Earlier during my career at MPD, we had a pretty simple system for call signs for various units on the radio. I personally thought the system was a bit too simple. However, it was certainly simple for a new cop to learn, especially an out of towner like me.
The walking route call signs were numbered one through nine, with the designator “ROUTE”. Each walking route, like patrol car routes had geographic boundaries within the city. So, if someone got stuck walking Route 4, west side of downtown on the midnight shift, their call sign would be “Route 4”.
As far as the patrol cars went, their call sign consisted of the designator “Car” followed by the number of the route that car was assigned to. So, if you found yourself pushing a patrol car that consisted mostly of Downtown Manchester, your call sign back then would simply be “Car 13’. For paperwork purposes, the Suffix A, B or C would be added to differentiate which shift Car 13 was actually working. So, Car 13A would be midnights, Car 13 B dayshift and so on.
There was one overlapping patrol shift that ran from 6PM ending (usually) at 230 AM. This was, at the time, the busiest 8 hours in terms of calls for service, so it made sense to increase patrol strength for those hours. These cars had smaller routes they were responsible for. These “X” routes overlapped the regular route cars. The designator (in this case a suffix) for these cars was X (as in X-ray) preceded by the number of their assigned, designated route, starting with 20X going up as high, as I can remember, 28X.
Sergeants (regardless of their assignments whether they worked in patrol, or detectives were Zebra units, Lieutenants were Lincoln, Captain Charlie and so on. The call signs for other divisions were simply by name-for example Delta 17 (once my call sign) was a detective. JD 10 was a Juvenile Detective. Traffic 7 was a Traffic Unit. Finally, the wagon was referred to on the air simply as Wagon.
This system became problematic for us at certain times. There were times when some pretty sophisticated criminal or criminals would use scanners while committing crimes, and even though they may have come from out of town, they only had to listen carefully for a short time to the scanner to determine the function for various units, where they were in the city at any given time, and what they were doing.
An example would be the wagon. The wagon was a free roving patrol unit whose first responsibility was to transport prisoners after they were arrested. We’ve had several groups of criminals operate here over the years, and I recall one crew burglarizing pharmacies that were not open 24 hours throughout the city, and another crew that was robbing the jewelry departments of Service Merchandise Stores throughout New England. They hit both Service Merchandise stores in Manchester, and each haul was high dollar. Not like sticking up a Cumberland Farms Store.
So, once the crew knew for example, that the wagon was tied up with a prisoner at one of the hospitals or had several pick ups to make, they could assume that it wouldn’t be rolling up on a silent alarm because they were in the area and decided to back up the assigned units.
One often used tactic was selecting a target on a busy night, calling in a “shots fired call” on the telephone on the opposite side of the city, knowing that several patrol units would respond to that call. Keeping in mind that Manchester, geographically speaking, was a relatively small city (approximately 35 square miles or so) it was easy for route cars to head to the “hot call’ in a nearby part of the city, especially if the route cars in that section were tied up with calls and arrests.
When this would happen, the criminals would strike and they felt that had a larger window to work within and didn’t have to fear a nearby vigilant patrol officer coming across them while committing their burglaries or robberies. Also, one member of the stick up team would listen to the scanner while the crime was actually being committed, and it was possible they could overhear some patrol unit being in the area.
As time went on, around the late 90’s, maybe 2000, the department decided to embrace the Community Oriented Policing Model, which I believed was developed during the Clinton administration. This required MPD to partially change it’s patrolling techniques. This included going to a “Sector” patrolling system, with each sector supervised by a single sergeant, and each car being free to roam anywhere within that sector to address problem spots. This then required MPD to change many of their call signs, which in turn made it a bit tougher for criminals to figure this stuff out as they listened. The sector system also gave individual patrol units the ability to study the problems within that geographic sector, and address these problems as a team being able to leave their route to team up with other patrol units and their sergeants within their sector to address problems.
Problems that could be addressed ranged from noise complaints in areas after nightclubs let out, traffic problems including speeders, armed robberies and burglaries, right up through prostitution and drug problems in residential neighborhoods.
