• The Hook, Issue 0407, Cover •
If we’d been driving straight, we’d probably have made Philadelphia by the time the shift ended. But Charlottesville Police Officer Web Stokes took a more circuitous route. He spends the hours between 4pm and midnight weaving through District One Forest Hills to Cherry, over to Orangedale, Fry’s Spring and Johnson Village. Jefferson Park Avenue. Up and down Prospect. And then back again.
It’s an unseasonably warm Saturday. But weather is no indication of how busy a shift will be. And neither is the day of the week. Stuff happens when it happens with the exception of Thanksgiving, that is. Stokes says the family holiday is peppered with “domestic after domestic.”
There’s a guy washing a sedan and girls jumping double-Dutch. Stokes waves as he passes, and most wave back. Since he’s been cruising this beat for a couple of years, in the car and on foot, he knows the residents and they know him.
Dispatcher: CP 99, past the swings and the volleyball court, there’s a trail and there’s supposed to be an abandoned bike in the creek.
Stokes picks up his mic, asks if the creek isn’t actually in the county. He’s right not his jurisdiction. So there’s no wet uniform in his immediate future.
Besides the police band, which comes on intermittently and loud, 97.5 FM rocks quietly while Stokes navigates. He’s a handsome, friendly guy with an easy laugh who works five nights a week while carrying a full load of college credits. The 30-year-old’s long-term goals include law school.
A resident flags down the cruiser, upset because another cop ticketed his work truck for being parked on the street overnight. Stokes shakes his head and promises to talk with the over-zealous summons writer.
“Working in the same neighborhood everyday allows me to know everybody and figure out what’s normal and what’s not,” he says of his integration into the First District. “The days of ‘saw bad guy’s arrested same’ are long past.
“There has to be a trusting relationship that goes both ways,” he says. But he acknowledges that collaboration is not always easy; that for many years people viewed the police as a necessary evil. But he’s glad that the shift towards community policing seems to be changing that.
Dispatcher: There’s a female [juvenile] out of control. Mother is advising that she jumped out the window… mother is chasing after her.
Not Stokes’ area. He keeps driving. He homes in on the calls prefaced by 99 his badge number.
Stokes cruises Prospect Avenue “The Hill” where he fields frequent complaints about young men loitering, purportedly doing illegal things. Because merely congregating isn’t against the law, Stokes has to think of innovative ways to break up the parties. Sometimes just hanging out with them is enough to do the trick. But not always.
He’d like to see a legal provision that covers loitering. That way, if a citizen files a complaint or if he observes something suspicious himself Stokes’ entreaties to move on would have some teeth.
“This isn’t a good town to grow up in,” Stokes observes. “There’s nothing to do.”
Which can lead to trouble.
Stokes says he would like to see job-training programs where kids with less than stellar records could get a chance to learn a trade. And he’d like the city to invest in extra-curriculars for younger kids to show them the big world beyond their neighborhood.
“If you put the seed in their minds, they can go wherever the hell they want to,” Stokes says. As it is now, this policeman witnesses some pretty discouraging things happening to young people, both in school and out.
“If you’re not an athlete and you’re not money nobody gives a [crap],” he observes. “I talk to parents all the time whose kids have been suspended for like a week and only found out because someone else’s mom told them.”
Stokes points to some guys congregating on the corner. The deck is stacked against them. They come from dysfunctional families, he says. Their school experiences were dismal, and no real safety net was in place. “The parents are screwed up, the school’s screwed up and the city does nothing to help,” he says.
Dispatcher: Two male juvenile shoplifters in custody are causing a problem…
Again not his call.
Cocaine is big here, Stokes says, but ongoing drug treatment programs are not. Which is part of the cycle.
As we sweep past a newly vacant house, Stokes reports that until recently it operated like a corner store. It was so bad that known criminals approached him, asking, “Why can’t you all do something about that damn house?”
But shutting down suspected drug markets operating inside people’s homes isn’t easy.
“They’re blatant [enough] about it so everybody knows what’s going on. But they’re not so stupid that you can get a search warrant,” he says.
“Those are the times when the landlords are your allies,” Stokes says, referring to the empty dwelling. “That was basically ‘We’ve got enough to get a search warrant so either [the tenant] goes or the doors are coming off the hinges.’
“My job is to think of new and interesting ways that fall within the purview of the law to counter whatever it is that [the criminals] are doing,” Stokes says.
He likens his profession to chess. The bad guys have the freedom of a queen, going wherever they want on the board, whereas the police officer, like a knight, has much less latitude.
“I can go three forward and one to the side every time,” Stokes says.
He believes there’s a fundamental rule in the match: “We’re both people, and we’re both doing a job. And there’s nothing personal.”
Stokes considers his cell phone indispensable since there are two ways to hear about a crime: Either he sees it happen, or somebody tells him about it. The proliferation and widespread use of police scanners has created a big problem with retribution. So he gives out his private number to people who don’t want their names or information broadcast.
