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Night Patrol
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“We’re not going to violate anybody’s rights here,” is the first thing Savannah Police Capt. Richard Zapal says to the group of uniform and undercover officers gathered at 8 p.m. one recent Friday night in the briefing room on Oglethorpe Avenue.

Capt. Zapal is preparing the thirty or so officers from various local law enforcement agencies for another citywide “jumping corners” operation, designed both to make arrests and to promote police visibility.

The tactic is simple: An unmarked van drives up to a group of people congregating in a high crime area. At a signal, the back door of the van opens and 8-10 police swarm onto the block.

The reasoning is also simple, almost childishly so: If you run away, you’re probably up to no good.

“If they scatter like cockroaches like they usually do and some get away, we’ll get the puppies and go down the back trails to see if they dropped anything,” Capt. Zapal says.

The “puppies” are a Savannah Police dog primarily trained to detect drugs and a Sheriff’s Department dog primarily trained to detect explosives and guns. Though local police have done such large-scale operations without dogs in the past, the K9 officers and their four-legged partners take the operations to a whole new level.

The only hitch in the plan tonight is the unavailability of the usual unmarked bus. “Somebody broke it,” Capt. Zapal jokes.

To compensate, the police do what you or I would do in a similar situation:

“We rented a truck from Budget,” Capt. Zapal says, almost sheepishly.

He figures the Budget truck will be good for two hours, max, before word gets out on the street -- “faster than the Internet,” as one cop puts it -- and the element of surprise is lost.

“We’re going to hit all the corners we hit last time and then some,” Capt. Zapal concludes his briefing. “We’re not looking for arrests, but we’ll make some arrests. Let’s make good use of the helicopter and the dogs. That’s what we’ve got them for.”

I will be riding along this night in an unmarked car driven by Sgt. David Gay, head of the Savannah Police robbery division. Looking more like a young Navy officer than a veteran detective, Sgt. Gay’s youthful, clean-cut look belies his years of experience on the force.

His job tonight -- along with several other unmarked units -- is to circle the periphery of the target area. He’s there to support the raid and block off avenues of escape, but it’s also crucial that he not get too close to the Budget truck and give the game away.

The first stop is a gathering of young black males at Waldberg and East Broad.

While it’s true that every single area targeted this night will be heavily African-American, it’s just as true that a high proportion of the officers “jumping corners” are also black. The Savannah Police K9 officer, for example, is African-American himself.

If you were so inclined, you could make a case that these operations unfairly target black citizens; but you cannot make the case that they are purely white-on-black efforts.

As usual, Sgt. Gay and I never see the cops swarm out of the Budget truck; we will always arrive moments later.

Approaching the scene on foot, I see what will become the pattern for the evening: Lone black men, separated from their friends by at least 20 feet, being spoken to by lone police officers -- some uniformed, some not.

But this is no “Cops” episode. The police do not bark or threaten or humiliate or gang up. In fact, I never hear them so much as raise their voices.

“There’s no point trying to intimidate people,” Sgt. Gay explains. “Some of these guys may have been in prison five or ten years. There’s nothing we can do that will intimidate them.”

In each one-on-one encounter, spaced out of earshot of the others, the officers politely but persistently ask questions. Not only are they eliciting information from the men, they sometimes lie to them in order to get that information.

“Police don’t have to always tell you the truth,” explains police spokesman Bucky Burnsed, citing a Supreme Court ruling.

“Just because a cop may lie to you and say, ‘Your buddy told me the dope was yours,’ doesn’t mean you can tell that cop a lie. The burden is still on you to always tell the truth.”

I will notice throughout the evening that it’s usually the same officers having these one-on-one curbside chats.

“Some officers are just better at communicating than others,” Sgt. Gay explains. “And some officers are better at straight-up enforcement, like traffic officers.”

The key, he says, is to establish a rapport with the suspect. He reiterates that police abuse of citizens is not only bad PR, it’s also a very ineffective way to get information.

While the young men are kept separated, the drug dog is brought in to sniff the car the men were hanging around.

Amazingly, the dog will find traces of drug residue in every single vehicle I see it sniff this evening. Every one, without exception.

Still, only a single drug arrest will be made the entire night. Why?

“The dog just knows it smells drugs,” Burnsed explains. “It doesn’t know who had them or when.”

Indeed, these cops this evening are keenly aware that unless their case is airtight, it is unlikely to result in a conviction and will just waste everyone’s time.

“An arrest is only the first step of the law enforcement process,” Sgt. Gay says. “That’s a lesson a lot of cops have to learn the hard way. It’s very important that an officer be able to articulate his case in front of a judge, otherwise a good defense attorney can make you look really bad.”