Eventually, rather recently, MPD went to a system where no outsiders could listen in. This angered many civilians and local politicians, those arguing that open police radio frequencies led to transparency, However after learning from various gang members during debriefings that they regularly listened in and followed and tracked the police around as they did their job in this city while the gangs themselves operated around town, the Chief went out, purchased and implemented a radio system where all transmissions were coded, and civilians could not listen in even if they had the frequencies.
All of this leads in a very round about manner to the topic of today’s story which happened to me in the early days one night when I was assigned Car 12.
The old car 12 covered the area of the city that most residents referred to as the North End. A large swath of the North End consists of pretty wealthy residential neighborhoods. Beautiful homes, manicured lawns, inground swimming pools, wonderful tree lined streets. We didn’t get many calls from those neighborhoods. People there generally worked during the day, slept at night and paid their taxes. The biggest crime problem they had there were residential burglaries, and in as much as those neighborhoods were not too far from some of the problem areas of the city, burglaries were a real problem there. There were several years when the per capita residential burglary rate in Manchester was higher than that of the City of Boston, even though we were about 1/5 of its size in terms of population. Manchester was no sleepy bedroom community by any stretch. However, most of those burglaries occurred during day shift, when the occupants were away at work or wherever, and the homes unoccupied. We didn’t have very many home invasions or other types of violent crimes up there on Car 12’s route. Made most midnights rather uneventful.
Now all that being said, there were a few trouble spots on that route. And when I say trouble, I’m really referring to some locations that were a real pain in the ass for working cops who wanted to spend their time chasing bad guys.
One was a group home for teenage girls. During 4-12 shifts in particular, the calls from this facility which housed troubled young ladies seemingly never stopped. The calls were for runaways, fights, girls cutting their wrists or locking themselves into a bathroom or somewhere else and refusing to come out. Upon arrival after being sent to one of these crisis I would always be greeted by out of breath and upset staff members and young ladies screaming, running around refusing to go to their rooms because they were so upset and triggered by the behavior of the one subject that was causing whatever the problem was.
The beleaguered and underpaid staff members would careen around the facility trying to round up groups of girls and getting them into their rooms where they would be confined until the underlying crisis had been resolved. I would stand by, try to insure none of the staff members, or residents would be harmed, and only then, could we then try to solve whatever the underlying calamity might be. Arrest was sometimes required, but in as much as most of the girls were so seriously emotionally disturbed, arrest was only a last option and then only to insure the safety of the staff and other residents.
I never got much professional satisfaction out of responding to these situations. I never felt good kicking in the bathroom door where a 14 year old girl had barricaded herself . Nor having to manhandle a teenager who had just sliced her wrists and was waving a razor and threatening staff members. Or just forcibly handcuffing a combatant 16 year old because of her assaultive behavior. And you can take my word on one thing. An emotional out of control 15 year old can do some harm, and they often tried as I attempted to quell whatever the disturbance was. These calls never stopped coming, and they all required a ton of paperwork.
Making regular assignment to Car 12 even less appealing, was that the State of New Hampshire had its main juvenile confinement facility located within the boundary of Car 12. That place contained, among many troubled juveniles from all over New England, murderers, rapists, robbers drug dealers and violent gang members. Not everyone confined there was a hard core criminal, but they were all under 18.
One hot summer evening while assigned to Car 12, I was sent to the facility for a suicide. I arrived just in time as the staff cut down a 15 old girl who had hung herself. She was DOA, and all I could do was stand by, take notes and secure the scene for a death investigation that was to follow while paramedics and firefighters worked in vain to revive this poor kid.
As I looked at her face, I tried to imagine how much mental anguish this 15 year old had suffered to cause herself to actually take a belt and hang herself. I thought of my own daughter who was almost the same age. I thought about her family, who within a very short period of time would be receiving the devastating and life changing news about their daughter’s sudden and unnatural death. I had gone to enough suicide calls and know how loved ones would always blame themselves in the end, and carry that burden with them for the remainder of their lives. I was never able to console the loved one of a person who killed themselves. Responding to those calls required the officer to be sympathetic with the relatives, while at the same time conducting a serious “No Shit” death investigation. It was a tightrope that was very difficult to negotiate, unless you became completely numb and indifferent to this kind of human suffering. But, we are not unemotional robots.
