A night on the other side of the flashing lights


Reporter's Notebook | The DP's two crime beats took a night shift with Penn Police officers


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The DP’s crime reporters spent Saturday night and early into Sunday morning shadowing Penn Police officers, who are on duty at all hours of the day.

Photo by Amanda Suarez


The Early Shift

At nine o’clock on a Saturday, Officer David Callis had a hunch.

“I have a feeling before we get off, we’re going to get a hot job,” he told me as we took a left turn onto Market Street.

Callis, a Division of Public Safety patrol officer for the past five years, took me on a ride-along in his police car for the second half of his 3:00-11:00 p.m. shift. Outside of a possible theft at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania that turned out to be nothing, it was a quiet ride so far for Callis.

Ten minutes after his prediction, though, the police radio inside the car came alive with sound calling for someone on shift to go to an incident on Walnut Street.

“This is us,” Callis said. The police siren sounded and we drove swiftly and unimpeded through the streets of University City.

When we arrived, we found a woman sitting on a curb, clearly dazed. Two eyewitnesses who saw what happened said that a car hit her while she was walking through the crosswalk and then drove away. This was a hit-and-run — or, in police terminology, an “auto-ped.”

Not long after we arrived, a student on a bike from the Medical Emergency Response Team followed, and then a minute later, an ambulance. The woman, still visibly shaken up but able to walk, was taken to HUP to evaluate her injuries.

I watched as Officer Callis took statements from the two eyewitnesses on the scene. One of the eyewitnesses said that a very similar car came back a couple minutes later, with a driver of a similar age and gender, and that he had been able to take down its license plate number.

Callis radioed in the plate number to DPS Headquarters, and within a minute, he knew the color, year and brand of the car.

Once Callis had all the information he needed from the eyewitnesses, we got back into the car to head back to headquarters. “Now you get the see the glorious side of the job: paperwork,” he said.

Just as he promised, the rest of his shift was comprised of filling out form after form relating to the accident. Two other officers next to him were doing the same for a different auto accident.

“What is this? An auto accident paperwork party?” another officer joked as he came in from his shift.

By the time Callis’ shift ended, I had learned a valuable lesson about police work. Behind every incident that pops up in the crime log each week, there is an officer with a story — and many, many forms to fill out.

The Late Shift

I arrived at the Penn Police headquarters on Chestnut Street just after 10:30 p.m. on Saturday excited and not a little apprehensive about what the night would bring. I had chosen the late shift — from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. — hoping, and at the same time not hoping, that it would be eventful.

I was assigned to Officer Fagan — a career cop who had been with the Philadelphia Police Department for 21 years before coming to Penn.

He had seen it all, he said, “homicides, shootings, assaults” — but to me he seemed more like someone’s father than a hard-nosed cop.

Bob Fagan lives in Northeast Philadelphia and comes from a long line of civil servants. “My grandfather and great-grandfather were both police officers,” he told me. “I’ve worked every division in the city.”

Here I was, wearing an ill-fitting bulletproof vest, about to step into his life for five and half hours, and I had no idea what to expect.

Between 10:30 and 4 a.m., we responded to seven or eight different incidents ranging from a hospital case, to a DUI, to someone tripping a panic alarm in Houston Hall.

Officer Fagan talked steadily throughout the whole night. When I asked him why he didn’t have a partner, he said, “For some reason people think that cops ride together — in big cities they don’t.” Police are primarily a deterrent, he said, and “What’s more visible, four cars or two?”

Our first call was to deal with a raucous party on Baltimore Avenue. As students, some of whom I knew, filed out of the house, I had the strange sensation of viewing things from the other side.

At some point during the night, the dispatcher came on the radio and said that “a white male chased two females into the entrance of King’s Court College House.” When we arrived I saw the same officers I would see throughout the night standing around a man and a woman at the doors to English House. The woman was hyperventilating.

It was amazing to see heavily armed men in bulletproof vests handle a situation with such delicacy. While the more veteran officers were busy consoling the woman, the younger officers were chatting with the man, while at the same time grilling him to find out what happened.

I heard the two sides of the story simultaneously. Boyfriend and girlfriend, they had argued, and he had chased her down the street. Eventually, the police sent them on their way, but separately. “Without seeing any physical damage, there’s nothing we can really do,” Fagan said.

As the night wore on and he became more used to my presence, Officer Fagan regaled me with stories of his days as a narcotics officer in the late ’80s and early ’90s.

“It was right when crack cocaine came on the scene,” he said. He remembered engaging in sting operations at particularly bad intersections in North Philadelphia where the crack epidemic had reached a fever pitch. “We would arrest 100 people a day,” he said. “We would see them make the buy, and then follow their cars and pull them over.” Oftentimes, he said, they would set up two hours later and do the exact same thing.

What struck me most about the trip was the gap between students’ perception of the role of police and what they actually do.

At no point did Officer Fagan raise his voice or unnecessarily intimidate a suspect. In fact, at no point did any of the officers say anything I wouldn’t expect a concerned parent to say.

By 3 a.m., the radio had fallen silent and the streets were deserted. “Are there exams?” he asked. “Oh yeah,” I said. He smiled. At last I felt like we were on the same wavelength.

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