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Hundreds of miles, long hours and a whole lot of stupid ... riding with the State Police
SAFETY FIRST — Maine State trooper Jason Wing prepares for a road safety checkpoint detail.
COUNTY — I have barely strapped myself into my seat belt, in Troop Car 222, when, spitting gravel, we pull out of my driveway from 0 to 60 in seconds. I grab the arm rest. It is around 6 p.m. on a Friday night.
"What?" I gasp.
"Texting while driving," Trooper Jason Wing responds tersely.
The black SUV pulls over by the lake. Wing angles the troop car behind it, forcing traffic to drive around us and providing a safety zone for him to approach the car. He will do this every time.
He gets out of the car and I hear him ask for license, registration and insurance. (He has a mic attached to his gear which transmits to the video camera on the windshield which records every interaction he has with anyone thereby protecting both Wing and the subject.)
There are two males in the SUV.
"I have a history with this kid," he says as he gets back into the car. He opens the in-car laptop and types information into a form. He gathers up the documents and walks back to the SUV.
"Do you know why I pulled you over?" he asks. "Who were you texting?"
"My mother," the driver responds.
They talk a bit and Wing gets back in the troop car. The SUV pulls out and after, making a few notes on the computer, Wing shuts it and we, too, pull back onto the road.
And so begins my "ride-along" adventure which will cover a three-week period, two night shifts and a day shift with the Maine State Police.
We pull over another SUV.
"Passenger not wearing a seat belt," Wing responds to my unvoiced question.
He puts his hat on and walks up to the vehicle.
"License, registration and insurance," he asks. Leaning in, he asks the passenger if he smoked marijuana within the last hour.
"No! Yesterday!" the passenger responds.
He then asks the driver the same.
I laugh to myself, thinking how easily – with a carefully worded question – he got them to admit to smoking it.
Another trooper, Christopher Farley, pulls up and goes to the passenger window engaging the passenger in conversation.
Wing asks the driver to step out of the car.
"How much have you had to drink tonight?" he asks the driver.
"Three beers," the driver responds, saying they had been at The Trolley.
"What time did you start drinking?"
"Okay, so it's quarter after seven now, and you had three beers ... did you have anything earlier?"
"Did you have anything to eat when you were down there?"
"Ah, no, I did not," the driver responds, "but I had some chips when I stopped at Cumberland Farms."
"Salt and vinegar?"
"I could smell them when I walked up to the car."
The driver laughs nervously.
For the next 10 minutes, Wing conducts a field sobriety test. As I watch, I wonder if I could pass it sober.
The driver apparently passes and Wing tells him to get back in the car. He tells the passenger to put his seat belt on and that they can leave.
The Maine State Police is the state's largest police agency with an authorized complement of 341 sworn personnel, ranging from trooper to colonel. According to its website, there are 205 working on patrol.
Troopers patrol Maine's Highways and provide full-service law enforcement services to the citizens and visitors throughout the state. Detectives investigate homicides, child abuse and other major crimes.
There are several specialty units within the State Police which include tactical, underwater recovery, evidence response, crisis negotiations and incident management.
On its website, is the motto "Semper Aequus," which translates to "always fair or equal."
Troop B serves the citizens and visitors of Androscoggin, Cumberland and Oxford counties. Portland, Lewiston, Bethel, Fryeburg and the Sebago Lake Region are some of the areas within the Troop.
The Troop is fully staffed with one lieutenant, three sergeants and 22 troopers who provide law enforcement services in towns that do not have police departments. The Troop is supported by one administrative assistant.
Troop B works closely with local and county law enforcement throughout the area. In all three counties that Troop B works in, there are agreements with the Sheriff's Departments to ensure that services are delivered in the most efficient manner possible. This allows both agencies to be more effective and fosters strong working relationships.
According to the state Department of Transportation there are 21,000 miles of public roads in Maine on which approximately 107,000 cars and 23,500 trucks travel.
Oxford County is 2,078 square miles – twice the size of the state of Rhode Island. Androscoggin County is 497.23 square miles. Cumberland County is 1,216.89 square miles. Troop B's 22 troopers cover an approximate total of 3,800 square miles.
Those towns with police departments are not primary patrol areas.
Nevertheless, the state police have a vast area, mostly rural, for which they are responsible – no easy task.
