UPD ride-along reveals surprises

Krista Tschetter

Krista Tschetter

The simple sight of a police car can evoke a range of emotions and reactions.

People walking down the street gawk or yell profanities. Most drivers slam on their breaks, even though the lead-footed ones are more then likely already clocked into the squad car’s radar.

“‘Someone’s going to jail,’ that’s what they’re all thinking,” says Officer Brett Spencer. He pulls out of the University Police Department parking lot and starts his 10-hour shift.

As if to prove his point, some rowdy students in the back of a trailer ahead of the squad car start pumping their fists in an incoherent anti-UPD chant. Sighing, Spencer pulls into a parking lot and turns around.

“People feel free to yell at you,” Spencer says. “There’s nothing personal about it.”

Welcome to the world of a UPD officer.

Just before Spencer left on his shift, his superior, Sergeant Mike Kilber, said that there is no such thing as a typical night for law enforcement because officers never know what to expect. This variety is what keeps Spencer interested. It is what makes him like his job despite long hours and an often negative reception from students.

This particular atypical night, Spencer’s first order of business is tracking down a couple of male students who got in trouble hanging up signs in a women’s residence hall bathroom.

Not a big fan of working traffic (he has yet to write a parking ticket), Spencer is often assigned to more complicated cases.

Officers are expected to be able to do everything, but often fall into a particular niche, depending on what interests them and what they’re good at.

First stop is the Quality Inn, where one of the students is expected to be helping set up a dance.

Spencer simply has to inform the suspect that a complaint has been filed against him, but has the power to arrest him if he is uncooperative.

After locating the suspect and having a brief chat, Spencer returns to his squad car. With a hint of disappointment, he says how cooperative the suspect was.

There is nothing on the agenda for the rest of the night.

Spencer and the rest of the full-time UPD officers have to patrol the university grounds and outskirts, including university property north of Brookings.

“You have to get a feel for what’s normal and then look for things that aren’t normal,” Spencer says.

He has to stop a driver whose car is missing a headlight next to the HPER. There are several intramural flag football games going on across the street. Spencer says he doesn’t necessarily like to stop people in front of crowds like that, or in front of the dorms, like during his next stop when he pulls someone over for making an illegal U-turn.

Contrary to popular belief, Spencer doesn’t seem to particularly enjoy pulling people over. But it is part of the job.

As he drives around, he disbands some other myths students may have about UPD.

“It’s a big myth that UPD can’t arrest anyone,” he says. “At USD it’s more like a security force, but at SDSU the officers are fully trained.”

While UPD officers have the same powers as any other police officers, Spencer says students may stand a better chance if they get in trouble with UPD as opposed to the city.

“Often students have a better chance with UPD because they’ve been around students more,” he says.

Spencer also denies that UPD has any deep dark secrets or is part of any campus conspiracies.

“Not in this day and age, not with the administration we have now,” he says. “It doesn’t really do anybody any good to keep things from going public.”

It would be difficult for an officer to get away with abusing their powers even if they wanted to.

“There’s always somebody watching,” Spencer says. “It’s the age of Rodney King, everybody looks, everybody has a video camera.”

The night continues at a snail’s pace, and the radio crackles off and on. At one point, the Brookings police dispatcher tells officers to be on the lookout for a vehicle involved in a suspected road rage incident at McDonalds.

While road rage itself is not technically a crime, the suspect yelled expletives and threw an object out of his window, which is against the law. A while later, the dispatcher lets the officers know the vehicle was located at its owner’s residence.

As Spencer combs campus for the umpteenth time, he talks about some of the biggest problems at SDSU. There’s the obvious underage drinking. Spencer says another problem is public urination, which is against the law but occurs pretty often on unassuming yards and trees in Brookings.

“I don’t know where these people are coming from,” he says. “(In their home towns) they wouldn’t want their parents to drive by and see them.”

Sexual assaults are a more serious concern.

“There are so many girls and boys in such a small area ? there’s bound to be sexual assaults,” Spencer says. He often has to approach couples if the circumstances or location seem questionable, just to make sure both parties consent.

Overall, Spencer considers SDSU a pretty safe campus. There are generally two or three officers patrolling campus at night, and while the blue light call boxes have invited some false alarms, they have helped people too.

“Overall it’s pretty safe,” he says. “I don’t know if it’s because we’re in the Midwest ? but it’s fairly safe considering some of the problems they’ve had at universities in Sioux Falls.”

It nears 11 p.m., and Spencer issues a warning for speeding. The night is still pretty uneventful, but there are eight hours of Spencer’s shift left. Dispatchers crackle routines over the radio, and passing cars still slam on their brakes, causing the numbers on the radar to fall.

Spencer says he often has the exact same natural reaction even when he’s in the squad car- he hits the breaks at the sight of a cop.

It’s a tough habit to break.