Two suspects are sitting on a curb, one in handcuffs. Two others stand idly by, smoking cigarettes, as police search a filthy, cluttered room of unmade beds, empty bottles and suitcases with clothes spilling out onto the floor.
Another police car arrives, then another. A policeman in civilian attire digs through an SUV. Chatter that is indecipherable to the untrained ear crackles through radio speakers.
“Are you bored yet?” Huntsville Police Officer Jeremiah “J.T.” Taylor asks me as we stand in a low-rent motel parking lot abuzz with activity.
I’m on the third hour of a ride-along with the new Anti-Crime Team of the Huntsville Police Department (HPD). Though the morning began with a call that turned out to be little more than truancy, the afternoon offers drama. Boring, this is not.
The Anti-Crime Team was established by HPD Chief Mark McMurray, going into action on January 16 as an arm of the Criminal Investigations Division, and it works in all three precincts to further achieve the goal to “balance crime prevention with community engagement,” McMurray says.
“These neighborhoods are full of innocent people. They don’t like crime any more than the rest of us.”
But, you say, isn’t the entire police department something of an anti-crime team? And you’re right. However, this particular team does not have to answer calls for service as a traditional officer does. Instead, it can specialize or hone in on certain criminal activities and work more strategically, more proactively and more patiently.
First Hand Look
“If you were to ride an eight-hour shift with a Huntsville police officer, you’d see most of the day is spent in dispatch, constantly attending to one person’s needs,” McMurray says. “They never have time to get out of the car and just go up and talk to somebody.”
“(We) have all day to be proactive. We can go out and investigate areas of crime, look for wanted fugitives, do anything without having to worry about calls for service,” says Sgt. Terry Lucas, who heads up the team.
Lucas, an HPD veteran who left behind a lucrative career in the computer business in San Diego years ago to join the U.S. Border Patrol, is joined by Officers Billy Clardy, Kelley Reeve, Sabin Troncone and Taylor.
“Basically I picked each of them because of their work ethic,” Lucas says. “The job they’ve given us is high-speed, any day or night. We get the job, whatever the city needs us to do.”
Indeed, after this day-time operation that brings three drug arrests, the team would be spending the next night on the late shift, checking out a number of night clubs reportedly serving after legal hours and serving under-aged patrons.
A major issue has been shootings and the retaliation after those shootings. They are often related to drugs and “usually where there are drugs, there are guns,” Lucas notes.
“The biggest challenge we have right now is basically getting more acclimated to our role,” Lucas says, cruising through a quiet, aging neighborhood. “I’m not going to use the word catch-all, but we’re trying to do as much as humanly possible to help. The investigators are using us more. The precincts know we’re out here. We’re still learning our way.”
See and Be Seen
Our leisurely ride has a purpose. It’s “see and be seen,” Lucas tells me. He’s observing things you and I would never notice. He will often stop and strike up a casual conversation with, say, somebody who has walked out to his mailbox. And there is the “be seen” part, to perhaps provide a deeper sense of security to the residents.
Some of the most impacted neighborhoods are full of innocent people. Lucas says, “They don’t like crime any more than the rest of us.” But through circumstances, they’re often trapped. Some residents are aging and don’t want to leave the home in which they’ve lived for decades. Others are on a fixed income or are low income. But where there are cheap decaying houses and unscrupulous landlords, crime breeds.
Two traffic stops from suspicious activity lead to three suspects being arrested, including one who had run from Troncole the previous week. Then comes the radio call of a shooting at a mini-mart. Lucas and I speed toward the shooting scene, with the adrenaline rush of flashing lights and wailing siren. But there is sufficient manpower on site as we arrive, and we begin looking for the suspect’s vaguely-described vehicle.
Ironically, it’s the shooting’s aftermath that has us in the parking lot of an aging motel on University. Taylor saw a vehicle that matched the description and spied two people sitting in the SUV in the parking lot.
“They give themselves away,” he tells me later, looking not at Taylor, but a soft drink bottle that had obvious traces of meth.
Taylor has the SUV’s occupants outside and sitting on a curb as Lucas and I arrive. They say they purchased the drug from people in a first-floor room. Lucas knocks on the door, identifies himself and I see the curtain pull back a few inches.
Ten minutes later, plenty of time to have flushed or hidden any other drugs, they open the door. Officers find no drugs inside, but another small bag of meth, maybe $200 worth, is discovered in the SUV.
Though the Anti-Crime Team “has already had some big wins,” Lucas says, this is just a small victory. But even small victories in taking guns or drugs or bad guys off the street are to be appreciated.
Learn more about the Huntsville Police Force in our series on Becoming an Officer: