One: If a car has an out-of-state license plate and is leaving a known drug house, the police are probably going to pull it over. They’ll simply find a reason. In this case, the driver allegedly failed to signal a turn.
Two: It was not the ideal night for said driver, 26-year-old Michael McGaha, of Sandusky, to borrow his uncle’s pants.
See more photos from Exit Shift 4 HERE
When Sandusky police Officer Sean Orman searched him, McGaha’s pants unloosed a rainbow of evidence — a balled-up, yellow grocery bag containing one blue pill and one purple pillThe incident report, which would come later, would state: “McGaha … did not know what the pills were and … he let his uncle wear his pants prior to him wearing them. “McGaha advised his uncle uses drugs and if he were to guess, the two pills would be ecstasy.”
It was a helluva guess.
McGaha’s poor choice of wardrobe landed him felony charges for possession of ecstasy, in addition to a handful of misdemeanors for the alleged traffic violation, suspended license and possession of marijuana.
So began the Register’s two-evening ride-along late last month with the men, and one woman, of Shift 4 at the Sandusky Police Department.
For the better part of a year, Sandusky police Lt. Rich Braun has been one of the commanding nightshift officers, working 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. When a late-night call would come over the police scanner, it was often followed by Braun’s voice, explaining to the dispatcher that he was on his way to the scene. And, depending on the nature of the incident, any number of the 10 officers from Shift 4 would follow suit.
One of Braun’s law enforcement friends in a neighboring city — a much quieter city — once told him: “You know how I stayed awake all those nights on third shift? I listened to you guys (in Sandusky) run your ass off on the scanner. ”The shift schedule at Sandusky Police Department works like this: There are four groups of officers, each group assigned to a shift. “Officers rotate their shifts every six months, for an 18-month cycle,” Sandusky police Chief John Orzech said. “At least once during the 18-month cycle, they’re on day shift or night shift.”
As Orzech explains it, politically correct and all, there aretwo different types of “clientele” in the city: Those who happen to interact with officers on day shift, and those who happen to cross paths with police on nightshift. You can use your imagination to figure out who’s who.
The point here is, the team of officers on Shift 4, who had worked together for months, were headed to different shifts at the end of July. With Braun and his crew poised to change shifts, it seemed an opportune time for the Register to tag along, if only to see what this shift was all about.
”They’re busy,” Orzech said. “We have a lot of young, ambitious guys, and then veteran officers who are taking on a lot more leadership, trying to guide them.”
Enter a second purpose for the Register’s Thursday and Friday night ride-alongs: A first-hand look at changes in the department. After serving as interim assistant chief for about a year, Orzech was appointed to the department’s top spot in April.
It’s just a plain fact that Sandusky Police Department, in recent years, had been struggling to right its course. Without rehashing old news, suffice to say there were a handful of scandals and missteps ending in terminations. Some officers got their jobs back, some didn’t. If you ask the folks at Sandusky Police Department today, they’ll tell you that’s yesteryear’s news.
Working alongside then-interim Chief Jim Lang last year, Orzech and other administrators started rolling out new programs and fresh ideas. Orzech has continued this since becoming chief, finding willing participants in the likes of veterans like Phil Frost, Rich Braun, as well as lieutenants, sergeants and rank-and-file officers. ”It was mainly from the feedback I was getting from the officers themselves,” Orzech said. “The officers at the department, when we were going through a rough spell, they wanted to knock it off and make this a place where people wanted to work.
”We wanted to make it a top law enforcement agency,” he said. One of the first steps was re-upping the training program led by Sgt. Ron Snyder. ”The main thing is the training,” Orzech said. “About 20 to 35 percent of our staff has under two years (experience). That’s a lot of young people who need to learn the streets, the laws, the people they’re dealing with out there. ”We’ve been spending a lot of time on training,” Orzech said. “It takes a while to become a good cop.”
Young and eager
A police officer can get all the classroom training in the world, but it’s still like any other career. Trial by fire and on-the-job training are the only ways to go. As Braun explained it, an officer’s first six months is almost entirely instructive. Said Orzech: “Anywhere under three years, you’re learning quite a bit. After the first, second and then third year, you’re feeling pretty comfortable. But it takes a long time.”
Four people on Shift 4 have been full-time Sandusky officers fewer than three years: Sean Orman, Ed Ohlemacher, Jason Martin and Ron Brotherton. But the four are incredibly productive, Braun said. ”This is one of the best groups I’ve ever worked with,” he said. “They’re young and enthusiastic. You forget how enthusiastic they are. It’s to fun to see that.”