Consequently, a good portion of each trooper's shift is spent driving. Wing says he can drive 300 miles in a shift. These are not highway miles, but "back road" miles full of twists and turns, bumps and ruts.
"New Hampshire has 100 more troopers than we do," notes Wing, "and a quarter of the road miles."
We meet up with Trooper Farley – 224 – to do a safety check. This involves stopping cars in both directions to check seat belts, inspection stickers, child safety seats and other obvious safety issues.
They park on both sides of the road heading in opposite directions. The two troopers don bright yellow reflective vests although it is still light out. I put on my black Kevlar vest boldly emblazoned with "State Police" which I have been told I must wear at all times if I am to exit the car. Feeling both silly and overly important, I manage to strap it around my buxom chest and then watch, swatting at bugs, while the troopers do their job.
Always a "good evening" and a "just a safety check" prefaces the conversation. Most cars are waved on within five to 10 seconds with a "have a nice evening." Occasionally, not.
"Could you pull over there please, sir?" Wing asks one driver. The driver obliges. "Your inspection ran out in March, sir." Wing takes the driver's license, registration and insurance information and goes back to the troop car.
"How do you feel about this?" I ask the gentleman behind the wheel.
"I'm good with this," he says. "They are just doing their job." He goes on to say he expects a ticket and should probably get one, noting it is his responsibility to make sure his vehicle is up to date.
He gets a verbal warning.
Assist Sherriff's Office – Poland with a disorderly. We pull up to a small cottage by Pleasant Lake and hear lots of yelling. There are a number of cars there so after one carload of "yellers" leaves, Wing confers with the other officers and we leave. It's under control.
We stop for gas in Poland. The troopers, says Wing, always try to make sure they have a full tank as the shifts are unpredictable and it is impossible to tell how far and how fast a call will require you to travel.
We are cruising down Route 26 in Oxford. We have traveled from Poland to the intersection of Route 121 and Route 26, turned around and are heading back down Route 26.
Suddenly, we make a U-turn in the road and take off. I hold on.
"Speeding," explains Wing, "53 in a 35 [mph zone]."
The car pulls over. It is a VW convertible, top down, a man, woman and dog in the car.
"My speedometer is not working," is the first thing out of the driver's mouth.
"License, registration and insurance," Wing asks. He gets back in the troop car with the documents and hands me the man's license. "Smell that."
I do and it reeks of stale marijuana.
Wing goes back to the car and tells the driver his insurance is expired. He then asks the man and woman to get out of the car and to restrain the dog, which appears to be some sort of pit bull. They comply.
The woman goes to the front of the car with the dog standing, at Wing's direction, about four feet beyond its front bumper, holding the dog by its collar. The dog is not happy and is busy barking at Wing.
From the safety of the car, I wonder what the dog will do if it gets away from the woman's tenuous hold.
The man is brought to the rear of the car where Wing asks him to hold out his hands while he pats him down to make sure there are no concealed weapons.
Wing, having seen EBT cards when getting the couple's information, asks the man if he is employed and is told "I do carpentry ... 'under the table.'"
"When I pulled you over I could smell marijuana," says Wing.
"We was somewhere where there was medical marijuana," exclaims the man.
"May I search your vehicle?" asks Wing.
The man agrees.
"Do you have marijuana in the car?"
"Absolutely not!" protests the driver, "I swear on a stack of Bibles!"
Wing asks the man to join the woman and dog at the front of the car and proceeds to search the vehicle.
A few minutes later he pulls out a large plastic bag full of marijuana and sets it on the trunk of the car.
Wing returns to car and proceeds to write them a summons for Lewiston District Court for the marijuana possession. He will report the summons to the Attorney General's Office and mention the EBT cards and 'under the table' employment.
The couple and their dog climb back into their shiny VW and leave. We continue up Route 26 toward Norway.
Wing pulls over another vehicle for a loud exhaust. He has a conversation with the driver who assures him he will see to getting it fixed.
We pull into the parking lot of the Oxford County Regional Communication Center to pick up paperwork ... and use the facilities, much to my relief. (I have already learned not to drink too much coffee before a ride-along.)
We have been patrolling in Buckfield – favorite spots for underage drinking, drugs and such – when a call comes in from Gray Dispatch. A large group at the Fiddlehead Campgrounds in Fryeburg are going at it and Fryeburg Police need backup.
