It is nearly 2:30 a.m. on a cold Saturday in November when police officers Patrick Dotson and Lynell Green arrive on the scene at what appears to be a domestic disturbance in the Eastern District of Baltimore City. Dotson, 25, is barely two months out of the Police Academy. So he's pretty clear about the basic rules of law and police administration, but it is on the street and under the tutelage of training officer Green that he is learning how to be an officer.
"You have to learn the streets, the hot spots for drugs, and discerning who's a bad guy and who's not," says the soft-spoken Dotson, who comes across as a bit shy. "That's the hardest part—finding out who the criminals are. It's the same guys all the time. You know what they're doing, but you need to catch them in the act."
For most of the night, Dotson and Green patrol the streets in their squad car, asking those loitering on street corners to move along, responding to domestic disputes, enforcing curfew with wayward kids, keeping an eye on local bars and corner restaurants that are hot spots for trouble, and generally looking for anything amiss on the street. Dotson, whose parents were both officers in Washington, D.C., explains that when he got out of the Army, he joined the city police because he wanted a new challenge. He found it in Baltimore.
The Eastern District is a tough place to be the new guy. Before the close of 2007, the small district had racked up over 899 violent crimes including 100 shootings and 43 homicides.
Although he says he had some butterflies when he first hit the street, Dotson has learned to compartmentalize the trepidation, the fear of the unknown that the next guy you ask to "move it along" could come after you, or the next car stop you make could go wrong in an instant.
"If you aren't scared, there's something wrong with you," he says. "So you have the fear in you but you overcome it."
Only moments after arriving at the domestic disturbance, a call comes over the radio that shots have been fired on the 1000 block of North Broadway. Dotson and Green hustle to the car where Dotson, who's still getting to know the neighborhood, hands the keys off to Green who expertly navigates to the scene. This is Dotson's first shooting and he jumps right into the work, assisting other officers as they secure the scene around a male victim, shot multiple times and lying in the street where paramedics are already hard at work.
Dotson and other officers put their attention elsewhere, cordoning off an ever-growing crime scene as they swing their flashlights from side to side down the block. They pick up a trail of blood that leads around the corner to an alley entrance where the flashlight beams pick up several 9-millimeter casings. The officers keep the crime scene clear of people and canvass the neighbors for any information. Word comes over the radio that this is now a homicide; the victim, who was taken to the hospital, has died.
Dotson takes his first shooting in stride and describes it as "textbook." Then again, you don't become a city police officer unless you are looking for this kind of action. And during his one-year tour in Afghanistan, Doston says he saw "some bloody guys before," so he knows how to do his job in the presence of human suffering.
"It's not that you get used to it, you just put it away in a certain part of your brain," he tries to explain. Perhaps that's how he remains pragmatic about the job. "Somebody has to do it. If nobody wanted to do this job, crime in the city would be rampant."
Like most new officers, Dotson didn't have many expectations going into the job, which pays about $41,000 the first year, about the same as The Maryand State Police, and a bit lower than Baltimore County, at $45,783. But the starting salaries in all the metro area jurisdictions are constantly being increased in the fierce competition for qualified applicants.
The work—and the hours—are unpredictable and can be hard on the body and personal lives. You may be vilified by some community members and heralded by others. You may work midnight to 8 a.m. one month and 4 p.m. to midnight the next. And the calls are as diverse as the community you police.
Just seven miles to the northeast is another world of policing where a first-year officer is learning many of the same lessons.
Officer Dino Bozzi, 25, works the White Marsh precinct in Baltimore County, which stretches from rural areas on the border of Harford County down to the urban city line. A call of "shots fired" in this district could mean anything from an armed robbery gone awry to someone reporting their neighbor for shooting sporting clays.
"It's like anything else in the world," says Bozzi, who graduated from the academy in December 2006, and who responds to questions with the reserve common among officers when speaking to reporters.
"You can read all the books you want, you can be taught all you want, but until you do it yourself, you aren't going to truly know what's going on."
A typical day in the county can best be described as busy. "People think we sit around and drink coffee, but it's call to call most days and you'll be lucky if you get something to eat," says Bozzi. The work can include calls for armed robberies, domestic problems, car accidents, and cats stuck in trees. Bozzi also patrols for speeders, drug traffic, and drunk drivers.
One of the toughest things as a rookie is literally learning the streets. "I've definitely run lights and sirens in the wrong direction before," Bozzi laughs. But after eight weeks of field training and almost a full year on the job, the minor missteps are rare, if ever.
Maryland State Trooper Diane Hansen knows the feeling. As a rookie, her fellow troopers were shocked when she was one of the first to show up on the scene of an accident. Little did they know she spotted an ambulance and gambled they were going to the same place so she followed it to the scene.
