Saturday Night Ride With Lyons’ Finest

To help me prepare for meaningful service on both the Public Safety Committee and the Policy Committee, I asked Lyons Police Chief Wesley Walker if I could ride along with one of his police officers while they were on patrol. I reasoned that I would be in a better position to properly review budget requests, policy changes and react to community concerns about police protection if I could see first hand some of what was involved in “serving and protecting” our citizens.IMG_0944

So one Saturday afternoon at 5 PM, I arrived at the Lyons Police Department thinking I was fully prepared for my Saturday Night Ride With Lyons’ Finest.

“Standard policy is that anyone riding with an officer should wear a vest,” Officer Tim Sullivan told me right off the bat.

“By all means!” I replied nervously. I was unfamiliar with the proper way to don a bullet proof vest, so Officer Sullivan helped fit me in the protective device. That was the first reminder I had that our city police officers put their lives on the line every day for the citizens of Lyons.

Chief Walker told me that I would be riding along with Sgt. Matt Lynn on his night shift and I was anxious to make his acquaintance.

I had seen some pretty bad images of police brutality when I was growing up in the 1960’s. Every TV channel, it would seem, showed minorities being set upon by dogs, having fire hoses turned on them or being battered by Billy Clubs for trying to assert their equal rights. There were way too many communities where the police intimidated minorities and were often complicit in keeping the white race firmly in a position of superiority.

Fellow Councilman Ben Mitchell graduated from high school the same year I did … 1966; however, I attended “Lyons High School” and as an African American youth, he was required by law to attend “Lyons Industrial High School”, even the name of which proves it did not meet the “separate but equal” test of the Supreme Court at the time. Finally a new court heard the case of Brown vs. the Board of Education and wisely ruled in 1954 that segregation of the public schools was a violation of the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.

I asked Ben, who serves with me on the Public Safety Committee, if he thought our police department was doing a good job of giving equal treatment to everyone. Ben assured me that they were doing a good job and the folks is his Ward were very satisfied with how they were being treated by the police.

Hearing that, I was confident that our police, none of whom were even born during that long ago era were treating our citizens fairly and equally as they conducted their business and exercised their authority.

While I fully expected Sgt. Lynn to have a more modern attitude toward race relations, I was bowled over as to how much this fine officer respects the citizens he serves and how much he loves this city. Sgt. Lynn is also fully engaged with the community and has skin in the game, so to speak, in that he has children in the public schools.

When off duty, Sgt. Lynn is often hired to provide security at school events. My respect for him grew even more when I learned that he donates what he is paid for such services back to the school to support the athletic program.

Sgt. Lynn and I made our introductions, loaded up in the police cruiser, and began the rounds. I told him a bit about myself and asked about his background.

I learned that Sgt. Lynn is originally from Statesboro and has been on the Lyons police force for about three years. He has many areas of concern, but his passion is getting impaired drivers off the road. He has honed himself for that task and has an uncanny knack for spotting people driving under the influence.

As we drove through the neighborhoods, Sgt. Lynn was constantly watching everything while I was asking him questions as fast as I could. I would be just chatting away when all of a sudden I would be pressed backwards in my seat as the took off in one direction or another.

“What’s up?” I would ask, bewildered.

“That car didn’t come to a full stop back there,” he would tell me. As he closed on the vehicle, you could tell the driver had spotted him. They were driving carefully from that point forward, observing the speed limit and stopping completely at each stop. The Sergeant followed him for a bit and then turned off. He had made his point, and stopping the person to give them a ticket was unnecessary. I’m sure the driver let out a “Whew!” and behaved from that point forward.

“You don’t always have to write them a ticket to get their attention,” Sgt. Lynn confirmed. “I’m trying to maintain a good police presence where they think twice before driving in a reckless manner.”

It was clear that nudging the citizens toward safe and lawful driving was his goal, a refreshing notion given the proclivity of some communities to view issuing tickets as a good source of revenue.

