Saturday, August 9, 2008

Cornering Eugene's Bad Guys

Oregon Daily Emerald - 09/18/00

A night spent cavorting with some of the Eugene Police Department’s best reveals what it’s like to take the law into your own hands; as an officer of the law, that is.

Gripping the passenger side door, I was in a car hurtling down Sixth Avenue in the wee morning hours at more than 100 miles per hour. I wasn't a victim of a drag racing driver nor on my way to any hospital.
No, I was in the passenger seat of a police car, surrounded by as many gadgets as an airplane cockpit, with Officer Mark Hubbard in hot pursuit of some runaway bikers -- the BMX type, not motorcyclists.

As my first ride in a police car -- and fortunately in the passenger side rather than the back -- there was a lot to see, despite what Hubbard described as a "slow Wednesday night." Which meant no bloodshed, drug users or dead bodies. All of which aren't unusual sights for a Eugene Police Department officer.

Hubbard, who has been in the force for two years, said an officer never knows what he could be up against on a call. It could be a frightened woman calling because her dog treed a raccoon, and won't stop barking. But just as likely, it could be a man strung out on meth and booze who assaulted his wife in front of his kids and refused to see the blue uniform as a stop sign.

Hubbard stressed that police must be objective when arriving on the scene. In his words, "practice the Golden Rule." But break the rules or try to assault an officer, and that objective view becomes a defensive one, where decisions are instinctive and officers must react reflexively, using their training to keep themselves, as well as other citizens, safe from lawbreakers.

"You don't really think of it 'til afterwards," Hubbard said. "But then you think back and think 'Wow, that was pretty hairy'."

Hubbard recounted the story of that boozed-up husband on meth, who after beating up his wife, went after the officers arriving on the scene. It took two officers to hold down the man and a third to cuff him, a result of his hyper-charged drug state.

Of course, patrol duty has more than its fair share of noise violations, interviews and -- yawn -- routine traffic stops. Our first task of the night was interviewing an assault victim.

A young man in the downtown mall had been beaten unconscious after slapping a teenage girl on the rear. The events weren't exactly clear, as the witnesses gave conflicting accounts and the victim had his memory literally almost knocked out of him, along with four teeth and a broken nose and cheek. And the young girl and five assailants didn't stick around to be interrogated, something not uncommon in the mall, where many young adults are transients.

After re-interviewing the victim at Sacred Heart Hospital, we took a call for a noise violation. I followed Hubbard, toting my big plastic "police observer" label which hung around my neck like a kindergartner's name tag. The apartment was quiet when we arrived, and when Hubbard questioned as to the prior noise, the answer of "we're watching Letterman, so we wouldn't turn the music up" seemed acceptable.

The rule of thumb displayed by Hubbard and other EPD officers I had a chance to observe during the late night and early morning was definitely an objective one. If people cooperated and were straightforward, they consistently got off with a warning. Jaywalking and loud music were stereotypes, but was not limited to drivers who had committed traffic violations.

Surprisingly, Hubbard did not pull drivers over for speeding; his squad car is not equipped with a radar. Only sheriff's vehicles and a select number of squad cars have radars, though Hubbard noted excessive speed as a surefire way to be noticed by an officer and to be pulled over.

In most cases during the ride-along, speeding cars caught Hubbard's attention, but were pulled over for an additional violation, such as changing lanes within 100 feet of an intersection or driving with fog lights only.

During a lull in activity, in which some cops often park and talk in order to keep themselves alert during the late night shifts, we took a tour of the downtown police station. We traversed through the dispatch center and the interrogation rooms, which come in two styles: Comfy with couches or chilling with stark bolted down furniture and two temporary holding cells, which were just as small and dingy as their TV alternatives displayed.

In the evidence room, a huge plastic tub full of needles marked with the biohazard warnings caught my eye. Of course, I had to ask the question if they were actually used needles, which launched more stories of drug users.

What I found to be most incredulous was that you can actually be walking down the street, higher than a kite, and as long as you're not breaking a law, the police can't cite you, regardless of your age. They can take you to detox, but as long as you have no drugs on your possession and aren't driving a vehicle, no ticket or arrest. However, I, as a 20-year-old, can be cited for walking down the street after enjoying a glass of wine (or a case of beer) with my parents. Interesting the way things work.

I also learned the wide variety of reactions to police presence. Almost without exception, the sight of the uniform and badge commanded respect and politeness into the hearts of all ne'er-do-wells, noise violators and fog light drivers. Most of the people pulled over or talked to were very courteous -- it's interesting what putting your insurance rate on the line will do to you -- and were extremely appreciative when they were let off with a warning.

Among the other officers, there was definitely a bond apparent when they jousted each other about their spouses' cooking, their exercise regimens and the collars of their uniforms. They were casual and friendly, and included me in their conversation, filling me in on layman's terms for police-speak. They also taught me the ways of being an effective detective, such as not slamming the police car door when exiting to cover a house.

Oops.

One University student gave me a perspective on police even fresher than my own. Wyel, an exchange student from Jerusalem, had his first encounter with the EPD outside of Doc's Pad, where Hubbard and two other officers were ensuring party-goers had a safe ride home.

After noticing us while tangoing with a new found love in the parking lot, Wyel decided to see what all the talk was really about. He told the officers that everyone he talked to since being in Eugene said to avoid the EPD at all costs, and was polite enough to refrain from using any of the reasons why.

But as the officers and Wyel stood around shooting the breeze, he continuously exclaimed how wrong that stereotype was. And after a couple good jokes, Wyel shook hands with the officers, and resumed the tango.

So we resumed to our high-speed pursuit of the bikes. In reality, we were taking a call to corner some unruly bikers who had been evading cops by riding into undrivable areas. Nevertheless, it was exciting.

While "staking out" the potential area where the bicyclists were estimated to emerge, Hubbard talked about how he handles the stress of being a peace officer.

The ex-college football player and son in an Irish family of 14 described himself as happy, adept at handling stress -- which he sheds by regular workout sessions and working on his house. It wasn't hard to see that Hubbard really enjoys his job, which he loves mostly because he gets to talk to people and interact in a work environment that is never the same. Of course, the irregular sleep schedules aren't fun, but they're all in a day's work.

So on a "slow Wednesday," I was convinced of the professionalism displayed by Officer Hubbard and his coworkers. The night was an educational experience that I encourage all students to consider trying once.

Maybe next time, I'll even get to go on a true car chase.

2 comments:

Igino Cafiero said...

Rebecca,

I really like your writing style! Your move.

-Igino

Rebecca Newell said...

Grazie ;). It also translates into incredibly long-winded email replies to simple questions.

You're quite a night owl....2:33 a.m.? Sounds like putting in overtime to win a competition.