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20% of the Population Is Gone

At the beginning of my ride along with Columbus Division of Police 5th Precinct Officer Pete Casuccio on Saturday, while we were still in the roll call room, I asked him what the racial make up of 5th Precinct (North Linden) is. “Well,” he replied, “what you need to know first is that 20% of the population is GONE.” Twenty percent of the area houses are completely unoccupied. Once you drive through the neighborhoods, these abandoned homes are so noticeable that, had he not mentioned it in the roll call room, I would have absolutely commented on it. There are so many boarded up houses on seemingly every street that it’s impossible not to notice.

As Ofc Casuccio was educating me on some of the challenges faced by the neighborhood, the energy in the room suddenly changed. Officers who had been lingering after roll call jumped to their feet, and I immediately and unquestioningly grabbed my bag. Ofc Casuccio looked at me, saw I was following, and walked toward the door as the words from the dispatcher came across the radio, “…had previously stated on a Facebook Live video that he wanted to kill a cop.”

Ofc Casuccio explained in the car as he headed to the scene that a man had been reported to be trespassing at a home and that this same man had made a video the day before saying he wanted to shoot a cop. After the scene was secured, it was determined that, despite the threats, the officers could not hold the man. He actually had the legal right to be in the home he was reported to be trespassing in. In addition, no guns or drugs were found on the man or his friend.

“We’re going to have to let him go,” Ofc Casuccio told me as the man raged at the police from the back of a cruiser. “We’ve just made things worse,” he said with regret.

As we left that house and drove a few blocks down Cleveland Avenue, I saw a few women walking down the street with a couple of children. One of the women, old enough to have gray laced through her hair, lifted her arm and flipped us off as we passed.

“Hey!” I exclaimed, turning around to watch as long as possible. “That woman just flipped you off.”

“Oh yeah?” he responded politely. “Happens all the time.”

“But she was middle aged!”

“Yeah. It happens,” he repeated with a shrug.

He was right. He even got flipped off by a little kid of about six or seven! It got to the point where, instead of telling him he got flipped off, I’d tell him, “Hey, they waved at you!” He’d say with interest, “Oh yeah?” and he’d swivel his head to see if he could see who’d been the person to show a friendly greeting.

We spent the next hour or two responding to various calls: problems with a customer at a McDonald’s, a hardworking couple who tracked down their daughters’ stolen iPhones to the home of one of their daughter’s friends, a man and his toddler daughter who’d been hit by a texting driver who fled the scene. That last one was really frustrating. Nice guy, great father, who drives professionally for a living, was broadsided by some dumbass who can’t put his phone down long enough to respect the fact that a CAR IS A DEADLY WEAPON. The poor man was shaken and angry and worried about his daughter being hurt, and all because some idiot felt the freaking need to drive 40 mph and TEXT.

The fire department came and waved at the little girl as they arrived on site. They all crowded around her with smiles on their face as she sat up in her dad’s arms gazing at them shyly. Thankfully she was in a car seat, in the middle of the back seat instead of on one of the sides, and she was perfectly fine.

Ofc Casuccio informed us that texting is such a problem in the city that they’re deploying a task force next week devoted to reducing the number of texting drivers. Texting is now a primary offense in the state of Ohio, meaning that you can be pulled over if an officer observes you to be texting and driving. It used to be that it was a secondary offense, which meant that they couldn’t pull you over for it. That has ended, and with the increasing number of injuries due to distracted driving, they’re focusing on it in a major way.

We drove around through the housing area to see if we could find the vehicle that had hit the gentlemen, but we couldn’t see anything. He took me through other neighborhoods, pointing out houses where major crimes had been committed or where drug raids had been conducted. He was very well informed, even able to recount events that had happened before he came on the force. His father is a retired police officer, and it’s clear he listened to and remembered his father’s stories.

Then, like many of you who were out and about late Saturday afternoon, we were suddenly in the middle of a horrific rainstorm. A call came in that a woman was trapped in a vehicle with the water halfway up her car and rising. Ofc Casuccio tried valiantly to get to the scene, but we were blocked by people who don’t know how to yield to emergency vehicles. And a train. Trains always get the right of way.

As the minutes passed, the calls kept coming. We ended up driving down High Street trying to assist in the emergencies as the police presence became increasingly stretched around the city. Two other people were trapped in a different vehicle. A half-finished building was on the verge of collapse. Flood water was making the ramp off 315 at Olentangy a hazard and it needed to be closed off. He’s listening to the radio and responding as necessary while driving in rain so bad it made the windshield completely white. When I could see, I was shocked at the scene in front of me. High Street was flooding, and the side streets meeting it from the east looked like creeks feeding into a river.

I have to say, I’m picky about driving with other people. They usually scare me in one way or another, but going through all that with lights and sirens, which apparently is a sign to some people to pull out in front of a cop, he didn’t scare me once. He is a VERY good driver and I enjoyed all the runs we went on. When I complimented him on his driving skills during this deluge he replied, “It’s because I can drive a boat.” HAHA!

