Friday nights with the Hinesville Police Department are like a scaled-down version of the television show, “Cops.” There are lots of traffic stops, people found to be under the influence of mind-altering substances and drug busts. Basically, for a reporter, it means a night full of stories.
Coastal Courier correspondent Lewis Levine and I tagged along with Hinesville Police Department Cpl. Robert Smith, 36, for an evening out on the town … in a cop car. After I agreed that I wouldn’t try to sue anyone if I got harmed during the ride along, I sat in on a briefing and grew hopeful that we’d see an evening full of action. And action I did get.
5:38 p.m.: The ride starts
I’ve never been in the front of a cop car, but I have been in the back of a police car. I tell Levine and Smith a story about the one and only time I found myself in a cruiser: My best friend and I ran out of gas and we flagged down a police officer, who then dropped us off at a gas station. And he left us there. No ride back. Smith chuckles and tells me we are actually heading to the police gas station. I tell him I did not realize police had their own gas station.
I pepper our host with questions and ask him if he ever gets chances to stop and eat or go to the bathroom. Smith says some nights are slow and he can; other nights fly by too fast to stop for anything. Once we are parked behind the Public Works building off of Highway 196, I decide to ask him the question that has been bugging me ever since I signed my consent form. Before he steps out of the car to pump gas, I ask if the police car windows are bulletproof. Smith looks at me grimly and says, “Do you want me to lie to you?” I say no. He answers with a “no” of his own. I say a little prayer and hope bullets don’t fly tonight.
5:53 p.m.: Just checking
We are getting ready to turn into Timber Ridge subdivision when I see Smith crane his neck. “Do you see something?” I ask, craning my own neck only to see a white Chevrolet HHR parked on the side of the road just a few hundred yards from the gates of Fort Stewart.
“Yeah. I wanna see why that guy is pulled to the side of the road,” he says.
We pull up beside the vehicle and Smith unrolls his window and gives the driver a thumbs up. The driver unrolls his window and Smith asks if everything is OK. “Yep, just making a phone call,” he replies. We drive away. I was hoping for something a little more exciting.
As we sweep through the subdivision, Smith tells me he often drives around to ensure that everything looks normal in the area. He mainly patrols neighborhoods, makes traffic stops, answers dispatched calls and sometimes does a little more investigating when time permits. “Everywhere has its own problems,” Smith says when I ask him which part of the city is the worst. Hmm. Good to know, I think.
6:08 p.m.: Getting smoky
Smoke billows from behind a teal house in the subdivision. Smith unrolls his window. “Smells like barbecue,” he says, but insists we check it out. We pull up to find a 16-year-old male burning leaves in a pit in the backyard. Smith checks to see if he has a burn permit, but sees the teen is handling the burn responsibly. The boy’s mother pulled up in a red car and jokingly asks, “What did he do now?” Once Smith gets back in the car, I ask if the kid looked scared. He tells me no and says he just warned him to be careful while burning. “Usually if they know they didn’t do anything wrong, they aren’t scared,” the officer tells me.
6:15 p.m.: Officer chat
Taking advantage of a little downtime while patrolling the rest of the neighborhood, I ask Smith some more questions. He has a dog — a Rottweiler named Kailey — and three cats named Socks, Sly Pilgrim and Judy Holiday. He tells me he isn’t very computer literate and he even has a working typewriter that he uses. His brother also is a cop, but in Chatham County, and his mother, who he visits often, lives in Liberty County. By 6:29 p.m., we exit the subdivision and have finished our chit chat. It’s time for me to meet the big dog.
6:40-7:20 p.m.: What’s up, dog?
We meet up with the K-9 unit so I can see a working dog that has an “attitude problem” according to Smith. I don’t like big dogs very much, so the thought of a dog that weighs more than me with an attitude problem doesn’t exactly sound like a picnic. Patrolman Jerry Britting meets us near Olvey Field to chat about the work of the K-9 unit and show off Zorza, his trained dog from Czechoslovakia.
“They say we’re a perfect match; they call him psycho,” Britting brags. After talking to Britting for a few minutes outside the cruiser, with Zorza in sight, I head back toward the car to grab my notebook and pen. Zorza apparently thinks I’m trying to run off and starts to make a move, but Britting murmurs a quick command and the massive animal lies down. I’m relieved and, admittedly, tempted to sit in the car and watch from a distance. However, I rejoin the group and Britting tells me he is a proponent of the department using the dogs. In fact, “we need more dogs,” he says. After shooting the breeze for five minutes or so, Smith hears over the radio that we’re needed at the scene of a wreck.