It was about 90 degrees outside that day. Her “room” was sparsely furnished and contained a bed and small desk. She and the others confined to this building were locked into their bedrooms sometime in the evening and were not allowed out until morning. If they had to go to the bathroom during the night, they had to get the attention of a staff member who would then let them out of their room for that brief period of time. When they were done, they were again locked within this tiny space.
I remember how hot it was inside this small cell (that’s really what it was) and it was probably 10 degrees or more higher inside. I don’t know what this young lady did which caused a judge to confine her to this facility, but I couldn’t imagine being locked in that small room all night in the summer heat. I had to do my job, but I couldn’t wait to get out of there and back into the summer heat to cool off and catch my breath.
For the cop assigned to Car 12, it was an endless set of calls for ‘walk aways’, yes most escapees from that facility escaped by literally walking away. I would be sent, I’d have to do a missing juvenile report as well as an escape from custody. Inevitably, I would have to assist and support the staff in their dragnet of the surrounding residential areas looking for these kids, usually in vain. To be blunt, just about every one of those escapee calls was a major pain in the ass.
Finally, the VA Hospital was located on Car 12’s route. This resulted in an ongoing stream of calls backing up the VA police trying to quell violent veterans and patients. Psych patients, drug seekers, drunks and some veterans just tired of getting the classic VA run around. One evening I got a pretty good beating from a veteran while he was sitting in a wheel chair!
So, finally one day in late April, I received mixed news. The good news was that I was getting regular or steady car for four months. A steady car, to me, was one of the best assignments that could be had in patrol. The bad news, yeah, you guessed it, the steady car was Car 12 on the 3:30-midnight shift. When I was done, with that 4 months, I had hoped I would never be assigned to that car again. And it wasn’t because I was lazy. It was because of all what I thought was labor intensive BS. Mountains of arduous paperwork day in and day out which seemed to me did nothing that really contributed to the quality of life in the city for which I worked. It also, unfortunately wasn’t the last time I pushed that car.
One midnight shift in particular, I reported to roll call, and as usual I was hopeful I would be assigned to a busy car. I especially liked busy cars on midnights because being occupied made those early morning hours go by much faster than quiet midnights shifts which sometimes seemed to never end. And on midnights, although often not as busy as 4-12, the crimes and incidents that occurred overnight were often pretty serious in nature.
My hopes for the night were dashed as the sergeant read the assignments. His voice droned on, sounding as though he had no energy and no desire to be anywhere near the station house. As he went down the list, I barely heard him say “Swirko, Car 12” I didn’t pay any further attention. I remember thinking to myself ‘well, this is going to be a long, sucky night’. I grabbed the daily bulletin listing notable crimes by route for the last 24 hrs. and a final copy of the roster so I could see who was working the cars near by. I trudged down to the ramp, only looking forward to a hot cup of Joe to start what I was sure would be a long uneventful shift. It was now midnight, and I knew it would be dark at least until 7AM.
I remember it was rather cold this particular night, and after checking and signing out my cruiser I headed to the North End of Manchester. I Stopped on the way and grabbed my coffee, and after drinking most of it, then started the seemingly never ending drive in circles and squares, up and down, over and across, doubling back around closed businesses hoping to catch someone up to some chicanery in the shadows. Never happen. Certainly not that night.
The night dragged on. 1AM slowly dragged into 2AM. No one was on the street. Too cold, I disgustedly thought to myself. The silence of my radio was broken slowly but steadily with calls in other parts of the city. I listened to all of them, waiting to see how they played out, but none of them were anywhere near the boundaries of my route. I wasn’t even close enough to go to a neighboring route to back up another unit on a call or even traffic stop. I just continued to drive and burn gasoline. No one was out, and almost every home was in darkness.
I silently rolled through the quiet residential neighborhoods on my route. Mostly, almost exclusively well maintained single family dwellings. Nearly all the homes were in darkness. Some may have had a hall light or nightlight on, and once in a while I’d see the soft flicker of grayish light from a television which was turned on.
I was more than a bit jealous. As I slowly cruised through these peaceful enclaves, it was cold as hell outside and I wished I was like those people, at home, curled up, warm and safe inside while the wind blew on this cold winter overnight.