We head down Streaked Mountain at what feels like 100 mph but is probably more like 60. I am making what are surely to be permanent dents in the arm rest, I am holding on so tight.
As we hit Paris and head down Route 26 toward Norway, Wing says "I can drop you off at home – we're going right by or you can come with me to Fryeburg but it will be a few hours before I will be free from there."
"Will I have to stay in the car the whole time?" I ask, wondering if they would let me out in the middle of what sounded like a free-for-all with drunken campers.
"Drop me off."
We screech to a halt in front of my house and Wing takes off down 117 toward Fryeburg. It will take him about 40 minutes to actually reach the altercation.
I wish I had gone with him.
The following Friday
It is a week later. Regretting that I had opted out of last Friday's Fryeburg call, I hope tonight will be a bit more lively than last Friday.
I look around the car and it resembles a cockpit of an airplane. Radio, laptop, DVD recorder, camera, radar, buttons for lights, sirens, spotlights. A large wooden box sits between the two front seats. It has Wing's name stenciled on it, and holds summonses and tickets and the like.
Wing has bottled water and a packed lunch because, he says, he often doesn't have time to stop to eat.
The backseat has a large plastic, covered storage box with more paperwork and equipment, a raincoat and a Kevlar vest ... the one for me. The trunk of the car holds even more equipment.
This is Wing's assigned vehicle and only Wing's – no one else drives it.
What is, maybe, most amazing, is that while he is patrolling, he is not only aware of every single piece of apparatus surrounding him (except for the laptop which is only opened when he pulls over), but he is also aware of everything in front, behind and passing him outside of the car.
He can see if an inspection sticker or registration is outdated as we zip by an oncoming car.
Outstanding training and a sharply honed perception are as important as the Kevlar a trooper puts on every shift. Along with that is a personality that is as welcoming and friendly as it is professional.
We are headed up Route 119 toward Hebron when over the rise comes a few cars and a motorcycle which is speeding and passing the cars. We make an immediate U-turn and go after the bike.
Now, prior to getting in the car for the first ride-along, I had to sign a document basically signing away all rights should anything happen to me. In order to get out of the car on a call, I am required to wear a bullet-proof vest. The only thing I am not allowed to do is stay in the car on a high-speed chase.
Clearly the motorcycle is not stopping and is soon a speck in the distance. Wing slows and pulls abruptly to the shoulder. "You have to get out, I'll be back for you."
I jump out of the car, slam the door and he is gone in a cloud of dust.
I am on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. It dawns on me my cell phone is having a grand old time chasing a motorcycle, secure in my bag on the floor of the troop car.
I cross the road, assuming he will return on that side and plunk my posterior on the guard rail.
I look up. Heavy black clouds are moving in and it is surely going to rain.
A few minutes later a motorcycle comes down the road heading toward Paris. I stare at it, quite sure it is the one Wing was chasing.
A while later (feels like hours), I see Wing coming up the hill. He stops and I jump in just as the heavens open up and the rain soaks everything. Timing is everything.
"Did you get him?"
"Nope," says Wing, "and as I was coming back for you I passed a motorcycle which I am sure was the same one. I pulled over and reviewed the recording and I think it was – he must of pulled off on Halls Pond Road to hide from me."
"I saw him too and it did look like the same one."
We head into Paris to see if we can locate the bike.
We see a bike in front of a bar in Paris and Wing asks an employee cleaning something outside, if someone of the rider's description is in the bar and if she knows whose bike it is. There isn't, she does, and it's not our guy.
A few minutes later we pull up next to a Paris Police car and Wing tells them the description of the bike and rider in case they come across them during their patrol.
We head back up the hill toward Hebron – the Redneck event is this weekend and it could be a magnet for illegal behavior.
We are now on Route 124 in Hebron when we signal a black SUV to pull over.
"No inspection sticker," says Wing.
It takes a long time for the vehicle to pull over.
Wing walks up to the car and a conversation ensues which is not so easy to follow as the police radio is busy in the car.
I hear Wing ask "where's the marijuana pipe?"
I hear the driver say it belongs to his mother.
Apparently the driver has handed Wing a bag of marijuana. This, says Wing, gives him probable cause to search the vehicle.
