Village officers’ daily duty dangerous
- Published: January 20, 2011
Naomi Penrod does her best to keep the duties of her job as a Yellow Springs Police officer in perspective. As she goes about the daily routine of patrolling and responding to calls for assistance, she keeps a photo of her daughter on her clipboard to remind her that while it is her job to keep the community safe, her goal at the end of every day is to get back home to her little girl.
Law enforcement personnel across the country heard that message last week after learning of the fatal shooting of Clark County Sheriff Deputy Suzanne Hopper in Enon on New Year’s Day. According to Dayton Daily News reports, Hopper and a group of other officers were investigating a call about shotgun fire at the Enon Beach trailer park when a gunman opened fire on the officers from one of the trailers, killing Hopper and injuring a German Township patrolman. Hopper, 40, had been with the department since 1999, and she was a wife and mother of two, the paper said.
“I like to think that safety is number one, and sometimes it takes a little scare, a bad traffic stop or something like this, to remind me that you never know,” Penrod said in an interview last week.
Six Yellow Springs officers attended the funeral services for Deputy Hopper last Friday. The incident, in a small town just down the road, on a call that didn’t appear unusually threatening, seemed to Yellow Springs Officer Dennis Nipper a lot like the calls he responded to every day of his 38-year career with the local force. He shudders at the unpredictable nature of human behavior that allowed him to retire last month after nearly four decades without a scratch, while Hopper, with just 11 years of service, will never patrol again.
At the end of a shift, officers often sign out using the acronym E.O.W. to mark the “end of a watch.”
“That was her EOW,” Nipper said. “It makes me sad.”
The shooting also makes him think that when he returns to the YSPD as a part-time officer next month, he will be more careful, more aware that at any moment, in any location, with any individual, people have the potential to do terrible things. And it’s a police officer’s job to be there when that happens to protect the public from harm, he said.
“When we come to a situation, we step in between people and become the target,” Nipper said. “We stand in between you and the boogeyman at nighttime, and that’s why when something scary happens, you don’t call your rabbi, your preacher, or your doctor — you call us. We absorb all that.”
The police also have a duty to protect themselves from harm, which the local force has managed successfully so far, Chief John Grote said. But Yellow Springs police have had their share of calls that turn out to be something other than they first appeared. Once former Officer John Winks responded to a caller who had requested police assistance with a domestic dispute, Grote recalled. When the officer arrived, he found that the husband had bitten his wife’s ear off. Once Nipper responded to a domestic dispute and arrived to find the husband threatening to shoot his wife and himself with a loaded shotgun.
An incident occurred in 2008 when local Officer Tim Knoth responded to a call about a disturbance caused by a local man all the officers knew to be a nice person with difficulty controlling his emotions. Knoth responded, as he had many times before, to de-escalate a domestic situation, but this time, was met by a raging man swinging a fire poker. Knoth was struck with the poker before he shot and injured the man, but the situation could easily have ended with Knoth more seriously injured or dead, Grote had said at the time.
After a scare like that, an officer can become more aware of the possible outcomes of any situation. But it’s stressful to approach each work day with a high level of vigilance and suspicion, Grote said. Policing in a constant state of extreme defensiveness can also lead officers to be overly aggressive, which in a small, family-oriented community, can anger the public, he said. And at the end of the day, officers have to leave their work behind and not take it home to their families, Nipper said.
“As an officer, you need to understand that anything can happen and you need to be ready, but you can’t go on every call with your gun unstrapped and hyper-defensive,” Grote said. “You wouldn’t last, and the community wouldn’t tolerate it…The job is bizarre, and you need to keep a balance.”
During regular police training exercises, officers learn tactics for approaching calls and de-escalating emotional situations if need be. According to Penrod, the correct response to a call is to take a slow and watchful approach to the scene, assess the situation upon arrival, and then investigate. Domestic violence calls are inherently dangerous because of their intense emotional context, Grote said. Traffic stops can also be very dangerous due to the number of unknowns, including the vehicle’s occupants or where they are going to or coming from, he said.
But calls in a small town from people the officers know can become repetitive and routine, which also makes them more relaxed, Penrod said. Nine times out of 10 when a caller complains of hearing gunfire, it’s either an electrical transformer blowing, a vehicle engine misfiring or kids playing with firecrackers, Grote said. And in many cases, the so-called offenders are simply people who are having a tough day and just need someone to listen to them, Penrod said.
“We’re all human, and sometimes we just need a little direction,” she said, adding that the reason she loves her job is because it gives her an opportunity to help people.
But it’s that one time when the call turns out to be actual gunfire that all officers everywhere have to be prepared to handle. The shooting of Arizona Representative Gabrielle Giffords and six others outside a low-security Safeway shopping center on Saturday was another recent example of an apparently safe situation gone fatally wrong.
In the case of Deputy Hopper, she followed proper procedure, along with her fellow officers, said Penrod, who worked for the Enon Police Department for a year and a half before joining the Yellow Springs force. Enon Beach is a “rough place,” she said, with a large number of trailers situated close together and very little visibility or maneuverability for police and other rescue agents. And Hopper was just doing her job when she became the tragic victim of an unpredictable and senseless crime, Penrod said.
“This incident makes me more alert,” she said. “But the bottom line is that we went into this knowing that was a possibility — that’s what we do, we put our life on the line every day.”