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Working the dreaded graveyard shift is bad enough as it is, but when you add the extra stress of working it alone, well, then it sometimes becomes downright dangerous. But I’ve done it, and so have many police officers across the country who work in small towns and counties. In my case it was a county—my first law enforcement assignment—and it wasn’t all that small. But our sheriff had his way of running things and few were brave enough to contradict the larger than life man behind the curtain. So working alone during the overnight shift was not uncommon. Didn’t like it, but it was what it was.

The sheriff had his reasons for the solitary assignments, I suppose. Well, sometimes the reasons were a bit shaky to say the least, such as allowing time off for several family and/or friends who served as deputies. This was so an entire group of children and nephews and close personal friends could attend gatherings, weddings, parties, etc.

The shortage of manpower left other deputies to cover for the absentees, often doing so on their days off. Or, as I stated above, it was often necessary for the remaining deputy on the schedule, like me, who was not related to the boss, to cover an entire shift/county all by your pitiful self with no one to talk to except a hollow voice on the police radio.

Stuck on E-flat

Speaking of “that” voice on the radio … OMG, if there was ever a cure for insomnia, she or he was it. Looooonnnngggg monotonous messages delivered in a single sleep-inducing tone. No change in pitch or inflection of tone. All one note. It’s as if their vocal cords are stuck on E-flat.

Grandma’s window shades

Working the midnight shift is sometimes slow and lonely, especially after 2 a.m. (10 p.m. – 2 a.m. are the action hours, usually). You spend a great deal of your late-night patrol time fighting sleep while listening to anything you can find on the radio. And you constantly fight with that mandatory piece of equipment worn by all graveyard shift officers … the invisible string attached to your eyelids—the one that attempts to pull them down like grandma’s old-time window shades. And the string uses a downward force that’s equal to three times the earth’s gravitational pull.

You’re out there with the feral dogs and cats while they raid garbage cans and dumpsters, and the back-lit mannequins guarding storefront windows in the various small towns are the only company that remotely resembles another human. Wispy tendrils of steam rise out of the storm drains, twisting and winding their way upward toward the black sky. Your spotlight reveals things between silos and tractor sheds that may or may not be there. Only your mind knows for sure. Images of a nice, warm, soft bed and pillow play on a never-ending loop inside your mind.

But there are some moments of excitement and action and working an entire county alone poses some interesting problems … like an attempt to reach  a crime scene at some point in time before your shift ends. County deputies and police sometimes must travel long distances between the location where they received the call and the spot to where they’re dispatched. For example:

The trip across our county from east to west, with blue lights and siren and gas pedal to the floor, was 40 minutes or so. That’s nonstop as a wobbly, drunk crow flies. North to south was even further. Diagonally, though, if a deputy was patrolling in the far southwest corner and received a call in the far northeast, well, let’s just say that we hoped the complainant knew how to shoot or had a pack of viscous attack dogs handy, because we’d have to stop for gas twice before we’d reach them. And that’s if our radios could pick up a signal in the deepest, darkest corners of the county.

To make matters worse, since interstates do not run diagonally, that meant dodging deer, ‘possums, raccoons, bobcats, animal carcasses, loose cattle, bears, hawks, rabbits darting about as if they’d been shot from cannons, wide-eyed owls, buzzards, bats, and thousands of nighttime flying insects peppering the windshield like gooey, sticky birdshot. All of this while zipping along at top speeds while winding our way along a maze of roller-coaster-like country roads for a good portion of the trip. Hence the reference above to the drunk crow.

Day Shift

Daytime shifts in rural areas present their own challenges. You know, like when you’re running full lights and sirens because someone has just been shot, and suddenly find yourself behind a massive multi-wheeled farm tractor that’s towling some sort of bright green or red dinosaur-like machinery with appendages that occupy most, if not all, roadway space and both shoulders? And, of course, Bubba the no-shirted tractor driver is chattering away on his CB radio while scooting along at a breath-taking 4 miles-per-hour. He can’t hear your siren over the roar of the equipment, and he never, not ever, turns around to see what’s behind him.

So you’re left with no choice but to find a shallow spot in the ditch and crash through it sending everything inside your car flying—coffee cup under the brake pedal, papers on the dashboard fluttering about like large chunks of confetti, handcuffs under the seat and, well, you get the idea. Then you plow through an acre or so of corn in order to pass the tobacco-chewer (you learned this bit of information where he turned and spat a nice wad through your open window just as you finally made your way past his mammoth tires).

Then, to top off the trip, you arrive at the scene and discover an entire family, along with several intoxicated shirtless neighbors, fighting like they’re the feature “act” in one of those ridiculous TV wresting matches. And they’ve chosen large hunting knives as their weapons du jour.