Orzech has ramped up the use of unmarked cruisers, giving the younger officers ample opportunities to venture off the beaten path, and giving veterans a chance to experiment with new enforcement programs. ”I’ve pushed it more,” Orzech said of the unmarked cruisers. “I’ve kind of tried to empower our supervisors to think outside the box. Our supervisors on night shift have the ability to put these guys out in unmarked cars.” Their main focus, Orzech said: “Drugs, warrants — all those things where a marked cruiser in the street does no good because people can see it.”
Braun and the others on Shift 4 have led the charge in activities with the unmarked cruisers, Orzech said. ”There have been cases where there was a burglary in progress, and the person ran right toward the unmarked car,” he said. “You use it for stealth and investigation.”
These types of incidents, involving the unmarked car, accounted for the bulk of the activity during the Register’s Thursday ride-along, starting with the St. Clair Street traffic stop. The night was relatively tame as things go in Sandusky, with a hodgepodge of drug arrests, traffic stops and other oddities as the hours passed.
And, as always, nothing good happens after midnight.
At about 1:30 a.m., the unmarked cruiser stopped a blue SUV at Campbell and Tyler streets, for driving left of center. The vehicle had just left a known drug house, police said. The occupants consented to a search, and a handful of guys from Shift 4 went to town. They dug through the vehicle, looking under seats, in the rear hatch, under floor mats, you name it. They even searched the occupants themselves. Nothing. When officers asked them why they were visiting that particular home at that particular time of the morning, the SUV’s occupants said they were dropping off a $10 downpayment for a dog-grooming appointment. They were sent on their way.
About an hour later, the unmarked cruiser pulled over a pickup at Columbus Avenue and East Madison Street. The driver failed to use the turn signal. Four or five officers searched the truck, ultimately seizing a switchblade, some marijuana and Oxycodone pills. The 15-year-old driver was cited for no driver’s license, no seatbelt, failure to signal a turn, and curfew violation, while the 18-year-old passenger, Jaterius Light, was charged with tampering with evidence, and possession of drugs, drug paraphernalia and marijuana.
Sadly enough, the Friday ride-along started off with a death.
”We got a call about a dead goose on First Street,” Braun said at about 9 p.m. “A mom said she doesn’t want her 3-year-old child to see the dead goose.” Roadkill isn’t priority No. 1 for a police officer on a Friday night, but things were quiet, so this was fair game.
Braun, an animal trapper in his off-time, seemed the man for the job. After driving around in the 1900 block of First St., he spotted a hurricane of feathers spinning around a flattened bird near a tree lawn. He slapped on some rubber gloves, grabbed a plastic bag and set to collecting the carcass. Maybe 30 seconds in, the mom who called police emerged from her house. In her arms was her groggy-eyed 3-year-old child.
”Thanks,” she said, watching as Braun bagged the bird.
He stuffed it in the cruiser’s trunk and drove off, headed for the street department building on the west side of town. He looked a bit perplexed.
”OK, so you don’t want your 3-year-old to see the dead goose,” he said, thinking aloud. “But then you’ll bring your 3-year-old outside to watch the officer pick up the dead goose?” And still, the cleanup may have served its purpose. While also sparing a young child from a premature lesson on mortality, it fell into classification as community interaction.
At the start of the Friday shift, in fact, Braun spent about an hour meeting with a representative from a community group, discussing a bevy of topics. This has become one of Orzech’s main pushes since becoming chief, community engagement. ”That is what’s important,” Orzech said. “We just started a liaison program, with members of our department partnering with organizations in the community.”
By way of phone calls, emails and face-to-face meetings, the officers establish themselves as points of contact for community leaders and others who may find themselves needing an open dialogue with law enforcement.
In effect, it’s Marketing 101 for Sandusky police.
”Marketing, that has a lot to do with it,” Orzech said, later adding, “(We’re) trying to get out in the community, being more present and visible as a non-threat, non-confrontational.”
Friday night lights
Proactive, not reactive. This is the mantra Braun has adopted in handling the best that Sandusky — especially on Friday and Saturday nights — has to offer. Take, for instance, the ever-popular boat cruises. When that shipload of liquor-drenched revelers glided up to the downtown dock at about 12:30 a.m. Saturday, half a dozen Sandusky police cruisers were already parked in the lot, waiting.