That gave me my intro to talk about speed traps, especially the notorious one up north of Lyons, that has caught the attention of several news agencies.

“I appreciate that Chief Walker doesn’t set a quota for writing tickets,” Sgt. Lynn told me. “He trusts our judgement.” But before any person thinks this officer is a soft touch, be warned…

“I have a low tolerance for people driving while impaired,” he said emphatically.

And I believed him.

Of course, I had to be alert that I was not getting a true picture of Lyons’ policing policies, and that Sgt. Lynn might be on his best behavior for this new councilman riding with him, but there was something about his demeanor that told me he wasn’t just putting on a show. The people in the neighborhoods we went into waved at us as if they were happy to see us there. When he would stop to chat with people sitting in their yards or walking down the street, they would come up to the window and greet him enthusiastically by name. He would engage them in a courteous and respectful manner no matter how they were dressed or in what part of town we were. He genuinely liked being a public servant and I was beginning to see what the people we met liked about him.

So, in my mind I put a big check in the block “Treats people equally and with respect”.

The Sergeant told me that just like any city today, Lyons has its share of drug activity. He took me to neighborhoods where drug arrests were common and told me about some of his encounters with people on drugs. He seemed to me to feel compassion for those caught up in the web of opiates, like he wanted sincerely to help them get out of that way of life.

On one occasion he told me about, he arresting a large man whose blood tests taken after his arrest revealed that he was under the influence of PCP, a very bad illegal drug that can give people taking it almost superhuman powers and make them impervious to pain. During the arrest a fight ensued. The drug-enhanced strong man was almost impossible to restrain and almost broke his Sgt. Lynn’s arm in the struggle, but with his determination and his training, he was able to finally restrain him and calm him down. He then took him to the hospital to get a blood sample. After getting the sample, he took the man to jail and locked him up to sleep it off.

The next day, after the man had sobered up and been released, he came to the station seeking Sgt. Lynn. As the Sergeant cautiously approached him in the lobby, he discovered that the man had come back to apologize for his behavior the night before. Seeing an opportunity to put his faith to work, Sgt. Lynn and the man went into a room and prayed together. Afterwards, the man started coming to the Sergeant’s church. Hearing that story brought a tear to my eye.

No sooner than he finished this story than he got a phone call on his cell. He was encouraging the caller not to worry about something and that he would see him Sunday. As he hung up, he called the man by the same name as the man he described arresting earlier.

“Was that the man you were telling me about?” I inquired.

“Yep, he’s going through some issues, but I’ve got him back in church and he’s getting his life in order,” he answered. This showed me that Sgt. Lynn cared more than just about his job … he cared about people.

I continued to ask Sgt. Lynn about his suggestions to make his job better. He gave me a plethora of ideas, but one that stuck out as an easy fix was his wish that homeowners would put their house numbers somewhere on their property where they would be plainly visible to emergency personnel. That is common sense. If the police, fire, and ambulance drivers can’t find you right away, the delay could be fatal.

“When we get an emergency call and don’t know the house, we sometimes waste precious time trying to find the right place,” he told me.

That made me feel guilty. I remembered that the house number I put up at my home had been blown away by high winds some time back and I had neglected replacing it. I made a mental note to get another. I didn’t want the police, fire or ambulance drivers not to be able to find MY house in an emergency!

After riding around for about an hour, we stopped at a local restaurant to eat. Officer Ken Patel, one of our newest officers, joined us.

Officer Patel had a couple of more weeks remaining in his status as a “trainee”, and has a youthful enthusiasm about becoming a full-fledged member of the police force. According to the Chief, he is coming along fine and it was easy for me to tell that he is loving this job. Even though he was not born here, I could see that he shares my love of Lyons, Georgia. That made me instantly like him, because anybody who loves Lyons, Georgia like I do is my friend!

