Skip to main content

The City Journals

Underneath the Uniform

Jun 29, 2016 09:00AM ● By Cassie Goff

By Cassandra Goff | [email protected]

Cottonwood Heights

Damien introduced himself excitedly as we walked toward his police cruiser. He opened the passenger door for me and apologized for the seat being small. I climbed in, almost making a laptop my seat cushion. Damien climbed into the driver seat, turned the key to his ignition and began to pull out of the parking lot. I studied the car; it was just as fancy as the truck had been, touch controls, radio, colored lights. However, this car had a cage in the back seat. I also noticed that he had a GPS.

“Why do you have a GPS?” I inquired

“If I need to call in quickly, the address appears on the screen, so I can relay the exact information,” he explained.

I studied him as he drove up a main street of the city. His eyes were brown, matching the color of his hair. His face looked tan under the shadow of the car. He looked young, too young to be an experienced officer. I looked closer at his eyes, confused by his young appearance. There were slight wrinkles around his eyes, alluding to his age. I’d later find out that he was about 10 years older than me, which I found astonishing. He was obviously fit, his uniform ironed neatly, coming to a stark point around his forearm, where the fabric ended.

We headed over to the local Wal-Mart as I asked him about his typical day. I received the same response I had from Gary: “typical” was not part of the job.

As we drove through the parking lot, he attentively examined his surroundings, his eyes wild under his stern brow. I sat quietly as we drove through a row of parked cars. Nothing out of the ordinary passed my eyes. The normal shoppers loading bags into their cars, not returning carts, walked toward or from the automated doors.

“What is sticking out to you?” I asked.

“When I come to work every day, I try to memorize the hot sheet,” he said. (A hot sheet is a list of stolen vehicles that have the potential to be in the area that day.) “I look for any car matching a description from the sheet,” he said.  He stopped to show me the hot list for that day. Surprise washed over me as I noticed how many cars were on the list. I noticed how different the owners’ descriptions for their stolen cars were, some even with whited-out swear words.

As we continued through the parking lot he described what he was looking for. Cars with expired registration was the most frequent thing he saw. He would run these plates, hoping that one would be listed on the hot sheet; usually the car belonged to the correct owner.

As we drove through row after row after row of cars, I noticed that he continually looked over at one specific car, now three rows over. He stopped when the car was in eye-sight and reached behind his seat, searching loudly. I looked at him quizzically.

“I usually keep things where you are sitting,” he said.

“I’m sorry for making your job more difficult,” I replied.

“Don’t worry,” he laughed, “you’re fine.”

Finally, I knew from his expression that he had found what he was looking for. As he pulled his arm out from around the seat, he lifted hefty binoculars to his face, reading the license plate a few rows over. I don’t think he was expecting me to laugh as hard as I did.

We drove across the street to Target, intending to drive through the rows of parked cars, again. As we drove up one row, toward the entrance of the building, he began to tell me how criminals like to dig through trashcans located directly outside the automatic doors. They look for receipts paid with cash. When these criminals find such receipts, they go in for a refund from the store, receiving cash or in-store gift cards.

During his time as a police officer, Damien has extracted gift cards worth thousands and thousands of dollars from criminals continually cashing in on cash receipts.

“Stores like Target,” he explained, “lose billions of dollars from this sort of criminal activity.”

“Why do the stores not have more regulation for that?” I asked.

“They try to, but it’s difficult,” he said.  

As we were talking, I noticed a teenager rifling through the trash, a few feet from the north building entrance. Damien drove by slowly, as we both laughed at the incredible timing. The teenager looked up, recognized the vehicle, and quickly began to walk away.

“I bet he’s planning on jumping the fence,” Damien said. The fence he was referring to separated the Target parking lot from an apartment building lot.

We inched past the Target entrance, waiting for shoppers, who weren’t in much of a hurry, to cross. Damien didn’t seem to be bothered by the pursuit speed. We turned and saw the teenager hustling toward a hole in the fence. Once again, he looked over, recognized the car, and in mid-jump, turned the opposite direction.

“He knows,” Damien said to me. Before I could respond, he had parked the car and was out the door.

