Lately there has been an epidemic of “he said, she said” stories about police officers being reprehensible brutes and citizens being petty street thugs. Almost every bad movie cliché has played out in the media in the last two years. What doesn’t make it to the national news? Every day cops being everyday people in their community and their community respecting them and LIKING them f or it.
Martin, Tennessee is a college town. The University of Tennessee campus draws people not just from around the country, but around the world to our area. It’s a mellow mix of hipster cool and country cooking. Keeping everything moving smoothly is the Martin Police Department.
They don’t just write tickets and deal with criminal activity. The MPD is very involved in community events and programs. Every March the MPD host the Citizens Police Academy. “It’s probably the first and foremost most important community program we do.” Chief Don Teal said in an interview. Teal, who has been a police officer for 32 ½ years, all in Martin, took the reins from David Moore as chief in April, 2015.
Beginning 1993, the Citizen’s Police Academy has turned out of 500 students. During the 10 week program attendees go on ride alongs with police officers and learn about nitty-gritty police work. The first week gives an introduction to the department. Subjects covered are DUI’s, K-9 units, and criminal law to name a few. Graduates sometimes go on to help in neighborhood watch programs and the National Night Out. By the end of the program Teal says he wants the graduates to put names with faces in the patrol cars. One of the biggest goals of the Citizen’s Police academy is that the graduates feel the officers are approachable. “We want them to know we are people just like they are.” Graduates are also eligible for the C.P.A Alumni association which holds monthly meetings with guest speakers that cover a broad range of law enforcement topics. “This is a good way to keep members active and keep them connected to us.”
National Night Out is a nationwide program designed to encourage cooperation between the community and its officers. “We want to show criminals we are united against crime.” Teal said. This past Night Out on October 4th was a success with five neighborhood block parties and tons of hotdogs. Tennessee and Texas are the only states that don’t hold this event in August. Due to the sweltering heat they have been given special permission to hold the Night Out in October.
Teal said that transparency was cornerstone of the MPD. “We want people to know what we are doing.” In that spirit, I began my ride along with Lieutenant Dean Brooks, a 22 year veteran of the MPD. We made our rounds at the schools to check on the buses and school traffic. Safety for the students is the highest priority for the officers. Brooks and the other officers visited the school earlier that day. It was the primary school’s Thanksgiving Day Feast where parents come to eat with their students. The MPD and the Martin Fire Department visit and eat with the students’ whose parents could not come to the special meal. “The teachers always make a big deal so the students feel special when we come.” Brooks said. Not able to resist I asked how the food was. The response, an exuberant “Good enough for me!”
A lot like a local celebrity, everyone waved at Brooks in traffic, some called his name by way of greeting. “We are people oriented, community partners, we serve the public. We take extra care to be respectful and about 99% of the time they are respectful back.”
Having to stop for fuel, I got out to stretch my legs. At the pump Brooks talked to everyone who walked by, and called most by name. On the other side of the pump a mother and two children hopped out. “See that? Officer Dean is here to get you kids!” Joked the mom.
Brooks returned the joke, threatening to toss the kids in the back. The brother/sister duo appeared beyond excited about the opportunity to roll with him. A family comfortable with their local police officer, that’s not exactly what the news reports these days.
Brooks caught me inspecting the car. The motto on the side said it all. “Community Partners”. He explained that he once had to drive that car in place of the Safety Bus on New Year’s Eve. When adults are imbibing on New Year’s Eve, an officer drives the Safety Bus to pick up intoxicated citizens who call for a ride. The bus takes them where they want to go in city limits. Even the next bar. A much happier way to spend New Year’s Eve than working a DUI collision indeed.
Responding to an accident, Brooks and I found ourselves at an apartment complex where a UTM student backed her truck into a trailer carrying a tractor. While the patrol officers did the paper work, Brooks and the trailer owner used the tractor bucket, a chain and a t-post to straighten a fender which had been folded into itself. It was a masterful display of country engineering. Both the trailer owner and the student left laughing. Who leaves an accident, even a fender bender, laughing? Martin residents. Obviously.
With the accident wrapped up we were off again. We rolled by the old National Guard armory where an old school bus and a decrepit semi were parked. “Yesterday we practiced cutting these open, in case of entrapment during an accident.” The MPD is continually training to improve. The day of our ride along, the school resource officer was at training in Dresden. Recently, training included active shooter maneuvers at UTM in conjunction with the UTM Police Department. In addition to training, The MPD is TLEA (Tennessee Law Enforcement Accreditation) accredited. TLEA is a state accreditation offered by Tennessee Association of Chiefs of Police. They have been accredited since 2012. Accreditation is not required for a police department.
As the shift was winding down Brooks received a call on a warrant that needed to be served. The suspect stabbed her boyfriend and was wanted for aggravated assault. The station received a tip as to her whereabouts. We had to go by the station and pick up the document. “Nothing gets done until I have put my hands on the paper.” As a supervisor it’s up to him to make sure everything is in order before it goes out the door.
Finding everything kosher with paperwork we jumped back in the car headed across town. Yes, the whole way there I was playing the “Cops” theme song in my head. Brooks and I circled the block looking for the correct house when the tipster popped up around the corner and mouthed “the gray car.”
We pulled up in front of an ordinary looking house, gray car in the driveway. When our backup pulled in Brooks and two officers walked to door. The suspect herself answered and motioned she’d be right back. Making sure she didn’t slip out the rear, the officers went through the gate to the backyard. The woman did however come back through the front door.
Before taking her to the station, the arresting officers allowed her a last smoke while Brooks and I waited in our car. “That’s going to be the last cigarette she sees for the next 48 hours. It’s courtesy.” They didn’t have to let her do that, it was true. They could have pulled her out, thrown her down, and then tossed her in the car. “That’s not the reputation we want, not my crew.” He said stepping out of the car. He went to close the gate they had left open. I wondered to myself if I would have bothered to do that.