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The City Journals

Underneath the Uniform - Part 3

Jul 29, 2016 08:47AM ● By Cassie Goff

By Cassandra Goff | [email protected]

Cottonwood Heights, Utah - My new driver’s name was Jeff. He was bald, the wrinkles on the back of his neck falling past the ironed collar of his uniform. He had significantly more wrinkles than the previous officers. He seemed passive, his eyes barely looking over at me without his head turning. His car smelled strongly of coffee. I looked down to see a newly acquired 7-11 mug. The smell hit me in strong waves as we drove through the deserted streets. Jeff sat hunched in his seat. “I’m not much of a talker,” he said. 

I introduced myself and tried to ask him questions that would have answers that he could talk at length about, which was not an easy task. 

“I haven’t been with Cottonwood Heights very long,” he said. “I’m still getting adjusted.” 

As he was telling me about his transition phase, a familiar female voice crackled through the radio. I listened intently, eventually finding the words “potential shoplift” in the static. 

Jeff raced the Charger down to the shopping center where Target and Home Depot were located. Adrenaline pulsed through my veins as I felt my heart beat rapidly. We turned into the parking lot of Home Deport, following a Cottonwood Heights Police truck that had arrived seconds before us. The truck continued straight, heading toward the back of the building. Jeff turned left, toward the entrance of Home Depot. I began scanning the area for signs of human life. My eyes were peeled. 

I saw movement out of the corner of my eye. Jeff saw it too as he turned sharply and sped toward it. The man, running, waved us on and Jeff turned toward the direction of his wave. I was confused.

As we drove toward the area where the police truck had continued straight, I began to see flashing red and blue lights bouncing off the walls, catching gleams of water from the melted snow. Jeff sped toward the back of the building. As we turned the corner, we saw two Cottonwood Heights police cars.

 “Stay here,” Jeff told me as he parked the car quickly. I did.

I watched as he walked over to where the other officers were. I turned my head as one officer pulled up beside me. He leapt from his car. My eyes followed him as he ran toward the commotion. I noticed another police car arrive on the opposite side of the scene.

I admired how these officers worked as a team. They didn’t need to communicate with each other to know where they were needed and how to help, instinctively knowing how to handle situations this job acquired. They had an unconscious closeness. I continued to watch as they worked as a team, for I could not see the suspect yet. I thought about how closely connected they were and how that connection appeared within their actions. In any other profession, this teamwork, connection, closeness, concern for fellow coworkers would be admired. In this profession, the concern was frequently labeled as “harassment.” 

As I scanned over the officers, I noticed Gary and Damien standing in the middle of the circle of police officers. Jeff stood behind them, maintaining a circle around the suspect. The suspect? Was I witnessing a shoplifter being caught?

I watched as the circle of officers swayed. I couldn’t see the suspect behind the flashing red lights and blue uniforms. I tried to strain my eyes and readjust my position to see some excitement, but it didn’t help. 

After I had patiently waited for what seemed far too long, Jeff walked over to the car, toward my door, and opened it. I looked at him, not moving and very confused — I was supposed to stay in the car. 

“She’s cuffed if you want to come out and watch,” he said, seeing no movement.

 I jumped out of the car, excitement taking hold of my body. “I’m going to leave my bag in the car, if that’s all right,” I said as I looked at Jeff. 

“I think it’ll be safe,” Jeff said with a nod and a smile. 

I followed him to the circle of police officers and stood behind him, next to Damien’s back driver seat. From here, I could see the suspect, cuffed, standing, bent over, with her head between her knees, next to the hood of Damien’s car. Really, I could only see the shiny handcuffs around her wrists. I could tell it was a woman, her nails chipped with paint, her wrists small and dainty. 

I began to feel bad for the woman. Around her, a circle of witnesses formed. Many Cottonwood Heights police officers, two Target security guards (one of which was the man who waved us on before) created this circle, and now there was me, a random girl, standing behind the officers. I tried to stay out of her sight because I didn’t know what her reaction would be if she saw me. I watched as her frail figure moved to stand up straight, turning around to watch Damien go through her purse. She was thin, very thin, wearing a leopard-print tank top, a turquoise shawl and jeans. Her brown hair was straight, falling past her shoulders. “I don’t have drugs!” she screamed through tears when Damien found something suspicious in her purse. 

Later, Jeff would explain to me that specific facial features appear in heavy drug users, and it’s easy to identify a frequent drug user because of the acquired features. This woman had the facial features of a drug user, which is why they searched her purse. 

