It’s 1 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 22. Officer Hazen Powell reports for roll call with her South Burlington Police Department colleagues. She’s hosting The Other Paper for the afternoon. This reporter is a little nervous, having never been in a room with so many police officers. I don’t know what to expect on the ride, but soon enough we’re off to find out.
Along for the ride
Powell is in uniform, which adds between 25-35 pounds to her frame, and there are pockets for two sets of handcuffs, a firearm, taser, tourniquet and other accoutrements.
We hop in the cruiser and Powell goes over the equipment. There’s a radio to hear dispatch for all of South Burlington’s emergency services – little did I know it’d play a key role in our travels this afternoon. Between the front and rear seats, there’s a solid plexiglass divider. I ask Powell what happens when someone in the backseat gets sick, having heard rumors that the officers have to clean it up. Powell confirms that’s true but says it hasn’t happened to her. She came close once, but the passenger let her know they were ill, and she was able to pull over in time. Powell said that person was having a rough day and she was glad to get them help.
Between the front seats is a large metal panel with a myriad of buttons to control lights, sirens and the like. The microphone makes a satisfying “CLACK” as it magnetically clings to it.
Of course, as a civilian, I wonder what it’s like to turn on lights and sirens while driving to an emergency. According to Powell, it’s technical, moving the levers and buttons to make all of that happen while driving to a call. And although new officers get some practice driving the cruisers, most of their experience navigating tight city roads and running red lights to get to a scene comes on the job, she said. I’m awed and amazed by Powell’s driving prowess as we weave through traffic later that afternoon – more on that later.
I wonder just how South Burlington Police Officers know precisely where they’re going when called to an incident.
“This is a dumb question,” I ask. “But how do you know where you’re headed, do you use a GPS, do you have all the streets memorized?”
“There are no dumb questions,” Powell replies, “unless you ask me if I’ve ever shot anyone.”
For the record, the answer to that is “no.”
As for driving directions, Powell can get them by clicking an icon on an iPad attached to the cruiser’s dashboard, but she said the department prefers its officers know city streets and travel without GPS.
Powell says memorizing directions didn’t come naturally for her. South Burlington has some roads with similar names, like Airport Parkway, Airport Drive and Airport Circle. But there are ways of learning the lay of the land. Powell said she started by memorizing main roads like Williston Road, Dorset Street et cetera. Then, she learned side streets like Patchen Road, White Street and Spear Street. Lastly, she memorized the roads that come off those streets. I shudder at the thought of not using a GPS.
As we drive along this afternoon, we make sure folks are following the rules of the road. And yes, I ask if there is a quota for the number of traffic stops officers must perform. It turns out there isn’t, and that is a common misconception, Powell says. But traffic violations can be the gateway to other crimes, so officers are encouraged to enforce the rules of the road, she adds. On this day, however, everyone seems to be law-abiding. Although I know that is positive, the thrillseeker in me is slightly disappointed.
Heading up Dorset Street, we see a woman stop her car in a left-turn lane on the southbound side and roll down her window.
“Can I turn here?” she asks Powell. She’s near the entrance to Market Street and where the last bit of construction work is being wrapped up. Powell answers “yes” from across the median.
That’s part of what Powell loves about her job, she said, people stop her frequently to ask all kinds of questions. She’s not just an enforcer of laws, she’s a South Burlington diplomat, of sorts. Powell’s public interactions range from residents who thank her for her work to people who tell her she makes them nervous, she says.
“It’s important you treat them [people] with respect,” Powell said. “We need people to trust us and want to call us when they’re having their worst day.”
Permission to search
We head back to the police department where we see officers and detectives searching a bag – a search warrant for it was just approved. It turns out not all warrants are created equal. I learn that police can be approved to open something like a bag but not the containers within it, like a cigarette carton inside a purse. But officers can also be permitted to search an item and any containers in it, depending on what the judge permits, Powell said.
In the case of this bag, officers retrieve some new clothes that I’m told were stolen. Then a prescription bottle is pulled out with the purse owner’s name on it – that’ll go back to the individual, Powell says. There aren’t any other drugs in the purse but I wonder if there are some in the Honda we’re about to search – a warrant has just been approved for that as well. The officers inspect every nook and cranny of the car from hood to trunk and the search continued as Officer Powell and I hit the road again.
I asked what has surprised Powell in her first year at the department. She says she is surprised by just how pervasive drugs are in the city. Powell said she witnesses a drug-related incident at least once a day, ranging from someone stealing drugs to an overdose. Sometimes people commit crimes to support their drug addiction, she adds.
“We see a lot of the same people,” she said. “It’s nice when we see those people less and they pull out of it,” she said, adding in her short tenure she hasn’t seen a lot of that yet, but she’s heard stories from coworkers who have witnessed repeat offenders who turn their lives around. Those are success stories, where officers can feel they’ve made a positive difference in someone’s life, she said.
Called to the scene
It’s now after 3 p.m. and we’re off to the University Mall. We’re going to help the folks at theft prevention. There were some people caught on camera exiting a store with bags of unpaid clothing. At Powell’s suggestion, I walk ahead of her through the mall. She doesn’t want it to look like I’m in custody. I appreciate the gesture.
We watch a surveillance video and Powell takes pictures of the suspects and their vehicle. They have about a 30-minute head start on us. We’re back in the cruiser about to hit the road to track them down when the radio alerts us to an incident on Market Street. A construction crew has hit a gas line and the city needs all hands on deck to help reroute traffic and make way for the fire engines.
We’re off like a shot. I’m astonished by how quickly and confidently Powell threads the cruiser between two lanes to get to the western end of Market Street near the Anchorage Inn and the Bueno y Sano restaurant. Not far behind us are the city’s fleet of fire engines.
There’s a lot to behold on scene. Vermont Gas, firefighters and police officers are all around the site. I watch from the cruiser as Powell and her fellow South Burlington police officers gather in the middle of Dorset Street and turn what could have been chaos into an organized group of cars. They help some drivers reroute and show others where to wait. The officers look calm. Less than an hour elapses between the gas leak being patched and officers getting Dorset Street traffic moving again.
When Powell gets in the cruiser, it’s time for this reporter to head home. She’s kind enough to bring me back to the police station and pose for a photo. I said I learned a lot from the passenger seat and thanked her for the experience. A ride-along is a great way to see just how varied a day in the life of a community police officer can be.
Indeed, South Burlington Police Chief Shawn Burke says officers like Powell should be applauded for their efforts against a challenging backdrop.
“Law enforcement is what federal authorities do,” Burke says. “Policing is this whole other universe where you respond to a wide array of occurrences.”