Braun and Sgt. Dawn Allen, the shift supervisors, know all the hotspots in town at any given hour. The bars, the boat docks, the tourist traps, you name it.
”It’s like clockwork,” Braun said. They try to show up before trouble shows up.
When dozens of people shuffled off the boat at the Jackson Street pier, some were vomiting, some were shouting, but no one was fighting. ”This was pretty tame,” one Register employee observed, naively.
”They’re all headed downtown after this,” explained Officer Kris Parsons, a 13-year veteran. He pointed to the Columbus Avenue bars, a block away. “We’ll be back.” An hour later, officers were called to the corner of Columbus Avenue and Water Street, where attorney John Gold was allegedly cussing up a storm. Gold’s law office on that corner has a sign in the window: “We are all plaintiffs.” He’s not kidding. Braun and Ed Ohlemacher charged him with disorderly conduct intoxicated and sent him on his way.
Not 30 seconds later, all hell broke loose. A river of bodies spilled out the side door of a nearby Columbus Avenue bar, with people punching, kicking, pushing and spitting. It was about one Molotov short of an Egyptian mob. Braun called for backup, luring half a dozen officers onto the scene in seconds, where they worked to untie a knot of 50 to 60 people.
When the scene quieted after about 15 minutes, a few people were in handcuffs. Paramedics loaded one man and his broken ankle into an ambulance bound for Firelands Regional Medical Center. Braun headed to the hospital to talk to a few witnesses.
”I never had anyone spit in my face before,” one girl said. “She spit directly on me. Where do they do that?”
This continued on for a bit, Braun taking notes, snapping a photo of one woman whose head was injured in the fight. At this point, something became starkly clear. Almost every criminal incident involves one or more of three elements: drugs, alcohol and mental illness. Someones it’s one, sometimes two, sometimes all three. ”Drugs, alcohol, mental illness,” Orzech said. “We’ve talked about that for years. That’s the element we’re dealing with. I don’t know if you’re ever going to solve those problems.” These are the lessons Orzech and his more senior officers are trying to impart on newer recruits.
And they need look no further than March 19, 2011. Andrew Dunn was shot dead by Kevin Randleman, who had a documented history of volatility.
”It smacks you right in the face,” Orzech said. “Guys were right around the corner, and they arrived when the shots were going off.” Braun said he tries to explain to newer officers that enthusiasm is important, but so too is discretion and patience. It’s easier to talk to someone, patiently, rather than confront them right out of the gate.
”The biggest challenge for our supervisors and veterans: Keep the guys off the gas pedal 100 percent,” Orzech said. “These young guys and girls, they want to jump right in there and do it, and they’re not afraid to. Sometimes you have to slow them down. If they go into a domestic or burglary in progress, take 30 seconds to wait for the other car to arrive. ”It’s hard to change that. They’ve got their adrenaline going when they’re going to hot calls like that,” Orzech said. “It’s hard to bring them back and say, ‘Give us 30 seconds to get there.’”
At about 4 a.m. — shortly after handling a call on the Chaussee, where a bunch of college kids were skinny-dipping and drinking alcohol — officers bolted to Cleveland Road. In seconds, Officer Adam West found himself in a car chase with a man who hopped into a Chevy Equinox and sped off down Hamilton Avenue. West was in the unmarked cruiser parked at a Cleveland Road bar when he saw 30-year-old James Charlton, of Sandusky, toss something out of the vehicle. When West approached, Charlton allegedly sped off, nearly slamming the vehicle into West, a report later said. The chase hit 50 mph before the Equinox stopped and the suspect took off on foot into a wooded area along Huntington Avenue.
Officers zapped Charlton with a Taser and arrested him, charging him with assault, obstructing official business, resisting arrest and operating a vehicle under the influence. It was the final incident for this version of Shift 4, their night ending to the whirring sound of a tow truck reeling in a Chevy Equinox. It was 5 a.m. by the time everyone cleared the scene.
Seemed like they were done, right? Not a chance.
Rich Braun, Dawn Allen, Rob Bess, Erik Mohr, Kris Parsons, Adam West, Sean Orman, Ed Ohlemacher, Jason Martin and Ron Brotherton would spend the next few hours typing up reports.
“Paperwork?” Orzech said. “It’s probably 40 to 45 percent of your time. Especially on those calls where there’s a fight, or he-said, she-said, you’re typing two or three pages. It just depends on the volume of calls.”