Fortunately for her, she was telling the truth. Damien didn’t find anything in her purse. An officer I hadn’t met yet walked over from across the circle, to Jeff. 

“Were you first on the scene?” he asked. 

“No,” Jeff said, “I think Damien was.” 

If I had just stayed with him a little while longer…

“Will you get the report from Target?” he asked.

“Sure,” Jeff answered.

We continued to stand outside, as time seemed to be chilled by the night air. I had been shivering a few minutes after leaving the car, not prepared for a night as cold as this. I overheard bits and pieces of conversations from the officers, concerning who was going to do what — take her to jail, get the Target report, write up the required reports — they were getting things in order. 

I looked around, beginning to notice things I hadn’t seen minutes before. Two of the officers had flakes of snow on their boots. 

I tried to put the pieces of the puzzle together in my mind. Did they have to chase her into the snow? Through the break between the fences? Behind the car?

“I have a son!” she cried when she finally understood the implications of the situation she was in. “He was taken away, but I did this for him! I need to be with my family! I can’t go to jail! I won’t be good in jail! I’ll do anything! Please!” Her pleas turned into one long continuous plea, echoing over the beige-bricked walls.

When her tears became less frequent, she asked to smoke a cigarette. Damien pulled a pack and lighter out from her purse, pulled out a cigarette, held it out for her and attempted to light the cigarette when she was ready. The wind caught the fire, so he cupped his hand around the end of the cigarette and clicked the lighter again. This time, she was able to light her cigarette. 

She took a few puffs before she realized that she might not be able to take the cigarette out of her mouth and hold it between her fingers. She didn’t know what to do. A slight panic fell over her as she asked a police officer standing next to her if she could grab the cigarette. The officer couldn’t understand her mumbled words while the cigarette was in her mouth so she ended up maneuvered her arms around awkwardly to try and reach the cigarette, which was a very flamingo-looking move. Through some body maneuvering, she was able to reach the end of the cigarette with the tips of her fingers. She ashed it quickly before returning it to her lips to continue smoking.

The over-sized turquoise shawl she wore fell off one shoulder, but she didn’t seem to notice. An officer, whom I didn’t know the name of, walked over to her, picked up the edge of the shawl, and replaced it over her shoulder in an attempt to keep her warm in the cold. This happened continually; the action eventually became robotic. 

Jeff was watching all of this unfold next to me. “See? We can be nice,” he said, “depending on the suspect’s actions and attitude,” he said. 

He turned back around to me with a wink. “We like to be nice.”

Damien led the woman to the back of his car as she continued to cry, “I can’t go to jail!” Jeff and I turned around to talk to the other officers before returning to the cruiser. 

“What jail is he taking her to? Salt Lake?” I asked

“Yes,” Jeff said. “Cottonwood Heights doesn’t have its own jail, so we use Weber, Davis and Salt Lake.”

 The officers began to joke with each other, while Damien and Gary got everything they needed squared away. 

Somehow, I ended up in the middle of an awkward circle of officers, as they joked around with each other, taking shots whenever possible. From the middle of the circle, I was able to witness their family dynamic up close and personal. 

My fingers were frozen from the cold February air by the time we walked back toward Jeff’s cruiser. I sat down, finding my bag exactly where I had left it, as I watched the other officers begin to drive away, one by one. Jeff started his engine and drove slowly across the pavement toward a fellow police car. He rolled down his window. The officer matched the action, so they could chat.

“This report is going to take me so long to write,” the officer laughed through gritted teeth.

“Do I still need to grab that report from Target?” Jeff asked.

“Oh! No, it’s fine,” he said.

Jeff drove to the front of Target, where we sat for a moment before another call came through. Jeff responded to the call, a look of concern crossed his face, as he set back his walkie-talkie to his shoulder.

 “I guess I should tell them that I have an unarmed rider,” he said. I laughed nervously, but nodded.

He grabbed the walkie-talkie, pulling it closer to his mouth, tilting his head slightly, to report the information. As he clicked his button and opened his mouth to speak, a different voice came through the radio. He relaxed his neck while the voice continued to talk. When the speech was over, Jeff pulled the walkie-talkie to his mouth again. As he did so, we heard another voice on the radio.

Every time Jeff went to press the button on his walkie-talkie, a different voice would crackle on the radio. This went on for a few minutes, every time his face looking more disappointed than the last, and I ended up laughing so hard that my sides hurt. 

Eventually he was able to call in his identification number. The female voice acknowledged, “Go ahead.” 

“I have an unarmed ride-along,” he informed her. 

“10-4,” responded the female radio voice. 

