Ride-along offers glimpse into local police force


Tara Henry says serving as a law enforcement officer in her hometown of Prairie du Chien has its benefits and disadvantages, but overall, she enjoys her job very much. She has been employed with the police department full-time since 2010. (Photo by Correne Martin)

By Correne Martin
 
I could hardly refuse when presented the opportunity to ride along with an on-duty Prairie du Chien police officer. I thought it would be the perfect chance for me to gain some first-hand insight into the drunken brawls, drug busts and crashes we so often report in the pages of the Courier Press.

“Absolutely,” I said a few weeks ago, when Police Chief Chad Abram offered me the experience.

Last Thursday evening, June 19, I assumed my position as an observer in the passenger seat of Officer Tara Henry’s police squad.

It had been a rainy day, resulting in flooded city streets. Erecting barricades and evacuating residents would have made an excellent basis for this story, but as you’ll find as you read on, sensationalistic subject matter was simply not in the cards for us. By the time we got behind the dashboard around 8 p.m., the waters had receded and the community was quieting down.

I arrived at the dispatch center at precisely 8 p.m. A minute later, Officer Henry burst out the police department door, in full uniform, with a big smile on her face and enthusiasm in her voice. She appeared bright-eyed and ready for a busy night shift. We introduced ourselves, shook hands and headed down a long hallway of offices, out the back door toward the white squad car. We hopped in and began casual conversation, as if we were friends taking off on a road trip.

Right away, Tara began her duties patrolling traffic within the city. “We look for things like speeding, seat belt violations, no headlights, no registration, open intoxicants, public urination,” she said.

Before she drove too far, she tested her radar to make sure it was working properly by tapping two tuning forks together and then holding them up to the radar. One read 65 mph and the other 35 mph. Both were correct. Then she pointed out the in-squad camera near the front windshield and the laptop computer, which was tightly affixed to the dash just above my left thigh. She explained how she writes a citation via the computer and then prints it out from a tiny printer situated behind the passenger seat headrest. Looking around, I also observed two rifles between our seats; they were hard to miss since my left elbow kept brushing against them.

“It’s not the most comfortable seat for a passenger,” Tara relented. But I wasn’t going to complain. I was along for the ride and intrigued already.

Not long into our shift, I started interviewing Tara about herself, taking notes as she randomly navigated the streets of Prairie du Chien. She made her way to all the corners of town at least once in the night. Tara is a hometown girl, a 2005 PdC graduate with a bachelor’s degree from UW-Platteville, who has worked her way up the ranks. She performed her internship with the local department in 2008, started as a staffer in the jail, then moved to part-time patrol and eventually full-time in 2010.

Our job for the night, along with that of the five other officers on duty (two on foot), was to provide the presence of law enforcement in the community in hopes that citizens might self-regulate their behaviors. And if that didn’t happen, we were there to watch for violations and enforce the laws. Thanks to a seat belt enforcement grant ($2,484) and an alcohol enforcement grant ($9,600), both from the Wisconsin DOT Bureau of Traffic Safety, the Prairie du Chien Police Department has been afforded additional patrol for five different deployments throughout the year.

Though Tara’s usual shift is 1 to 9:30 p.m. (six days on, three days off), she worked June 19 from 8 p.m. until just after midnight. Some officers that night focused on calls coming in so that the rest could concentrate on traffic enforcement.

“We’re scheduled two (officers) per shift, unless there’s something special going on. We always keep busy,” Tara stated. “Some days, we don’t have time to run traffic.”

On the Thursday night of my ride-along, there happened to be a country music concert taking place at City Sounds, sponsored by the local radio station. Tara said a previous concert, featuring Sean Patrick McGraw, brought everybody out of the woodwork to downtown Prairie du Chien. All night long, the streets were packed with cars and the sidewalks with people. But, this time around, it was a different story. Most of the entertainment-goers must have stayed home, as it seemed like just another weeknight at the bars downtown.

In fact, we were never dispatched to a tavern. Instead, we tallied a total of three traffic stops, looked out for an “attempt to locate” and responded to a fallen tree just outside of town.

The attempt to locate, or ATL, came over the radio from Clayton County. We were asked to watch for a GMC Yukon, whose driver was possibly involved in criminal mischief. We were given the color and year of the vehicle, license plate number and name of the probable driver. We were also told he may have had a gun. The department is familiar with this particular individual, as he has had run-ins with the law previously. If we located him, we were asked to “stop and hold.” As it turned out, such excitement never occurred until we were off the clock. He was found during the early morning hours and transported to jail.

Our first and most thrilling traffic stop of the night came around 9 p.m. We were headed north on Marquette Road when we met a Chevy Cavalier operating with no taillights. I didn’t even see the violation but, before I knew it, we were whipping around and speeding up to 60 mph within seconds, so we could catch up to the vehicle. The driver pulled over into the Wasabi parking lot and we pulled in behind.

