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Tuesday September 11, 2007 Edition
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A Day In The Life Of Police Officer Austin

photo by Dale Piper

Tuesday September 11, 2007

By Dale Piper

    Recently, I had the opportunity to ride along with Middlebury Police Department's Officer Bill Austin.  It was a drismal (drippy, dismal?) day that developed into full-blown rain, but that didn't detract from the experience.  Apparently bad weather keeps somewhat of a lid on criminal activity, but it was still extremely interesting and I learned a great deal.

    Officer Austin came to Middlebury from New York's Finger Lakes Region about four years ago.  His background had been in sales, although he always knew he wanted a career in law enforcement.  From the application stage, through part-time police academy, field training and full-time academy the process took over eight months, but he feels it was worth every minute.  Now he splits his time, according to the seasons, between bicycle patrol and car patrol, claiming that on a bike he can usually beat a cruiser from the Hannaford area to downtown.  He added, “Although I'd hate to respond to a call like that, soaking wet and out of breath.”

    The day shift starts at 7 a.m., although most officers arrive about half an hour early. Some change into their uniform after arriving at work, but all use that time to get into the mindset and prepare for the day.  Emails must be read, as must summaries of the previous two shifts and any updates that officers must know, such as new trespass orders issued, new road closures, any unusual traffic expected to come through town, like oversized loads and other news.  On one occasion they had to be aware that Kyle Petty's convoy was passing through.  Once updated, they begin their patrol.  Once in the car, I was shown the radio and what to do with it in an emergency, if something were to happen to Officer Austin (and no, not crack someone upside the head with it).  I was also shown the video camera and microphone, the radar unit and the hand-held lidar unit, which employs laser technology and is much more discriminating.

    I learned that Middlebury is divided into two zones: downtown and out-of-town, but oddly enough Painter and Quarry Roads are considered part of downtown and yet a little side street off Route 7, Thomas Street, is considered out of town.  Go figure.  I also learned that officers have an eagle eye, constantly making mental notes of valid and expired inspection stickers, expired plates, windshield cracks and the like.  In fact, he pulled one driver over for an expired inspection sticker and found that she also had no insurance and had a suspended license.  This called for not only a citation, but required that she call someone to pick her up and also pick up the car.  Officer Austin said that for most people just being pulled over is enough to change their driving behaviors and that many times a warning is sufficient.  However, in this case it was her fourth violation for driving on a suspended license, a civil offense, but that the fifth would become a criminal charge.

    Routinely driving by day care facilities, officers make note of any people or cars that are seen repeatedly or that don't appear to belong there.  In fact, they also notice any cars that seem out of place.  We also stopped for a bit near an intersection where he could watch vehicles approaching a stop sign and in no time at all he pulled over a pickup pulling a trailer.  A warning was sufficient for that driver.  Any time an officer pulls a vehicle over, he stops the cruiser in a specific way: canted slightly into the roadway with the wheels turned to the left.  In the event it is hit from the rear, it will be pushed across the road and not strike the officer or the car that he has stopped.

    Austin credits the veteran officers with much of what he has learned, “…especially Donny Sweet who has shared a lot of wisdom with me. He told me that often I'll see something that makes no sense, but if I just wait it will eventually make sense. And that has been true.”   

    The rest of the day was spent patrolling his zone, delivering a no-trespass order to the victim of an assault, issuing two citations to appear in court (after looking in several places for the individuals), finding and delivering to the police station a bicycle that turned out to be stolen and responding to a fender bender in a restaurant parking lot.  Turned out that the New York delivery truck driver who backed into the restaurant employee's car was also driving with a license suspended in Vermont. He, too, had to call his employer to have the truck, and himself, picked up, ending his delivery route in this area - and possibly ending his job as well.

    In addition to these full workdays, Middlebury's officers must keep up with training in a number of areas.  Physical fitness tests are routine, as is qualifying with a variety of firearms.  Training is also required in new laws, changes in case law and reviews of best practices and outright procedural mistakes from around the region.

    Before I knew it, it was getting onto three o'clock, the end of the day shift.  Officer Austin planned to use the workout room for a bit before he headed home, but I (as anyone who knows me can attest to) just headed home for a cup of tea and to reflect on the day.


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