The ninth week of Princeton’s Citizen’s Police Academy has been my favorite, thus far.
Instead of our regular meeting Wednesday night, we were each scheduled for a four-hour ride-along with one of the officers in the department.
I got assigned the afternoon shift on Thursday, and was paired with Princeton Police Sgt. Adam Gutshall.
If you’ve been following my columns over the past few weeks, you might remember he was the officer who led the firearms course during Week 7. While I described that course to be a bit intimidating, as I had never shot a gun in my life, well, those same feelings rushed back to me when I learned I got paired with the firearms officer.
I’m not kidding when I tell you that on Thursday when I arrived promptly for my ride-along, the last thing Gutshall grabbed before we hit the road was an AR-15 rifle, which he safely secured between our front seats in his cop car. No, I wasn’t sweating or anything. At the very least, I felt incredibly protected in case we were called to a hostile situation.
We were not even through the first half hour of the ride-along when we made our first traffic stop of the shift. We stopped a vehicle on Route 6 for vision obstruction, as the driver had a bunch of random items hanging from his rearview mirror.
While I was told I could get out of the car and stand off to the side to watch the stop ensue, I decided to sit tight in the front seat where I felt better protected.
During the stop, Gutshall explained the process of running license plates, which he does before pulling cars over. He also showed how he checks driver’s licenses to make sure they are valid and that the people have no warrants.
This particular driver we stopped was valid and did not have any warrants out for his arrest, but wasn’t able to show proof of insurance for his vehicle. Gutshall ended up letting the driver off with just a verbal warning, and I also watched the guy take down the random items hanging from his mirror before he pulled away.
We wrapped up and set out again patrolling all over Princeton — from the south end of town, over to the west end, up and around Hillview Trailer Park, back down past Alexander Park Pool, up and down Main Street, out to the north end of town, where we circled around Road Ranger Truck Stop. We drove through the Walmart parking lot a couple of times, where I think we startled a panhandler who dashed away quickly when he saw the cop car pull in. I’m still sitting here wondering what happened to that guy. We never saw him again.
Checking the plates
One impressive thing I noted was how quickly officers can memorize a license plate number and run it in their computer. It took Gutshall only seconds to complete any search he wanted.
I tried catching plate numbers myself, but seriously, I could only take note of the first two letters or numbers on a plate before they drove past too quickly. I’d give up on one plate and try moving to the next, only to fail at that one, too. I don’t think I successfully took note of one entire license plate number.
When we weren’t running license plates, we passed the time talking about the crime in Princeton. I was free to ask just about any question I could think of about the job and what happens out on the street.
From our conversation, I gathered that our officers see a whole different side of Princeton than many of us could ever imagine is happening outside our front doors. They deal with some pretty interesting calls, some pretty intense people, and come face to face with pretty unfortunate situations.
Our officers today have to be a jack of all trades to be successful out on the street. Aside from providing protection and making sure people are complying with the laws, officers are out there playing roles of marriage counselors, youth advisers, assessing mentally ill people, and attempting to differentiate mental illness from substance abuse. It’s pretty impressive, really.
And through it all, police officers have a unique ability to not let the tough days eat at them too much. They are able to hang up the rough dealings they’ve had on a particular day along with their work uniform when the shift is over and return home to the comfort of their families.
My ride-along lasted only four hours, but it was enough time to gain a better sense of all that our officers do for this community. I’m forever grateful to the Princeton Police Department for allowing this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. It’s not every day you get a front-seat ride with a cop.
Note to readers: Goldie Rapp is the senior staff writer at the Bureau County Republican. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @bcr_grapp.