Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Walking the line

For valley officers, policing neighbors just part of the job


Growing up in such an interwoven community as Blaine County warrants its own handbook.

Parents like having more eyes on their kids, but teenagers, stretching their boundaries regarding cars, love and liquor, have an obligatory contentious relationship with authority.

In adulthood, a few will turn it around; a few will stay the same. Many will decide to make their livings here in the valley.

One of the most challenging jobs to evolve into has to be that of the hometown cop, who not long after celebrating a sports victory with too many beers—and maybe a little brawling—is now putting cuffs on an old running buddy or hauling in a former flame who slashed a new ex's tires. The former class clown now has a gun and he's not always smiling.

Former Idaho Mountain Express writer Trevon Milliard spent a day and a night riding around with two local boys, one young, the other with 20-plus years on the job, to hear about how the valley looks through the windshield of a cop car. And, how hard it is to walk the fine line between being an authority figure and a community member while keeping us from doing the stupid things we do when we think no one is watching.

The Rookie: Tony Muñoz

Tony Muñoz's eyes are restless, darting, intent. Rearview mirror. Road. Driver-side mirror. Road. Rearview mirror. Road. His pupils never fall into the tarmac trance that subdues many drivers. He holds a gadget in his right hand while his left grips the steering wheel, pushing a button as every car passes. A screen on the Dodge Durango's dashboard lights up, indicating approaching cars' speeds.

Muñoz flicks on his lights and pulls over to the shoulder of state Highway 75, letting half a dozen cars pass. Near the rear of the pack, a gray Porsche 911 passes by. The driver is peering through a hand-sized hole scraped through the ice covering his windshield.

"You didn't think I could spot that one, did you?" the Blaine County sheriff's deputy asks as he speeds back onto the road between Hailey and Ketchum and pulls the Porsche over. He angles the Durango's nose toward the road, giving himself a buffer for when he will walk up to the driver.

"I like helping people," the 25-year-old newlywed qualifies before stepping out onto the icy roadway.

He's savvy, too, that in the small-town, tourist-laden atmosphere here, policing often entails informing more than enforcing. Later in the day, for example, dispatch will pass along a call from a husband wanting to know his custody rights. His estranged wife won't let him see their child.

But right now, his attention is on the frost-covered sports car.

He gives the driver a warning. "This one's on me. The next one's on you," he says after explaining the unnecessary risk the driver is taking. He returns to his police cruiser noting that while it may seem he went easy on the driver, he never forgets a face.

Muñoz gives more warnings than tickets during his dayshift, a public relations technique he says works in his favor, especially if he catches the person again and has to ticket them.

As a young Hispanic man, Muñoz is a reflection of how the valley's roughly 21,000 population has diversified in his lifetime. His position helps form a vital bridge to the valley's nearly 5,000 Spanish speakers.

No matter what language is being spoken, Muñoz embraces the sentiment that mutual respect is essential to policing—to build trust, sure, but also to gain support.

With only a couple of officers on duty at a time, covering 2,600 square miles from Smiley Creek to beyond Timmerman Junction, backup isn't always a quick call away. It pays to have friends.

Separating his personal and professional life is an ongoing dialogue, but one that he knew he would toil with in whatever career path he chose because all the likely choices had one element in common: putting himself in tough situations with people in tough times. And more often than not, with people he knows well. After graduating from Wood River High School, he considered being a paramedic, a social worker or a counselor before ultimately landing in College of Southern Idaho's police program in Twin Falls.

Three years into the job now, he still might be more recognizable to some from his days bagging groceries at Bellevue's Atkinsons' Market than in uniform. And he's run into people he's arrested, catching them in one of those "How do I know you?" moments while moonlighting stocking shelves for some extra money.

It's hard not to take work home to his new wife, Lacey, and also to listen to gossip around an incident which inevitably gets passed around—especially when they both know, or are related to, just about everyone in the county. His wife was born and raised in Carey, and they both come from large, extended families.

And, obviously, not everyone is a fan of authority.

Muñoz says that when someone dumped an accelerant on a deputy's car parked outside his house in east Hailey, lit it and ran last December, there were a lot of chills felt by officers and their loved ones.

"My wife met me as a cop, so she has to deal with it," he says. "But people know where we live. That's good and bad."

And though he has considered leaving the valley for a larger, more anonymous department, he stays because this is home, and he wants to do his part to keep it as close to what he enjoyed growing up as he possibly can.

The area he grew up in is not the Mayberry of his childhood. Though he has seen the valley recover from tough economic years before, he's seen a high human toll recently. In addition to a jump in drunk driving and other intoxication-related incidents, he has seen a spike in suicides and domestic disputes as the recession rolls on.

Muñoz has drawn his 9mm Beretta pistol more times than he would have expected. The most searing memory was when a drunken father held his two children hostage.

There's some very real crime here and that's why officers remain over-prepared at all times. The knuckles of Muñoz's right had are covered in scabs from punching-bag drills. He knows he has to be ready for a fight at any time.

"We have all kinds of drugs in this area—meth, cocaine, ecstasy, weed," he says. The Sheriff's Office has a black Hummer that its SWAT team uses in drug busts and raids.

And in between, the monotony of driving back and forth over the same stretches of asphalt with nothing but his satellite radio for company is comforting, he says, and part of keeping things quiet.

"It may seem that we're not doing anything, just driving around. People are waving, slowing down. But it lets them know we're around. It deters some crime."

Some is better than none, but to Muñoz, nothing is worse than being confronted by death, no matter your training.


