You'd be surprised what downtown Poughkeepsie looks like in the dead of night. Hint: it's far from dead, as our writer discovered when he went on the midnight beat with a city patrolman.
Shadowing a Poughkeepsie policeman on the midnight shift yields lots of surprises
by Reed Sparling
It¡¯s 12:23 a.m. We haven¡¯t been on duty for more than five minutes when a car shoots past us on Poughkeepsie¡¯s eastbound arterial. Instantly, Patrolman Jeffrey Lee flicks on the flashing lights and gives chase. My heart jumps into my mouth and I¡¯m glad I¡¯m wearing my seat belt.
The car pulls over, and we stop right behind it. Then the driver begins to get out.
¡°Close the door,¡± Lee shouts. The door opens further. I¡¯m starting to sweat.
¡°CLOSE THE DOOR!¡± Lee booms. ¡°Roll down the window.¡± A few more seconds pass, then the young man ¡ª I can just make out his face in the car¡¯s rear-view mirror ¡ª obliges.
Twenty minutes later, the motorist, who insisted that he had not passed us, has been ticketed for an 1180A ¡ª speed not reasonable ¡ª and we are back on patrol. Thinking about how the car flew right by us, Lee says, ¡°I¡¯m a pretty easy guy, but to me that was way out of line.¡± I ask if he was at all anxious when the driver opened his door. ¡°It¡¯s kind of nerve-wracking,¡± he admits.
It¡¯s a thrilling start to the night.
It was nearly two hours past my bedtime when I sauntered into the headquarters of the City of Poughkeepsie Police Department. The first ¡ª or what is sometimes called the ¡°dreaded midnight¡± ¡ª shift was about to begin, and I am being taken along for a ride that will shatter countless preconceptions.
The shattering began the minute I was inside the door. During the day, downtown Poughkeepsie could be said to hum, occasionally reaching what might charitably be called a dull roar. Yet now, the monitors eyed by Sgt. William McKay, the shift¡¯s watch commander, depicted a Verdi aria (or, more accurately, a rap song) of action. Cameras strategically positioned around the city captured throngs hanging outside clubs, groups loitering in doorways, and a steady stream of cars on the main streets.
Maybe the darkness only makes it seem busier, but it¡¯s as if the city were populated by an entirely new set of residents once the streetlights go on ¡ª folks who buy fried chicken at a Main Street take-out joint and stand six deep outside bars at three a.m.
¡°Each shift has its own characteristics,¡± confirms Sgt. McKay. ¡°We know a whole bunch of guys that are only out there at night. We don¡¯t see a lot of people that work here during the day.¡± Later on, while I¡¯m back at the station, McKay adds, ¡°Most of the time, people only see us when they¡¯re in trouble, and we only see them when they¡¯re at their worst.¡±
Another misconception quickly corrected: the lion¡¯s share of the officers assigned to the midnight shift are there because they want to be. The Poughkeepsie police force works on permanent shifts, meaning they¡¯re stuck with whatever hours they¡¯re assigned. Those with seniority get to choose their hours; the rest take what they get.
Officers opt for this shift for a variety of reasons. Sgt. Annmarie Spiciarich, the only woman on duty, spends her days working toward advanced degrees at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. ¡°That¡¯s why I work nights,¡± she says. Patrolman Lee, on the force for 15 years (five in Poughkeepsie), is here because of day care. ¡°It costs too much,¡± he explains. ¡°My wife works during the day, so I can watch our two young kids.¡± Sgt. McKay says that¡¯s a common reason younger officers choose this shift. As for himself, a 30-year veteran with grown children, he adds with a laugh, ¡°My wife likes having the bed to herself.¡±
For the next half hour, Lee drives slowly around the city. (Normally, he is assigned to patrol a couple of the posts into which the city is divided; tonight, he has been given permission to go anywhere.) ¡°I try to show the flag. Somebody who might be thinking about doing something might see the car and turn the other way. It keeps some of the undesirables out,¡± he says as we cruise the streets. At one point, we detour through several parking lots. ¡°We¡¯ve been having a lot of vehicle break-ins,¡± Lee explains as he shines his spotlight on the cars.
At 1:16, we pull into the lot of Sam¡¯s Food Mart. Police Chief Ronald Knapp has ordered officers to go out on foot occasionally during their shifts, as a way of getting to know better the people they serve. Lee jokes with the men behind the counter about a recent incident, when a customer started throwing beer bottles. Back on the street, a smooth voice on the walkie-talkie attached to Lee¡¯s belt requests that car number 23 ¡ª that¡¯s us ¡ª check out a report of a man yelling on Academy Street. When we get there, the man¡¯s either gone or shut up. We drive on. Twenty-five minutes later, we¡¯re asked to locate the owner of a car that¡¯s blocking a driveway.
Mission accomplished, we continue on patrol. Lee tells me that this is a quiet night, surprising for a Saturday. Some of the bars, tinderboxes for fights, have already shuttered (legal closing time is four a.m.), and prostitutes are nowhere to be seen. ¡°It¡¯s just different every day,¡± he says. ¡°Sometimes, it¡¯s busy as can be and the night goes by fast. Sometimes, you can¡¯t find anything.¡± When I ask if he watches police shows, he says that he occasionally switches on Cops, which features arrests made by real-life policemen. But he admits the show glorifies what the officers do. ¡°They ride all night long,¡± he says, ¡°but they only show the car chases.¡±
At 2:24, we hit pay dirt. Driving down one-way North Bridge Street, we come head-on to a couple in an SUV. Lee immediately flips on the flashers. Back in our patrol car, relaying license info back to headquarters, Lee relates the conversation he had with the young male driver.
