A CC student takes a ride with a Colorado Springs police officer
words by Kathleen Hallgren, editor; illustration by Sarah Wool, editor
An odd hybrid sound of a high-speed train and the twang of a guitar string, the dispatch bell rang out just as Colorado Springs Police Officer Benjamin Poole* finished his sentence. Though I couldn’t see the electronic message that was running across the screen of the mounted C5-30 Toughbook laptop, Poole was becoming more animated by the second. His excitement was contagious, and I found myself in my bulletproof vest subtly leaning toward the center console, hoping Poole would fill me in.
“Well, it looks like you’re going to get to see some action today after all! The McCormick* family is basically a big thug family, and they have been for years. I mean, we’ve had issues with the entire family; the majority of them have been in prison multiple times. Jimmy McCormick* is on parole now, just got released not too long ago; he’s one of the head guys in their little organization. It’s really been just a matter of time for him to mess up, and here’s our opportunity! Jimmy is a really main guy, I don’t want to say kingpin, but basically a kingpin within the Crips.”
I was able to steal just a peep at the Toughbook screen correspondence between Poole and another officer as we rolled onto a shady street. “Do you have a citizen? Will that be a problem?”
“Yuppers, and no way.” Sensing my curiosity, Poole kindly filled me in, translating the police jargon that had been spilling out of his radio. “‘Ocean units’ are our community impact team, they deal with guns and drugs and stuff; we’re headed down to help them out right now. Jimmy’s probably going to run, so we’ve got to stake out near where they’re hoping to intercept him.” As the car tore out onto a side street and Poole started furiously punching away at the keys of his Toughbook, I got the feeling I was about to see something big.
It’s a sunny Friday afternoon, and I’m participating in the Colorado Springs Police Department’s Ride Along program, an opportunity available to any Colorado Springs non-felon over the age of eighteen.
After sitting in the drab gray waiting room of the Sand Creek Area Command Center for about forty-five minutes—which wasn’t as bad as it sounds, since the hanging television was playing a muted re-run of the 1960’s series I Dream of Jeannie—Officer Poole emerged from the line-up room, where he and the other on-duty officers had just finished their briefing session, and came to retrieve me. Following a curt tour of the building and holding cells, I was taken to the equipment room, handed a radio and a bulletproof vest, and directed toward the women’s locker room. This vest, which was clearly not built with a woman in mind, nearly cost me my shirt; it was so bulky that it left two buttons mangled and hanging on by a thread for dear life. When I re-emerged I felt like Clark Kent turned Superman, surfacing from his phone booth, ready for action.
Poole is everything one would expect of a police officer. He’s about six feet tall and powerfully built, with a shaved head that resembles (in both shape and pigment) a gleaming white grade-A egg. He has a neat, bright orange mustache that perfectly matches the tint of his rimless sweep-frame sunglasses, and a tight silver band on his right wrist commemorating two Colorado Springs police officers who were killed in the line of duty in 2006. As soon as we got into his car ,he switched the radio on to KILO 94.3, Colorado Springs’ rock station, and bands like Five Finger Death Punch (“I was born a shotgun in my hands/behind the gun I’ll make my final stand/ and that’s why they call me bad company”) and Guns N Roses provided the soundtrack for our four-and-a-half hours together in the classic patrol car. (Poole claimed he wasn’t lusting after one of the new Dodge Chargers the department has begun to introduce—he dislikes the small rear windows—but methinks the fellow doth protest too much).
After I wedged myself between the silver Toughbook and a passenger door brimming with informational pamphlets advising me how to avoid identity theft, Poole announced that we couldn’t possibly begin our shift without ducking through the car wash first (the police station actually has one on their property, right next to their own mechanic). Amid the sudsy sounds of hoses and whirring brushes, Poole explained to me the basics of a patrol car. The most important feature is the Toughbook, which has internet connection for accessing Google Maps and the police database. The database is a system for the patrol cars to communicate with one another through typing, and includes a list of all active calls that differentiates those being worked from those that still need attention, indicates priority level, and provides a list of all active units (“T” for “Tom,” the motorcycle units; “K” for “K9,” the canine units; “A” for “Adam,” the single officer patrol cars like Poole’s, etc.).
