"But I Always Ask."
Updated: Apr 23
The following is a guest post by our president, Nicole Banks:
My ride-along with Columbus Division of Police Officer Ed Chung lasted 10 hours yesterday, and I am grateful for every moment of it. Just a few moments into the shift, Ofc Chung received notification of a man stuck in a tree with a ladder. It sounded odd, but when we arrived on scene we realized how very strange it was: a man had stolen a ladder from the fire department and used it to climb across the roofs of two houses, then slid the ladder
horizontally into a tree hanging over the roof of the last house. Where he stayed. For an hour and a half. I've marked the man, Jason* in yellow on the attached photo, and I've marked in purple where the ladder was. It's hard to see; I didn't notice it there for a few minutes. Trust me, though. There was a ladder lying horizontally across that tree.
The officers and the fire department negotiated with Jason for quite a long time. Ofc Chung and one of his 19 precinct co-workers took the lead talking to him, and I was very impressed with the kindness and patience they showed. At one point Jason yelled to officers not to touch him without gloves because he had fentanyl seeping from his pores and it would kill them.
Eventually, and after much drama, Jason shimmied down the tree and was taken into custody on multiple charges.
We drove on, through the neighborhood. Ofc Chung pointed out drug houses to me, "They sell heroin. They sell fentanyl."
I stayed silent a moment, wondering if I'd heard him correctly. "Wait. I thought fentanyl was cut into heroin."
"Yes, but they sell it straight, too," he replied
"They sell it straight? This is the stuff that, if you have some on your jacket and brush it away, you can overdose, right?"
"Yes. But they've built up a tolerance for it, so it's being sold straight now."
I sat there, completely stunned, and unable to believe what he was telling me. I actually had to Google it when I got home, and--no surprise--he's right. Addicts are using straight fentanyl. A substance that, if you or I touched, we'd overdose. They are shooting into their bodies.
Ofc. Chung took me to the home of the family he and two other officers saved from a fire in 2016.
He and the other officers have stayed in touch with the family, and when we pulled up, he was immediately mobbed by happy children of varied ages and races. He had to ask them several times to back up so he could open his door to get out. They all crowded around him, asking questions, reporting news, giving updates about their schooling.
I learned that Jennifer's house is the neighborhood hangout. The kids come to play in a safe, happy place, and Jennifer does whatever she can to meet their needs.
Two of those kids, Juan* and his brother, Jorge*, both excitedly reported to me, "Someone stole my dad's lawnmower! And his tools. Look at our grass! It's getting long. My dad needs it to cut the grass." I looked at Ofc Chung, surprised. They followed my gaze. "No, he didn't report it. He said it wasn't worth it. But now our grass is going to get long. That's not good!"
When Ofc Chung told Jennifer and the children that I was with a charity and to let me know what the kids need, Jennifer's daughter immediately turned to an African-American girl and said, "Zahara*, you need shoes. What size shoes do you need?" Zahara turned shy, and they encouraged her to speak up.
Jennifer said, "She and her brother, Ali*, both need clothes and shoes. They don't have any."
Juan interjected, "I need shoes, too!"
Jennifer laughed and said, "No you don't! You and Jorge are both shoe-a-holics! You don't need shoes. But you do need clothes. You both need clothes."
"Oh!" she exclaimed. "I also know a family who's homeless. They need everything. Clothes, food...everything. We took the kids last weekend so they'd have a house to sleep in. I'll find out where they are now."
Jennifer and I talked for a bit about what Starfish could do for the neighborhood and how and finally settled on this: we'll ask for donations of boys and girls clothes and shoes of all sizes that we can give to Jennifer and she can dole it out to the people who need it. Any extras, we can take back and donate to other needy people.
"What else do you think you need, Jennifer? Toys?" I asked.
"My kids have plenty of toys. They don't need any, but Ali and Zahara need toys. Ali likes Matchboxes." She hesitated for a long time before saying, "What they really need is food. I try to give them what I can, but sometimes I don't have enough for us. Still, I try to make sure they don't go hungry."