Although many State Police barracks do only traffic enforcement, Hansen is at the Westminster full-service barracks. State Police are the primary law enforcement agency in Carroll County, so whether there's a car accident or a murder, troopers get the first call. More often, the calls are for malicious destruction of property, domestic disturbances, and thefts (where the items are often pawned to buy drugs).
"It's exciting to me," says Hansen, who is more talkative than most cops and speaks a mile a minute. "People don't think anything happens in Carroll County."
For Hansen, 32, just getting out of the six-month, residential State Trooper Academy was an achievement. Hansen was one of only two women in her class, and she was the first woman in the history of the Maryland State Police to finish first overall in her class. Joining the State Police fulfilled her desire to help people and her childhood dream of being in law enforcement. "I didn't have any idea that I was going to be a hero with a cape, but I wanted to get involved in making a community better."
But bringing together all the knowledge gained from the academy in real time—and quickly—can be tough when you're the new guy or gal. On the radio, there are at least 100 "10" codes that explain the call the officer is going to. Memorizing them is challenging. Hansen recalls one day when she was still in training that she missed hearing her own car number being called over the radio; the field trainer in the car with her caught it, though. "The academy prepares you, but being in that real-life experience and bringing it all together—knowledge of the law, what you can and can't do, all the things you need to memorize—it's challenging," she says.
And then there's the paperwork. When Bozzi first started on the job, he experienced something officers who have been in the field for years have yet to see—a high-speed chase. While it was exciting, he ended up with seven hours of paperwork when it was all over. It's also tough to learn how to write up reports. Although an officer knows that someone committed a crime, familiarity with the law and the correct procedure to describe the offense takes time. "As a beginner, it takes a long time to learn the job and a lot of patience," says Hansen.
There's no doubt that joining any police department holds a certain adrenaline appeal. "We don't crave to see people get shot, but it's fun to run lights and sirens," says Bozzi, who saw plenty of action in his previous career as a firefighter. "It's fun to chase someone through the woods who just robbed someone. But it's also eye-opening when you realize how quickly things can go bad."
Ultimately, safety is the number one concern for all officers; safety for the community, themselves, and for other officers. "This job is unforgiving," says Bozzi. "You make a mistake and it could be the difference between everyone going home or someone dying."
Officers are taught that complacency kills—and it's not an overstatement. A simple traffic stop can turn deadly in an instant, so new officers try to remember their basics, like feeling the trunk of a car to see if someone could be hiding inside and always checking the back seat on a traffic stop. A straightforward call to check on a house alarm going off in the county could end in a confrontation with an armed robber. A new officer learns that you should never let your guard down, even though it's easy to let the job get routine. "The main focus is to make sure you and your partner go home," says Dotson. "You need to maintain your tactical training and not be complacent."
As one of a very few female state troopers, Hansen says she's been able to keep up with the physical requirements of the job and always felt welcomed by her colleagues. If anything, she gets a lot of good-natured ribbing for bringing parts of her former career as a psychotherapist to bear on her new job. These officers say they never went through the hazing they'd expected, but that joking, sometimes very off-color joking, is part of being a police officer.
Humor is one way officers cope with the stress of the job, the tough hours, the long shifts, and the mountains of paperwork. Bozzi likes to get outdoors and burn off steam rock-climbing, motorcycling, or reading. Hansen spends time with friends, her cat, at the gym, or playing sports with the Baltimore Sports and Social Club. Dotson is thankful that when he goes home, his wife of four years, Angel, is interested to hear about his work. He says it helps him vent, "and it's better than drinking," he says with a smile. He also spends time playing with his 3-year-old daughter.
When asked how they would describe their job, the officers universally say it's hard work. It's not just the hours and the paperwork and the danger; it is the calls themselves. They can range from the wacky to the macabre. Officers respond to child-abuse calls where a child has been put in boiling water and scenes where a parent has been stabbed by their own child. And there's plenty of death, whether it's a suicide, a shooting, or a car accident. "You have to desensitize yourself," says Bozzi. "You have to take away your emotions because if you let emotions get in the way, you can't see the whole picture."
Some new officers come into the job with high aspirations, but often, the job changes all that. Hansen thought she'd like to go into plainclothes investigations, but never counted on how much she'd enjoy the freedom of being in uniform in her own car. "I like the uniform because I like the idea of representing the agency," she says. "You respond to the scene and people rely on you to bring whatever the situation is back under control."
Dotson came to the city police department because of the opportunity to get into a special unit. One day, he'd like to run the SWAT team and eventually, sit in the police commissioner's seat. "I get enjoyment out of helping people," he explains. "When someone's in trouble, I want them to call me."