Braving insults, lying underage drinkers and reckless drivers are standard issue for Missoula Police Officer Ethan Smith, who worked both Friday and Saturday during this past weekend's Homecoming celebration. As a “call for service officer,” Smith spent 20 hours in his patrol car over the two nights. I was with him for most of those. “It’s gonna be really busy, a fun weekend to be a cop,” Smith said before it started.
Below, some highlights and some lowlights of Homecoming from a cop's perspective:
Saturday 7:15 p.m. Welfare Check
Pulling a quick U-turn, Officer Smith is headed to the Kim Williams Trail. “If you wanna go to where the action is, you gotta go to where the people are,” he'd said during the previous night's patrol. And that’s exactly where we were heading.
Groups of people littered the streets and trails as they left the Homecoming tailgates, and many of the revelers decided to bring along an open beer as a souvenir. It didn’t take long to see they were well aware of open-container laws. As Smith’s car rounded the corner, hands started to disappear behind backs or were lowered to an awkward level. All attempts to hide beverages failed. But that would have to wait.
Driving down the Kim Williams, Smith sighted a couple looking like the "welfare check" that called him down here. As he talked to them, I couldn’t help but notice more “disappearing” hands, as if a seasoned officer wouldn’t notice. Returning a few moments later he told me both of the pedestrians in question were fine and that he wasn't going to bust anyone for open-container. They're being responsible citizens, he said. Walking instead of driving.
As we headed back to exit the trail, a woman no more than 20 feet in front of the patrol car lowered her beer and dropped it behind some tall grass. With a sort of amused smile, Smith pulled up to the lady. “Ma’am would you mind picking up your trash so I don’t need to write you a littering ticket?” Thankful and more than happy to do so, the lady picked up her can while offering to pick up other surrounding trash. “You just need to pick up your trash,” Smith said in an appreciative tone, as we pulled on to the road. “I’m happy when people don’t drink and drive. Contrary to popular belief, we don’t want to ruin people's lives with a DUI.”
Friday 9:30 p.m. An un-sly litterer
Slowly driving down Main Street, a young man walked just a few feet in front of the patrol car, placing an empty beer can on the back of a moving vehicle. Smith immediately pulled to the side, parked the car and hopped out. The man, who realized he'd been caught, quickly turned away and tried mixing into the crowd. It took about three seconds for Smith to escort the man to the back of the patrol vehicle, where he was cited for littering. Back in the car, Smith let me know police officers appreciate it when those they question are polite, respectful and admit their mistakes. In the back of the car, the guy did just that, resulting in less-serious citations.
Friday 12:20 a.m. Party/Noise complaint
Responding to a loud party, we show up at a dark house with shades drawn. It seemed pretty obvious police presence tipped off those inside to try and make the house look empty. Within minutes, some of the tenants answered the door to talk to police. During the discussion, a neighbor sitting on the porch shouted out at officers, “Waste of tax payers dollars!” and quickly went back into his house. Later on, I asked Smith about his reaction to those kinds of comments. “I’m pretty lenient on drunk idiots yelling at me. It's one thing if you wanna yell at me for being a cop, but using racial slurs is not OK.” Smith is referring to insults some of Missoula’s African-American officers hear while patrolling the streets. All cops have to be held to higher standard than your average individual. “Our officers conduct themselves professionally. We handle a lot of stuff other people wouldn’t want to handle.”
Saturday 7:30 p.m. Drunk Driver
While patrolling near the Good Food Store, Smith watched a car drive through four lanes of traffic. He then pulled behind the vehicle to see if the driver showed other signs of driving under the influence. It didn’t take long. He steered into the opposing lane, heading into oncoming traffic. Within seconds, the lights went on. After checking in with the driver, it was apparent this stop would not be quick. Although he admits it’s great to pull a dangerous driver off the road, Smith would now spend significant time processing him, getting his blood drawn and transporting him to the detention center. While there, Smith told me to take note of how the guy would answer logistical questions.
“How many drinks have you had tonight?” asked a detention officer.
A lady at the front desk informed me that’s more than people typically admit. The answer is usually two.
The detention officer then asked, “How often do you drink in one week sir?”
Stuttering, he answered, “Three times, uh, actually once.”
This was three hours in on this one case. During a busy weekend like this one, every officer is needed. Having one taken off the streets for that amount of time can really put a lot of stress on the rest of his team. As quickly as possible, Smith filled out the remaining paper work and we hit the road again.
Sunday 12:15 a.m. Investigating damage at the Fox Club
Driving up to the club, the damage was clear. A drunk driver managed to drive up a short flight of cement stairs and slam into a steel railing surrounding the entrance. The railing was almost split in half and part of it was ripped out of the cement. The driver then proceeded to leave, hoping no one would notice. Unfortunately for him, there was a witness, a surveillance tape and his front license plate lying on the ground.
It didn’t take long for officers to locate the vehicle, abandoned at the Southgate Mall. After looking at the surveillance tapes and documenting the damage, Smith approached the car. The dropped license plate matched. Looking inside, Smith decided it was clear it wouldn't be abandoned for long, judging by the large number of belongings inside. That meant another officer would have to pull into a dark spot and wait while we took off to a party complaint.
Within minutes of us leaving, the call came over the radio and we whipped around, speeding back to the mall. The driver had returned almost immediately, entered the vehicle and started it. When we arrived, the guy was already out of the car and sitting against the front tire, answering questions and subsequently failing the sobriety test. He said he had just gotten back from eating breakfast at Red Robin, claiming it was one of the best breakfasts he'd ever had. He was then placed in the back of an officer’s car and driven off. By this time it was almost 2:30 a.m, and the shift was ending.
—Reported, written and photographed by Russell Greenfield
This post is part of a partnership between the Missoula Independent and the Fall 2011 Online News class at the University of Montana School of Journalism. Students will be filing several reports about Homecoming 2011.