There is a winter parking ban on the streets in Manchester between November and April. During those months, you can only park on one side of the street or the other, on alternate nights. Now back then the City relied on the revenue it received from these overnight parking tickets that the cops would write on the midnight shift. Cops, generally speaking, absolutely hate to write parking tickets. Don’t get me wrong, if I had to write a ticket for a blatant parking violation, no problem. Same when a parking complaint by a citizen was made. But generally, most of the cops I worked with did not like writing these “overnight parkers” which is what tickets for parking in violation of the winter ban were known as.
The way most of us looked at it was this as just another way to screw the working / tax paying public. Most of us wouldn’t write overnight parkers until 2 AM but before 4 AM, the thought being, it would give people a chance to get their cars parked legally, and we wouldn’t be bothering people who had their cars out front because they were going to work early. The last thing anyone wanted to find on their car at 5 or 6 in the morning as they drag themselves outside to face another day at work was a $25 parking ticket on their car.
City Hall kept on the Chief, and the Chief kept on the Captains who kept on the Sergeants who made the patrol cops miserable each night to write overnight parkers. The issue at times got so contentious that even the patrolman’s union got involved. The way I dealt with this steady pressure from above was that each night I selected a single street within my route, I’d go to it when the calls slowed down and I’d write which ever cars were parked illegally. That might have meant between 3 and 10 tickets a night. Assuming I wasn’t tied up all night on calls or arrests. After tagging cars on that street, I tried not to go back to the same street more than once to write tickets during the winter, unless I had a complaint. Then everyone parked illegally on the street would get tagged. Can’t just tag one car. Had to tag them all. This approach would usually keep my supervisors happy, which was one of my main goals. Happy Sergeant, Happy Work.
Just to demonstrate how anal this overnight parking issue could become, one midnight shift I was assigned a car on the west side. The sergeant told me that under no circumstances would I be sent to a call, nor would I back up any cops on their calls. (yeah, that might happen I thought to myself. I’ll take the suspension first!) My only purpose was to write parking tickets. Communications was ordered not to call me. I could have been murdered an hour into my shift and no one would know it unless they decided to look for the car I was driving!
It got so bad, the sergeant was out looking for tickets, and instead of writing them when he found one, he’d call me on the air and make me come over and write the ticket under his watchful eye. At one point I reminded the sergeant that although he was my boss that night, he was still a cop and suggested he write a few of these tickets himself. That certainly didn’t endear me to him, and I paid for it the rest of the shift.
On this particular night on Car 12, I was bored out of my mind. At about 230AM, after all the bars around town were empty and closed, and only the night crawlers and unfortunates who worked this shift were even awake, I decided it was time to write some overnight parkers and make my sergeant happy. I found myself on some randomly selected residential street, and I noted that there was a few cars parked on the right side of the street, which was the wrong side that night.
So, I glided to a stop next to a car parked illegally on my right. I then placed my cruiser in reverse and backed up enough so that I could clearly read the rear plate of the car. I ran the plate to make sure it wasn’t stolen (this often drove the dispatchers crazy, but I always did that when I wrote a parking ticket because nothing was more embarrassing then recovering a stolen car that had a weeks worth of parking tickets on the windshield, especially if any of those tickets were written by me). I stretched, scratched, burped and slowly wrote out my first ticket of the night.
I completed the ticket, tore it out of my ticket book, paused a moment, stretched again, yawned then reluctantly climbed out of my car into the cold biting wind. I slowly ambled to the front of the car, placed the ticket under a windshield wiper to insure it didn’t blow away and that the owner would see it. After doing my duty and affixing the ticket to the windshield, I stretched again, this time reaching my arms up to the sky as far as I could and yawned again. I turned and headed back to the warmth and safety of my cruiser.
Imagine my surprise when I turned and found my cruiser was gone! I’m not a skilled enough writer to be able to describe the combination of shock, alarm and panic that overtook me when I turned. What I saw next was even worse. Apparently after I stopped the car I kept my foot on the brake, but never put the car into park! I’ve come to believe that, as foolish as that mistake was, nothing was impossible when you live the nocturnal existence that was working midnights.