A young man and even younger girl get out of the car and, after Wing ensures they have no weapons, go stand in front of it.
Wing searches the car and uncovers a joint, a flat tray with a white powdery substance on it and straws with white powder residue.
Wing issues two tickets for a court appearance for a usable amount of marijuana and drug paraphernalia.
The car and its occupants go on their way which, according to them, is to the Redneck event.
We pull another vehicle over for going 48 mph in a 35 mph zone, according to the radar.
"Do you know why I pulled you over?"
"Because I was going 45 in a 35 ?"
Wing issues a verbal warning.
We pull another vehicle over for 51 in a 35 mph zone.
This one gets a ticket because it is in excess of 50 mph.
Wing hears a call for assistance for Norway Police for a domestic. He responds.
We arrive at an address on Alpine Street to see a woman and three small children speaking with the Norway officer.
Apparently this is part of an earlier incident in Oxford where the woman had punched her husband who had then dumped her from the car and gone to an apartment complex on Alpine Street with the children. She has come to get the children. She has a car seat on the grass next to her and is waiting for a ride from a friend.
An Oxford officer arrives.
The woman is going to be arrested for assault. The three officers wait for the friend to arrive to take the children. They do not want to put handcuffs on the mother in front of her children.
In the meantime, Wing invites the children to get in the police car and experience lights and sirens. He does this to distract them while the other officers speak with the woman.
Two little boys and a little girl climb in clamoring for the siren. Wing obliges briefly. They climb in the back. They are full of beans and tell us they see police all the time.
When they climb out, the mother speaks to them. The little girl, the oldest of the group, begins to cry.
She clearly knows what is going to happen and doesn't want to leave her mother. Wing walks the little girl across the street to the parking lot of DHHS where the friend has arrived. The little girl leaves with the mother's friend at the mother's request. The little boys go with the father, who has arrived on the scene with the Norway officer. They leave.
Handcuffs are then put on the mother and she is helped into the back of a police car.
Wing gets back in his car and we leave, back on patrol.
Gray Dispatch asks Wing to check out a suspicious vehicle in Otisfield. He speaks with the complainant and we drive around a bit to see if we can find the vehicle. We can't.
Wing abruptly pulls over having seen a lone woman walking along the side of the road in the dark. Is she alright? She is, and is heading to her sister's in Norway having had a fight with her boyfriend. She doesn't want a ride, she is fine.
We continue on.
We stop for gas.
A traffic stop for a modified exhaust. Apparently it is illegal to alter a car's exhaust system after market and the car is quite loud. Wing knows there is a history with this particular vehicle.
A call comes from OCRRC for a "panic button" call. This is part of a house alarm system. We leave Woodstock and are halfway there when dispatch comes back on and cancels the call. Apparently all is well.
We stop a vehicle for going 55 in a 45 mph zone. Wing issues a verbal warning.
We stop a vehicle for failing to stop at a stop sign. Another verbal warning.
It is now the end of Wing's shift and he delivers me home. Aside from being unceremoniously deposited on the side of the road for a chase, it has been a busy but relatively uneventful night.
The last Friday
We are on our way to check out a place in Waterford where a deputy had smelled growing marijuana the day before when serving papers. I have learned something – marijuana gives off a scent while it is growing.
A call comes in for an alarm at the Lovell Library and the person who answered the alarm company's call could not give the proper password and would not give her name.
We arrive at the library and Wing goes inside. I sit in the car surveying a full parking lot. I can hear a female voice conversing with Wing and laughing. Apparently, he says when he returns, she thought it was funny that a trooper responded to the alarm.
We are back in Waterford and Wing is outside walking around trying to find the source of the faint scent of growing marijuana. He finds nothing.
We go to Shedd Road in Norway to follow up on a driving complaint. When Wing responded to the original complaint he had discovered marijuana plants on the back porch in full view and had confiscated them. No one was home at the time.
He knocks on the door and a young male answers. He discusses the original driving complaint – beer bottles coming out of the man's pick-up truck – and then they discuss the marijuana plants.
"They're not mine they are my girlfriend's. She has a medical marijuana card."
"It is a violation of the program," says Wing, "if they are not in a locked facility."
The girlfriend and a small child – who looks to be about two years old – come out.
She iterates that she has a medical marijuana card, showing it to Wing who repeats "if you grow marijuana, you are required to keep it in a locked area."