Jennifer has my contact information, and I asked her to think more on what she needs for a day or so and then I'll post a Starfish request that lists it out. At a minimum, we're going to ask for clothing (size 14 and under, both genders), shoes (all kids sizes), and dry goods (pasta, peanut butter, canned goods, individually packaged snacks, etc). And Matchboxes for Ali. :)
A note: Zahara and Ali recently suffered through the death of their baby sister. The baby didn't have a crib, and was sleeping in the bed with their mom when she suffocated. It was Zahara who called the police to report the death. Zahara is about eight years old.
All of the kids hanging out at Jennifer's house were happy and excited to see us. They took me to Juan and Jorge's backyard, where there was a trampoline. They all excitedly clamored for my attention, taking turns showing off their skills.
Jennifer's oldest daughter said to me, "You know what I want? I want to have lunch with the cops!"
"I think that's a great idea!"
"You do?" she asked happily.
"I do. You should go tell Officer Chung."
It would be great to be able to work on that. Jennifer said she'll call sponsors to make it happen. She is a very articulate, kind woman who puts her energy toward strengthening and guiding the children in her life, both hers and others'. She humbled me. All the advantages and gifts I have, and she's making far more of a contribution to improving people's lives than I am. I need to up my game, for sure.
After we left Jennifer's, after much promising to the kids that we'd both be back, Ofc Chung took me around the Hilltop, pointing out drug houses, drug dealers, and prostitutes. The prostitutes were always walking. "Don't they...have a corner or something?"
"No. They can't just stand around. This isn't the movies. This is real life," he said with a laugh. They really didn't look like prostitutes. They looked like young, poor women. Full stop. Jean shorts and a t-shirt were standard. They weren't all dolled out in makeup, fancy clothes, and perfect hair. I don't even know how a man would know to proposition them, and should probably ask Ofc Chung that next time I talk to him.
We were called to the scene of what turned out to be a dispute between two families, some destruction of a vehicle, an assault, and two gentlemen with outstanding warrants for traffic issues.
We spoke to brothers Marcos* and Alejandro*. Alejandro was taken into custody by another unit who came to back up Ofc Chung, while Marcos stayed with us. Marcos is in his early 20's, has never been arrested before, and wants to become a police officer, which Ofc Chung assured him is still possible because his warrants are for misdemeanors. He currently works as a carpenter. He was born in the Western part of the U.S., although I should have asked him what brought him to Columbus. He said his mom had died a few years ago and that he and his brother work hard to make her proud.
Marcos insisted that he was up to date on paying his fines, and had paperwork on him that seemed to back him up, but the system didn't match up with what he was saying. Ofc Chung gave him the option to pay his fees immediately or to go to jail for the night and he'd go before a judge in the morning. Marcos said he'd rather go to jail for the night, later telling us, "I've worked every day for six months. I need a day off."
Marcos made us laugh several times. He was friendly and talkative, and it was not lost on me that he was going to jail for something I'd done myself. When I was about 20, I received a speeding ticket that I failed to make the final payment on. One day, a state trooper called and left me a message, declaring that he had a warrant for my arrest. Absolutely terrified, I called Linda Dalton Neupauer, who helped me figure out what I needed to do and even lent me the money to make the final payment. Had I gotten pulled over in that time, I'd have been arrested just like Marcos and basically for the same thing.
Marcos said he and his family don't have a lot of money, but that they work hard and try to stay positive. Ofc Chung told him that he needed to stop with the traffic violations and after a pause, Marcos said reluctantly, "Yeahhhhh. You're right. I've been better about that lately, but I need to be careful." He said he's going to start school at Columbus State in a couple of weeks so he could pursue his dream of becoming a police officer. Here's hoping that happens.
With Marcos, we had to go to a facility downtown where he was photographed and fingerprinted. While there, I sat in a separate room apart from Ofc Chung and Marcos, who stayed together. I could see them on the monitor while they waited to be called into the room next to mine, which had a glass window between the two. The room I was in was where the clerks input all the identifying information about the arrestees into the computer, take mugshots, and create and update the files, both computerized and hard copy. My hostess was Terri, who greeted me warmly, and told me to sit next to her so I could see what was going on. She explained what she was doing as she went along.