At 8:30 PM, Sgt. Lynn heard on the radio that a sheriff’s deputy was trying to find a truck load of teenagers that had been reported by a citizen out in the county. It was reportedly diving erratically with teens in the bed of the truck playing loud music and throwing objects at passing cars. As the car was believed to be headed toward Lyons, Sgt. Lynn quickly headed to the intersection of Hwys #1 and #280 hoping they might come through there.

His hunch was right, and when he arrived, the sheriff’s deputies had the teens pulled over in front of the old Chinese restaurant. After it was determined that they were just being mischievous and were not impaired, they were given a good taking to by the deputies and their parents were called. Then they let them go face the wrath of those parents. I didn’t envy their positions!

My mind went back to the days of my youth when I had a tendency to want to cut up and see just how fast my brand new 1964 Ford Galaxy 500, with 380 cubic inches of pure power and a 4-barreled carburetor, would go. I remember having a police officer answer that question PRECISELY after he clocked me on his radar. That slowed me down for the rest of my life! Hopefully, the kids stopped in Lyons were also scared into good behavior going forward.

Seven minutes later Sgt. Lynn stopped a car with a tail light out. He gave the driver a warning to have it repaired. Each one of these stops had the potential to change behavior and make us all safer.

Thirteen minutes passed and Sgt. Lynn sped over to NE Broad where Officer Patel had made a stop. The guys routinely back up each other when a stop is made for obvious safety reasons. That resonated with me as justification for having three cars out at night instead of two. When a stop is made, it is a good policy to have another car backing them up, and if it requires a sobriety test, it can take 15 minutes or more. That’s when you need that third car still patrolling.

Sgt. Lynn had given several warning up to this point. Just when I was wondering what constituted a “write ’em a ticket” offense, he gave chase to a lady who went through the red light where North Broad intersects with Hwy #1 as if it were not there. He pulled her over in front of City Hall. It became immediately clear to me that this driver wasn’t going to get off with just a warning. Remember me mentioning that Sgt. Lynn is very strict on impaired drivers? Believe me, he is serious about getting these folks off the road.

As he approached the driver, Sgt. Lynn afterwards told me he the smell coming from the car was consistent with marijuana. He then ask the driver to step out and conducted what I would call a sobriety test. Checking to see if someone is under the influence of drugs seems to me to be a lot harder now that alcohol is not the prevailing drug of choice.

Sgt. Lynn is the only Drug Recognition Expert (DRE) on the force, a designation earned only after extensive and expensive training, and thus he gets summoned, whether off duty or not, any time a person is suspected of DUI. He eagerly comes every time they call (did I mention before that he has a passion for getting impaired drivers off the road?), and doesn’t seem to mind. Nor does charge the city for the off duty calls.

I asked him if it bothered him to get these calls during his sleep cycle and he quickly answered “no”. That made an impression on me. I made a mental note to look into the pay policies to see if officers with unique skills were being appropriately compensated for using those skills on behalf of the city.

Sgt. Lynn determined that the driver did indeed appear to be impaired and I transferred to Sgt. Kevin Mathis’ vehicle where Sgt. Lynn could transport the young lady to Meadows Regional Hospital for a blood test to confirm his suspicions.

Riding with Sgt. Mathis confirmed that the great community policing attitude is permeated throughout the Department. He also engages everyone he sees with a friendly and compassionate manner and everyone that greets him does so earnestly and sincerely. You can tell that he, too, cares about the community deeply and loves his job.

I give Chief Wesley Walker kudos for the morale among his officers. They seem to really appreciate his management style. He sets goals and gives them his expectations and then gives them the authority to do what needs to be done. I sensed that they felt respected and appreciated by their boss. It was my observation that they felt pride in what they are doing for the citizens in keeping them safe.

Sometime after 11 PM the three officers meet at Parker’s to give a strong police presence as the store clerk left for the day. I learned they try to be present at each business that closes late to ensure the employees leave safely. It was very poignant to me that such procedures are necessary, but very comforting that our police department considers this a vital service to the local businesses.

