Thursday, September 17, 2015

Man with a Gun: A Night in the Life of an Olympia Police Officer

Above: Olympia Police Department Officer Jeff Davis on walking patrol in downtown Olympia last Saturday night.

By Janine Unsoeld

The whistle blows, and the time between 5:00 p.m. into the wee hours in downtown Olympia becomes a time of transition.

If it’s a weekday, people are typically getting off work and going out to eat. On any day of the week, the same crowd or new folks may arrive to go to live shows or the theater.

Later, a different crowd arrives for nightclubbing, music events, and bar hopping. The clientele and the mood shifts, and certain activities escalate. Risk factors go up after 11:00 p.m., often due to excessive alcohol use, and people may do things they ordinarily wouldn’t do.

Six officers work the night patrol in Olympia, one each in the neighborhoods: downtown, northeast, southeast, southwest, northwest, and a roving car.

Because of recent events, such as the officer involved shooting of two men on May 21 and subsequent demonstrations, the department brings in five extra officers on Friday and Saturday nights.

Neighboring agencies such as the Thurston County Sheriff’s Department, Tumwater, Lacey, and the Washington State Patrol are available to assist as needed.

Lt. Aaron Jelcick of the Olympia Police Department says that this mutual aid agreement has been needed four to five times in the last four to five weeks.

To learn more about Olympia Police Department activities, Little Hollywood shadowed Olympia police officers Jeff Davis and Kory Pearce on Saturday night, September 12. 

I learned that an evening on patrol can change quickly, from routine smiles and handshakes, to a hot call from dispatch: a man with a gun.

A Busy Saturday Evening

Meeting Officer Jeff Davis at the Olympia Police Department, we start our walk around downtown shortly after 7:00 p.m.

Standing 6’3'', and weighing 260 pounds, Officer Davis, 36, lives in Lewis County and has worked for the department for nine years. Previously, he worked for the U.S. Coast Guard for four years conducting law enforcement on the water and has traveled around the world.

With two new officers sworn in last week, Officer Jeff Herbig was promoted to sergeant and Officer Davis replaced him on downtown walking patrol.

Asked how he prepares for work - five days on, four days off – Davis says he appreciates his 45 minute commute to mentally prepare to do the job.

“You never know what’s going to happen….”

Davis has no particular route, but knows where the hot spots are and checks them out. We head for the artesian well on Fourth Avenue.

Greeting many individuals by name all night long, Davis uses a friendly-sounding, random combination of phrases: ‘Hello, how are you, what’s going on? Anything I need to know about?’ In return, they greet him by name, all smiles, and sometimes give him a verbal tip or two about what’s going on.

Folks around the well immediately ask Davis for stickers, but he tells them he worked Olympia High School’s Spaghetti Bowl the night before and gave out all his stickers and glow sticks. They are bummed.

Eleven minutes into our patrol, as we walk past The Pet Works, Davis is approached by a young man who tells him that a man is having a seizure or something on the sidewalk, and points to the area near the corner of Fourth and Adams.

Davis calls it into dispatch, calmly waits for the crossing signals, and then approaches the scene. Onlookers surround a man in his thirties seated on a stool. A woman is standing near him, holding up his head. Davis puts on blue gloves, and speaks softly, asking a series of questions typical for a first responder. 

Two more officers, Officers Hirotaka and Reisher, arrive out of nowhere and stand by.

After a few minutes, the man snaps out of his state. He says he is a veteran with post traumatic stress disorder issues and the woman is his girlfriend. He refuses further assistance and we move on down Fourth Avenue.

Two women are trying to take a selfie with the “I love Olympia” mural as a backdrop and Davis offers to take the picture for them. He does so, and they love it.

We walk down Washington Street, stepping over several inebriated men lying on the sidewalk outside Caffé Vitta. Public inebriation is not a crime, Davis explains, but some businesses are more tolerant than others about people lying in front of their businesses.

Davis speaks with a couple of men sleeping in front of Furniture Works. We stop in the Alano Club on Olympia Avenue and chat with patrons, ask how things are going, and then walk towards Percival Landing.

Walking firmly ahead of me, Davis sees something and approaches two young men in the alley behind Zeigler’s Welding, announces his presence, and asks what they are doing.

“Just passing through!” one man says, and quickly darts off. He never looks back.

“Good answer!” Davis yells after him. Davis speaks to the other man, who gathers up his things and moves along, as do we.

Often, people approach Davis to shake his hand and thank him for being out and about or ask him questions.

The questions vary. Many folks say they are new in town and wonder where the nearest bathroom is located. One young man asked if it was against the law to climb a utility pole. He had witnessed someone doing that earlier.

We encounter an employee of the Olympia Parks and Recreation department near the playground who informs Officer Davis that he just locked the restrooms for the night, and they discuss the fact that the restroom on Sylvester Street near the Oyster House has now been closed for the season due to ongoing drug use and needle issues.

