Birmingham--It's mid-morning and Officer Darryl Thomas has already been on the job for almost four hours. With a pressed uniform clinging to his broad shoulders, he has that stern look perfect for an anti-crime poster. With his left arm resting on the steering wheel of the police cruiser, he glances over a complaint just picked up from the South Precinct.
"The owner of this property appears to be dealing drugs. He solicited Mr.Watson shortly after moving in. He drives fast and recklessly, arriving and leaving his house..."
The complaint calls this suspected drug dealer everyone's worst nightmare for a neighbor.
"Is that a pretty typical complaint?"
"Yeah, most of the time. So let's ride by there and see what's going on. See what we can see. See if anything going on right now."
We head out...but on a slight detour...
"Let's go refuel first."
The gas gauge is on "E." As we drive through the UAB campus toward the municipal garage, there's just the hum of the cruiser's engine...the plastic sheet separating the front and back seat rattles with the bumps on the road. Periodic chatter from the police radio punctuates the air.
"Do you hear the chatter in your sleep sometimes?"
"I actually do. Sometimes when I'm off I'm still reaching for my radio."
It's in this solitary environment Thomas spends the better part of his eight hour shift. And on a certain level, being on patrol is a lot of "hurry up and wait." Wait for something to happen...stand by in case he's called. Until then ...
"watch for your traffic violators...look for your car thieves...watch your businesses. Try to keep an eye on your businesses on your beat. You benefit from having a beat, like on my beat I cover the south Avondale area. And by me working this beat, I know what's out of place, you know. I can go into an apartment complex and know what vehicle doesn't go there. I know that...when a car's out of place."
It's fairly quiet today, but that's not always the case. Thomas says Mondays in particular are "crazy" responding to all the calls and complaints from the weekend. But with today's comparatively light load, he can take his time filling up the tank. Which is probably good...because Thomas has misplaced his gas card.
"This is the police shop here..."
Thomas heads inside to pick up a new gas card from the secretary. He says officers are always misplacing their cards. So with the tank filled, it's back to that complaint.
"Let's see that's 1019. That's gotta be 1016. So it's gotta be this one. Cause it's 1019. The complaint came from 1017."
In Avondale, Darryl Thomas is parked in front of the home of the suspected drug dealer. It's lunchtime, bright and sunny... and absolutely nothing is going on. He heads to the back alley. Still quiet.
"A lot of times when we have calls like this...the neighbors have some personal issues going on, you know. What I'll to do is continue to monitor this area to see if I can, you know, see anything."
"But really if you don't see anything, you can't, there's really not anything you can do?"
He grabs a sheet a paper from the dashboard. That's his daily log or "snitch sheet" as it's nicknamed. Thomas says one thing he didn't expect when he became an officer is the amount of writing. Everything is documented. Tickets, reports...the paperwork adds up. With that call out of the way, we traverse the neighborhood. Again, nothing much going on.
"Are there some calls that you get that you think 'oh, I just don't want to do this one?' "
"I don't like the snake calls."
"I hate the snake calls. I'm so scared of snakes."
"So they just want you to come and get rid of it?"
"I'd rather have a gun call than a snake call."
"Do you ever feel like you're fighting an uphill battle?"
"Not really, you just take it as it comes man, you know. Really you can't take this stuff personal. If I took everything personal that I encounter in a day, I probably wouldn't make it, you know."
After two, maybe three loops around his beat, Darryl Thomas flips on the radar gun above the steering wheel and decides to go after some speeders. We trace a small stretch of Crestwood Boulevard in East Birmingham, watching oncoming traffic. With a speed limit of just 40, it's not hard to find people over. Thomas says he usually gives drivers about 10 miles per hour, but it varies from officer to officer. When he sees a white Toyota Camry roar by at 61, on comes his lights and he plows over the median.
"His reading's for speed and he said he's having a problem with his car, so he sped up to see if he's changed gear...you get it all, you know."
The driver of the car adjusts his hat, fidgets with his hair...he pulls out his cell phone and keeps looking at us in his rearview mirror. Once dispatch runs his information, it's clear why he's so nervous. He doesn't have proof of insurance and he's wanted for writing bad checks. But the guy is lucky. The magistrate says he can just come by and sign the bond instead of being hauled in. As Thomas writes the tickets, his eyes dart between the tablet in his hand and the stopped driver.
"Back when I first started, I was a rookie, you know, you're writing...look up. The person's gone. Or you got your head down writing and they right here. 'Hey officer, I just wanna ask you something.' You didn't even see then walk up, you know...you take those mistakes and learn, you know. Could've very well been a gun."
The driver takes the tickets and drives off without incident. We loop around through Avondale and check on a few spots. They're calm now but will probably pick up after dark. We stop by a medical supply business which was burglarized a few days ago to see if the detectives have followed up. It's an ongoing "to do" list of checking, watching and taking action when necessary. But Darryl Thomas couldn't imagine doing anything else, and certainly not a desk job. Remember when he said what happens on the job, you can't take it personal?
"I take that back...I got this area here and say this community, this neighborhood here, I'm having car break-ins, you know. Every night I'm getting two, three car break-ins. Then it does. It gets personal....I'm riding hard...and I'm gonna stop and I'm gonna talk to everybody. I don't like it, but I'm gonna find out...."
"You take pride in your work."
"There you go."
Thomas says he hates it when people complain the police don't do anything. He says they don't understand all the work that really does goes on. And while this is an admittedly light day on patrol, perhaps that's not a bad thing. It can all change in a moment.
-- Andrew Yeager, December 13, 2007