"So you want to be a policeman?" the young sergeant leading roll call asks me.
"Sir, yes sir!" seems to be the appropriate answer, but with 15 sets of cop eyes glued to me (more than I would be facing if I had just been caught with a kilo and a hooker), all I can muster is a weak, "I'm not sure."
"Well, you'll find out tonight," Sarg says back.
Friday. Charlie 2. Fourth shift (6pm to 4am). Charlotte is divided into 11 policing districts. Charlie 2 (Eastway) and David 3 (North Tryon) and Adam 2 (Westover) are the most dangerous. Charlie 2, one of the tinier zones at only 8.8 square miles, is so small because of the high level of criminal activity per capita. "Crazy" is how Officer Mark Nemitz, the ride-along officer who I'll be spending the next ten hours with, described a weekend night in Eastway.
In other words, Charlie 2 had the most potential to be like Cops.
Leafing through trees' worth of police reports every day, you start to wonder what really goes on out here. After all, policemen aren't writers. Detail and description are scant. No two suspects become "disorderly" in exactly the same way. What's it like when a bum named Stickman loses his stick and resorts to gnawing on his foe's arm? I needed to know.
With his blond, bushy mustache, spectacles and an aw-shucks manner, the 41-year-old Nemitz is the prototype of Officer Friendly -- the cop who visited your school to make sure you wore your bike helmet. Before becoming a policeman at 33, Nemitz was a radio personality for the Bible Broadcasting Network. On the show he played church music and read scripture.
But Nemitz isn't as straight-laced as his profile suggests. He chose the new alternative S&M club on Pecan Street, the Goblin, to do his CPOP (Community Problem Oriented-Policing) program, helping with security and parking issues.
"I'm an adrenaline junky," says Nemitz, who once volunteered to be tasered just so he could see what 50,000 volts feel like. "The only thing I get scared of is filling out the paperwork wrong."
Under his name plate on his right lapel is a rectangular pin with an orange "V." The Medal of Valor was awarded to Nemitz in 2000 after he responded to a call in which a man had just killed his girlfriend and her son with an AK-47 and left the house with tons of shells, ready to shoot up the neighborhood. When Nemitz and others arrived, the man was sitting on a birdbath in front of his house. A SWAT team and a negotiator were called, but they didn't arrive in time. Nemitz took charge. He tried to establish communication, but the killer wasn't having any of it. Instead, he aimed his automatic weapon at Nemitz, who fired his shotgun and killed the man just in time.
I felt more at ease riding with an ice-cold crackshot, not that I needed the extra security. Inside the Crown Vic is like being at the helm of a 100-foot tall fire-breathing robot. Two guys standing suspiciously close to each other at a bus stop twitch and double-take as they see us coming down the street. In front of a printing shop, more no-good-doers scatter like roaches under a light as we pull up.
We won't be getting into any car chases, I'm told right off the bat. CMPD has a tight chase policy. Only "offenses dangerous to life": rapes, murders and armed robberies are chaseable, but even for those there are strict policies. "It's better to get a warrant or catch them on another day," says Nemitz.
Our first call is to respond to alarm at a barber shop. It's a Priority One. Nemitz switches on the sirens, and we accelerate down Briar Creek Road like we're preparing to warp. Nemitz explains the priority system to me using the example of traffic accidents. Priority One means "someone had an accident and they're bleeding. [Priority] Three, and they're off to the side of the road. Priority Nine means they had an accident five days ago and want to talk about it."
The barbershop call is a false alarm. We turn off the sirens midway.
At roll call, the sergeant had picked eight cops to bust a crack house. Nemitz and I show up post-bust to take some crack heads to a holding room at Eastway's base where they're charged. Although Nemitz didn't make the bust, he unlocks three of the arrestees' cuffs to make them more comfortable. A macho officer stops him from helping the fourth arrestee. Apparently, the woman had resisted arrest during the bust.
"We don't want to be on the social worker extreme, or the Clint Eastwood extreme, either," says Nemitz, who errs on the good cop side.
While the paperwork is being processed, a report comes over the scanner that proves the prudence of the no-chasing policy. An ABC officer (part of a different department that has a looser chasing policy) is in pursuit of two suspects who have just committed a robbery. During the chase, the robbers drive the wrong way on a section of Independence Boulevard and at 70 mph; they hit a utility worker. All the officers in the room go quiet, suspecting the worst.
(Later in the evening we find out the utility worker was only clipped and was OK. The robbers eventually flipped their car, got out and ran into a forest where they were tracked and located by a helicopter.)
The night crawls on. Nemitz continues the tour of Charlie 2. "You know someone's up to no good if you see them around now," he comments as we cruise The Plaza past Chasers, a male strip club, at 2:30am. He points out the prostitutes, most of whom are she-males. "There's one that looks a lot like a female. I don't know where she tucks it," he says. "They call her China -- it China. Whatever, him. I never want to arrest or search one of them."
As crazy as the night promised to be, the theme is false alarms. Four guys in a knife fight vanish before we arrive. The only other time we sound the sirens, the suspected vandal turns out to be the homeowner.
The best fake call of the evening is for a man on Kilborne Drive who reports three strangers are sitting on his couch. The strangers refuse to respond, acknowledge him or get off his couch. Of course, no men are found, but the insane man calls back later to report the men have moved to his backyard and are rustling around in his bushes.
Pure blotter fodder.