Staff writer Gerhard Schneibel (firstname.lastname@example.org) spent a recent shift riding along with a patrol officer in the Sandy Springs Police Department. This is his dispatch from the streets.
When Senior Officer Tim Sheffield starts one of his 12-hour shifts at 5 p.m., he doesn’t linger at the police station waiting for roll call. Instead, he and his fellow officers head out to the streets and get their directions by e-mail while they’re on the go.
His first order of business is to drive his patrol area — roughly up and down Roswell Road north of Abernathy Road and into the nearby arterial streets. He’ll drive as many as 150 stop-and-go miles throughout the night.
Sheffield and Senior Officer David Huffschmidt work “50 cars” or “umbrella cars,” meaning they roam the city and stay ready to respond to calls and back up officers assigned to any of the city’s eight police zones. Huffschmidt generally works the area south of Abernathy Road.
The sun is still up early in Sheffield’s shift. As he drives his route, he uses a laptop linked to a nationwide database to check the license plate numbers of cars he sees. If a car is listed as stolen, lacks registration or lacks insurance, the computer alerts him. He runs as many as 150 license plates during a shift.
“I won’t stop a lot of cars right now unless someone’s doing something really dangerous. I try to be easy until the rush hour goes through, and then I start working,” he says. “I just kind of get a look at what I’ve got before it gets dark. You’ve got to sort of put everything in its place before it gets dark.”
Not pulling over many cars during rush hour leaves Sheffield free to respond to the frequent accident calls during that time. If he arrests someone, he’s out of commission until he drops that person at the Doraville Jail and fills out the necessary paperwork.
Night “is the best shift,” he says. “But everybody’s going to say that about their shift.”
Signs of crime
After officers have worked together awhile, they learn to pick up cues in one another’s voices over the radio. When a situation becomes tense, the excitement is audible.
Sheffield spends part of his time patrolling apartment complexes where a significant amount of crime takes place. He looks for anything from an ajar door or window to broken glass in the parking lot and has a handful of tried-and-true tricks learned from years on the job. He doesn’t want them made public but says the main thing is “you can’t create a pattern or they’ll figure you out.”
At 6:05 p.m., a red GMC Sierra with dark windows pulling out of the Prado shopping center catches Sheffield’s eye, and he makes his first stop. The driver is a young man with a suspended license; his female passenger is associated with a list of prostitution and drug charges. Sheffield decides to search the car for drugs and weapons, and within 10 minutes Huffschmidt also is on the scene.
Nothing is found in the truck. The woman walks away, but the driver is taken to Doraville for driving on a suspended license. He also gets a ticket for driving a vehicle with a darker-than-legal window tint.
By 7:30, the prisoner is in jail, the report is written, and Sheffield is headed back to Sandy Springs.
“You don’t want to overkill a report because an attorney will pick it apart,” he says. “But you want to be very thorough. Your report is your lifeline. It may not go to court until three years later.”
Sheffield has been with the Sandy Springs Police Department since March 2008. He worked from 1992 to 2003 at the Doraville Police Department after serving in Operation Desert Storm with the Marine Corps. Between working for Doraville and Sandy Springs, he built a sign company, which he still owns and operates.
“I had nights where I was working at the sign company and I had dreams about policing,” he says. “It actually helped me to get on the civilian side for a couple of years to see the struggles people go through. When you’re in law enforcement, you kind of get put on a pedestal. People say, ‘Look, this is my friendly cop.’ Well, no one ever says, ‘Look, this is my friendly sign man.’ It kind of reminds you that you’re human. But I couldn’t imagine doing anything other than law enforcement.”
About 9:15, a call comes over the radio about a possible robbery south of Abernathy Road. Huffschmidt is in Doraville booking a prisoner, so Sheffield heads south on Roswell Road from the Dunwoody Place area.
There is little chance he’ll make it to the pursuit in time to help. Another officer follows the suspects’ vehicle into DeKalb County, where they bail out and scatter on foot.
“This is the really gut-wrenching part,” Sheffield says. The pursuing officer is outnumbered, on foot and not answering his radio. When he finally does, he’s out of breath and speaking in a fast, excited voice.
Officers later say the culprits may have been affiliated with a gang tied to an Atlanta homicide. Detectives will search the car for fingerprints and anything associated with a name or address, like a receipt or a cellphone.
“Our detectives are very thorough. There is always something we can do to follow up on. Then, when they find them — because they will — you do a lineup and let the victim identify them,” Sheffield says.
Sheffield checks out a burglary call that’s a false alarm and stops a few more cars before 10:45, when he spots a yellow Ford Mustang pulling out of a closed office complex near Ga. 400’s North Springs MARTA exit.
Because there is no reason for the driver to be in the empty parking lot at night, Sheffield suspects a burglar. He pulls up beside the vehicle and determines that the window tint is darker than the legal limit, giving him cause for a traffic stop. He waits for the driver to enter the Ga. 400 on-ramp before pulling him over.
“He has to know he’s toast, but you’re in control of the whole situation. It’s important not to create a problem during a traffic stop,” Sheffield says.
The driver has no license and is arrested. He doesn’t speak English, and Sheffield addresses him in rudimentary Spanish that he picked up “just working on the street.” A tow truck takes the car to an impound lot in Alpharetta.
After the prisoner is booked into the Doraville Jail, the night is calm until about 12:30. Sheffield and Huffschmidt meet in a parking lot to compare notes. They discuss the calls they answered, then head back to their separate territories to patrol and check license plates until the sun comes up and their shifts end.
“Policing, it changes every day,” Sheffield says. “You have to keep up with the law. … Before you start going out and building cases, you’d better be sure about what you can and cannot do.”