Once the car had received sufficient attention from the air blowers, we hit the road. “Three-twenty-five, I’m clear—actually, we’re gonna need to turn back,” says Officer Poole as he steps back into the car. “A guy kicked that window out a couple weeks ago and I don’t want that bit of rubber falling off.” And with that, we were pulling an abrupt u-turn back to the station. Luckily, some attention from a few dabs of glue was all the offending strip needed to set it straight, and we were back on the road again.
This time we made it about three hundred feet before Poole declared that, actually, we couldn’t possibly begin our shift without coffee. Yet another tease. So we whipped off to the nearest Starbucks, where all of the baristas knew Poole by name and started preparing his order before he’d even said it out loud—one venti iced coffee, extra creamy. Like the classic spy watch that can do anything except tell time, the patrol car was alarmingly lacking in simple amenities such as cup holders. Not to fear though—Poole, who has been in the police force for almost thirteen years, was clearly a skilled veteran at balancing a full cup of coffee between his knees.
When a minute went by without dispatch chiming in over the radio I began to ask Poole some questions, half with the intention of uncovering some gems of knowledge that could only come from years of experience in the field, and half to clear the silence that began to fill the car. Poole proved to be a remarkably quick and intelligent man, well spoken, and thoroughly knowledgeable about crime in Colorado Springs.
Are there going to be any changes, given the recent elections, which will directly affect the police department?
Not really, but I’m glad that the three tax cuts didn’t pass. That would have been crippling for the department.
Have there been any changes in drug crime since all of the medical marijuana dispensaries opened up?
We’ve had a lot more burglaries; thieves have been targeting the marijuana that people are growing either in their houses or their businesses. Dispensaries are constantly opening up around here. Some of them look like they’re going more for the medical use side, but then some of them, with the black lights, its like they’re just catering to the marijuana crowd.”
How do you, as a police officer, feel about the rapid development of these dispensaries?
There is just a huge lack of legislation. I mean, there are no FDA standards about the marijuana that’s being distributed, and this is just my opinion, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the majority of these shops are doing their legitimate sales but then some undercover sales too. As police officers, all we can do is just go with what we’ve got, you know, if somebody’s got a license and the proper paperwork that’s good enough for us, but there’s so much legislation that still needs to be done to tighten it up. Personally, I think they ought to just legalize it and legislate it like they do with alcohol, and then be done with it. I’m guessing that’s probably where it’s going to end up. Other than the burglaries and robberies, I can’t really think of any violent crimes that I can directly link to marijuana itself. Medical marijuana falls under DUI guidelines. If you go and smoke your marijuana and then half an hour later you get in a crash it’s no different than having some beer and then half an hour later getting into a crash.
Does Colorado Springs seem to have one drug that’s more of a problem than the others?
Meth. That’s the big problem. And it seems like heroin is kind of back on the rebound, we’ve been seeing more of that.”
Are certain sections of the Springs known for certain types of crime?
Crime can be all the way down to neighborhood specific, especially in terms of violent crimes.”
What is the gang situation in Colorado Springs?
I wouldn’t say the gang problem is huge, but we definitely have our share, and again the majority of that is concentrated in certain areas. It seems like Colorado is kind of a melting pot for gangs—historically the Crips and the Bloods would not even cross paths or intermingle at all. Here, they’ll live in the same apartment complex and won’t really have any issues because most of these gangs are more hybrids. We’ll have our drive-by shootings and gang fights, but for the number of active members that we have, it’s really not that violent.
Before we could get any further into this discussion, the notification about Jimmy McCormick filtered into the car over the radio. Poole was as quick to react to the call as he was to respond to my questions, hurtling the patrol car in the direction of justice. We rounded the corner of a strip mall and another patrol car materialized out of an empty lot, signaling us toward a deserted church parking lot across the street. After performing some fast and tricky driving maneuvers, which I’m sure resembled some sort of courtship dance from an aerial view, Poole and Officer Matthews* pulled up parallel to one another, driver side to driver side.
“Well, now we wait,” Poole piped cheerfully. The next five minutes were a bit awkward for me, as I could barely hear what the two were talking about, and they kept concurrently glancing at me, as if waiting for me to reply, to which I responded with a smile and nod. Eventually Matthews inquired to Poole, “Hey, what’s your citizen’s name?” Poole didn’t answer, but looked intently at me. Realizing that my smile and nod tactic wasn’t cutting it anymore (and recognizing that I was getting the look that’s often passed around on the first day of a new block) I told him my name, year, major, and hometown. The subject of Colorado College provided a much needed icebreaker, and I was regaled with stories of friends whose kids had gone to CC for a semester or two before realizing it was far more liberal than they could bear and transferred to state schools in Nebraska and Oklahoma.