At 8:00 p.m., Davis’ Fitbit vibrates, and he announces that he has just logged 10,000 steps for the day so far, equaling five miles. He says he typically walks 10 – 12 miles a shift. 

We walk over to the blighted, vacant, nine story Capitol Center Building and Officer Davis is now using his flashlight to check the bushes. He finds that there are beds empty and ready.

Vehicle prowls are a problem in downtown Olympia and the police sometimes patrol the darker parking lots, looking for suspicious activity.

Heading back to the station, we walk through a lot of alleys. Davis says he likes foot patrol. 

“You miss a lot in a car, even on a bike….”

Above: In a downtown alley, Olympia Police Department Officer Kory Pearce stands by while Officer Jeff Davis speaks with three men.

After Dark: Walking Patrol in Pairs

Back at the station, we’re ready to go out with Officer Kory Pearce. Pearce, 50, says he is ten days shy of 24 years with the Olympia Police Department. Seated at his desk, he’s doing paperwork. His shift ends at 3:00 a.m.

A traffic officer who works by motorcycle, he’s on duty Saturday night as backup, as is Davis. He’s had a busy week with school back in session and on Monday, he starts a two week basic collision investigation class through the Criminal Justice Training Commission.

A proud father and grandfather, Pearce points out pictures of his family. He lives in Graham, Pierce County, 23 miles away doorstep to doorstep. He lived there when he got out of the military and didn’t want to uproot his children from their friends and schools when he started with the department. 

Asked when he will retire, Pearce said, “I’m eligible to retire in three years but I’ll probably do five, unless I have two bad days in a row!” he joked.  Not everyone can do this job….I’m a dad and a husband - this is what I do for fun,” he laughs. 

At least one tattoo on his arm is visible and reads, “It’s All About Winning” in fancy script.

Pearce says he’s seen a lot of changes in his years as an officer.

“We had a lot of problems (in the past) but not of this magnitude. There weren’t as many services, but there weren’t as many less fortunate, homeless people...we didn’t have as many services for them as we do now, shelter, meals, outreach programs. Community Youth Services was just getting underway….”

When ask I him what he’d like people to know about the police, he said, “Don’t believe what you read or hear….nothing against you, but the media is in the business of sharing stories, and the story people get is this much,” Pearce says, holding his thumb and finger close.

“....Good police service - that’s our goal every day. If I show up disheveled or acting like I don’t care, who are you going to tell? A friend. Then that person tells someone…and that gets spread around.”

Both Davis and Pearce complimented Amy Stull, the police department’s community liaison, and her team of volunteers.

“We could not accomplish what we accomplish without her and her entry, speed traps in school zones, house checks, Lakefair, parades, the Toy Run…you name it….” they said.

It's time to head out bar hopping of a different sort. It’s karaoke night at our first stop, McCoy’s, and as the woman finishes a profanity-laced version of Nicki Minaj’s, “Starships” song, she apologizes for her performance, saying that the cops made her nervous.

“You’re the one who took her picture,” Pearce quips to me as we leave out the back door.

Pearce is an edgy type, and a quick-witted joker. Sometimes it’s hard to tell when he’s joking.

A young man loaded down with a backpack and gear near McMenamin’s approaches Pearce. He says he’s new in town and wonders if there’s a bad part of town that he should stay away from.

With a straight face, Pearce says, “From the Fourth Ave Bridge to Plum.”

“That’s the whole town,” responds the guy.

It took a while for the guy to get the joke. Pearce said to just keep an eye out and he’ll be fine.

Davis and Pearce take turns checking in with bartenders or staff to see if everything is good. At the Eastside, the Fourth Ave Tav, and the Brotherhood, it’s the same: heads turn, some conversation and pool playing stops, and people silently wonder why the police are in the bar. Davis says he sometimes feels like he has a third eye.

“Most people figure something’s going on, that we were called here…they wanna know what the story is....” says Davis.

Across the street from the Brotherhood on Capitol Way, we find a car that has parked directly in the path of an alley, and the officers call it in.

Eugenio, the owner of Trinacria, comes out to greet the officers and they all chat for a few moments.

As we walk from Capitol Way up Fourth Avenue, people sit outside the busy Grandpa’s Ice Cream shop and shout out thanks to the officers for being out and about.

At the corner near Childhood’s End Gallery, a man asks where the nearest convenience store is, and he is directed to Bayview. He walks along with us since we are headed that way also.

Turns out, the man is a member of the U.S.S. Olympia crew, in town for the Foofaraw celebration sponsored by the Thurston Chamber of Commerce. He went on a helicopter ride earlier in the day. Stationed in Hawaii, he says he’s never been to Washington State before but has fallen in love with it in the last few days.

From Bayview Thriftway, we cross Fourth Avenue, cross Fifth Avenue and walk down under the bridge and along the railroad. 

A virtual tent city is underneath the bridge. When I ask about unreported crime and assaults, including sexual assaults, the officers say there's a lot among the homeless, who have their own cliques. The crimes may be unreported due to their warrant status or they may be worried about retaliation.

