Sergeant “Sword” (No real names will be used in this article in order to protect the identities of these law enforcement officers) steps out of his vehicle and approaches the truck he’s just pulled over.
It seems pretty standard. The vehicle has an expired license plate and Sword is only planning on giving him a friendly reminder to get it renewed. It’s one of several calls he will attend to that day as he checks on the officers under his command to make sure they are meeting the high standards set by the police department.
Regardless of the reason for this traffic stop, Sword says you never can let your guard down. “You don’t know what you’re going to get,” he explains. “Most people are compliant and traffic stops are uneventful, but sometimes they can get hostile and you just don’t know if it could be your last one.”
At first the driver explains he has left his license at home – a common excuse for those who don’t have one. Sword’s experience tells him that. Nevertheless, he gives the driver the benefit of the doubt and takes his information down in order to confirm his identity through the computer. As he enters the name into the computer attached to his dash, there is a problem. No information is coming back. Sword is going to have to call this one in to precinct headquarters.
Another officer arrives on the scene. She had driven by the traffic stop previously and had noticed this call was taking longer than usual. Her instincts tell her that her sergeant may need assistance. Finally, there’s a hit. The driver’s information begins to flash across the screen. Driver’s License: Revoked, warrant issued for arrest. The charge? Larceny.
What had begun as a simple traffic stop has now escalated. Now the sergeant knows he has to approach the man again and take him into custody. The driver has been compliant up to this point, but Sword knows the situation can go either way now. He calmly approaches the truck, his fellow officer close behind.
“Sir, can you step out of the vehicle,” he asks the driver.
“Why? What’s wrong,” the driver retorts as he complies. As soon as he’s out of the vehicle, Sword instructs the now-suspect to place his hands behind his back and informs him there is a warrant out for his arrest. As Sword places handcuffs on him, the man looks shocked. Thankfully, though, he is not resisting. The subordinate officer takes the man into custody and places him in the back seat of her squad car without incident.
As he is filling out the paperwork on the arrest, Sword is visibly relieved the situation was resolved peacefully and without incident. He knows how dangerous his job is. In fact, only a year ago, Sword was dealing with major anxiety and depression. He had previously been an officer working third shift. The long nights, stress and requirement that you suppress your feelings for the good of the job had all caught up with him. This, coupled with the rise in angst and even violence against the police on a nationwide scale last summer, were not helping things.
“I was in a bad place,” he says. “But, the thing is, I love my job!” Fortunately, a promotion and move to better hours, along with some counseling, brought Sword out of that place. Now, only five years away from retirement, he wonders what the next step will be. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
One of Sword’s fellow crime fighters is a man we will call Mr. “Keller.” Although he is an officer with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (CMPD), he is assigned to a federal task force on drug trafficking. Since he focuses on drug rings as opposed to individual offenders, his job can and does take him into other areas, including Cabarrus County – even other states.
Working undercover, Keller places himself in very dangerous situations on a regular basis. “When we set up drug buys or serve search warrants, situations can go south very fast,” he explains.
He says he has managed to avoid harm thus far, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been in serious
danger. “One time, a guy came at me with a steel pipe. He even began to beat on my windshield. Fortunately, I was able to distance myself and put the car in between him and myself, so I did not have to shoot him.”
Keller says he’s faced situations like that several times throughout his career – sometimes due to his own choices. “I did some dumb or unsafe things that I should have done differently. When you’re young, you think you’re invincible and you do things that aren’t safe.”
He knows better now. Still, just like with Sergeant Sword, the satisfaction of the job outweighs the possible danger. “I like the satisfaction of putting away some really bad and violent people. In federal court, people get sentenced more time on their convictions. I don’t get to see the normal population as part of my job. The people I deal with are criminals and criminal associates, so my satisfaction comes from seeing those people go to jail.”
Just the same, every job has its drawbacks and both Sword and Keller agree on what that is. “Paperwork,” they both say. For every arrest, traffic stop or call, it has to be filled out. While Sword considers it an inconvenience, Keller says his is much worse.
“When you work for a federal agency, the paperwork is 10 times worse than normal. CMPD paperwork is a piece of cake, but the federal side is much more complicated. Sometimes the paperwork takes more time than the field work,” he says.
In light of recent events making national headlines, some police departments have found it harder to do their jobs. In some communities, people have become less helpful, distrusting and even aggressive towards officers.
“Some people have a misconception that racism is a factor (in making arrests or stops),” Keller says. “The biggest is that police will shoot people on a whim. Statistics prove that’s not the case. Out of 425,000 traffic stops in Charlotte last year, there were zero shootings. The media has really blown that (misconception) out of proportion and it’s distorted reality.”
Sword, who was on the front lines last summer when riots broke out in downtown Charlotte, says now that tensions have diminished, things are better. Keller agrees. “Most people have a pretty good perception of law enforcement,” he says. “We’re here to help.”
As to what the public can do to help law enforcement, Keller says people should be aware and report any unusual activity right away. “Use your gut. If it’s telling you something’s not right, report it. The public plays a huge role in crime prevention.”
He would also like to remind people they can remain anonymous when reporting a crime or suspicious activity.
As to what you should do if you are being detained or arrested, Sword says the driver at the beginning of this article was a prime example of what people should do. “He was compliant. He did not resist and he gave us no reason to believe he would be aggressive in any way. That led to a peaceful arrest without incident.”
At the end of the day, law enforcement officers are just like the rest of us. They are husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters. They are contributing members of our community that, frankly, don’t deserve the dehumanization they have received as a whole because of the actions of a few. They care enough about our community to put their lives on the line every day. Officers like Sword and Keller deserve our respect, not our contempt.
Article by: Jason Huddle
Lead photo courtesy: Meri Anne "Sword"
K-9 Photo Courtesy: City of Concord Police