En route to our next corner, there’s a change in plan: An officer is trying to initiate a traffic stop of a pickup truck driving away from a known drug hotspot.

The truck is driving in a downtown lane, which is illegal and therefore “probable cause” to justify a pullover. The chase is on.

We’re several blocks away when we hear the call on the radio. Sgt. Gay guns his unmarked car and we quickly head east. Looking to my right, I see other unmarked units converging in the same direction down other side streets.

Sgt. Gay turns south on Harmon, and within seconds the pickup truck exits the lane and heads right for us. Behind it is a marked police car, lights flashing. Several unmarked Crown Victorias appear in my peripheral vision as we close head-on with the pickup truck.

The driver of the truck, realizing the game is up, slams on brakes well before we close with him. The officers in the marked unit behind him leap from their car, guns drawn, yelling at him to get out.

This is as close as we’ll get to a “Cops” episode tonight.

As the man exits the truck, the cops grab him and throw him down -- hard -- in the middle of the street, cuffing him. His cellphone clatters across the pavement.

I immediately feel sorry for the suspect, a black male in his mid-40s, clean-cut and casually but attentively dressed. He appears to be a regular working man, I think to myself, probably with a family at home -- hardly someone who deserves this rough treatment at the hands of the police.

But by the time I walk the 30 feet to the scene, police have already found a crack pipe in his truck. The next step is to look for the drugs the police are sure he’s thrown in the lane.

They don’t even need a dog for this. Within a few minutes police have found a baggie in the tall grass in the lane, containing a few rocks of crack and some powder cocaine.

“That’s a big bag,” Sgt. Gay says. “If we’re lucky it’ll be over 28 grams. If it comes in over 28 grams we can charge him with intent to distribute.”

As the man is being put in a police car to go to jail, Bucky Burnsed motions me over to the now-abandoned truck, which will have to be towed.

“Look at this,” he smiles, pointing to a sheet of paper in the cab of the pickup truck.

It’s one of Burnsed’s own Savannah Police press releases, titled “Tips on How to Avoid Being a Crime Victim.”

It’s funny in that cynical sort of way common to cops and journalists, and we all get a kick out of that piece of paper.

But later on it just makes me feel sorry for the guy again. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Next we will jump a corner in the Fred Wessels project -- or “public housing community,” as police insist on calling it.

As usual, Sgt. Gay and I arrive immediately after the swarming from the Budget truck. A group of black males is being separated and interrogated near a white car.

On the hood of the car a plastic cup with a small amount of liquor sits on top of a pack of playing cards with the Oglethorpe Club’s logo. One and five-dollar bills are scattered for several feet around the car.

In the minute or so since the cops swarmed out of the truck, a large crowd of Fred Wessels residents has already gathered to watch the show.

It’s actually a wholesome family scene, with surprisingly little tension in the air. Children play boisterously, parents calmly converse on cellphones, babies coo and cry.

Circling overhead is the Savannah police helicopter, with its blinding, intense searchlight that can light up an entire city block. It’s not quite like daylight, as police PR likes to claim, but the chopper’s searchlight does enable us to see quite comfortably at 10 p.m. on this dark street.

“There goes our night vision,” jokes a cop.

The drug dog has found residue somewhere in the back of the car. Of course, no one is claiming ownership of the vehicle.

“Ordinarily we would ask the owner if we can search the car,” Burnsed says. “If they say no, then we don’t. But no one is owning up to whose car this is, so we can consider it abandoned and search it all we want.”

As cops remove the car’s backseat to search for what they hope are the drugs the dog sniffed, an undercover officer finds something: A color copy of a photograph.

“Hey, man,” the cop says, a smile beginning to form on his face.

The officer looks down at the photo, then up at a young man standing on the curb nearby, then back down at the photo again.

“This you, man?” the cop asks.

The young man, 19 or 20 years old, breaks out into a grin and walks up to the cop as the crowd laughs.

“Yeah, that’s me, but you know, I wasn’t gonna say nothin’,” he says.

“You wasn’t gonna say nothin’?” the cop repeats, laughing.

“I didn’t know what was goin’ on up in here, you know, so I didn’t say nothin’.”

I ask Sgt. Gay why the young man isn’t in a heap of trouble for not claiming his car.

“We didn’t actually ask him if it was his car, so technically he didn’t have to tell us anything,” Sgt. Gay says. “If we had asked him directly and he lied about it, that’s a different matter.”

Another man, probably in his late 20s, feels comfortable in approaching the white car now that police know who it belongs to. He reaches for the half-empty cup of liquor still sitting on the hood.

“That yours?” an undercover cop says.

“Hey, it’s in a plastic cup,” the man smiles.