The cruiser was slowly rolling down the street backwards. The driver’s door was open, (I had left its open when I exited the car) and it was slowly listing to its left, heading steadily towards the curb and beyond. The possibilities were endless. Even if it rolled between two of the many telephone poles on the tree lined street, it would surly knock down one of the fences and roll onto someones nicely manicured front lawn, and maybe even beyond. My heart was in my throat!
I decided to give chase. I caught up with, and then found myself jogging along side my cruiser, next to and behind the open door. I had to think quick. It would only be a matter of seconds before the car would go crashing through someones fence and possibly into or against a house, or who knows, it could have ended up in someones unground pool!. I sped up enough so that I ran around the open door and found myself running immediately next to the drivers seat. The open door was now behind me, and if I slowed down, I’m sure the car would have continued on and I would have been knocked on my face by the door as it passed over me.
The car continued backwards, and was closing in on the sidewalk rapidly. (I learned later from a mechanic that the reason the car kept rolling without anyone stepping on the gas was due to the fact that the cruiser had a fuel injection system).
As the car drifted towards the curb and trees I decided to act, mostly out of desperation. I dove head first into the rolling vehicle, which appeared to me was actually picking up speed. I had to move quick, otherwise I would have been clobbered by the open door which was keeping up behind me and only an inch or two away.
I came to rest on the front seat. I had no time to sit up or reposition myself. Nearly in hysteria, I took my left (thinking back on it, it had to be my left foot) and started to slam my foot down trying to hit the brake pedal. I flailed at it with my foot while laying half on my face, half on my side across the length of the seat. I have no recollection how many times I stomped at that pedal with my foot. Thankfully, I didn’t inadvertently hit the gas! All I know for sure was that I was able to step on the brake hard enough to stop the car! I couldn’t believe it. I was shaking, and the sweat was rolling down my forehead and face. What a sight it must have been for anyone who would have seen it.
I was able to keep the car stopped while I struggle to sit up and place the car in park. The rear of the car just missed a tree and was probably a foot away from crashing through a wooden rail fence. I slowly got out of the car and assessed the situation. “Thank you Lord” was all that could say. I looked around as I tried to compose myself. I was immediately thankful that I was in such a quiet neighborhood. No lights on. Street was deserted. I could only imagine what the sight of me chasing down my cruiser and diving into it must have looked like. I would never have lived it down.
I sat down for a minute and tried to regain my composure. I decided to act as though nothing had happened just incase someone peeped out of a window or walk from around the corner. My hands still shook, and I knew I was one lucky SOB. Had the car hit anything or caused any damage, there was no way I could write a report about what happened and not come out looking like an incompetent, careless birdbrain, in any order, choose one. I know it wouldn’t have done my young career much good. I would have been walking an overnight beat out in East Manchester around East Industrial Park Drive for the rest of the winter (the usual threat for cops who ran afoul of their shift commander) and after my penance had been served, I would have been stuck on the front counter forever.
After a short time, I stopped shaking, took a good look around to see if anyone had seen this ridiculous episode play out. Seeing no one, I took a deep breath and then tried to act like nothing had happened, doing my best Leslie Neilson / Lieutenant Drebben / Police Squad imitation. ’Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.’
I left the neighborhood, went to the nearest open Dunkin Donuts. I got a coffee, then drove to some quiet spot where I was able to back into but still be visible enough to the public (and bosses) so it didn’t appear I was hiding out or napping. There would no napping for me that night. I felt as though I was a halfwit. Only a lamebrain would allow such a thing to happen. But I also felt very lucky. I wasn’t the only one lucky that night. As it turned out, that ticket I wrote was the only ticket I wrote during that shift. Everyone else on that street that was parked illegally lucked out as well. I sat back behind the steering wheel, locked my doors, but before I cracked the lid on the coffee cup to take my first sip, I made damned sure I placed the car into PARK.
At the end of my shift, I found my day shift relief waiting for me on the ramp. As I vacated the cruiser, taking my briefcase, jacket and other belongings out, the day guy started throwing his stuff in, he asked me how my night was. I told him- “You know. Same old shit. Nothing worth talking about”. I was trying to act like a salty old cop. I only lied a little bit.