In the line of duty: A day in the life of a Darien police officer
Published 11:44 am, Monday, October 19, 2009
Editor's note: This is the first in a series where the Darien News will shadow town civil servants for an entire shift. Last Friday night, reporter Maggie Gordon rode around town last Friday night with Darien Police Officer T.J. Whyte. Next week, she'll follow Darien's Post 53 volunteer ambulance unit.
It's 3 p.m. on a Friday afternoon. For many, it's the beginning of a weekend. For Officer T.J. Whyte, it's the start of his shift at the Darien Police Department.
He sits at a desk with other officers as the lieutenant briefs them on recent crimes and wanted persons to be aware of. After role call and the briefing, he heads out to the parking lot where he begins inspecting his car. He checks for dings on the outside, makes sure the equipment is accounted for and ready to go and performs a visual inspection of the vehicle's interior.
A moment later he's in the driver's seat of Darien Police Car 14, where he typically spends about six-and-half to seven hours of his eight-hour shift. He wipes down the interior with bleach wipes, turns the key and heads out to the Post Road to begin monitoring the streets of town.
"I try to never do things the same way twice," he said. "I try to not develop a routine."
He said this is important so criminals don't know when to expect him driving by certain locations or performing certain duties. The absence of routine makes him a more effective police officer, he said.
It's about an hour later when he makes his first motor-vehicle stop of the night.
"We usually have about three or four traffic stops per shift," he said. "The most frequent ones are for speeding, running red lights and stop signs and talking on cell phones."
Over the course of this particular evening, Whyte will perform two motor-vehicle stops, both of which involve failing to stop at a red light on Post Road. Whyte lets the first driver off with a warning, but issues a ticket for the second at about 7 p.m.
It's dark outside, and Whyte is deliberate in his actions during the traffic stop. He turns off the car's interior lights as he runs the driver's license and aims his spotlight at the SUV he pulled over. He has parked his car at an angle, blocking a passage toward the car to keep him safe from passing vehicles. When he leaves his car to walk back to the vehicle he closes the door quietly and is certain to never turn his back on the SUV's driver. The element of surprise is on his side.
"Never turn your back," he said. "You can't be complacent, because you don't know who you're stopping... This particular car is covered in Blue Wave Pride stickers, so he's probably a nice guy from town, but you never know."
Traffic stops are an important part of Whyte's job.
"One of people's complaints in this town is driving habits ... so we really need to pay attention to that," he said.
After the "blatant red-light violation," Whyte drives back to the police station on Hecker Avenue. He takes a 30-minute dinner break and mans the communication console in the main lobby of the building while the officer stationed at the console runs out to buy dinner.
While at the desk, he answers 911 calls and communicates with the fire department and Post 53, who are responding to an accident on Interstate 95.
"Sometimes the radio can get a little crazy," he said a moment before the phone began to ring and lights danced across the console. Officers in their cars don't know whether there is heavy call volume at the communications console.
"Sometimes I'm out there, looking for stuff and it's already crazy in here," he said. This particular Friday night is pretty slow, according to Whyte. Throughout the eight-hour shift he completes the two traffic violations, responds to a domestic disturbance, a harassment call, checks on the welfare of an 83-year-old woman and backs up other officers in need.
On slow nights like this, Whyte spends the majority of time driving around town, checking parks and neighborhoods for suspicious activity and monitoring the roads. He also makes his way through parking lots to check for broken windows and signs of motor-vehicle break-ins.
"It's almost a different town when it gets dark," he said while driving through a park with his spotlight on at 9:30 p.m. "Your senses heighten."
He carries a .40-caliber handgun with two full magazines, a Taser, pepper spray and a baton in case of an emergency. His car is also equipped with a semi-automatic patrol rifle -- just in case.
"I haven't had to use the rifle yet," he said. As for the handgun, "I had to use it on sick raccoons and deer. I've pulled it out on suspects, but I've never had to use it on people."
Carrying guns is a big liabilty, and he's thankful he's never had to use one on another person, he said.
"We try not to do things to excess. We want to keep the citizens of Darien safe and keep us safe ... we want to get home at the end of the night, too," he said.
It can be a challenging job with a lot of "Monday-morning quarterbacking," Whyte said. But at the end of the day, he said he's glad he does it. He's been an officer in Darien for six years after graduating from the University of Connecticut with a bachelor's degree in management information systems and a stint working at General Electric.
Though his college major seems far-removed from police work, he was drawn to the job for two reasons: he grew up with public servants -- his father and grandfather both served as firefighters -- and he loves to deal with people.
"You think back to the '50s, and there was a cop walking down the sidewalk, swinging his baton, saying hi to everyone in town. Then, today, we can just hop in our car, roll up the windows, turn on the radio and just go to our calls," he said. "That can be our own fault, we need to let the people know we're here for them."
It frustrates him when people associate police officers with bad news, he said.
"I'm a good guy. I'm here to help," he said. "You walk into a store sometimes and people are like, `What's wrong?' Nothing's wrong. I'm just stopping in."
When his shift ends at 11 p.m., Whyte parks the car behind the police building to refill the gas tank and check the oil before heading inside. His shift is over now, and he can head home to Stamford as the members of the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift exit their briefing and walk toward their cars.
Staff writer Maggie Gordon can be reached at email@example.com