Photo provided by Douglas County Sheriff’s Office
Career perspectives: law enforcement
Student rides along with sheriff dad
Working as a cop will be dull — but when it isn’t, mayhem ensues.
Most of the time Deputy Travis Whetzel, a Douglas County sheriff, writes reports, but he also wrestles with frightening situations. He has been in law enforcement for a little over 15 years: 13 years at the Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, two years for the Myrtle Creek Police Department, two years in the military police and 19 years as my dad.
On Monday, Oct. 21, I rode with him for the first time in his patrol car while he was on duty. I had never asked him questions about his work before. I just hadn’t been interested because it was distant to what he was like at home. As his son, I didn’t see him as a scary police officer; I saw him as the person I wanted to make laugh and play basketball with.
It’s a quiet night, but Whetzel listens to codes: 12-21, a “clear record” for a driver who has been stopped; 12-41, a “go ahead,” basically a permission to speak; a 12-28 for “suspicious person.” I wondered and worried we would have to go to that call. But the dispatcher decided whether to send an ambulance, the police, the fire department, or my dad. It wasn’t my dad’s turn.
If my dad had been dispatched, he would have had numerous tools at his disposal. My dad’s car, for example, is equipped with radar front and back and can pick up another car’s rate of speed by driving past a vehicle going in the opposite direction or parking in front of vehicles. If a vehicle is moving in the same direction as the cop, then an officer can use a calibrated speedometer to pace a vehicle.
My dad tailed a car, showing me exactly how fast the car was going using the calibrated speedometer. I thought they used radar guns to measure all speeders, but turns out they don’t.
The mobile computers in patrol cars have multiple features, including maps with locations of all the officers who use the Douglas County dispatch system. Icons on the map show where and what type of calls are coming in through dispatch. Our icon is on I5 North, just outside Canyonville.
I asked my dad how often he used his computer while driving. Police are allowed to use computers, talk on the phone, and break any traffic laws while driving. The Douglas County Sheriff’s Office, however, has safety policies like closing the computer for pursuits or heading to a call to limit distractions. “It could be considered hypocritical, but it has to be done in order to get the job done,” Whetzel says.
Deputy Whetzel mostly patrols in South County. “That encompasses the outskirts of Myrtle Creek, a little north of Myrtle Creek up to about 113 exit of I5, then we have all the way down to Glendale which is basically the county line and everything east and west of that,” Whetzel says.
The Sheriff’s Office patrols all outlying areas of Douglas County and three contract cities: Riddle, Canyonville and Glendale. Every municipality in Douglas County will either provide themselves with a police department or contract with the Sheriff’s Office.
Usually, only two deputies are on duty in South County at one time. “It’s a big area to cover for just two guys,” Whetzel says. I hadn’t known that he only worked with one other partner. Sometimes the deputies also have to cover other areas that are short on officers, so it’s reassuring that my dad will have some backup even if it comes from another police agency.
Officers don’t really have a set route that they patrol. “I just go out and about where the focus seems to be,” Whetzel says. Officers try to base patrols on where crime has happened recently or in heavily trafficked areas. Luckily it was a slow night for my dad.
As a passenger in a ride-along, most people are required to sign a form and go through a background check. I’m pretty sure my dad hasn’t run a background check on me. Anyway, I didn’t have to sign the form. For the passenger’s safety, he or she must remain in the vehicle at all times. The policy for the passenger in a ride-along requires exiting the vehicle before a high-speed chase.
Officers face potential dangers every day. “You could stop someone for a broken taillight, and he may have just murdered his wife and may try to shoot you; you just never know,” Whetzel says. “In this job, you do see a lot of the worst of people; there are people that aren’t very nice, and those are generally the people you have to deal with.” I immediately felt that my dad’s safety was up in the air.
Fun fact: As a safety precaution, when officers pull a car over, they touch the bumper to leave their fingerprint in case the person they stop tries to hurt them or tries to drive away without permission. If the car is found, the fingerprints can be checked to confirm an identification of the car. I noticed my dad touch the back of a car and realized he was preparing for the worst possible situation at all times.
DCSO officers wear a body camera to record all contacts.
The body camera always records video on a 30-second loop with no audio. Officers have to activate the body camera if they want the camera to record audio and video. This activation protects the officer in order to keep a level of privacy.
My dad offered advice to drivers. “When you are being pulled over by an officer, safely pull to the right and keep your hands on the steering wheel as he approaches. Don’t try to find things in your vehicle. Officers can perceive those actions as you trying to hide something or find a weapon. If you are respectful and truthful you will most likely get a warning.”
Recording a traffic stop is legal unless the driver interferes. Whetzel advises to record at a safe distance and give the officer space. If someone does interfere with a traffic stop, they can be charged with interfering with a peace officer.
Just about everything that an officer does, from traffic stops to a rare shooting, requires a report written by the officer. Police officers are shown in movies shooting people with little to no consequences. In reality, if an officer gets into a shooting, afterward that officer’s weapon would be taken and they would be put on paid leave for an unspecified amount of time. They would also go through a psych evaluation and be interviewed.
“I would like to see a movie or show where all the cop does is type,” Whetzel says. During my ride-along, my dad pulled over two people who had headlight violations, and he let each of them off with a warning. He will have to write reports about those two warnings to document that they happened. I learned that my dad writes reports to break up his other work.
“Somebody in the academy told me, ‘Being a cop is 95 percent boredom and five percent chaos,’” Whetzel says. My night with my dad was about 50 percent learning about my dad’s job and 50 percent understanding what dangers my dad can possibly face each day.
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