|It was not that long ago when our society held great respect for all first responders and particularly for law enforcement. I remember the days, weeks, months, and years after September 11, 2001, when many of us wore insignias of the departments full of New York heroes that rushed into the World Trade Center to save people as the towers were collapsing. Sadly, those days have passed. Now we find ourselves split into two camps, those of us who continue to support the Men and Women in uniform that protect our streets and those who request to “defund the police”.
When division occurs, it can create a politically charged environment that evolves into political catchphrases of opportunistic partisans looking to score political points. That is where we find ourselves, the discourse devolved into political theater. Lately, I have found myself thinking hard and questioning what it really means to bare the weight of the badge and what it means to wear the uniform everyday protecting our streets.
One of the advantages of being a State Representative is that I have access to experiences and educational opportunities that the public might not, and I have always tried to take full advantage of these opportunities to learn all that I can. This allows me to be as educated as possible prior to making policy decisions. This should be a duty of every elected official.
In seeking to educate myself and trying to answer the question that was pressing my mind about what it was like to be part of the thin blue line, I took full advantage of an opportunity to do a ride along with a Danville Police Officer. It ended up becoming an experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.
I previously participated in a ride along program with the Vermilion County Sheriff’s Office several years back as the County Board Chairman. That ride along was interesting but not as eventful as it took place during a cold part of the year when not much was happening. My experience with Danville PD was completely different. These polar opposite experiences in and of themselves show one of the true challenges of police work: there are nights of boredom and drudgery that can turn eventful, or even deadly, at any time.
The evening started off with a “routine” domestic disturbance that had strikingly similar circumstances of the call a few weeks later in Champaign that claimed the life of Officer Chris Oberheim.
The domestic disturbance call came from the Fair Oaks Public Housing Development. A female resident had an altercation with a male who claimed to be her boyfriend and father of some of her children. She did not want him in her residence and a fight ensued. At one point, a kitchen utensil was used as a makeshift weapon and things started to escalate; this is when Danville PD was called to the scene. We learned that the male had just returned from jail and there was an order of protection that was being violated. Thankfully, the officers involved were able to deescalate a tense and emotional situation.
I was struck by the vulnerability the officers placed themselves in by responding to this emotionally charged incident. When officers responded to what looked like a “routine” domestic disturbance call at Fair Oaks, they were entering territory where a large, organized criminal element has been operating and preying on the vulnerable population that reside there. I realized how vulnerable the officers truly were, should that criminal element desire to cause a problem. The murder of Officer Oberheim, having been in a similar situation a few weeks earlier in Champaign, turned out differently. The lesson I learned was that any “routine” calls an officer responds to could turn deadly in a split second.
After patrolling the street for a period of time, we received a call that Indiana law enforcement was in pursuit of a suspect wanted for arson and threatening to kill his girlfriend. The suspect was close to the Stateline, headed west on US Route 136 and being pursued by Indiana Police Officers who were getting closer to the City of Danville. Coincidentally, we were heading East on US Route 136 when the call came in. The officer I was riding with didn’t hesitate and in seconds we were headed straight towards the chase.
|I understood things were getting dicey when the officer informed me that the major danger we faced heading into this chase was the suspect hitting us head on. As we reached the east side of Danville, we pulled off on a side street as the suspect crossed into Illinois and into the edge of the city. The officer’s plan was to stop the suspect utilizing stop sticks before he could get into the heart of the City, however, we ran out of time.
Suddenly, the suspect’s car appeared, and we had joined the chase. We were now in the City of Danville and the Indiana State Troopers deferred the lead of the chase to the Danville officers. The reasoning for this is because Danville PD are more familiar with the city and during a high-speed chase, familiarity with streets can mean the difference between life and death.
Our car was second to the lead in the chase. As the suspect passed, it appeared that there were wires covering the back seat of his vehicle and the suspect seemed to be holding something out of the window. The suspicion at the time was that he had a bomb in the car. This turned out not to be the case, but at the time every precaution for public safety had to be followed and the suspect had to be stopped.
Only a very skilled driver could have navigated the heart of the City of Danville at speeds around 70 mph on Main Street filled with traffic without causing a disaster. As a civilian, I was sure this would lead to a crash, but the police officers did an incredible job and handled a situation expertly.
During the chase, a car coming from the opposite direction had not noticed the high-speed chase passing through the intersection and proceeded through the intersection as if nothing were happening. Skilled, evasive maneuvers on the part of the officers averted a disaster as the suspect started driving more erratic. The suspect hit the quarter panel of another vehicle at the next intersection, spinning the car around and out of the way. The impact from that other vehicle caused the suspect’s car to careen off the road. He crashed into a hillside and the car burst into a ball of flames.
Our police car pulled up right in front of the burning vehicle. We were so close I could feel the heat coming off the flames. The officers went to work doing what they could to try and rescue the suspect. I assumed the suspect was dead either from the impact of the wreck or the fact that the car was engulfed in flames. Until the Fire Department arrived at the scene, there was no possible way to get to the suspect as the fire was just too large.
Although I was certain the suspect was dead, the danger was that if he was still alive, he was possibly armed. In addition, the idea that there was a bomb in the car was still a very real one. The Fire Department did arrive at the scene and the fire was extinguished. While the flames were still high, several officers ran forward and pulled the suspect from the burning vehicle. The suspect lived and was released from the hospital that evening. He made it out of a burning vehicle because the officers rescued him at the first possible moment they could.
The officer I rode with is a longtime veteran of the force. He has seen and been in the middle of some intense situations, but he told me this topped the list. The high-speed chase was a once in a lifetime experience that I just happened to get to be a part of. Miraculously, everyone walked away from an ordeal that could have had unbelievable collateral damage to both officers and civilians. I believe this outcome was only possible because of the cool professionalism of the police officers performing at their best.
The evening wrapped up by responding to a call from a family whose young daughter had run away with someone she met on the internet. The humanity and care the Officer showed in dealing with a distraught family in a heart-breaking situation was incredible. This demonstrated to me the multiple roles we are demanding of our Law Enforcement Officers today.
I have always respected Law Enforcement, but this experience expanded that respect on an even greater level. As a taxpaying citizen, it would do well for us to reflect on what we are asking of the Men and Women in Blue.
We are asking them to fight a criminal element and keep our streets safe.
We are asking them to play referee in highly charged domestic disputes that without intervention often lead to violence.
We are asking them to be highly skilled and trained peace officers that can use whatever means necessary to dissolve a tense and dangerous situation without the loss of life.
We are asking them to be a conduit of good in the community.…and sometimes asking them to be a social worker.
Law Enforcement perform these duties with the utmost professionalism and with humanity. The also do it knowing full well that every time they put on the badge, they could find themselves in a situation that could immediately turn deadly.
Most of us leave to go into the office every morning not worrying about whether we will come home to see our family that night. The Men and Women in Law Enforcement do not have that luxury when they head off to work. Thank God they continue to be willing to put it all on the line, to serve and protect, for all of us.