Terri and I got a huge laugh because Marcos tried to smile for his mug shot. She cracked up as she repeatedly told him not to smile and he failed to obey her commands. "You're not allowed to smile for a mugshot!" she laughed.
After this phase was finished, we headed over to the Franklin County Jail, where Marcos was efficiently logged in. He went through a search, saw a nurse, then went with two deputies into another area, where he changed into the clothes issued to him by the county. At one point he was sitting on a bench facing me about 10 feet away from me. There came this huge howl and the sound of someone banging hard and steadily on a metal door. Marcos and I both froze and looked around. There were probably 10 officials in the big room, all of them going about their business without missing a beat. Marcos and I looked at each other wide-eyed and then we laughed at our naivety. I told him, "You and I are the only ones who think that's unusual!" I later asked Ofc Chung what was going on and he replied, "Oh, just someone who wanted attention."
We bade goodbye to Marcos, who would soon be joined by his brother. They were going to be in the same cell. Alejandro had been to jail before and, when they were first detained, was giving his brother pointers as the squad cars sat next to each other. The officers driving each of the vehicles put the windows down so they could talk, and when Marcos asked Ofc Chung to write a phone number down for him, he happily complied, getting out of the car to put the slip of paper into Marcos's pocket so he could access it later.
I was very impressed with how civilly everyone was treated, all through the night. The officers I got to see were kind, thorough, and professional. They answered all of my questions without the slightest trace of condescension and seemed very interested in helping me to become better informed about what they do and why.
[Note: I checked the sheriff's records and it does not appear that Marcos is still at the jail. So, it would appear that he bonded out as soon as he saw a judge, which is exactly what Ofc Chung had told him would happen.]
After returning to the Hilltop from downtown, we had dinner, and then, since it was getting close to 11pm, Ofc Chung asked me if I wanted to call it a night or drive around the neighborhood. Wanting to learn as much as I could about the area, I chose the latter. We drove through the maze of streets that is the Hilltop. There are many one way streets, and alleys seemingly behind every house. At one point, there was a couch randomly laying across an alleyway.
Nonetheless, throughout my visit, I was struck by the pockets of beauty that exist in this neighborhood. Every other block or so, you'll see someone who is tending to a beautiful flower garden or who has filmy curtains hanging along a well-tended porch. There was a yard that had stacked up old tires and filled them with dirt. The tires themselves were painted in beautiful, eye catching colors, and growing out of the tires were gorgeous, tall sunflowers.
Racially, the neighborhood appeared to be very diverse, but predominately white. That could just be my impression, of course, as I was only there for about 10 hours. I did not hear any gunshots, nor did I see needles littering the streets. There were also a LOT of people out and about on the streets. Granted, some of them were up to no good, as Ofc Chung pointed out to me, but most of them seemed to be going about the business of their lives, just as anyone else would do in any other neighborhood.
Our final call of the night wasn't a call at all. At about 10:30, Ofc Chung was driving through that maze of alleyways, when he stopped abruptly. To my right, a man was stepping out of the side door of the van that had been pulled up into the backyard of a house. Ofc Chung quickly got out and went to talk to the man. A few minutes into the conversation, a young, white female unexpectedly came of out the side door of the van. "I'm sorry. I was changing my shirt. I haven't had a shower in three days and I needed to change and put some deodorant on," she said. At that exact moment, two of Ofc Chung's colleagues pulled up in another squad car.
The woman gave her name as Katrina Anderson* and claimed she'd lost her ID a few days prior. She further stated that she didn't know her social security number, that she'd never memorized it because she was bad at numbers. Ofc Chung set to work trying to locate her in the system. It took only a few minutes for him to confirm to the other officers that she had three outstanding warrants and the other officers set to searching her purse.
They kindly let me observe their actions and explained everything they were doing. For example, they look inside Chapstick and deodorant containers because sometimes people hide drugs in there.