As he talked with the teenager, I waited patiently, listening to the teenager offer up too much information. After a brief chat, Damien asked him to stand in front of the car. “You can sit on it if you’d like; it’s warm.” The teenager didn’t take him up on the offer. He stood in the headlight beams and put his hands in his pockets. Damien half-stepped out of the car and asked him to take his hands out of his pockets. I didn’t question that request, now understanding how that simple action could create a life or death situation for Damien, and for me.

The teenager didn’t take kindly to this request, sticking his arms out as wide as they could go, drastically, before turning around in circles. “You don’t have to do that,” Damien said as he got back into the car.

He typed the teenager’s name into the computer and began explaining what popped up on the screen. In mid-sentence, the teenager began to tip-toe up to Damien.

“Sir,” the teenager said, “I didn’t give you the correct information.”

“Don’t you think I’ll find that out here in a second?” Damien asked the teenager.

He sauntered back to the front of the car. Damien explained that he recognized the name of a friend the teenager said he was staying with. That particular teenager had been involved with criminal activity beforehand. The teenager in front of us wasn’t listed as a runaway, so Damien was not required to take him in. However, since he mentioned the names of some juveniles, he decided to ask him if he knew anything about a stolen vehicle.

“No sir,” he said. “I was just looking for some halfies [cigarette butts that he could smoke].”

Damien released the teenager, telling him, “I don’t want to see you out here again.”

“Why didn’t you do anything?” I asked as he rejoined me in the cab. “He’s smoking underage.”  

“There’s not much I could do, even if I wanted to,” he said. “If the teenager had a whole pack of cigarettes on him, I would have ticketed him and taken the pack, but since he had nothing on him, I can’t really do much.”

“We’ll see him again,” Damien continued. He assumed he would be involved with more criminal activity, especially if he kept hanging out with the same crowd.

Damien then began to explain how he deals with teenagers while wearing his uniform “I don’t like having to deal with the same ones so often,” he said. “It makes me upset that their parents don’t care about what they are doing.” Crime tended to be one of the things teenagers did without supervision. “It’s unfortunate, these children will probably grow up to be criminals as adults, and I’ll be taking them to jail, 10 years from now, for worse crimes.”

We were driving down a main road as this conversation went on. I saw a police car, stopped behind a civilian car, flashing lights illuminating the building next to them.

“I think I know where we are going next,” I said, assuming we would be joining the officer up ahead on his stop.  

“Oh yeah?” he shot a mischievous glance my way as he swerved into the far lane and raced past the fellow police car. I looked at him, stumped, as a grin appeared on his face.

He continued to tell me about dealing with teenagers. “I’m more cautious with them than I am with adults,” he said.  

“Why?” I asked, confused by this statement.

“Teenagers don’t react like adults. They don’t think ‘I probably shouldn’t do that’ so they are more likely to act differently than an adult would when they realize they are in trouble. Teenagers are more likely to assault police officers,” he said. He added support to this statement by discussing instances where teenagers had been driving with stolen weapons. In these past instances, the teenager would be pulled over for a simple traffic violation, such as speeding. However, the teenage brain does not think about the minor trouble they could be ticketed for. The teenage brain thinks about how the police officer knows just how much trouble the teenager is actually causing, which is why the officer stopped in the first place. With these thoughts, adrenaline begins to pump through the teenager’s body. As the police officer arrives at the driver door, assumingly to discuss the violation, the teenager, reacting to the fight-or-flight response, pulls out the stolen weapon and pulls the trigger.

“Teenagers are now involved with crimes like home invasion, stolen vehicle, drug possession,” he continued on.

My mind was blown. “That’s not something I would even consider as a teenager!”

He laughed and agreed with me. “It’s something they feel like they need to do. Some especially don’t respond to authority figures well,” he continued, “so dealing with teenagers can be tricky.”

A female voice crackled through the radio. “Woman threatening to hang herself.” My heart jumped. Damien looked over at the information that had popped up on the laptop screen and a twinkle appeared in his eye. “You’re going to meet Patricia,” he said.

