Sunday, July 13, 2008

Spot was a police dog!

Well, just for one night, though. But it was a very illuminating experience.

One weekend evening recently, well okay, it was last Friday night, Spot rode along with a Minneapolis police officer for an evening shift that ended after bar closing in downtown Minneapolis at 2 AM. Boys and girls, it has been a long, long time since Spot was in downtown Minneapolis at bar closing. And boy, has it changed!

Years ago, if you walked in downtown Minneapolis late at night, you could hear your footfalls echo through the canyons between the buildings, but no longer. And the cops' job is immeasurably tougher than it used to be.

The officers for this shift in the downtown precinct are almost all young - men and women. They're fit - although several smoke - and they banter with a combination of locker room humor - the women included, complaints about the department, snide remarks about some of the people - the "perps" - they've run into, and a sort of gallows humor, the latter partly intended for the benefit of the "ride along," no doubt.

These men and women seem like a group of people whose memory recalls easily a time when they were the same age as most of the entertainment district patrons milling on the street or pouring out of the bars at closing time. Perhaps, in addition to their fitness, that's why they're there.

The officer that Spot is with is assigned a wide-ranging patrol that night, which includes the Cedar-Riverside area.

The first part of the shift passes, according to the officer that Spot is with, routinely. Traffic stops, license checks of cars on the computer terminal in the squad car, a driver with a suspended license winds up having the car he was driving towed while he winds up waiting for someone to come and give him a ride home. There was also the transport of one man to the jail who had been detained on a warrant by a couple of Hennepin County Sheriff's deputies who were riding bicycles. They man with the suspended license says "thank you" for a lift to a nearby service station to wait for his ride; the jail transport delivers a stream of abuse and invective toward the officer for most of the trip.

Five of the officers meet for a quick dinner about mid-shift. More banter, more gallows humor for the "ride along," and a pretty good discount from the menu price, too. Some things never change.

There is also a discussion of the Republican National Convention (partly prompted by the "ride along") and what each officer thinks he may be doing during the convention. The training is specialized.

The pace quickens after dinner and seems to accelerate until the end of the shift. We're hardly back in the car, cruising east on Washington Avenue, when there is a burst of radio chatter. The siren and the blue and white lightbar go on, and the officer makes a U turn with the car, tires squealing in protest. He guns the engine, which must be a big sucker, and we head west on Washington to back up a foot chase after an assault suspect. The intersections are especially scary, but all of the vehicles on the road do what they can to get out of the way.

The car speeds along for several blocks, and then it is over as quickly as it started. The suspect is apprehended before we got there. But it sets the stage for the rest of the shift. Calls over the radio come a little more quickly now, and they are for more violent things: fights in front of bars and assaults.

We answer a call for an assault on 2nd Avenue North. The victim says that he was approached by a couple of young men who demanded his backpack. When he wouldn't give it up, a scuffle ensued. The victim keeps his backpack but loses his glasses, so he can't drive home.

The description of one of the suspects is a young black man, of slight build and medium height, wearing an oversized white T-shirt and baggy shorts or pants. This describes, of course, hundreds of the people on the street that night. The other suspect was dressed a little more distinctly. The officer takes the victim's cell phone number, and promises to call if the suspects can be located right away in the vicinity. Since the victim can't identify the victims any better - without his glasses, apparently - he doesn't see any purpose in making a report; he's right.

We slowly cruise around the area for a while, looking for a couple of guys together, one with a white shirt and one with a yellow shirt. No luck.

About thirty minutes from bar closing, we park the squad car in an alley near the precinct station and walk to the pre-assigned spot on Hennepin Avenue and join a little knot of cops already there. Tension is in the air; the officers are very alert. There are police in squad cars, police on bikes, police on foot, and over on 1st Avenue North there are police mounted on horses. Sheriff's deputies are around, too. All in all, a lot of law enforcement.

The "ride along" is introduced around, both to be sociable, and also to make sure the other officers understand that it's a friendly hanging around them.

At about 1:45, there are a lot of people on the sidewalk, and the din of cell phone chatter, spiked heels, and conversation, both friendly and argumentative, is considerable. One of the officers assures the "ride along" that it will get a lot more crowded and noisy when the bars actually empty out.

The officers are standing on a sidewalk next to a street-level parking lot between two bars. A trickle of what looks like urine comes out from under one of the cars nearest the sidewalk. Everyone looks up, but the source is already gone.

Then, the officer the "ride along" came with suddenly separates himself from the little group, running to the curb and yelling, "Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!" He runs up to a young woman, really wobbly on impossibly high heels, who is just about to step off the curb. He put his hands on her shoulders to steady her; her speech is very slurred. She tells him she wants to get a cab and go home. The officer raises his hand and beckons to a passing cab; it stops and the officer assists the woman in getting into the cab.

People in all stages of inebriation are pouring out of the bars now. A fight between two women breaks out; they are pushing and swinging at each other. As if it was choreographed, one cop steps between them, and one cop comes up behind and restrains each of the, well, assailants. Both women are obviously drunk.

One of the women, restrained by a female police officer, doesn't like being restrained; she shoves at and swings at the officer. This is a mistake. The officer pushes back and backs the woman up about ten feet. When she regains her balance, she looks at the officer with some surprise, and summoning all the dignity she can muster, says to the police officer, "Don't you touch me!"

The officer replies, "You just get outta here now!" The drunken woman considers her options for a moment, and then turns and wobbles away. No arrest for assaulting a police officer, which the woman clearly did. Why not? A couple of reasons, probably, one of them being that it would have meant one or two fewer cops on the street for a while to process an arrestee.

Some one calls out, "Officers, a fight over there!" Sure enough, another fight had broken out and attracts a crowd. The police wade into the scrum of inebriated onlookers and break this one up, too. Again, no arrests.

After a while the sidewalk begins to empty, except for a couple of knots of loud young men. The same female officer says, "Come on fellas, we have to clear them out before we can go home." Now, there are several officers around, but they are still substantially outnumbered. One crowd doesn't want to leave; just a few of the cops approach them and spray, not so much the crowd as the area, with Mace, and it has the intended effect.

This is where the "ride along" takes his leave, around 2:30, with the cops still urging, cajoling, and ordering groups of people to disperse.

Spot witnessed what he thought was a high level of professionalism and competence - and restraint - on the part of the cops. He also believes the officers had empathy for the crowd. Some of the people out and about were known to the police, a few of them perhaps known regrettably well. People asked the officers for directions and seemed not to have any reticence about approaching them.

Because of their location and experience handling crowds, it occurs to Spot that the group of officers that Spot observed will probably have a role in handling the crowds and any disorder that may result during the Republican National Convention.

More about that later.

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