Junioorrr!!!!

So you yell out, “Junior!” knowing that at least half of the crew will stop fighting long enough to see who’s calling their given name. Doing so typically scatters the folks who have outstanding warrants or are parole or probation violators. Then you’re safe to arrest the remaining half-dozen, or so.

Of course, you’ll first you’ll have to stand toe-to-toe and argue with the wives of each of the offenders, and you don’t want to arrest them because each lovely bride has at least one crying snotty-nosed diaper-wearing kid hanging from a hip. And there’s always, always, always a barking and yelping one-eyed, three-legged dog named Bear or Blue who’s frantically nipping at your ankles during this entire mess.

Just as you’re about to ratchet the cuffs on the largest man in the entire county, the guy who bench presses officers for fun (if you only have one pair of cuffs, always handcuff the behemoth who’s most likely the one who could inflict the most amount of pain on you), your radio crackles …

“Shots fired… unintelligible …. at the unintelligible … use … unintelligible … 10-4?”

Nope, no emotion. No change in tone. No inflection.

The entire message delivered in E-flat.

Anyway, that’s how it goes sometimes when you’re working an entire shift, alone. Other times, especially at night, it can be downright nerve-wracking not knowing what’s at the other end of that driveway, the one where you hear gunshots echoing off dented aluminum siding and rusty tin roofs.

But you do what you gotta do to keep your sanity, even if it means finding the end of a long dirt road, stopping the car, turning out the lights, and closing your eyes for a few minutes as Delilah tells some poor love-sick guy, “She’s gone for good, but here’s song that’ll make you feel better about yourself …”

ZZZZZZZ ……

Police radio crackles.

Eyes open in anticipation of the latest fresh hell

Then …

“Automobile crash at the intersection of …” (All in E-flat).

And so it goes … hoping you’ll reach the crash before daylight.

In the meantime …

 

 

Saturday 2345 hours – It was not at all unusual for the sheriff to schedule his patrol deputies to work the graveyard shift alone, covering the entire county with our nearest backup—a state trooper or a police officer from a nearby city, or a deputy or two from the next county over—sometimes 30-45 minutes away, or more.

At first, the thought of covering such a vast amount of real estate was a bit daunting. But we did it without complaint. After all, to question the high sheriff, a man as rough and gruff as any typically stereotyped southern TV sheriff, was practically a death sentence. Or, at the very least, a guaranteed trip to the unemployment line.

The boss seemed to enjoy applying pressure, holding his employees held tightly beneath his thumb. Needless to say, at times conditions, were a bit stressful, to say the least.

So this particular Saturday night, after enjoying a nice, hot TV dinner (single dad with daughter away for the weekend), I did the usual routine of walking to my driveway where I took a seat behind the wheel of my milk-chocolate-brown patrol car. I checked the light bar and wig-wag headlights to be sure they were working properly, moved a pair of cheap sunglasses from the dashboard to the center console, and then used the radio to let dispatch know I was on duty.

10-41, the 10-code in our neck of the woods for “On-Duty”

A few minutes later I was deep in the county, making the rounds to the various businesses—hotels, restaurants, bars, convenience stores, nightclubs, etc.—to let the night shift employees and partiers see a police car cruising through the parking lots. Not that it was any real crime deterrent, but it made the lonely clerks feel better. Seeing another human let them know they weren’t alone in the world. Those of you who work the late-night shifts know the feeling.

I also drove through the lots of businesses that had closed hours earlier, shining my spotlight through storefront windows and into alleyways, checking doors, and calling in the license plates and VIN numbers of cars that shouldn’t be parked where they were (sometimes a quick check revealed a stolen car or one that was used while committing a crime).

0115 hours – A little over an hour into the shift and I’d already covered a lot of ground. Nothing major had occurred. I’d checked a vehicle I spotted a hundred yards down a dirt path—a couple of half-dressed teens who’d steamed up the windows in dear old dad’s station wagon—, stopped a car that  suddenly veered from one side of the road to the other (the guy, a sort of rough boy with a large scorpion tattoo on his neck, said he’d dropped a Twinkee onto the floorboard and was trying to retrieve it, causing him to jerk the steering wheel).

I was heading to the north side of the county to make my rounds there when dispatch called to report a disturbance at a south-side hotel next to the interstate. She said she’d heard yelling in the background and then what could’ve been gun shots. I was at least 20 minutes away.I made the trip in fifteen, driving like a bat out of hell with my foot jamming the accelerator to the floor.

