.

A property owner, who lives in another town, but owns a house in Riverside, has asked that the recently vacated house be checked. After giving the house a onceover, Matt pulls into the narrow driveway, gets out his flashlight and walks around the house checking inside the windows. Nothing appears amiss.

The flashlight snaps into a charging unit, but of course I’m not able to do that simple task. We are in the Forest Service parking lot, and I get out again to gulp air, as Matt replaces the flashlight. More deer.

We head back into town: more radar checks, more vehicle stops, and so it goes. We turn around on Riverside Avenue, and as we approach the intersection near the bridge, Matt flips on his right turn signal. Okay, this is too much. ‘You’re not taking me back out on that highway again are you?’ I whined. And away we go.

Previously, I pointed out to Chief Wilson when I signed a safety waiver, that there was nothing in the agreement about backseat driving – in this case from the front seat. He assured me though, that that was not acceptable behavior. He didn’t say anything about me not whining.

We’re watching traffic alongside the highway, in a turnout by the Clearwater River where city lights shine across the water. A vehicle in the oncoming lane flicks on his brights, warning another car that the police are watching.

Matt checks some more streets, and then turns around where Mountain Motor Sports used to be. As we pull out on the road, we feel something under the tire and hear a small thump. Matt turns around to see if something is in the roadway. Nothing was spotted, but he checked anyway to make sure it was safe. I asked him if he’s ever recorded how many miles he puts on the road in one week. He has no idea, but is sure it’s well over a hundred miles. Matt pulls over a blue, Chevy pickup after calling in the plates. He comments that the driver doesn’t like the LED’s (flashing lights) any better than he does. But it’s a necessity.

Another officer is going to meet with Matt later that evening to take care of some police business, do I want to come along? ‘Well gee, this has been educational and everything’ I think to myself, but all I can think about is getting out of that car.

In terms of vehicle accidents (thankfully there were none) or arrests, it was a quiet night. In terms of danger on the road – watch out for deer and drunk drivers. Sometimes there is a lot more activity, and some nights it gets very quiet and he is able to catch up on paperwork in the office in the wee hours.

Matt said he was taught keyboarding (typing) in school, but he was never taught to type while driving. “It’s an acquired skill,” he says. The multi-tasking a police officer has to do, the verbal questioning, the checking of every little detail when passing a car, the recording of incidents – is simply amazing. There are a LOT of acquired skills.

The next time your heart is thumping as you are being pulled over, count yourself lucky that someone was looking out for your safety. Not everybody likes police. According to Chief Wilson, no one likes enforcement. I have never heard anyone complain, though, about feeling too safe in their neighborhood. Your job may seem hard sometimes, but hey, when was the last time you had to put on a bullet proof vest just to do it?

The Orofino Police Department has an interactive website where people may read news bulletins, email an officer, or read the Chief’s Blog. Check it out at: 
[Note: vehicles and licenses for this article are fictional.]

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