We drove toward the address that was glowing light blue on the screen, as he informed me how Patricia had drug and mental health issues, so they dealt with her on a regular basis. Information for this call continued to filter through the radio; one officer was already on scene. However, the call had been assigned to Damien, so he waited for us to arrive.

As we pulled into the neighborhood, I noticed a parked truck on the corner. I couldn’t tell what kind of truck it was, just a shadow of a vehicle, until we drove closer. When we passed, I realized that it was the vehicle of the officer who had arrived before us.

Damien stopped in front of a house where all the windows were shaded over, and one lone light appeared to be on inside. As we waited for another officer to arrive on scene, he typed in Patricia‘s name to illustrate how frequently they dealt with her. A full page of reports appeared after he hit enter — I was amazed. How did someone have so many incidents with the police? As I began pondering, Damien pushed the down arrow on the laptop, hard. One page of reports turned into an infinite list, scrolling and scrolling through a never-ending file. I don’t remember my jaw dropping, but I’m sure it did.

As an additional officer announced his arrival, Damien closed his laptop, turned off his dashboard lights and his interior light — anything with a light, he turned off.

“Stay in the car,” he said. “I’ll come back for you.”

I watched as the officers met him in the driveway. As they surveyed the outside area, additional officers walked up to meet them, ones I hadn’t noticed arriving behind me, being as quiet and as dark as Damien was. I noticed how much they cared for one another; how each and every one of them made sure to be aware of the others, showing obvious concern. They only had a brief discussion before they were off in different directions, each tackling different areas of the house.

Damien walked up to the door and knocked. When it opened, he disappeared into the low light, followed by two more officers disappearing inside after Damien. The covered windows did not allow me to see what was going on past the doorframe. I could only watch light spilling across the pavement. The officers outside completed their observation, coming back to the door, waiting for their coworkers to return. I became aware of my worry. In the short time we had spent driving together, I began to see Damien as a fellow human, not as a uniform. I watched as the other officers stepped lightly around the house (“securing the perimeter,” I assumed). I noticed Gary on the scene.

If I had been witness to this situation before tonight, I would have felt anxiety for the people inside the home. Tonight, I felt worry for my driver and his team.

I was uneasy and anxious as I put my head in my hands, watching the door intently and waiting for the three officers to reappear. Seconds ticked by, tediously, as I watched the same doorframe. Eventually, someone appeared in the doorframe, crossed through it, followed by another, finally, Damien. They motioned to their fellow officers.  The team walked down the driveway, laughing.

Relief swarmed my body. Since when did I begin feeling relief for police officers?

“Well, I guess you’re not going to meet Patricia tonight,” Damien said, without much concern, as he climbed back into the driver seat.  

“What happened?” I asked anxiously.

“It was just an overreaction; everything is fine,” he told me.

I changed the subject, assuming he couldn’t tell me much about what was inside the home, for sake of privacy. “Gary told me about how he likes to ‘light people up’ when he deals with people. Why did you guys not do that here?” I asked.

“It depends on the situation,” he said.  “With this house call, we didn’t want them to know we were here until the last possible second.”

“Do you ever light up a house?” I asked.  

“Sometimes,” he said, “but usually those are domestic cases, if a couple is fighting. It’s really about control; whatever helps us maintain the most control of the situation, that’s what we are going to do.” 

During the next several hours, we drove around to different motels within the city. Damien pointed out cars without valid registrations as he looked for stolen vehicles and suspicious activity, much like I had experienced him doing in the shopping center parking lots.

“People live out of some of these hotels,” he said. “Criminals love these places because they can find a new one every night.”

As we drove around to the back corner of the motel, driving past old, run-down cars, he recognized the very last parked car. As we got closer, I could see the piles of junk in the back seat. Damien had interacted with the owner, many times before. He was a heavy drug user who had been arrested several times. “The jail won’t keep him because of a medical condition, but that’s really where he should be,” he said.

 We continued driving around in darkness, car headlights becoming less and less frequent.

“What do you like to do for fun?” I asked him.

“I usually like to race, what most people call, bullet bikes,” he sai., “But I was injured recently so I’m taking a break from that for now.”

“Anything else?” I asked.

