September 30, 2012

My Night in Police Custody

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As I watched the Ithaca Police Officer storm up the driveway, angry landlord at his side, I was overcome with a feeling that I knew how this would end up. The officer was met by one of the residents of the house, halfway down the driveway — a few feet from the wall I was perched on. The scene in front of the officer was one of the many homecoming parties dotting the Collegetown landscape.

The conversation between the two went something like this:

Student: “Hello officer, I live here. What can I help you with?”

Officer: “What’s going on here?”

Student: “We have some friends over, everyone is just having a good time.”

Officer: “Well the music isn’t too loud, and there aren’t too many people here … This is the sort of party that can get out of hand. Make sure that it doesn’t.”

Student: “Will do. Thank you, sir.”

The officer and disappointed landlord then turned around and went on their way, but not before the officer waved to a girl who yelled out that she loved him.

Some of my friends were flabbergasted; they had never seen an interaction between a cop and a student as respectful and productive as that.

This all happened a week after I spent a night with the Cornell University Police Department, conducting a police ride-along. I was curious what a Saturday night at Cornell looked from the perspective of a police officer.

Arriving at the station, my friend (who did a ride-along in another car) and I were given a friendly greeting, and a tour. The reactions of CUPD officers and staff to our presence ran the gamut from subtle enmity, to indifference, to considerable friendliness. However, the overwhelming majority of people we came across was excited about our presence, relishing the opportunity to present a human face behind the badge.

The Sergeant and Deputy Chief we spoke to showed us a map of the land that CUPD is responsible for, and it is a sizeable chunk of real estate. Many students fixate on the work CUPD does on campus and around parties, but that is but a small segment of their territory.

There were a few officers who, while never saying anything explicit, seemed uncomfortable with our presence. In one case, a senior officer all but refused to let my friend ride in his car, and later on in the night, I overheard one officer telling another that it “sucks” to have a person ride-along with them.

I, however, was fortunate enough to be assigned to ride with a young, affable officer. If she was upset to have me, she certainly did a good job of hiding it, and at 11 p.m. we headed out into the night.

Within a few minutes of leaving the station, we were in hot pursuit.

The suspect drove by us with his lights off, a tell-tale sign of drunk driving. We flew across the Thurston Avenue Bridge, and pulled the car over. It turns out that the man was driving his friend’s car, and did not know how to work the lights. Since there was no scent of alcohol or other impropriety, the officer sent him off with a warning.

The officer explained to me that she saw little need in writing a ticket for such a minor infraction. In fact, for the rest of the night much of what we were looking for were signs of drunk driving, there was no focus on trying to turn minor traffic infractions into tickets.

In fact, the officer’s desire to look out for the Cornell community, and not just police it was clear.

One such example was when she told me how she was pleased to have the option of referring students to the Judicial Administrator for violations, instead of sending them to the Ithaca city court. She did not like the idea of possibly permanently placing a blemish on the record of a student who just got carried away having too much fun.

Across campus from us, a man was in need of transportation to the hospital.

My friend, riding along in another car, witnessed the man plead with a CUPD officer that he not be taken to the hospital in an ambulance. He insisted that he would not be able to afford the cost of the ride.

The officers on the scene, not wanting to burden the man with the cost — and confident that he did not need immediate care, sent the man to the hospital in one of the officers’ cars, saving him the expense of the ambulance ride. Discussing the incident a week later, my friend was still quite impressed with the measured response of the officers on the scene.

Later in the night, the officer I was with and I were called to respond to a supposedly inebriated woman.

Once we arrived on the scene, it was clear that enough officers were there to handle the situation. However, we slowed down long enough to hear the woman yell at one of the officers, “Oh yeah? Well I called medical amnesty … So actually I’m NOT going to get in trouble!”

The officer was just trying to talk to her, and she replied with some highly concentrated snobbery. I witnessed other instances of students being obnoxious and uncooperative throughout the night. It is moments like this when I could understand how some officers might have a less than stellar opinion of Cornell’s students.

Student interactions with the police are intimidating. The power cops are afforded often makes us unnerved and frequently leads to either overly anxious or overly angry responses. However, numerous officers expressed to me a sincere willingness to help and work with students. That means that we must get over our fears and anxieties and see officers not for their badges but for their humanity. When that happens, and the officer is willing to treat the student with the same level of respect, positive outcomes will no longer appear to be the exception — they will become the rule.

Noah Karr-Kaitin is a senior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at nkarrkaitin@cornellsun.com. Plain Hokum appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Noah Karr-Kaitin