PLATTSBURGH — For Plattsburgh City Police on the night shift, anything can happen.
Some nights are quiet, while others result in seemingly non-stop calls that range from burglaries to fights to drunken drivers.
The job has established routine patrols, but calls radioed by a dispatcher will immediately reroute officers.
“It can go from zero to 100 in a split second,” said Officer Bob Cordick.
Staff Photographer Kelli Catana and I went on “ride-alongs” with City Police on two consecutive Friday nights.
Before we got into the GMC Tahoe patrol car for our first ride-along, we talked to Officer Joel Vassar about his experiences working in law enforcement.
The public sometimes has misconceptions about police officers, Vassar said.
“Maybe people look at us in a negative light because of the perception of authority, (but) we’re inherently problem-solvers,” he said.
He described the job as being 90 percent verbal and 10 percent physical.
“Sometimes, people just need to be talked to.”
A recent incident immediately stood out to him as one of the strangest and most memorable of his more than three years with the department.
Vassar was one of the first officers to make it to 3 Charles Way, where Daniel W. Burke allegedly set himself on fire around 10 p.m. on March 7.
The original call for a domestic incident was placed by Burke’s neighbor, who lived in the other apartment of the mobile home where Burke resided.
“We were trying to make contact with the individuals inside,” Vassar said. “A male walks up to the door, pulls open the curtain and looks at me, closes the curtain and shuts the lights off. Within seconds, you could see a flame starting to come up through the bedroom window.”
Officer Richard Tucker, who was with Vassar on the porch, kicked the door down.
“He (Burke) was very calm. Just laying the bed, and his whole body was engulfed in flames. No screaming, no nothing. It was very bizarre,” Vassar said.
Tucker and Vassar, along with Officers Charles Wolff and Adam Wood, dragged Burke out of the mobile home, patting him down in an effort to put out the fire.
“When we got him out of the house, he talked to us like nothing had ever happened. He was apologetic,” Vassar said. “He did admit that he was trying to kill himself, obviously. But he apologized to us for putting us in the position he put us in. No sign of being in pain whatsoever.”
Burke was charged with second-degree arson, first-degree reckless endangerment and three counts of second-degree criminal mischief, all felonies.
Vassar left to start his shift, and we joined Cordick and departed from the station in the SUV.
Nine cars were on patrol that night.
Cordick has been a City Police officer since 2011 and worked in law enforcement before that.
As we cruised from one end of the city to the other, everything appeared calm and quiet, apart from the commotion downtown near the bars.
Cordick described the relative calm as “unusual for a Friday.”
Our first traffic stop was on North Catherine Street a few minutes after 11 p.m.
A dark-colored Jeep Grand Cherokee made an illegal turn from Court Street onto North Catherine Street.
The young woman driving didn’t have a license and was apparently receiving driving lessons from another woman in the car with her, Cordick said.
He entered the driver’s information into the patrol-car computer and selected a court date to go with her ticket.
The computers transmit traffic-ticket information directly to the Department of Motor Vehicles.
‘YOU NEVER KNOW’
Cordick and Vassar sometimes find themselves in disbelief of situations they are involved in while on the job.
“I still could never figure out how somebody flips a car in the City of Plattsburgh,” Cordick said.
He remembers responding to a call where a drunken driver crashed and rolled her car onto its side on Montcalm Street early one morning.
And Vassar responded to a call one night where a young man who was riding his bike on Margaret Street ran into a parked car.
Just minutes later, after the injured man had been taken to the hospital and police were clearing the street of debris, another man ran into the back of the same car.
It turned out the two were roommates, Vassar said.
“You never know what you’re going to see.”
Cordick is a certified drug-recognition expert and has proven to be very good at finding drunken drivers.
“All you have to do is look in their eyes,” he said.
Those under the influence will usually show tell-tale signs; their eyes will appear glassy, shiny, watery or bloodshot, Cordick said.
Recognizing when someone is intoxicated isn’t always easy, though.
A New York State Police trooper called for Cordick’s assistance in evaluating a person suspected to be under the influence. Because he couldn’t assist in person, he advised the trooper over the phone.
In 2009, when he was a deputy with the Clinton County Sheriff’s Department, Cordick made 28 DWI arrests.
The next year, that number more than doubled.