Things get real busy as midnight approached. A young teen was stopped for speeding and Sgt. Lynn made him call his mom on his cellphone and hand the phone to him where he could let the parent know what was going on. Then he let him go.

“He’s in trouble with his mom right now,” Sgt. Lynn said as he got back in the car. Again, it is clear that Sgt. Lynn knows what is necessary to change behavior.

This resonated with me. When I was the Director of the Property Tax Division for the Georgia Department of Revenue, I had the authority to fine counties whose property tax digest got out of wack and ceased to be uniform. I remember well when the Toombs County Digest didn’t pass our test and I had the authority to impose a $75,000 fine. That was a lot of money to county government in the 1990’s.

James Thompson was the Chairman of the County Commissioners that year and came to Atlanta with the Tax Commissioner and Chief Appraiser to appeal for leniency. I waived the fine in return for a firm commitment that they would address the problem before the next review cycle.

Why did I wave it? Unless I was dealing with a county with a history of repeated neglect of their duties under the law, I always tried to waive such penalties. I’m a firm believer that whenever possible fines and penalties should be designed to MODIFY BEHAVIOR, not to punish people. If you can modify the behavior without hurting them financially, that’s a win-win in my book. Any government entity that thinks of fines and penalties as a SOURCE OF REVENUE needs an election to change their attitude.

Enough of my rambling, back to our midnight ride …

At another stop of an erratic driver, I was struck with the respect Sgt. Lynn showed him, even after he admitted he had been drinking and smoking marijuana. This time I rode with Sgt. Lynn to the hospital for the blood test. I wanted to observe the procedure.

Sgt. Lynn continued to engage the man while his blood was being drawn. To my untrained eye, the man was what I would describe as impaired but functioning. He was not staggering nor slurring his words, but he wasn’t someone I would want to see him behind the wheel of a car either.

After the blood had been drawn, the case documented and Sgt. Lynn felt assured that he had a ride home (a family member had picked up his car earlier), we left him there at the hospital. As we parted, I was impressed at how the man walked over to Sgt. Lynn, shook his hand and thanked him.

I considered the gravity of what I had just witnessed. A man had been stopped, arrested, charged, had blood taken, and released. He was facing a court appearance, possibly a large fine and potentially increased insurance premiums and yet he told the arresting officer “thank you” and shook his hand. It was proof positive that community minded policing is what people want and appreciate.

The hour rolled around that the various night clubs in the county began to close and Sgt. Lynn and the other two officers stationed themselves at a location where folks were likely to pass on their way home from a night of revelry and drinking. I won’t reveal where it was, but it wouldn’t help if I did anyway.

“We know all the routes they follow to avoid us,” Sgt. Lynn said and I chuckled. People sometimes forget that the police are not stupid. They are well trained, have good instincts and know what most folks are up to. And I would highly recommend to anyone thinking about drinking and driving, that it’s best not to test their determination to keep impaired drivers off the road.

As his shift approached its end at 5:00 AM, Sgt. Lynn headed toward the police station to file his reports. I removed the bullet proof vest and profusely thanked him for allowing me to ride along with him that night and for sharing so much of his feeling about police work.

I came away from the experience with a renewed appreciation … no, it’s more than that … a pride in the force we have working 24/7 to protect the citizens of Lyons. As I had expected, the members of our police force today are a far cry from bad cops we sometimes hear about in the national news, and their attitudes in no way resemble the racist attitudes I remember from the 1960’s. No, our officers treat everyone with great respect and professional restraint.

If you are law abiding, they offer a friendly wave as they pass you by. If you break the law, they are probably going to be watching and when they do catch you, they will be firm but fair.

It was a great honor riding with Sgt. Matt Lynn and Sgt. Kevin Mathis and getting to meet Officer Patel. The experience has made me eager to meet each of our officers in the police department and I can comfortably say that EVERY officer on our force that I have met to date has impressed me with their courtesy, commitment and love of what they do.

Thanks, Chief Walker, you and your officers are a credit to the city and I’m proud of all of you!

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