“I like to go fishing, camping and exploring,” he said.

Just like most Cottonwood Heights residents, I thought.

“Do you have any memorable stories?” I asked, trying to find a subject he would talk more about.

“With every intersection,” he began as we passed through one on Ft. Union, “there are at least 10 memorable stories.”

“Do you have any exciting stories?” I asked.

“I’ll think of one,” he said, delaying.

“Do you have any terrifying stories?” I attempted, once more.

“There is always a level of fear with this job,” he explained. “There’s always a possibility that someone could have a gun and shoot.” There’s always a possibility for death, which always “allows for a certain level of fear.”

“What is the hardest part of your job?” I asked.

“Dealing with children,” was his immediate answer. Within his first few years of being a police officer, he had witnessed a 2-year-old child die. It had been heartbreaking.  

“The system makes me angry,” he began. “They’ll take a child away from a mother because she spanked him, but they won’t take a child away from a mother who overdosed multiple times in front of her child, with dirty needles lying all over the floor, continually using, and can’t afford food. They’ll just give them a little bit of food.”

I could tell from Damien’s diction just how upset these situations made him and I wondered how many situations dealing with children he had witnessed. I wondered what terrible things he had seen, including what he, admittedly, blocked from memory.

“When I first started,” he said, changing the subject, “everything was exciting, even a traffic stop. The adrenaline was always there, but after so many years, the adrenaline and excitement are gone,” he said. “It’s routine now.”

“Are you excited for the new cars the department will be getting soon?” I asked, prying for his opinion on recent city news.

He was indifferent.

“Are you excited about the new body cameras?” I asked.

He was indifferent.

“Are you excited about the new city hall?” I asked.

He was indifferent.

“Do you get excited about anything?” I asked him, frustrated.

He looked over at me briefly, through the corner of his eye, then back at the road. He slowly lifted up his arms, removing his hands from the steering wheel, shaping them into fists, continuing to raise his arms until his knuckles were almost touching the roof of the cruiser.

“I’M SO EXCITED!” he punched his fists back and forth as his cheer echoed through the car.

He replaced his hands on the wheel, continuing to drive, like nothing had happened.

I grinned to myself as Damien slowly peaked over at me. “Is that better?”

 As we drove through a neighborhood, Damien pointed to one specific house. “I responded to a call there,” he said. “A man was using meth and started to hallucinate, seeing people come in through his windows. He called 911, saying that people were breaking into this house and that he was going to shoot them. By the time we arrived on scene, the man was shooting at his hallucinations, with his girlfriend in the house.”

 We drove around the shopping centers again, and as we passed TJ Maxx, he asked, “Did you hear about the guy who robbed this place?”

“No?” I said.

He told me the story. A man used to work for an alarm company. One day, for whatever reason, he decided to put his knowledge to good use. He entered through the back access doors (which Damien pointed out), silencing the alarm. After that was completed, he spent hours carving through concrete walls, making his way toward the cash room. Once inside, he removed $30,000. The employees did not notice until the following morning, when they went to retrieve change for their registers. The man repeated the exact same crime, many times in Utah, eventually making his way to California, spending hours in a store with no one noticing.

“We almost got him, one night,” Damien said, “but we were 30 seconds too late to catch him.”

 As we continued to drive around the city for a few hours, without calls coming in, the night became increasingly boring. “Do you feel like we are going in circles?” Damien asked.

“Oh, yeah,” I laughed.

We joked about porta-potties that had been installed at the local park for winter use. We argued over which building the old Krispy Kreme used to occupy. I asked him about the different colored letters used for information about incoming calls, appearing on his laptop; he attempted to explain, before laughing because he wasn’t quite sure.

 Eventually, we went back to the police station because a different police officer requested that I ride with him. Once again, I was sad to leave the officer who had made me laugh. I was having a great night with Damien, and I felt like I had found a friend in him.

We parked next to the police cruiser waiting for us. Damien pointed toward the car as I thanked him, climbed out of his cruiser, walked toward the identical Cottonwood Heights Police Department cruiser and climbed into the passenger seat. This time, the space I shared with the laptop was even smaller.