Life on the streets of a semi-urban Mayberry
One of the coolest jobs in my varied career was serving four years as Chief of the Multimedia Investigations Unit at the Suffolk DA’s Office in Boston. It was my experience producing content for Internet companies that got me the gig, which consisted mostly of creating awesome custom-programmed computer presentations for homicide trials, but the absolute coolest part of the job was aiding prosecutors and police in criminal investigations. Photographing crime scenes, hobnobbing with homicide investigators–as corny as it sounds, I felt more than ever in my life like I was making a difference in the world.
I miss being a small spoke in the wheels of justice. Hopefully I will land a similar job in the Atlanta area someday, as freelance writing is becoming less lucrative by the month. During my job searching, I chanced upon a post in the local blog about our little town’s Citizens’ Police Academy, an eight-week course aimed at creating a more informed populace. It may not be the same as helping put away a murderer, I thought, but it sure would be good to get a little of that mojo back.
Mayberry meets Berkley
A little background: Our little City of Decatur is an odd little place, in all the right ways:
- It borders Atlanta on the South and West, so it has the spillover urban vibe
- It has very high taxes that are well-spent on schools and city service, so it has lots of middle & upper middle class families
- It has a thriving culture in the form of restaurants & festivals, so it’s a destination for surrounding cities.
If you’re familiar with my previous hometown of Boston, the City of Decatur is like a smaller, slightly more affordable, more diverse, much friendlier version of the Boston suburb Brookline. If you decide to pay us a visit, remember that it’s the City of Decatur, and not just Decatur, which comprises a large portion of unincorporated DeKalb County. There are folk in either territory who might consider such a slight to be cause to draw arms.
Don’t let the hipster charm and lack of inscrutable accents fool you: arms are drawn here on occasion–not because we are situated inside the borders of The Land of the Gun, but because where there are humans, there is crime and where there is crime, there are firearms. Contrary to what I had been taught before moving below the Mason Dixon line, guns are not given out as first grade graduation presents in the South, and people don’t use sawed-off shotguns to clear moths of the porch. Atlanta–Decatur even more so–enforces gun laws. In my three years living in Decatur (City of), I have yet to see a citizen carrying a firearm–at least not visibly.
One of–if not the–most important contributors to the city’s success is its police force. Despite my liberal upbringing and membership in the Quaker faith, and despite having spent much of my childhood and adolescence in Middletown, NJ (then notorious for its corrupt police force), I have always respected and appreciated Law Enforcement. After five weeks in the Citizens’ Academy, my appreciation has grown considerably. Check it out:
- If you call 911 in the C.o.D., a real human being will answer the phone every time. No recordings. Ever.
- When they are needed officers will arrive at the scene within three minutes of your call.
- Definition of “needed” is much broader than in any urban or suburban locale I know of. When I called to report the theft of all the copper pipes from our crawlspace (it’s all PVC now, so please don’t break the lock on the trapdoor), I was asked if I wanted a patrol officer to race to my home.
- In my every interaction with police, including the one time I was on the wrong side of the law, I have been treated with the kind of warmth and politeness I would expect from a pastor trying to talk me into joining his congregation.
Up the Academy
So that was more than just a little bit of background. When you pay as much taxes as we do in this town, you become an evangelist or you start tearing your hair out.
If you read “Citizens’ Police Academy” back in paragraph 2, and the first image that pops into your head was an armed-and-incompetent Steve Gutenberg, put your fears to rest and get your mind out of the 80s gutter. We don’t get uniforms, cuffs, or licenses to kill. We get eight two-hour classes where a roomful of concerned citizens with nothing better to do on a weekday evening learn a bit about Law Enforcement in general, and its application in our city in particular. One goal, I’m sure, is to show residents that our unusually high taxes are put to good use keeping us safe.
One requirement for graduation is that we participate in at least one five-plus hour ridealong with a patrol officer. For my shift, I chose the night following the (smartly held during the day) Craft Beer Festival. Not being a drinker, I can’t speak to the level of shenanigans the the festival creates, but as a former lover of chunky, cloudy brews, I guessed that this would be a busy night for the average Decatur patrol officer. A few pints of Belgian-style pumpkin currant lambic will turn even the most complaisant connoisseur into Otis the Drunk.
One more digression before I finally get to the story of my ridealong:
I have received only one moving violation in my 25 years of being a licensed driver in the USA. It’s not that I’m what you’d call a timid driver (Who can be after 20 years driving the streets of Boston?), but I take my safety, the safety of my passengers, and the safety of humans in my sphere of physical influence seriously enough that I obey all traffic laws that relate to safety. That is to say, I pretty much obey them all; I even use my turning signal when I’m about to turn, fer crap’s sake.
That one citation I received, I received while riding my bicycle. I $%^# you not. Here’s how it went down: I rode up to a deserted intersection. The light was red. I stopped and looked every which way. There were no cars or pedestrians in sight, so I rode carefully through the light. I am not exaggerating my actions–I honestly did not just go right through the intersection.
Seemingly out of nowhere, a Harley appears with blue and red lights flashing. I have never figured out where this officer was hiding, but I suspect it may involve mirrors, The Force, or secrets forced out of David Copperfield using enhanced interrogation techniques. Having never run afoul of the Law, I did not recognize the gentleman in blue as Officer Joe.
Officer Joe (not his actual name) is somewhat notorious in the City of Decatur. Not only does he ticket cyclists for traffic violations, his vigilance and adherence to the letter of the law have drawn the ire of citizens from the Westchester neighborhood to the very ends of Oakhurst. What could I do? He had me dead to rights. I thought it was okay to cross the street after stopping and checking, but as he pointed out to me, that only works for pedestrians.
Though I pled nolo contendre to my charges in local court, I still held some bitter feelings toward Officer Joe, believing that he should have let me go with a warning, as it was obvious that I was at least attempting to ride safely, I didn’t have any kind of record, and I was cooperative and polite. I mean, I could have lied and told him no, I didn’t have any ID.
That was over a year ago. I’d put it all behind me. Lesson learned, I ride according to vehicle laws, and I appreciate that I live in a city that cares enough to enforce such infractions. It was all water under the bridge. …until I arrive at Police headquarters for my ridealong. In whose hands shall I be placing my life for the next five hours or so?
Sneak peek: In part two, we find out that Officer Joe is a way nicer guy than those who have suffered from his vigilance have come to believe. …and he has awesome taste in music.