He was awarded the statewide Mothers Against Drunk Driving/STOP DWI Individual Law Officer Award in 2010.
“It’s never the (drunken) driver that gets hurt,” Cordick said.
It’s a common misconception that breathalyzers are inaccurate, he said.
“It’s a scientific instrument,” Cordick said, describing how the device uses internal lungs, a wheel and infrared technology to measure the alcohol content in a suspect’s breath particles.
“It gives us the exact amount.”
Illegal use of alcohol is only a portion of the substance abuse that City Police see.
Cordick said heroin is one of the most popular drugs in the city right now.
“They’re using it for the euphoria.”
Conversation stopped abruptly when Cordick was dispatched to Meron’s on Bailey Avenue.
It felt strange to be driving at 60 mph in the city.
When we arrived at the bar — in about one minute — we learned a fight had broken out.
But by that time, the attacker had fled, and the other man didn’t want to press charges.
Patrons stood on the sidewalk and watched as police questioned witnesses, trying to determine what had happened.
Vassar responded to another complaint that night of a fight, this time at the Store Tavern in the South End.
He wasn’t the first to arrive, and the action was over by the time we got there.
A man called the Police Station at 1:30 a.m., saying four men wearing masks had apprehended his girlfriend, who is deaf and mute.
The report proved unfounded.
Cordick said the man is a frequent caller. But officers must take each call seriously, he said.
“Eventually, all this stuff is real.”
Early on April 13, during our second ride-along, officers pulled over a woman who turned out to be wanted on a parole warrant.
She gave police permission to search her silver, two-door Toyota sedan.
The thorough search turned up only an unopened bottle of vodka and some tobacco, Vassar said.
A sheriff’s deputy came to take the woman from City Police custody.
We pulled into the Durkee Street parking lot to find officers questioning three young people who had been sitting in a parked black Cadillac Escalade.
The driver was initially observed slumped over the steering wheel, Vassar said. He was put in handcuffs as a precaution after he allegedly became belligerent.
A search of the SUV uncovered K-2, a kind of synthetic marijuana, which is illegal to sell in New York.
Officers tested the substance with a drug kit that is kept in patrol cars to be sure of its composition. The drug was confiscated and brought back to the station, where it was logged, bagged and then placed in the evidence locker for eventual destruction.
Vassar said the department’s busiest area is Zone 2, which includes downtown and the residential area beyond that near the college campus.
When the bars near their 2 a.m. closing time, two or three officers plant themselves on Bridge Street adjacent to the Green Room bar.
It’s called “working the beat,” Cordick said.
Officers generally volunteer to station themselves downtown.
“The thing about downtown is you know what you’re going to get,” Vassar said.
We watched as dozens of people poured out into the streets. Many went to Pizza Bono or the hot-dog stand in front of Ashley’s Home Center. Others looked for cabs or walked with their friends away from the downtown area.
A woman wearing a miniskirt and a cowboy hat ran across the street and knocked on Cordick’s window.
“I just want to say, ‘Hi,’” she said.
Things can get out of hand downtown quickly, Vassar said.
City Police officers were issued stun guns within the past couple of years.
Vassar was shocked with the device as part of the training that officers receive.
“It’s an indescribable feeling,” he said. “It’s not pain, but it shuts everything down. You can’t think, you can’t talk, and your whole body just shuts off.
“You feel these pulsations going through your body.”
LIKE ANY OTHER PLACE
We didn’t see a drug bust, an assault or anything especially dramatic, like what’s often portrayed on television shows such as “Law and Order.”
But that doesn’t mean Plattsburgh is safer than other areas, Vassar said.
“It’s like any other place — there’s crime,” he said.
Sometimes locals have a “false sense of security,” he said.
Plattsburgh City Police Lt. Scott Beebie reported a dramatic increase in calls to the station on Saturday, April 20. There was an attempted burglary and a DWI.
The temperature in the city reached 75 degrees that day.
Beebie, Vassar and Cordick all said warm weather seems to cause a spike in crime in the city.
Like most jobs, police work is best done by those who love it.
Along with their fellow officers, Vassar and Cordick’s enthusiasm, professionalism and skill likely come from their love of the job.
“It’s been the best three years of my life,” Vassar said.
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Watch footage by Staff Photographer Kelli Catana from the police ride-alongs with this article.