She gets angry.
Wing tells her that having the plants on the floor of the porch where her baby can reach them is child endangerment and will be reported as such to DHHS. He tells her there will be fines.
She bursts into tears and tells him she is the baby's only parent and then shouts at him that she "can't afford it [the fines]" and storms into the house, slamming the door, leaving the baby outside.
The man goes into the house after her. The baby follows him.
Wing sits in the car doing paperwork on the situation.
Wing is asked by dispatch to respond to a complaint of erratic driving in Hiram which, as we respond, becomes Brownsville then Fryeburg. Eventually it is turned over to the Sheriff's Office which has a car in the more immediate area. (We are in the Minot/Hebron area.)
A call comes in to respond to Albany Township for a green vehicle with kids hanging out the back. We respond.
About halfway there, a File 1 [stolen vehicle] BOLO (Be On the Look Out) comes over the radio.
The vehicle, a Jaguar, was stolen in Belfast and the person suspected of stealing it has a history of violence toward law enforcement, will run if found and is thought to be heading in our direction as he has an address in Oxford County.
Further, the car and driver have just left an Augusta gas station without paying for $80 worth of gas.
We start toward Lewiston taking roads most likely to be chosen by the car thief as there is less likelihood there will be law enforcement patrolling them.
On the way, the radio heats up with sightings of the car in the Marden's parking lot in Lewiston. Lewiston Police are called and other troopers are responding.
Finally, I think, as Wing turns on lights and sirens, some real-life television-style action. The dents in the arm rest fit comfortable under my hand as Wing depresses the accelerator.
It is all over. The driver has been arrested. It is not the same person they suspected. The car is recovered and we are only halfway there.
A call comes over the scanner for Buckfield Rescue to respond to the Buckfield Junior-Senior High School for a 73-year-old who has fallen off a ladder and hit her head.
We respond to assist. We arrive before rescue and find the woman sitting on the floor, alert, with a bump on her head. Rescue arrives with enough manpower so we leave.
We stop at DHHS in Norway. Wing wants to have a conversation about the baby and the marijuana. He is told he has to speak with the Lewiston office for that sort of thing – they don't handle it here.
Paris Police calls for Wing to meet up with them – they are across the parking lot – where there are two men who were arrested the night before at the Fiddlehead Campground and want a ride back to Fryeburg.
Wing suggests they call a taxi.
Along with the shift, my time is over with Trooper Wing. It has been enlightening.
Each and every person Wing interacted with was treated exactly the same – with professionalism and respect. I wonder if I could have suppressed a reaction to responses and actions as flawlessly as he did. I doubt it.
Before the State Police, Sheriff's Office and local police began call sharing, troopers were primarily road patrols and would provide backup. Now they answer all calls as do the other agencies.
A trooper can drive more than 300 miles in a single shift covering the southern half of the county, racing from Fryeburg to Woodstock and back again for consecutive calls over secondary roads which means it can take an hour to get from one end of the zone to the other.
They help people, they cite people for infractions and they arrest some.
They soothe crying children, look out for the welfare of others, listen to the stupidity of people babbling their way into a ticket, and do so with professionalism and courtesy.
And while I may have missed all the "television drama" calls, hearing them over the scanner instead (and wishing I was riding that night), I gained a healthy respect for the mundanity of the day-to-day of a trooper who never seems to stop ... not even for the bathroom.
Trooper Jason Wing, 27, is a Marine who has seen three tours of duty – two active duty tours in Iraq and one, with the Reserves, in Afghanistan. He is currently a reservist in the Marines.
He began the Basic Academy in August of 2007 and started working the road with the State Police on March 31, 2008.
He has shot his gun once, his first year, at a perpetrator who was attempting to run over two other troopers. He shot out the windshield, not hitting the man, and the man surrendered immediately.
He has been "technically" shot at once, he says, by a man shooting behind his house hoping to "scare him away."
Other members of law enforcement – both local and county – speak highly of Wing saying he is one of the hardest workers they have seen.
I can attest to that.
The Maine State Police is actively seeking qualified people to join its team as Maine State Troopers. If interested in a career as a Maine Trooper, contact Trooper Christopher Farley or Trooper Paul Casey by calling 1-800-228-0857 or 207-657-3030.