"I hate seeing bodies," he admits. After having to collect physical evidence from a scene where a man had shot himself, he got labeled by a nurse as a "sympathetic puker."

"Bodies—I think that's one of the hardest things," he says, then adds, "and accidents with kids."

He knows he's bound to have to face the unnatural death of a friend, or the uncomfortable possibility of being summoned to a domestic dispute where he knows those involved. He's rehearsed the scenarios in his head and has a plan to call in another officer if need be.

But he tries not to think too far ahead, or to anticipate how he will feel about being a witness to and even contributing to what are often the lowest points of people's lives. Those dreads stay tucked in the recesses of his mind. But it weighs on him.

"This is where I revert to the Golden Rule," he says. "Treat everyone the same and with respect. When it comes down to it, a crime's a crime no matter who's committing it."

The Veteran: Brad Gelskey

"Everyone riding with me wears a bulletproof vest," says Sgt. Brad Gelskey as he hands it to me.

I pull it over my head and grab the strap dangling at my right side, tightening the Velcro across my chest. The two Kevlar panels, snug against my back and chest, slightly restrict my breathing. It's a foreign feeling, an evocative feeling prompting a pulse of adrenaline and knee-jerk realization. I'm wearing this because there's a chance—albeit an unlikely one—that I'll be shot.

"It took my wife a while to understand that when I'm out tonight, I may not come home," says 43-year-old Gelskey, who married his Wood River High School sweetheart, with whom he has two—now teenage—children. He's been an officer with the Blaine County Sheriff's Office since they were born, plus a few years, making it 20 years in all. He recently was promoted to Bellevue marshal.

"My wife said, 'I'll never marry a cop,' when we were in high school," he says while leading me to his Dodge Durango cruiser. In fact, he says with a laugh, they broke up for a year back then because of his career choice, which started early with a role as a reserve officer and an emergency medical technician during his sophomore year.

Although LeAnn later changed her mind about marrying a guy with a gun on his hip, it didn't mean she'd suddenly decided a cop here couldn't get into too much danger. She had acquiesced, but then demanded her own police scanner. "I said, 'You don't want that.' She said, 'I'd rather know than to hear sirens and wonder.'"

"It's a different monster at night," he says as we drive north on Highway 75, his face cast in green from the radio's glow. The darkness naturally heightens the perception of danger.

"You need to be cautious, but you can't be paranoid in this profession."

He pulls over a car with a busted headlight on Highway 75 and walks up to the driver's window, flashlight raised, the beam angled into the interior. I look down at the monitor mounted into the dash, recording a live feed in grainy black and white, like those countless clips shown on television of pullovers gone wrong.

I recall a story Gelskey told moments ago about an officer he was training who was riding on night patrol for the first time. He sat in the car like I am, watching Gelskey walk up to another car in the pitch-black night, with only the strobing red and blue lights illuminating the ground.

"When I returned to the car he said, 'Take me home. I'm done,'" Gelskey remembers. "He was so petrified of walking up to a car in the dark."

When he says he feels more comfortable in the dark, I think of the intimidating rifle he has, but he says it's because "I know exactly where the driver is, but he can't see me."

All officers must suppress their imaginations so as not to overreact when something does happen, and yet stay sharp even when it doesn't.

"Do we have crime out here? Sure. I've never fired my gun. Have I had to draw my gun? Sure. Would I shoot someone if I had to? Yes, but I hope I go my whole career and never have to make that final decision. I live here because of that. My wife lives here because of that. There's no need for bars on windows or alarms. Isn't that why we all live here?"

Crime, he says, has a correlation with how people are doing in general. Lately, the most depressing increase has been the drinking and suicides spun from the desperation people are feeling about the economy and the joblessness.

"We're seeing blood alcohol concentrations of 0.2 to 0.29. That used to be unheard of. That's three times the limit."

The number of domestic disputes that Gelskey witnesses and the number of suicide scenes he's been on are also on the rise, a sad reality of his social work.

As he pulls into a subdivision, he automatically unbuckles his seatbelt, a move he repeats every time he drives into a different neighborhood.

"I want to be out of the car if someone comes at me, not in it."

In it, he's just a target. No matter how careful and armed and forward-thinking he is, he can't prepare for every threat.

"If it's going to happen, it's going to happen. I'm a firm believer in destiny. I'm not religious, but if you do everything right and something still happens you can't control ... ." He cuts himself short as a car passes with a busted headlight. He gives the driver a warning, and we go our separate ways.

"The job's 98 percent boredom and 2 percent pure adrenaline," Gelskey says, over the scratchy sound of the radio and hum of the road filling the darkness. "A lot of people ask, 'How do you work alone? Backup could be 45 minutes away.' That's why you have to treat everyone with respect. Someday, somewhere, I may need them when I'm getting the crap beaten out of me."

But it's not fear for their own lives that drives good officers off the job here.

"It gets too personal. They drive up on a friend in a fatal car accident or countless other situations and can't take it. They just can't work and either leave the department or law enforcement altogether."

Situations like that are bound to happen. It's only a matter of time for any officer here.

"It's tough in this community. I've had to arrest people I've known for years," he said, recalling a call he received for a domestic dispute. When he arrived, he realized he knew the couple from high school.

That familiarity means officers are always on duty, whether in uniform or not.

"I tell my officers, 'You don't belly up to the bar in the same community you work in.' The community's watching you 24/7.' There's a higher standard. Some can't handle that."

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