The one officer (the same one who had been talking to Jason on the roof earlier in the day) carefully went through each item, first finding a glass tube he identified to me as a crack pipe, which he put into a separate envelope. He picked up a tiny scrap of paper that appeared to have been abandoned in the detritus of Katrina's purse. As he slowly unfolded it, I thought he was crazy. It was clearly some little bit of paper, not big enough to hold a discarded piece of gum. And yet, as he unfolded it, he turned it toward me, and there lay a tiny white rock, which even I knew must be crack. I stood there, mouth agape. "I thought you were nuts opening that up!"
He smiled at me. "I used to think the same thing when I started, but now I look at everything. Discarded lottery tickets, tissues, anything. They hide stuff in all those things."
There was also a long, light-colored stick that they set aside in the evidence envelope. It looked innocuous, so I asked what that was for. "To push the rocks into the crack pipe," came the reply.
There was also a hypodermic needle.
Katrina was put into the back of Ofc Chung's squad car, silently crying. He spoke to her kindly and frequently, and he told me I could talk to her as well, but I just didn't know what to say to her. I said her name, thinking I'd ask her where she was from, but when she didn't respond, I didn't press the issue. I wasn't judging her in the slightest. Instead, I was acutely aware of the advantages I've had in my life that she probably did not, and frankly, I didn't want to come off as some middle-class white woman who viewed her as a sideshow. So, I stayed silent. Not out of judgment, but out of respect.
As we sat outside the substation while Ofc Chung filled out paperwork in his car, he looked up. "There's a stolen car coming this way. See the helicopter? They're going to drive right past us. Look."
I looked out the car windows, and a car with squad car (no lights or sirens) traveling behind it drove sedately down Sullivant Ave. The car took a right onto the road on the far side of the fence surrounding the station, and at that point, the cop engaged his lights. And then police vehicles appeared from nowhere. The helicopter hovered overhead, and I went to the far corner of the fenced parking lot to see what I could see. Which was mostly a whole bunch of police lights, but it broke up the "Ofc Chung typing up paperwork" portion for me.
We went downtown again to get Katrina's mug shot and fingerprints done. Even though she had been arrested before, there was no photograph on file that Ofc Chung could see, so we had to go through the same process with her that we did with Marcos. Had there been a photo, we would have skipped this portion.
By this time, it was well past shift change, and Terri had been replaced by Clay. Clay was a master as typing in information while he chatted with me, and he documented all of Katrina's tattoos with ease while I talked to him about why I was doing a ride-along. It turns out he is also a Marine. I asked him if the job gets to him. He said, "We see people on the worst nights of their lives." I hadn't thought of it in those terms, but my God of course he's right.
Clay zoomed through the intake paperwork and soon we were on our way with Katrina to "the Pike," the jail where female inmates are held. In the car, Ofc Chung told her, "Listen, you're going to be gone for a little while. When you get out, you ask any officer on the street up there who's one of our regular officers, and they can get you in touch with me. If you're serious about getting help, I can get you help the same day, Monday through Friday. But it has to be for opiates, only, OK? They'll test you and if you have other drugs in your system, you'll have to go to a different center, and there's usually a waiting list for those. Not that I'm encouraging you to do the other one. I'm just saying, that's what happens. After you get clean, I can help you find a job, OK?"
On the way back from the women's jail, I remarked to him about that conversation. He replied that when they were waiting for her mug shots, he asked her if she wanted help. She started crying and said she did. "A lot of times when I ask, they tell me no. But I always ask and if they say yes, I tell them what their options are."
That, more or less, was our evening. As I type this, Ofc Chung is back on his shift, Katrina is still in jail, and hopefully the two will meet again under more favorable circumstances, maybe even when he guides her to rehab and then to a regular job.
Despite how very long this update is, it was challenging for me to find the words. I hope I painted a fair picture of the Hilltop and helped you to understand its needs better, as Officer Chung helped me to do yesterday. I am very grateful to him and his colleagues for allowing me to peer over their shoulders and for taking the time to help me better understand the needs of the neighborhood.
I'd be happy to address your questions as best I can, but I am clearly no expert on anything I observed. I know enough to know that I have LOT more to learn.
*Name has been changed.