“You can only have to-go cups in certain areas,” the cop answers. “It doesn’t go out this far.”

“Well, I guess I’ll leave that little bit alone,” the man laughs, walking off.

As Sgt. Gay and I drive away, I mention that cellphones all over town are probably real busy right about now.

“Oh, cellphones are ringing off the hook,” he says. “All talking about a Budget rental truck.”

I never did see who ended up with all those one and five dollar bills.

We’re going over to the westside now, to the hotspots off MLK Jr. Boulevard near Beach High School.

But things are pretty slow, and none of us can figure out why. Then one cop says over the radio, “Oh, I forgot -- Beach is playing its homecoming against Groves tonight.”

Until some action can be found for the Budget truck, we’re going to check out a known drug area near Beach.

Sgt. Gay and I drive up as undercover police are questioning a man sitting alone in his very nice sports car in a parking lot known to host drug transactions.

The officers are speaking gently to the heavyset, older black man in the shiny silver car. One of the officers waves us off, as if to say, “We’ve got this one under control.”

As we drive off, I look over my shoulder. The driver’s door of the sports car is open, and an undercover cop reaches down beside the driver’s leg.

He pulls out a big semiautomatic pistol, probably a Glock, in a holster under the driver’s seat. That’s a concealed weapon violation. You can have a gun in your car; you just can’t keep one there.

The Budget truck isn’t having much luck. It approaches some crowds, only to see them scatter quickly. We wonder if word really did spread “faster than the internet” over here.

Meanwhile, as we drive north past the corner of 38th Street and MLK, Sgt. Gay sees something.

“Look at that group of guys. See that one right there? He’s counting his rocks.”

All I see is a group of young black men hanging out on a porch. If hanging out on a porch on a hot summer night in the South is a crime, I think to myself, they’ll need to build a lot more prisons.

And then I realize: I’m looking at an open-air drug market, right there under the streetlight.

One of the men is standing there, looking down and counting something in the palm of his hand. I can almost see his lips move as he counts.

But Sgt. Gay keeps on driving.

“If they see brake lights flashing, they know someone saw them. So I’ll go up here a ways and turn around,” he explains.

“The other thing is eye contact,” he adds. “When I was first starting out, I would look directly at people who were acting suspiciously. I found out that’s the last thing you want to do, because it clues them in that you’re watching them.”

He radios in his observation, mentioning the specific location and that “there’s a carpet hanging over the steps.”

I didn’t see any carpet. Why did he mention that over the radio? Cops sure are funny, I think to myself.

Meanwhile, the Budget truck is still in search of targets. The chances of a successful ambush here tonight seem to be receding rapidly. Apparently the alert level on the westside is high.

Sgt. Gay is lobbying for the truck to approach the crack market at 38th and MLK. “They’ve got a carpet over the steps,” he repeats.

There he goes with the carpet thing again.

“They’re reaching up under there. I think that’s where the merchandise is.”

Oh. That.

Sgt. Gay is about to get his way when we hear over the radio that there’s a domestic in progress in Kayton Homes and that we’re all to go over there instead.

“Now you’ll get to see some ‘baby mama drama,’” says Sgt. Gay.

The consensus is that it’s better to let the drug corner go than to have someone get shot and killed during a domestic argument with small children around.

So off to Kayton Homes we go.

The scene has cooled off by the time we get there. Police follow the usual arrangement, separating the disputing parties -- in this case two young black men -- and forcing each to sit on the curb as they talk to individual officers.

One officer speaks to the woman at the center of the dispute. She is allowed to stand.

Sgt. Gay explains that less people are getting hurt in domestic arguments than they used to.

“It used to be that police would respond to domestic calls just to have somebody say there’s nothing going on and they won’t press charges,” he says. “So the fighting would just continue. Sometimes you’d have police coming back to the same location four and five times in one night.”

A crackdown by the Georgia legislature, he says, has allowed police much more leeway in domestic disputes -- whether or not someone is pressing charges.

“We want to defuse the situation by separating the parties,” he says. “If you can just take one of the parties away from the scene, by putting them in jail for a night or whatever, a lot less people get hurt.”

As we talk, a Beach High cheerleader in full regalia walks by, returning home with her mother. The homecoming game is over -- and apparently, so is this phase of tonight’s operation.

Capt. Zapal says police will now turn their attention to Forsyth Park. The Jazz Festival is letting out, and he doesn’t want any robberies as people return to their cars.

“Besides, the truck is burned anyway,” he says of the now famous Budget rental.

I’m ready to go home, so Sgt. Gay drives me back to my car near the police barracks at Oglethorpe Avenue, where the evening began.

It’s now 11:30 p.m. The operation will continue until four in the morning.

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