"The job is exciting, sure," says Stamford Police Officer Brenda Baines. I was her ride-along partner for four hours Friday night. She's a tall, strong woman with a gentle voice. We were just getting underway with our evening Friday when we started talking about the Way of the Police Officer.
"I think, as a cop, we become so focused on what we know and how we know it. We focus on what we believe the truth to be. That's why there are no cops on juries. We're very black-and-white at times, very Type A. Everything should be this, this, this, this or this. I probably don't allow myself to see as many greys as you can."
Baines made the comment fairly early on into our evening together. When she made it, she sounded conflicted, like she wished it was easier to allow for more give. I wonder if, at the end of the night, she'd felt any differently.
Joining Stamford's Finest
Baines is 48 years old. She joined the force at the age of 37. She's done "every kind of job in nature," prior to being a police officer, she says, and had always dated police officers or service men. She says she decided she wanted a job that was stable and would allow her to give something back to her community.
"I've got my good days and my bad days, like any job, really," Baines says. "There are days when I'm on and I'm having a blast and think to myself, 'Man, I'm getting paid for this,' and there are days where all I want to do is go home and climb into bed and almost as soon as you have that thought, you're doomed to not be going home until 3 a.m., 5 a.m., maybe even 8 a.m."
Baines is currently working a 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift. We've just left our first trip of the evening, a stop at the Amsterdam Hotel on Clarks Hill Avenue on Stamford's East Side, just outside of the downtown area. Officially, we are car "3-Adam."
First, to give you a better understand of the lay of the land, Stamford is broken down into zones — 1: East Side, 2: Downtown, 3: West Side, and 4: North. Each zone is then broken down into its own quadrants—Adam, Baker, Charlie, David, etc.—a letter code that gives dispatch a call sign and general location for the vehicle.
Working for the People
Almost immediately, Baines shows humanity plays a large role in her efforts, admittedly or not. The call at Amsterdam Hotel is for reports of a woman who had checked into Greenwich Hospital earlier in the day and snuck out with an IV and needle still attached.There were reports she had come to this particular establishment.
"I hate these calls," she says. "We have to go chasing down these ghosts with an uncertain name and no room number. Because this woman might have an IV? And when they tell me they don't know who she is, are we then going to go door-to-door?"
An employee told us he'd been there all afternoon and no one by that name or physical description had checked-in while he was on duty. We opt not to go door-to-door. Baines thanks him and we roll out.
Several fire trucks went flying by while we waited at an intersection downtown, taking circuitous routes throughout our portion of the city and, later, throughout the city as a whole, to check out everything going on. The fire trucks open up the conversation to the recent fire department issues and the proposed fire unification plan.
"Right now, every nearby station [to a call] is sending every truck they have," Baines says. "It wasn't always that way, but since the Shippan Ave. fire last Christmas, no one wants to drop the ball. I think them all getting on the same page will at least probably save them some money."
We made a car stop around 8 p.m. for a vehicle driving around without its lights on. We make three stops during all of our time together. Baines lets each one off with a warning. She is personable but firm when explaining why the vehicle was stopped. When the party operating the vehicle is friendly, she responds in kind.
Twice vehicles were operating without exterior lights on. Once, a tiny platinum-blonde woman claiming to be the wife of someone higher up in the fire department, blows a red light. The woman who ran the red light blames the incident on a stepped high-heel shoe that came loose and became stuck near the pedals as she was leaving a firefighter event. After remaining courteous and pleasant with the driver and letting her go, Baines assesses the situation somewhat sarcastically.
"Who am I to argue with her if she said it was her shoe," Baines jokes. "I don't want to write that woman a ticket and have my house burn down because of it!"
Fighting the Good Fight
We'd driven around for quite a bit when Baines really opens up about her concerns for certain sections of the community, and the feeling of helplessness that can sometimes accompany the job. We passed through a large portion of Stamford and were spending some time traveling between areas near Frederick Street and Custer Street.
"Stamford has its troubled pockets, like any city," Baines says. "Pockets of nonsense. This is one of those pockets. They're selling drugs out here. It's one of the areas that hasn't been revamped yet. Sure, there are knuckleheads here, three generations living in the same apartment doing the same things, one after the other, no one learning anything new."
Baines didn't seem to take comfort in the idea that she was out there letting the troublemakers know she was watching. She says rolling through the neighborhood every now and then was rarely enough to make any sort of change.
"There are also people here who will say, 'why don't they take this idiot and get him out of my neighborhood?'" Baines says. "When I'm so visible, it's tough to catch anyone. They're not saying, 'Hey, here I am Mr. Police Officer. I'm selling drugs.' They talk about 'police presence' and it's frustrating for neighbors who just see us driving by and they know the guy standing on the corner was just selling narcotics. But I can't start violating rights just because I don't like the way someone looks. It's nice to catch them once in a while, is what I'm saying."
Pushing Back the Darkness
She pointed out how dark it is, and it's something I hadn't really noticed. I'd been taking notes all evening without trouble, but here, I noticed I'd been jotting short-hand since I couldn't see in my notebook.
"These are the last places you want to be when it's dark," Baines says. "So why is it so dark here, when all the other streets we've been driving around on are so well lit? How does the city build a $360,000 skate park in Scalzi Park and not improve the quality of life in a section like this by simply adding some lights? It's winter and starts getting dark around 5 p.m. now, just when people are walking home from work and they've got to do it in the dark? On the budget this city maintains? But who am I? I'm just a patrol officer."
At the end of the day, Baines says it's a constant struggle to maintain a positive outlook on the world and to not allow those things she witnesses that might be especially troubling to crawl up inside her head and stay there for any extended period. Over time, all the cumulative horrible stuff a police officer sees can influence their general outlook on life as a whole. It's hard, she says, not to let yesterday influence today in a negative way.
"A guy once told me, on your first five years on the job, you begin to think everyone's an [expletive]," Baines says. "Ten years in, you know everyone's really an [expletive]. By the time you get out, you realize maybe it's you who is the [expletive]. We don't see the best in people. And we don't see it, everyday. You have to check yourself to make sure you're not carrying it around with you. Treat people with respect until it's time to not treat 'em with respect. And everyone knows when that time comes."