After talking to the driver and waiting for him to test his lights, Tara discovered he had no proof of insurance—a $10 ticket. Back in the squad, as dispatch was running his plates, she explained that he would have 10 days to provide proof of insurance, otherwise he would receive a more expensive fine. In the meantime, another officer radioed that the driver was a possible drug user. After Tara wrote the driver for no insurance and ended the traffic stop, she returned to the car and asked for consent to search the vehicle. The driver refused, saying, “You’re not going to find anything. It’ll be a waste of your time.” Because she didn’t see or smell evidence, Tara had to accept his answer.

In discussing the driver’s response, I wondered aloud what that felt like, knowing the stop could have resulted in a drug arrest.

“If it were my vehicle, I would say, ‘Go ahead and search’ because I wouldn’t have anything like that on me,” she said. “It can be a frustrating.”

Another aspect of the stop I found interesting was that Officer Casey Cox and State Trooper John Moore came to the scene as back-up. I always thought that when three cop cars were at a stop, it meant there was a drug bust. But I now know that is not the case. “Our administration really stresses that we make sure our fellow officers are OK,” Tara said. “Especially if we’re in the area of another officer’s stop, we make our way there just to see if they’re OK.”

“Tara relies on me to make sure she gets home safe at the end of the night and my family relies on her to make sure I get home safe at the end of the night,” added Sergeant Kyle Teynor, after the ride-around.

About a half hour after our first stop, we observed a semi driving on Blackhawk Avenue, which is not the marked detour for the Marquette Road construction project. Semis are prohibited from city streets other than the designated truck and detour routes and the police department has been cracking down on violators. We pulled the semi driver over on Wisconsin Street. He was headed to Menards in Des Moines with a load of lumber. Tara said he was polite, but he said he “must’ve missed the detour signs.” Of course he wasn’t unhappy about receiving the ticket either. He was worried it would assign points to his driver’s license. However, Teynor informed us that was not the case and that this was a non-traffic civil forfeiture for violation of a city ordinance.

After our second stop, the lawbreakers must have gone home because our shift was pretty quiet for the rest of the night. The country music singer was done downtown around 10 and the bars emptied rather quickly afterward. Despite the soggy forecast, no rain returned, so we didn’t have to worry about barricades. We drove around St. Feriole Island and performed a business check on The Depot bar—making sure the doors were locked and there were no disturbances—as the lights were off and an unoccupied vehicle remained in the parking lot.

“Basically, we know what’s normal at businesses and what’s not. So we look for anything out of the ordinary,” Tara noted. When we ran the plates of the vehicle there, no red flags came up, so we moved on with our duties.

Next, we responded along with Officer Stephen Herbers to a fallen tree that was blocking the eastbound lane of Highway 27 on the Mondell hill. Herbers had contacted Crawford County to respond and he was there to direct traffic when we arrived. I got out and took a few pictures. We briefly talked to Herbers, who agreed it had been a quiet night. Then we headed back to the city.

At the very end of our shift, around midnight, Officer Cox pulled over a driver with an expired license near the prison and we arrived as back-up, in addition to Officer Josh Hemmer. Sitting at the scene, I leaned out the window a bit and was fortunate enough to witness Officer Cox, who suspected the driver of drug use, as he performed drug tests. This included looking into the driver’s eyes and asking him questions. The tests helped Cox determine the driver was not under the influence, but he advised the driver switch places with his passenger to assure their safety on their way home.

Of our three stops last Thursday, two involved suspicion of drug use/possession. It was clear to me that the police department is focusing on battling drug abuse, which has been evident in the pages of the newspaper as well (most notably methamphetamine).

Sgt. Teynor concurred: “You can see we’re trying to get a hold on the drug problem in this town.” When I asked him why the department keeps fighting the drug problem even though he admitted it will probably never go away, he responded by saying, “It’s the small victories that keep us going.” I was impressed by that philosophy.

I’ve always believed that my duty as a community journalist is to do what I can to make the community a better place to live, work and play. If I can, by way of this article, shine more light on these issues as well as what local law enforcement is doing to combat them, I’m pleased that I’ve done my part.

Reflecting on my time with Officer Henry, I can say it was an experience I will never forget. I learned that we have quite a bit in common, especially the fact that we like coming to work not necessarily knowing what’s going to happen each day.

“We just want to do our job; we aren’t out there trying to get people,” said Tara, who said she went into law enforcement because it sounded like fun. “I don’t know if I could do anything else,” she added.

I’ve been invited to return to my squad seat again on a weekend night that has a higher potential for commotion and I’ll probably accept that offer too. After all, a glimpse into the work of our local police officers is a pretty absorbing gig, especially when they get me home safe at the end of the night.

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