We drove toward another fellow police car sitting in front of an abandoned shopping establishment. They rolled down their windows synchronously as we approached. “Do all of us need to go to that call?” Jeff asked, not wanting to risk putting a ride-along into a potentially dangerous situation.

The officer was puzzled by this inquiry. 

“Didn’t you hear that last call?” Jeff asked. 

“No,” he laughed, “it’s all just white noise to me,” making motions with his hands, representing people blabbering to each other. Both officers laughed. 

While they continued the conversation, I noticed an Instant Message pop up on Jeff’s laptop.

“What happened to her arms?” it read. 

I giggled. These officers knew how to find the humor in tough situations.

We drove around the city afterward, deciding not to respond to the call. Jeff told me about his family, how proud he was of his children and the choices they had made.

“Did you like working for AP&P?” I asked, after he told me where he had transferred from.

“I like doing this more,” he said. “This is my office,” he gestured around the inside of the car. “The trust this department has for its officers is outstanding,” he added. “You can show up for work, and do your job, without someone looking over your shoulder, checking up on you.”

“I like being able to work with different people each day,” Jeff continued. “You work with the same cases all the time when you work for AP&P.” 

“It’s also nice to work with this department,” he went on, “because you don’t have to make a certain number of stops. You can make as many or as little stops as you want. If you are having a bad day and don’t want to deal with people, you don’t have to make any traffic stops. There’s no quota to fill.”

As we talked, we drove from a deserted back road to a frequently used drive, back toward the main Boulevard. As we neared the police station, one last incoming call arrived through the speakers. 

“Man, ready to jump,” the radio female voice said. 

My heart jumped. Jeff raced over to the I-215 on-ramp, where the call had been reported. Once again, a police truck was just seconds before us. He turned right, toward the entrance of the on-ramp, and we kept going under the overpass before flipping a quick U-turn to inspect the underside of the ramp. 

We looked high above, closely searching for movement or a human-shaped shadow. A beam of light shined down from the highest area of concrete. I looked for the source of the light, and saw another officer standing near the highest point of the on-ramp, searching over the edge, the strong little light’s beam uninterrupted. 

We drove around to the other side of the overpass, searching the opposite side. Still, nothing. 

“Is he up there with you?” the question came from the radio, directed toward the officer with the flashlight.

“Negative,” was his reply.

Worry began to nip my side. “When do you begin to worry?” I asked. 

“I don’t worry,” Jeff told me. “It is likely that someone called it in wrong.” 

“Is it frequent for residents to call in incorrect information?” I asked.

“Yes.” He hesitated. “It’s … good. It shows that they care about their city but sometimes we have to assess a situation based on wrongful information.”

He told me a story to show what he meant. One quiet Wednesday morning, an elderly couple called the Cottonwood Heights Police Department, worrying about a man rifling through the neighborhood trashes. When Jeff arrived on scene, he encountered a much different situation than previously described. There was a man and there were trashcans, but the man had biked miles up through the city, with the knowledge that this neighborhood was quite elderly and could use some extra help. Every trash day, he would arrive on the same street to take all the neighbors’ trash bins to the curb. 

“It’s all about perspective,” Jeff said. “People think they see things, and it’s usually not the case.”  

For the call concerning the jumper on I-215, he suspected that someone saw some teenagers playing around and misread the situation to be a potential suicide. 

We drove down Fort Union to check a different overpass, just in case the address was wrong. This was a dead end. 

By the time we had finished inspecting the additional overpass, it was past midnight. We drove back toward the police station so Jeff could drop me off to go home. 

As we approached, I felt sadness wash over me for the last time that night. I hesitantly stepped out of the car when he parked in the same spot I had found him in. I wanted more time to talk with these officers.

“Thank you,” I said as I stepped out of the cruiser. “It was great to meet you.” I waved at him, as I realized I no longer saw his uniform, just the human being he was. 

I unlocked my car, opened the door, positioned myself into the driver seat, turned the key, put the car in reverse and began to back out, smiling to myself about how ironic it would have been if I backed into a police car, in their parking lot. I drove through the parking lot, waving to three officers that had walked out of the door to the station. I stopped at the driveway, turning on my blinker and waiting for a car to pass. As I drove onto the pavement of 1300 East, I left the inside world of police officers. I was back on the outside, back to being just another driver who could be pulled over and ticketed on my way home. Back to seeing the paint on the outside of the police vehicles, not seeing the black interior of the car and the incoming calls on a laptop screen. I had learned a lot about being on the inside of the police world that night, but despite the knowledge I gained, I would always be on the outside.