We stopped our first car at 9:11 pm on this dark, rainy Friday in Pemberville.
I was on a Citizens Ride-Along with Sgt. Jim Darling.
The car was a Dodge Intrepid. The stop was for no license plate light.
A minor violation. But, most stops are less about the traffic offense as they are about more serious crime. The stop could net a drug trafficker or fugitive. In this case, Sgt. Darling calls to check for warrants and “chats the young man up.”
He explains, “I stop ‘em. Let ‘em know the infraction. Talk to ‘em. After a while you get a feeling whether you’ve stopped Joe Citizen or Joe The-Other-Guy trying to hide something.”
This driver is clean. He gets a pass tonight.
In the three hours I rode with Sgt. Darling, he stopped four cars. Of the others, two were for a dead headlight and one was for going 39 in a 25. This was the lone speeder. Every other vehicle clocked in under 29. Even the Genoa fans returning after the Comets pummeled Ottawa Glandorf in the State Regional Finals were restrained in their exuberance. Good thing too, this 2008 Crown Vic has a V-8 and 250 horsepower. Vroom. Vroom.
That drivers creep through Pemberville should not surprise you. The village encompasses 1.1 square-miles and on a typical night Sgt. Darling drives 40 to 70 miles within these borders. If you’re going to commit a crime, be quick or be caught. Sgt. Darling can get anywhere in the village in less than 30 seconds.
Not that there’s any reason. Here’s what passes for high crimes in this village of 1,365 residents—19 DUI arrests and 10 drug related arrests. Those are 2007 numbers, according to Police Chief Richard Bingham.
So, the question becomes: does this high-visibility police presence deter crime or is the department an unwarranted expense
Chief Bingham started the Ride-Along program to better inform citizens how his department protects the village. He said, “I think if people see what we do and get a better understanding that we don’t just write tickets hopefully we’ll get the levy passed.”
Voters recently turned down that levy 59 to 41 percent. The 2.7 mill levy is needed, village officials contend, because Modine Manufacturing is expected to shut its doors. The decreased tax revenue may force the village to disband the police department and contract services from the Wood County Sheriff.
Chief Bingham has four Ride-Alongs scheduled. My three-hour shift may have been quiet but that’s part of the challenge for both Chief Bingham and Sgt. Darling, the only two full-time officers in the village--lots of quiet and a few frenetic dangerous moments dealing with drunk drivers and domestic violence. In four and half years, Sgt. Darling has drawn his Glock 22 40-caliber handgun only a few times. The tensest moments came when he arrested a drunk driver who almost hit his cruiser head on, resulting in a short chase and an arrest. In another incident, Sgt. Darling was involved in a search for a known sex-offender who ran into a wooded area.
Sgt. Darling prepares for these moments by running five days a week and working out three days week at Owens Community College, where he earned his two-year degree in law enforcement. Being in good shape also pays dividends during patrol. It’s physically and mentally difficult to sit on high alert for eight hours. Sgt. Darling must listen to the crackle of the police radio making sure he doesn’t miss responding to his code or a call for back-up from the sheriff or a neighboring village. He must drive safely while scanning yards and side streets and paying attention to his radar unit. And, then there’s the stress of knowing all his actions outside the car are captured on video and audio tape.
On any given night, Sgt. Darling may check homes for residents who are out of town, assist in neighborhood disputes and unlock vehicles. On a typical night, he stops one to five cars for traffic violations.
His pet peeve?
People who text on their cell phone while driving. “It’s difficult to stop someone texting. It could take a couple of miles. They don’t even see the lights flashing behind them,” he said.
The Ride-Along is just the first in a number of initiatives to encourage citizens to learn more about police work. Chief Bingham will launch a Citizens Police Academy this spring. The nine week course will cover investigative techniques, homeland security issues and other aspects of police work. The two-hour sessions will be held once a week.