Above: Under the Fourth Avenue Bridge.

The officers use their flashlights, verbally announce themselves, and rouse residents, informing them that they are trespassing and could get ticketed. No tickets are issued. We walk along the railroad tracks and the officers point out debris, and various hazards, such as open, used needles.

Along Deschutes Parkway, we notice six orange luminarias floating in the sky over Heritage Park.

As we get closer, Pearce jokes that it’s a good thing this isn’t their problem because the park is under the responsibility of the Washington State Patrol. Amazingly dangerous, people are lighting pieces of coal to float flimsy paper lanterns. The officers walk by the participants who seem to be part of a wedding party drifting out from the Waterstreet CafĂ©.

Above: Floating a paper luminaria in Heritage Park.

In this suspicious climate against officers, I asked Davis what he would like people to know about the police.

Thinking a moment, he says, “…Everybody thinks we’re not trained, but we are…and I can say there are people in this profession who probably shouldn’t be, just like any other profession, but don’t generalize me into that group. Most of us are out here to make a difference and to help somebody, and that’s ultimately why I got into this profession - to do that. If you happen to catch a bad guy sometimes, that makes it great - the chance to hold somebody accountable for their actions.”

Asked about the possible use of body cameras, both Officers Davis and Pearce were supportive of their use.

Pearce said they’re a double-edged sword with the biggest issue being public disclosure requests.  

That’s about as far as we got when a couple of young men jaywalked across Legion Way right in front of us. They thought they were busted, and when they found out they weren’t, they peppered the officers with several questions about policing.

Davis’ response to my question about body cameras was enthusiastic.

“I would love to see body or dashboard cams…I’m all for them…they’re great! They tell a story – you can literally pop it in and hit play and it sets the tone.” He explained that some kinds of dashboard cams can go back two minutes when an officer “hits” their lights, which is useful in suspected driving while intoxicated stops.

He acknowledged that cameras will catch police officers doing “good stuff and stupid stuff.”

 “….We don’t get to interact too much with normal people – the people who call in are facing an immediate threat or problem, whether they are a victim or a suspect….I know when I do police work, I do a good job at it…and I follow all policies and procedures. I’m not worried….”

At 10:00 p.m., we walk out of Hannah’s, where people are singing karaoke and having a good time. I make the mistake of saying how quiet it is for a Saturday night.

Officer Davis kindly admonishes me and says there are two unwritten rules in law enforcement: one, never say it’s slow, and two, never say it’s quiet, because things can change quickly.

About a half hour later, we respond to a call from dispatch: a man with a gun is at the Emperor’s Palace restaurant on Cooper Point Road. 

Above: The Olympia Police Department's computer screen alerts officers to police activities in progress. 

Hot Call: Man with a Gun

At the Olympia Police Department, we had just parted company with Officer Pearce when the call came in. A man with a gun was at the Emperor's Palace restaurant on Cooper Point Road. A shot had been fired.

Immediately, officers poured out the doors and hopped into police vehicles of all types. Officer Davis and I jumped into a squad car and quickly traveled west through town on Fifth Avenue. I remember seeing the gawking faces of pedestrians as we zoomed by Hannah’s.

I sat in the front seat while Davis drove tight turns through the roundabouts, up Harrison hill, and through the intersection of Harrison and Division, with sirens wailing and lights flashing. We were going 70 miles per hour.

At some point back in the roundabouts, I wondered aloud if all this was really necessary. Officer Davis asked if what was necessary. My question was answered when a car in our lane slowed us down by not getting out of the way.

Davis drove around to the back of Macy’s Furniture Gallery where several police officers were already gathered. Officer Davis jumped out, ran up to the situation and, crouching low, pulled out his gun and aimed it at the suspect while two officers were in the process of handcuffing him. Within seconds, Davis put his gun back in its holster.

After a few moments, Officer Davis came back to the car and explained the situation: A man had become unruly in Emperor’s Palace, pulled out a gun, and shot a round into the air. He fled in the direction of Goodwill and went through the trees toward the back of the Target Plaza store.

Davis drove around to the area near Goodwill and told me not to leave the car. I had no intention of getting out.

Davis picked up a witness to the situation and we drove her back to the scene. Shining the car’s spotlight on the man, she identified him as the man she saw leave the plaza with a gun in his back pocket. Several other witnesses also identified the man and were interviewed.

Later, Officer Pearce, who was also suddenly on the scene, showed me on the car’s computer screen that the call came into dispatch at 22:34, and police were on site at 22:36. All told, ten officers were on the scene, and two supervisors.

For Officer Davis, the night was still young when I left him just after midnight. He didn’t mind me continuing on with him, as he would be on duty until 7:00 a.m., but I had seen enough for one night.

Thinking of all the people and situations we had encountered, I wondered what else would happen that night for Officer Davis. I had a hard time sleeping.

Above: Officer Kory Pearce's flashlight shines upon used hypodermic needles and related drug paraphernalia under the Fourth Avenue Bridge.