¡°Do you know why I stopped you?¡± he asked.
¡°Yeah, I was going the wrong way.¡±
¡°If he knew he was going the wrong way, don¡¯t you think you¡¯d turn around and go the right way?¡± Lee asks rhetorically.
As he starts to write out the ticket ¡ª an 1127A ¡ª word comes back that the driver¡¯s license has been suspended. In a flash, Lee¡¯s out of the car and ordering the driver to step out.
He begins administering a series of field sobriety tests. First, as they stand in the middle of the street, the driver is ordered to follow a pencil-shaped device as Lee swings it slowly from side to side in front of his face. (His eyes, Lee later tells me, moved in a mechanical, rather than a fluid, fashion, a sign of alcohol impairment.) Then he is made to stand on one foot for 30 seconds while reciting the alphabet. (He puts his foot down several times and stumbles over the sequence of the letters.) Finally, when asked to walk eight paces heel-to-toe, he saunters nine. Lee pulls out his handcuffs, pinions the man¡¯s arms behind his back, and escorts him to the patrol car. As we pull off, I steal a glance at his girlfriend, sobbing in the front seat.
Back at the station, quiet as a church except for the occasional screams of a woman being kept in a holding cell, Lee begins the process of booking the driver ¡ª inventorying the contents of his pockets, fingerprinting him, taking his mug shot, administering a Breathalyzer. The young man seems nonchalant, asking inane questions (although he admits at one point, ¡°I haven¡¯t been this nervous since I failed math in high school¡±).
When I later mention this devil-may-care attitude to Lee, he says, ¡°I don¡¯t think he knows how bad it is.¡±
The young driver walks out of the station at 4:20, his pocket full of three tickets ¡ª for his one-way snafu, the suspended license, and driving while intoxicated ¡ª and a court date. He¡¯s the lucky one: Lee¡¯s work on the case goes on for another hour as he fills out all the paperwork. ¡°One simple arrest can take you through the whole night,¡± he says. (Later, however, he notes with a smile: ¡°Every time we arrest somebody, it¡¯s job security.¡±) When we entered the P.D.¡¯s windowless confines, the sky was pitch black. By the time we get back in the car, it¡¯s 5:40 and the sun is out. The change is jarring.
At 5:45, we head to a nearby diner for the first food or drink Lee has consumed since we went on patrol. (Early in the shift, laying to rest another misconception, he¡¯d remarked, ¡°No, it¡¯s not true: we don¡¯t all hang out at Dunkin¡¯ Donuts.¡±) He calls the meal ¡°dinner,¡± although we both have eggs. It¡¯s all part of Lee¡¯s routine. When he goes home, he sleeps for several hours, then gets up and spends time with his children. Between 8 and 11 p.m., he sleeps again. Other officers have different sleep patterns, he notes, but this works for him. In fact, he much prefers it to a nine-to-five gig. ¡°You can¡¯t get me to wake up in the morning to an alarm clock for anything,¡± he says.
We drive around a bit more, then stop in front of an apartment building on Main Street. The super is sweeping the sidewalk on rollerblades. Lee talks jocularly with him and then, brandishing his nightstick, goes inside, banging the stick on the landing as he walks up the stairs. Normally, the noise scatters a posse of vagrants. Today, all¡¯s quiet, although Lee points out several small envelopes on the stairs that contained crack, signs that unwelcome intruders had been here earlier.
Back on the street, Lee describes the cat-and-mouse game he plays with suspected drug dealers. ¡°I talk to everybody. I make myself known. Either they talk to me or they run. They get the hint that I don¡¯t want them here.
¡°Sometimes they say, ¡®I don¡¯t wanna talk.¡¯ I say, ¡®You don¡¯t have to talk. I¡¯ll do all the talking.¡¯ If they walk away and go to another corner, I¡¯ll drive up and visit them there. They¡¯re not gonna deal drugs on my streets.¡±
We get back in the car and ride around for the last hour and a half of the shift. The radio is quiet; the only call is for a domestic disturbance between a father and son, which another patrol car handles. Although it¡¯s the same streets, daylight has given them an entirely different appearance ¡ª safer, more welcoming ¡ª than the monochrome night. It makes you understand why Dorothy was so amazed when she reached the Emerald Castle: a little color is comforting.
We end up talking about safety. ¡°The only unknown is when you make a traffic stop,¡± he says. You just don¡¯t know what the driver has in the car, or how he¡¯s going to react. ¡°And you take your chances on drunks,¡± he adds. One minute they can be docile, the next they¡¯ll do anything to avoid arrest. (As Lee puts it, ¡°Add alcohol, and you get an instant ***hole.¡±) For him, there is a bottom line to the job: ¡°I have a wife and kids. My goal is to go home to them.¡± Yet he admits, ¡°I really don¡¯t like to fight with people, but I love doing this job.¡± That has come across loud and clear.
We pull into the station at 7:56, just as the city¡¯s daytime contingent is starting to stir. ¡ö