After exhausting this topic of conversation, Matthews whipped out his brand new mobile phone to show it off. “Send me a text,” he said eagerly to Poole. “You’re going to love this.” Poole obliged, and as the text came in Matthews’ phone erupted with the sound of a machine gun firing multiple shots. “Yeah man, it’s great until it goes off at three o’clock in the morning. Then it freaks me out! Must be the PTSD kicking in.” Laughter all around.
As the topic of conversation switched to a discussion of each officer’s favorite taxidermest, a voice cut in over the radio. “Three-twenty-five I need your back up, he’s pulling a rabbit.” Now, I didn’t know exactly what it meant to “pull a rabbit,” but I could tell by how quickly we were zipping out of the lot that it was something exciting! More voices on the radio: “Three-twenty-five, we’re at the Kwik Way on Maple Street*.” We sped into the Kwik Way lot so fast I barely had time to comprehend what had happened, and as soon as the cars were thrown into park, both Poole and Matthews hurled open their doors and strode quickly toward the other officers. In total, five CSPD officers surrounded the Kwik Way, but Jimmy was led out without any problems, and escorted to the back seat of one of the unmarked police cars, a black Crown Vic that eerily resembled Jimmy’s own car parked within five feet of the police car.
Poole had parked directly in front of two men in a pickup truck full of home appliances and a couch. They were being addressed tersely by one of the other officers. Earlier, before venturing out of the police parking lot, Poole had told me that I should feel free to get out of the car and join in at any point, unless I was specifically instructed otherwise. Regardless of that permission, and despite the unavoidable and uncomfortable eye contact with the two men in the pickup truck, I decided it was best for me to stay in the car.
Eventually the officer asked the two men for their licenses, which were handed to Poole to run through the database. Poole jumped back into his car to use the Toughbook and gave me the low down. “Well, Jimmy didn’t run! See him cuffed there in the back of that Crown Vic? That’s his car right next to it, the tinted one filled with lamps and stuff These guys were helping him move out and are claiming they had no idea he was involved with the Crips or any criminal activity.” When their records showed up clean, Poole courteously returned the licenses to the men, apologized for the inconvenience, and sent them on their way. What a guy.
“You can get out of the car, you know, we’re probably going to be here for a while.” So my vest and I labored out of the vehicle as Poole went to talk to one of the plainclothes cops, who was wearing a t-shirt that said “four score and seven beers ago” and was decorated with little beer caps. This left me with the buoyant Officer Matthews, who explained to me what was going on. “Jimmy’s girlfriend, the woman we were just talking to, was in the hospital this morning and filed a domestic violence report. In Colorado, if the police intervene in a domestic dispute, we generally keep one of the people in holding for twenty-four hours for a cool-down time for the couple and for us to sort stuff out.” (Domestic disputes constitute a large portion of the calls that the police receive, and have only increased with the recent economic crisis). I asked him if that meant that the next twenty-four hours would then be spent looking for something more on Jimmy, to which he replied, “Basically. This is a big case that the Feds have a hand in, too. The K9 unit is on its way now.”
Within minutes the K9 unit arrived, and all of the officers stood back with their fingers crossed, hoping the dog would find something that would legitimate a warrant to search and seize Jimmy’s car, which they all suspected was packed with drugs. The dog’s nose dutifully obeyed the line of motion of his handler’s hand, sweeping under the trunk, along the side panels, and squeaking into an open window. Just as it began to seem that all was lost, the tow truck that had been called to take Jimmy’s car to be impounded pulled up, and with it the most stereotypical tow truck driver one could imagine. He wore a dusty white patch on his oily coveralls that dubbed him “Ray.”
Ray sidled up to Matthews and me and pointed at the dog. “That dog, man, I love those things! But every time I try to pet one it goes and tries to bite my hand off! I mean, maybe I’m just bad,” he said, following his hypothesis up with a rusty laugh that sounded like a tired car trying to start. All of a sudden the dog started barking. He had picked up on a smell under the hood of the car. “This is great news,” Matthews said. “That should give us everything we need.”
After watching Ray chain the Crown Vic and tow it up onto his truck bed (completely taped so that it could be used as evidence), Poole and I got back into the car and were on our way. The whole ordeal ended as suddenly as it started.