7:25 p.m.: Paraphernalia found
I’m relieved to see there are no fire trucks or ambulances at the wreck scene, only a ton of police cars. We pull up, get out and I watch as the driver of a blue minivan stumbles out of his vehicle and drops his registration and paperwork everywhere. Even I can tell he is under the influence of something. The driver approaches any cop he thinks will listen. “Man, this is my roommate’s car!” he exclaims.
The K-9 unit arrives and out comes Zorza to sniff the vehicle. Britting finds wrappers, which he says commonly are used to roll marijuana, and cut straws, which are used to snort crushed-up prescription medications. I watch as Britting asks to pat down the driver and his passenger. The officer asks them whether they used narcotics before driving, but before we find out whether the minivan occupants will be arrested for driving under the influence, we have to get back on the road because too many cops are tied up at the scene.
7:52 p.m.: Caffeine non-habit
All is quiet for a few minutes after we leave. I notice Smith taking a long gulp from his insulated coffee cup and I ask him how many cups of coffee he goes through in a night. “This is Diet Pepsi,” he says, shaking the container. His doctor told him he couldn’t smoke and drink coffee. He needed to pick one or the other. “I need some vice in this world,” Smith tells me.
Levine asks about Smith’s most interesting call, which turns out to be a naked man running around Live Oak Church. I laugh, and Smith tells me that we would be surprised at the calls the department gets, including those for non-domestic animals. “We have some officers who would rather face the devil than snakes,” he says.
8 p.m.: Running radar
Smith sees a tag with a February registration sticker but can’t see the date. He calls in to dispatch and finds out in two minutes that the tag is fine. Then he runs radar on a few cars driving a little too fast in the other lane. I’m shocked to learn that radar indeed can be run while the police car is in motion.
8:31 p.m.: False alarm
A call about a disturbance at The Pines at Willowbrook sends Smith speeding down the road to make sure it isn’t a domestic dispute. He suspects it may be a television show, as apartment complex residents often call in because they hear arguments on TV. Once we arrive, he tells Levine and me to wait in the car but says that when a red light flashes in the cruiser, we may join him upstairs. Ten minutes later, he returns. “TV?” I ask once he’s in the car. “Neighbor heard a TV. They were watching ‘Fatal Attraction,’” he says. I can see why they thought it was a domestic dispute.
8:52-9:10 p.m.: Spring into action
After driving around for a bit, we get a “1080” over the radio. That means a foot pursuit/chase is in progress and it is at the National Guard Armory Center on Oglethorpe Highway. We race to the scene and are greeted by several MACE agents, who clearly are packing quite a few guns and wearing bullet proof vests and black face masks. I feel like I’ve stepped right onto a movie set. We chat with one of the leaders and he says it’s a cocaine bust that has been in the works for a month. The issue started on Fort Stewart and spilled out into Hinesville, something the MACE agents say they aren’t about to let happen.
Although I’m not given any details, law enforcement officers tell me that multiple subjects have been arrested. As I stand shivering, taking in the entire scene, I see Smith out of my peripheral vision. He’s got a police jacket held open for me to put on. “I better get this back,” he tells me. “I’ve already had one taken from me.” I nod and thank him for giving me his coat in the 40-degree weather. A few more questions and I’m ready to get back into the car. Levine looks at me and says, “Well, looks like we have had an exciting night.”
9:23 p.m.: In the slammer
We find out that the minivan driver from the earlier accident was arrested for driving under the influence of marijuana. The driver admitted to smoking pot. “He refused the chemical test,” Smith tells me. I think about what a good photo opportunity that could have been for Levine, who has been shooting photos for me all night. We drive around some more and patrol a few other areas. We run into an accident scene that looks like a pretty crunchy mess. It isn’t in Smith’s jurisdiction, so we move on and he explains to me that in some areas of Hinesville, the city and the county lines can blur quite a bit.
9:45-10 p.m.: Wrap it up
We patrol closer to the station as Smith’s shift ends at 10 p.m. I ask him how this compares to other nights. “(It’s) relatively slow tonight. I’ve got a feeling it is a mixture of the weather and there’s not a lot of clubs here in Hinesville,” Smith says. I think to myself that things might just get crazier on the “real” night shift when the troublemakers come out. But I don’t ask and Smith doesn’t say anything more before we head into the building with the other cops. After about five minutes of debriefing, the officers are ready to head home after turning in their paperwork. Levine and I tell Smith good night and thank him for letting us tag along.
And as I leave the station, I think of how grateful I am for the policemen and women who work hard to keep us safe. I also think how I wish I had the “Cops” theme song blaring on my radio about now.