I’ll never look at the Post Road the same way again.
Or a police car.
Those are 2 takeaways from last Thursday. I spent the 3-11 p.m. shift on a ride-along with Westport Police officer Ned Batlin.
There were no major accidents or medical emergencies. No drug busts, DUIs or domestic disputes. There was not a deer to dispose of, nor a possibly rabid raccoon.
While touring the communications center — who knew there was a live video feed of the railroad station? — I made the rookie mistake of saying, “Pretty quiet today, huh?” The dispatchers stared at me like I had just ensured that all hell would break loose.
It never did.
Still — as someone who spent his youth running from cops, and his college years profoundly distrustful of all authority — I had come as an adult to appreciate the fantastic job Westport police officers do.
Now — with a ringside view of how they do it (if only for 8 hours on a very slow night) — I have even more admiration for the men and women in blue.
Events that seem routine can be anything but. A 911 call came in from the 1st tee at Longshore — but no one was on the other end. Was it a pocket dial, a misdial — or something seriously amiss? A cop sped over, and found nothing on the golf course. But was there was a real emergency nearby — in the Inn, maybe, or Parks & Rec headquarters? It all had to be checked out.
Batlin bought water at Cumberland Farms. The clerk mentioned that a regular customer had just handed him a counterfeit $5 bill. The paperwork that followed was lengthy. But it had to be done. There’s no way of knowing if this will provide important evidence in a case down the line — or (more likely) nothing at all.
Much of the night was spent on patrol. I’ve lived in Westport my entire life, but I’d never driven through the Green’s Farms railroad station lot. Batlin swung by, looking as much for people who shouldn’t be there as for things that didn’t look right.
“You might not catch the guy breaking into a car,” he said. “But you better see the broken glass on the ground before someone gets off the train that night and finds it himself.”
Up and down the Post Road we drove. Up and down side streets too. Batlin showed me a crazy web of roads off Park Lane and South Compo. Birch Street, Linden, Spruce, Pine — at every turn the name changed, and most mailboxes lacked house numbers. “Can you imagine what it’s like coming here in the dark, trying to find the right street and house?” Batlin asked.
Near Super Stop & Shop, Batlin spotted another patrol car with its lights on. The officer had just pulled over a driver for using a cellphone. It took a while to check out the license and registration, but thoroughness is part of the job. Cops learn, Batlin says, never to take anything for granted. At the same time, though, it’s their job to ease the anxiety of the public.
A couple of hours later — again on the Post Road — a car pulled into the back of a strip mall. That meant nothing to me, but Batlin checked it out. It was late and rainy; he wondered why the driver headed there. Turns out he wanted to show off his car to his buddy, who was just getting off work. Nothing nefarious — but it’s a police officer’s job to be curious.
It’s a reporter’s job to be curious too. I had been curious about the life of a Westport police officer; curious about what goes on inside the imposing-looking headquarters, and inside a patrol car.
As he drove, Batlin told me stories: about Westport officers who had been ambushed during routine traffic stops. Who arrested shoplifters with tens of thousands of dollars of goods, based on both experience and instincts. Whose routine shifts were suddenly interrupted by murders, suicides, sexual assaults, accidents or fires.
That doesn’t happen often. More routine is what I experienced — though, everyone kept explaining, it was the slowest night they’d had in months.
I had gotten in the patrol car at 3 p.m., not knowing what to expect.
I got out of it at 11, realizing that’s exactly the same feeling every police officer has, every moment of every shift.