On the way, my alternating headlights, the rotating overhead lights, and the strobes in the back window, all winked and blinked and flashed at once, but were totally out of sync with one another. To add to the confusing light show, Led Zeppelin’s Black Dog spewed from the car speakers. John Bonham’s syncopated drumming, already sort but not quite of out of time with Page’s lightning-fast guitar licks, added a Twilight-Zonish back-beat to a constantly revolving kaleidoscope that should have been quite distracting. I, however, paid it no mind. Tunnel vision is normally a cop’s nemesis. This time, however, it kept my focus on the roadway and not the ten ring circus that was going on in and outside of my patrol car.

As I approached the chain hotel’s parking lot I turned off my lights and the radio (Zeppelin had long since finished their time on the turntable and the Beatles were then in high gear). I keyed the mic and signed 10-23 (arrived at scene).

The lot was packed with cars of all types, but I saw no signs of a fight. I decided to drive around the hotel to hopefully get a feel for what was going on before speaking with the night manager (often, callers exaggerate situations).

When I rounded the first corner I quickly realized that this was no exaggeration. I needed backup, and plenty of it. There must have 200 people outside, with at least 75 engaged in a massive fight. There were another 15 or 20 going at it on the upper walkways.

I told the dispatcher to send everyone and everyone she could find. A second later I heard the dispatcher calling for troopers and any other available help from the nearest city. Shoot, they could’ve sent every cop on the payroll and that still wouldn’t have been enough to suit me. At that point, I’d have welcome a boy scout troop and a church choir as long as they didn’t mind possibly loosing a couple of teeth.

I even saw one woman in the midst of delivering a flurry of punches to the head of another woman. The recipient of the vicious pounding was overdressed for parking lot brawling, to say the least. I say this because each time she was struck, the pearl necklace she wore whirled around her neck like a cowboy’s lasso.

10-33, our 10-code for “Officer Down” or “Officer Needs Assistance”

Delivering the “Hot Sauce.”

I checked my arsenal of weapons. I had my Beretta 9mm, a PR-24 (side handle baton), a riot-size can of pepperspray, and a shotgun. I looked back to the crowd. Then back to my little 9mm and tiny PR-24. Both seemed to be shrinking in size as the seconds passed. The odds were not in my favor.

I sounded a blast from my siren, hoping the masses would realize that the police were on the scene and ready to start kicking butt and taking prisoners. Nothing. No reaction whatsoever. Time for plan B, to sit in my car and wait for the cavalry, meanwhile, hoping the crowd wouldn’t turn my car over on its roof with me inside.

But doing nothing was just not in my nature. Instead, and sort of foolishly, I got out of my car with my trusty side-handle baton in my left hand and the other on my still-holstered gun. Somebody, and I didn’t care who, was going to jail.

Luckily, the troops began to arrive just as I hitched up my pants and waded into the pile, spraying a mist of pepperspray as I went. The other officers entered the fracas at different points, and we began to separate the instigators from those who really didn’t want to fight, but were because everyone else was doing it. Still, this was an all out brawl, the kind where police defensive tactics are often abandoned in favor of the ever popular “do-watcha-gotta-do” tactics. In fact, I remember seeing one officer using a baseball bat to prevent a group of men from attacking him. Where he got the bat, I haven’t a clue.

Eventually, the group’s size diminished and we were able to gain control with very few bruises, scrapes, and torn uniforms. Each of us arrested as many people as we had handcuffs and other restraints, and we had them packed in police cars like sardines. I’d arrived there alone, but left leading a long caravan of assorted police cars from several jurisdictions.

Once each of the little darlin’s had been booked and tucked in for the night, I thanked everyone for their help and watched as they all drove away. It was nearly 0500 when I headed back to the county for a final pass of the night.

0520 hours – Dispatch called to report a fight at yet another south-side hotel. Yes, she’d said, there were weapons involved and shots had been fired. Ironically, ZZ Top’s Sharp Dressed Man was playing on the radio at the time I received the call. I looked down at the spot where my badge used to be attached to my shirt. My shoes were scuffed and my pants had streaks of ground-in asphalt across the knees and along the side of one leg. The knuckles on my gun hand hurt and my lower lip was swollen. Sharply dressed, I was not.

ZZ Top Was My Backup. Yes, “That” ZZ Top

I switched on my emergency lights and siren and mashed the gas pedal to the floor. Then I turned up the volume on the radio and I and ZZ Top headed south like a bat out of hell.

“Clean shirt, new shoes, and I don’t know where I am goin’ to…”

Man, I loved that job.

But these days, well, I’m 10-42 … Off Duty

Have mercy
A haw, haw, haw, haw