Confidential informants (C.I.) cooperate for various reasons. Some, he says, are paid through the Jefferson Area Drug Enforcement Task Force and Crime Stoppers. Others may be “working-off” pending charges of their own by telling on someone else. And there are those who just want to clean up their streets.
One night, right as he was getting dinner, Stokes’ phone began ringing. “Four different people were trying to call me to tell me that people were shooting. Nothing had even gone over the radio yet,” he says.
Stokes says that the use of C.I.s is safer for police officers than their own undercover work. But there are risks for the informant.
“Obviously you make every effort you can to protect the informant. My philosophy is if I have a choice of either burning an informant and getting a good pop or maintaining my informant’s anonymity and losing a case,” he says, “I’d much rather lose a case.”
As we cruise down Orangedale, Stokes recognizes a vehicle belonging to someone with an outstanding Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court warrant. Stokes pulls over, radios in, and gets out of the car.
The young man is baffled by what Stokes is saying. Although he claims to have no idea what he did wrong, he puts his hands out for the cuffs. He’s searched. Another police vehicle transports him to the Albemarle Charlottesville Regional Jail known as The Complex and Stokes follows to process the arrest worksheet.
The building is a maze of buzzers and locks and bars and safety glass. No one else is in the waiting area. As Stokes removes the prisoner’s handcuffs, the young man asks about getting an erroneous felony charge off his record it’s preventing him from obtaining a handgun license. Stokes tells him where to call to clear it up.
Loudspeaker: Put the cuffs back on your prisoner.
Stokes complies, and then he and the prisoner approach the magistrate’s window. The large man behind the glass is playing hardball. He looks at the detainee’s history, notes prior Failure to Appears, and orders him held over until Monday morning for bond determination and the setting of a court date.
“But” the young man tries to reason with the magistrate. The charge is just for a court fine related to child support. He says he didn’t understand that he was responsible for that in addition to the support payments which he claims to have been paying. And the court absences, he explains, were for driving offenses four years before. He’s grown up a lot since then.
The official is unmoved.
A uniformed guard appears and asks for the man’s jewelry and wallet, then pats him down. The stunned prisoner remarks that he was just getting ready to take his little boy to a birthday party.
Before being led away, he says goodbye to Stokes who later acknowledges mixed feelings about what just went down.
“I figured [the magistrate] would give him a secure bond,” the officer says outside. “I didn’t figure he’d hold him until Monday.”
Another warrant call comes in, this one for somebody accused of passing forged $20 bills as well as failing to appear in court. Stokes heads back to Prospect-Orangedale.
Although he doesn’t use his siren, he drives quickly. He claims Charlottesville residents behave bizarrely when encountering an alarm.
“Oh my God,” he mimics. “There’s an emergency vehicle! Slam on the brakes and stop where ever the hell I am!”
“Pedestrians walk in front of us,” Stokes laughs.
A couple of officers are already inside, guarding an apartment door beyond which a baby is crying. The wanted man has been given five minutes to come out. If he exits voluntarily, a search warrant won’t be necessary. This means the man’s mother won’t be arrested for harboring a fugitive a courtesy extended by the police.
As Stokes points his Taser at the door, it emits a red beam of light and, when triggered, a hell of a jolt.
“I don’t think I’d describe it as painful,” Stokes says of the time he volunteered to be zapped in the back. “It was just five really crappy seconds.
“I couldn’t think about moving or trying to stand up. I just kept thinking wow this really sucks.”
The baby continues wailing inside the apartment. On this side of the door, though, it’s pretty relaxed. There’s some joking about what the fugitive is doing with his five minutes. And there’s serious discussion about dinner. Stokes reports that another cop has suggested Bizou on the Downtown Mall but it’s too pricey for him. Someone else would like to get a bacon cheeseburger.
A group of chattering girls come in, eyeball the uniforms and the crimson laser beam, and hustle up the steps.
One of the officers knocks again and announces it’s time. As the door opens, there’s a brief surge of energy as everyone assesses the situation. The fugitive sees the Taser and throws up his hands.
“I don’t have anything!” he shouts. He’s put in cuffs, patted down. A young woman clutches him around the waist, sobbing.
“Don’t take my brother,” she pleads. “Don’t take my brother!”
Out beside the police wagon, the man asks for a cigarette, and one of the cops offers a Marlboro. He declines. Someone else gets him a Newport, which the officer holds up to his mouth for a drag. The cop asks the prisoner why he didn’t show up for court last time.
“I was scared,” he answers.
His mother comes outside. She wants to make sure her son isn’t placed with a particular inmate. There’s bad blood. Stokes calls intake at the jail, verifies that indeed the other man is being held, and warns that the two need to be kept separate.
In this incident, the six responding officers are white, the prisoner black. But “We’re all blue,” Stokes says later of the Charlottesville police demographics. Of the City’s 114 sworn officers, 15 are minorities, roughly 13 percent. The city population is 22 percent African-American.