Fair enough! He was calm through all of it. The biggest complaint he offered was, “It’s hard to see,” said in a moment when it was actually impossible to see. How he managed to thread his way through all that football traffic with such poor visibility and floodwaters around us, I’ll never know.

We ended up closing down the exit off 315, which wasn’t probably the most exciting thing we could have done, but it was very necessary. The way the exit is, people couldn’t see the flood water until they were right there, and then they HAD to go through it or risk getting rear ended. No other option. He probably ended up preventing an accident or two.

The rain kept people indoors most of the day, so I had a lot of time to talk to him about Columbus, policing, politics, and poverty. I’m not going to try to re-create all of our conversations. He is very well spoken and informed and if I leave off a few words I’ll change the meaning, and I’d hate to do that to him. I will tell you that it upsets him greatly that so many Americans are impoverished. We need to get to the root of what is causing poverty and help fix that, not apply band aids that haven’t been working. I complimented him on thinking like that and he replied that he sees it every day, how could he NOT think like that.

We ate delicious homemade pizza at the fire department that evening. It was actually the first time I’ve been to a fire station, and while I only stayed in the kitchen and dining area, I was surprised at how homey it was. The people were warm and kind, and it was a lovely experience.

We got a call to respond to an issue at another fast food restaurant. In this call, as in the others I’d witnessed, Ofc Casuccio was calm and tried to resolve the issue with diplomacy. As he talked to the offender—who claimed he waited 45 minutes for his food, which he’d paid for and never received—even when it became clear that the man was lying, Ofc Casuccio was laid back about it. He convinced the guy to leave, told him to have a good evening, and everything was fine for everyone involved.

The last call of the evening was a traffic accident in which someone turned left when they shouldn’t have and got broadsided. Six injuries, but thankfully only one of them had to be transported to the hospital.

Even though I got to leave just before 10pm, Ofc Casuccio had to do all the paperwork on the traffic accident, and THEN head out for four hours of overtime work in another precinct. Those men and women work a lot. Think about all the activities and concerts you enjoy across Columbus: football, soccer, baseball, concerts. Those events are staffed by officers working overtime. They don’t have enough officers, so overtime it is.

Some thoughts…

…if you work for COTA, please ask the drivers to be more cognizant of emergency vehicles. In that eight hour shift, I observed three instances of COTA drivers failing to yield to a vehicle running lights and sirens. Two of those were the bus pulling out in front of him, and in the other, the bus straddled both lanes so he couldn’t get around them.

…in general, if you see an emergency vehicle behind you, pull over. When you pull over, think about where you are. Can the emergency vehicle get around you? If they can’t, it’s OK for you to pull up so they have a clear line of travel. Try to quickly get to a point where the vehicle can easily go around you. And for God’s sake, don’t pull out in front of one (you’re doubting me, but it happened multiple times, including during that deluge).

...don't drive through flood water. The woman who was trapped had to be rescued by the fire department, while the other two people I talked about had to swim to safety.

…towards the end of evening we were at the scene of what was reported to be a man firing a handgun. Six or seven officers converged on the area, and of course, I had to wait in the car. The officers were talking to some people on a porch, and I could see all of them from where I sat. In the distance, I heard four loud pops that drew my attention. I wondered for a moment if they were gun shots, then I realized NOT ONE of the officers had moved or even looked in that direction. Fireworks. They were fireworks, and all of those officers knew it without even thinking about it.

…this was my last scheduled ride along, although I’d very much like to go back to the Hilltop and do another one in a month or two. I still feel like there’s a lot for me to learn, and the Hilltop is a good place to learn it. That said, if these entries have been educational for you and you’d like to learn more, I encourage you to go on your own ride along. You can fill out the application here: I’ve attached a map of the city so you can see where the various precincts are. You don’t need to go where I went. I went to those precincts because we’re working with officers who are from them, but clearly that’s not the norm.

A few tips for ride alongs: 1) You have to dress business casual (no jeans!) and have closed toed shoes on. 2) You’ll be given a key to the police vehicle, which I didn’t know on my first ride along. Wearing women’s slacks, I didn’t have a pocket, so I had to improvise. With my second ride along, I brought a lanyard with me. 3) Have an idea of what you’d like to learn. The officers will try their best to tailor your experience to your needs. If you want to learn about the challenges they face or about the people in the neighborhood, tell them that, and they’ll try very hard to make it happen. 4) Arrive 5-10 minutes before the start of the shift. 5) You don’t have to stay the whole time. Ofc Casuccio said he had someone who stayed half an hour, lasted one run, and that was it. He freely says it’s not for everyone. You won’t offend them if you say you’d like to call it a night. 6) Take some water with you. 7) Yes, they WILL let you pee. Whenever you need to. Just say the word!

Even though I was a police officer in the Marine Corps, I still learned a great deal from my ride alongs. Many of the procedures were the same, but the community that is served is not, clearly. There’s a huge difference between policing a military base, especially overseas, and policing inner city Columbus. I have a deep respect for what these men and women do, and how they consistently try to make a difference. I recognize that improvements can be made. Here’s the thing: they recognize that, too. That’s WHY we have officers who want to partner with the Starfish Assignment. They WANT to make things better.

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