As soon as we were back in the patrol car, dispatch chimed in with a call that still needed attention. “This is pretty low profile, but might be interesting for you,” Poole said, as he pulled a tight u-turn and started driving toward the address displayed on Google Maps. Someone had called in earlier that morning to report that a pellet gun had blown out their window—now they knew who the culprit was and they wanted speedy justice.
We pulled up in front of the house, and Poole told me that I could go with him to check things out. The house was in a neighborhood where the houses were almost within arm’s reach of one another. While waiting on the front step, I peered around behind me, and to my surprise found my gaze met by maybe a dozen other pairs of eyes. Not faces, just eyes, peeping out under curtains and through front doors. I pointed this out to Poole, who laughed and replied, “you would be amazed how nosy people really are.”
After a few minutes went by and no one came to the door, we piled back into the car. Leaving the neighborhood, we passed multiple groups of people walking on the sidewalks, and all of them waved to us as we drove by. I asked Poole if people were always waving at him like that. “Oh, sure people wave, usually their middle finger.” Chuckle chuckle. The now-familiar chime struck again, and dispatch sent us out to deal with a shoplifter at a local Safeway. In the fifteen-minute drive to the store, Poole gave me the abbreviated version of his life story.
“I wanted to be a policeman for as long as I can remember. I started out as an Explorer with the Woodland Park Police Department when I was like fifteen. Basically instead of doing the boy scout thing. They used us for all kinda stuff; going through training, ride alongs, doing traffic control . . . I had enough credits when I was a senior in high school that I could start taking criminal justice classes in the morning. I basically worked from the time I was fifteen on to get to where I am now.
“I like working in Colorado Springs; it has a few unique issues related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with the large military population. A lot of these guys come back with traumatic brain injuries, or the medicine they’ve been prescribed to treat PTSD affects their mental abilities. With each wave of soldiers that come back, we’re learning more and more about what resources we can offer to help them.”
We pulled up in front of Safeway and walked inside to meet the security guard, who led us to the employee break room. The shoplifter was a young woman with a baby that could not have been more than six months old. She had been caught with $136 worth of baby items and a DVD in her purse. Poole was kind and even-tempered, telling her not to worry because everyone makes mistakes, and reassuring her that as long as she showed up to her court date she would get off with a minimal fine. After thanking him and pocketing her ticket, the woman and her daughter left the break room. As she walked past me, she pointed her finger at me and said, “Don’t you ever shoplift!”
Back in the patrol car once again, Poole enlightened me with his philosophy of human nature. “In this line of work, it’s easy to get a jaded outlook because you’re constantly exposed to the bad stuff about humans. It’s too easy to start to be suspicious of everyone, so you have to always remember to keep yourself in check. There’s more good than bad, you know? One great thing about being in the police force is that if we’re dealing with a misdemeanor we have officer discretion. I always take this into consideration; is it a crime? Yes. But how will it be best solved? It’s something you pick up on more with experience, that’s the fun thing about the job; every situation is different, similar yes, but new people means always something new.”
Poole really was a decent guy. A beer-drinking, hard rock-loving, clever, jovial and unassuming ol’ teddy bear, who’s known for giving a ten mile-per-hour leeway to speeding drivers and addressing offenders with the utmost courtesy until they give him a reason not to. Never without a sense of humor, Poole delighted in telling me about his favorite call—responding to a group of men who had driven a massive tractor into a swimming pool in the middle of the night and left the headlights on, which was disturbing the neighbors. He taught me a lot, too: give people the benefit of the doubt, and don’t buy into the stereotype that police officers love doughnuts, which came to pass only because officers work ten hour shifts, and in the 1950s coffee and doughnut shops were the only food services open late at night and early in the morning (not to say that he doesn’t love a good doughnut, mind you).
A public servant through and through, he asked me to be sure to publish this pearl of wisdom: “Most crime is financially motivated in one way or another, or only occurs because an opportunity is available. Be smart and lock your doors.” When I pressed him for some last words he left me with these: “We’re just people with a job to do like everybody else; The only difference is our job puts us into an authority position that can put us into bad situations with people. I’m not out to be the bad guy, to get into a fight and kick somebody’s ass, even though that’s how people see it. Really I’m just out to help.”
Hats off to you, Officer Poole. This city could use for a few more cops like you. And frankly, we could do to better appreciating cops like you.
*Names have been changed.