“I don’t necessarily support the idea that we should overlook qualified candidates no matter what shade of blue they happen to be,” Stokes contends. “Quality sees no color.”
He says race was something he had to overcome when he was assigned to the Prospect-Orangedale area.
“When I first started working over here, every day I caught crap. ‘You’re just messing with me because I’m black’,” people would say. “But now that I’ve been working over here, I don’t think anybody sees it as a race issue. Now they say, ‘It’s Stokes. He’s doing his job. He treats people with respect’.”
Stokes thinks the time he spent as a Marine sergeant taught him how to defuse incendiary situations. He’s proud that since joining the Charlottesville police he’s had to use force only twice. And he says the one racial profiling complaint that was filed against him was determined unfounded. [The police department does not comment on personnel issues.]
Jazz pounds overhead at Panera Bread. One baby-faced guy is introduced as a Democrat and former frat-boy, and both tags produce laughs he’s a double oddity on the Charlottesville force. He’s also a third generation cop.
Conversation drifts. Local politics. A Special Olympics fundraiser. Authors. (Stokes likes Edgar Allan Poe and Tom Clancy.) Police work.
“There are only certain people who care enough about their district to get involved in it,” a fellow officer observes about Stokes. “Web is one of the few.”
Money is an issue with members of the force. None of the cops at the table live in town. In fact, they can name their few colleagues who could afford to buy homes in Charlottesville. Later Stokes reports that a lot of officers work more than one job, given that base pay for a regular police officer is around $31,000.
He adds that he pays approximately $50 a month for his health insurance, and family coverage is extra. If he were to get seriously injured in the line of duty, Stokes says, he would be out of luck. Charlottesville offers no permanent disability retirement to its police force beyond Workers’ Compensation.
After dinner, someone in the Barracks Road parking lot leans on the horn, New York style. Stokes shakes his head and laughs in amazement: “They’re terrible driversand they’re rude.”
Back on the street
Stokes pulls out of the shopping center, picks up speed, then his mic to call his dispatcher to report the plate number of a red Pontiac missing a headlight. Immediately, the owner, home address, and car description are telegraphed back. The Pontiac pulls up near an IGA.
Stokes’ cruiser is equipped with a dashcam that can automatically save the preceding 30 seconds of activity. That way, if the cop happens to be sitting at a light and somebody blows through it, the moment’s recorded.
The camera can also capture traffic or equipment stops exchanges that Stokes describes as elevated situations. “My awareness level is through the roof,” he says.
After a chat, Stokes lets the Pontiac’s driver go without a ticket.
“I try to write a few to keep my sergeant happy to appear well-rounded,” he laughs. “But I try to focus more on improving things and helping people out.”
Stokes explains that in Virginia, misdemeanor tickets are issued at an officer’s discretion. With the exception of a domestic incident with indication of assault, “I can make a call over whether I want to place a charge or not,” he says.
And word to the wise attitude counts.
Sometimes Stokes gets an itchy feeling about a driver he’s pulled over. Without probable cause to search the vehicle, he has to obtain consent to look inside. And when people agree, does he actually find contraband?
“Oh God, yeah. All kinds of stuff,” he says.
Dispatcher: CP99 Vandalism just occurred… Prospect Avenue…
Stokes drives quickly to a house where someone has tried to kick in the back door with such violence that the door jam is detached from the wall. Shaken, the resident not only has no idea who did it, but she’s afraid the intruder can now breeze in.
An off-duty Charlottesville policeman working for the housing complex and Stokes wait with her while she contacts building management. If no one from maintenance shows up within the next half hour, the two policemen will find tools and make the repairs themselves.
Stokes fills out an incident report about the vandalism and jokes that one of the most important lessons he’s learned is to write legibly. Or do his own typing. The transcriptionists rely heavily on the computer’s spell-check option, with less than perfect results.
A loud moped flies by. Stokes pursues the helmet-less kid, and when he stops, gives him a talking-to and a warning and lets the boy push his ride home.
“If I see it again, it’s getting impounded,” he says.
Dispatcher: Ridge Street, rescue is there requesting PD
Officer 99 drives over to Ridge where a very drunk man is lying in the middle of the road beside an ambulance. Emergency workers had been getting ready to transport him to the hospital when he suddenly decided to get up off the stretcher. The female EMT bailed out one door, the patient the other.
Stokes, himself a former medic, dons medical gloves and helps get the guy back into the ambulance. He doesn’t stay to chat with the other officers on the scene. It’s getting late.
Back at the station
We’ve made our last circuit through the First District, passing the same landmarks, the same trouble spots. We haven’t gotten far, but we’ve covered a lot of pavement. The streets are quiet for now, and the shift is over. Web Stokes parks the cruiser in the garage, gathers his things. He still has a long ride home.