Phillip Tutor: A human face on the badge
Aug 26, 2011 | 6442 views |  0 comments | 31 31 recommendations | email to a friend | print
In an odd, esoteric way, it’s like your first kiss, or your first paycheck, or the arrival of your first child: You never forget it. The first time you ride in a patrolling police car — in the front, the preferred spot — your attitude about myriad issues is forever altered.

Believe it. It’s true.

I never met Justin Sollohub, the youthful Anniston Police officer who was shot in the head Wednesday morning. I’ve seen his Facebook page, learned about his likes and dislikes, and found out that we share a collegiate alma mater.

His is a tragic, horrific story, but it made me think about another Anniston cop, a young, impressive man in blue who chauffeured me around some of the city’s roughest neighborhoods during a nighttime ride-along in 2005. I feel neglectful, if not embarrassed, because I don’t remember his name. But I recall his face, his voice and his professional, courteous demeanor as I tagged along while he responded to domestic quarrels, reports of shootings and in-progress burglaries. He was impressive.

Today, I hope he’s OK, wherever he is.

At the time, how stupid I thought it would be to ride with a cop during the day; shows what I know. So I requested the Saturday night shift. If I wanted a glimpse of police work — the real stuff, not TV spectacle — I wanted to see it firsthand, without filter or editing.

It happened immediately, as if on cue.

Our first call was to respond to an escalating argument at a residence on 22nd Street, just east of Quintard Avenue. We pulled up, and I asked him: Should I stay in the car? No way, he said. Come on in.

Once there, I was side-by-side with an officer trying to quell a heated argument between a man and woman who were having a disagreement about someone else who wasn’t there at the time. The house was a mess. It got loud, tense and surreal. The officer was Sgt. Joe Friday cool. Situation diffused. Off we went.

As midnight passed, we spent a few hours in the monotony of patrol. Quiet settled in. A few times we parked in secluded places — in fast-food parking lots on Quintard, for instance — so he could watch for the late-night speeders who invariably channel their inner-Earnhardt on the city’s six-laned thoroughfare.

Got to admit, it was comforting to be on the other side of police radar for a change.

He humored me by answering my countless questions, most of which made me seem more like a 12-year-old boy enamored by his cruiser’s gadgets than an intrigued journalist. If he tired of my queries about speeding tickets, police procedures and dumb suspects, he didn’t let on.

In truth, we talked more about the profession than police minutiae: concerns about officers’ safety, about the pay entry-level cops receive, about the type of crime prevalent in the city’s low-income neighborhoods, and the growing menace of meth. A few of his observations scared me.

He put a human face on the badge he wore.

That calm was broken — BAM! — by a call from one of the city’s public-housing complexes. It was stark: man with a gun and a baby, standing outside. Nothing more.

Instinctively, the officer rushed into action. He didn’t tell me to hold on, but I did nonetheless. There’s nothing sane about traveling 80 mph on west Anniston’s residential roads, but it’s part of the job. It felt as if we were airborne when we topped the largest hill. Why had I chosen this shift? Then, in the darkness, the officer gunned it again — Hold on! — when he saw commotion ahead.

Before I blinked, he had slammed on the brakes, leaped from the car, drawn his weapon and sprinted toward the lights. He saw something I didn’t: a single police cruiser, lights flashing, surrounded by people in the darkness. I was speechless at his response. I followed him, slowly.

There were no shots fired, no gun found, and the baby was safe. Once back in the car, and my heart back in my chest, I asked him: What did you see? Why’d you react that way? What he told me I’ll never forget: He saw blue lights at the top of the hill, and he had to assume his fellow officer needed backup — fast.

Wednesday, as officers with assault rifles and body armor searched west Anniston for a suspect who shot Officer Sollohub, I thought back to my night moonlighting with a cop. And I remembered, vividly: It takes a special type of person to run toward trouble, not away from it. Most of us will never understand that.

Phillip Tutor — — is The Star’s commentary editor.
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