A back-up to remember


Police dispatchers of  a certain era were coppers on the glide path to a gold watch or else they were already looking at one for their time checks. One quickly learned they were not to be trifled with. They were, without exception, male, grizzled, cynical, had done it all and had a “sixth sense” about every call dispatched.

“Thirty-one-O-two… thirty-one-O-two… Attend the drug store at Weston Road and Finch. A man causing a disturbance.”

Seemed like a routine call and I wasn’t too far away. A man causing a disturbance was a routinely-heard radio call but there’s no telling what you might face on arrival.

“Ten-four on that dispatcher,” I responded. “Any other information?”

“Nothing here – just a call that a person is yelling in the store.”

It was 1715 hours and things were busy. I suggested back-up if it was available. “Just handle the call, 3102! It’s pretty busy out there you know,” he growled.

These old-timer dispatchers knew every street in the city and knew where to get a good veal-on-a-bun or a free coffee with a little “extra” on a cold night. They understood what coppers were doing even before they did it. They could tell by the tone of your voice or your call history if you were having a coffee and a gab fest with another car behind a plaza. Most of the time even which plaza. Just when you thought you put one over on them their booming voice would crackle over the radio sending you to another call. You could meekly object that you were just finishing up the last call but he would somehow know your coffee was getting stale and the lively conversation could wait.

These dispatchers excelled at chases because they knew every nuance of every street, alley and dead-end cul-de-sac. They could artfully move converging cars in an ever tightening net until the pursued would see police in all directions. No helicopter patrol could envision the chase nor foresee its conclusion clearer then the old-timers manning those mics. They could tell by the tone of an officer’s voice when a chase should be called off. Few street level supervisors would dispute their knowledge and experience because they knew the collective wisdom in the communications bureau outweighed any semblance of their own self importance.

There was a downside to this brain trust. If short on patrol cars an old dispatcher trick would be to change the call description so only one car instead of two had to respond. A domestic dispute on a very busy night would become an “unknown disturbance” call, for example, requiring only one car to respond and report if backup was required. They would gamble that something was available if backup was needed or that you were experienced enough to really handle it on your own. The gamble, of course, was that far too often things could go sideways very fast.

An officer often had to venture some distance from their car to check out many calls. Scout car officers rarely had portable radios and, even if they did, their transmission range was sketchy at best. By the time it became obvious backup was needed, the officer would invariably find himself on the ground wrestling a suspect into submission or alternatively beaten, bruised and bleeding on the ground while watching the culprit vanish into the night.

Far more often than not, however, the dispatcher would hear “One is in custody… heading to the station.” The victorious dispatcher would get to take another two-car call off their list with a car to spare.

Things looked normal when I arrived at the drug store and I couldn’t see anything unusual through the window. I entered and a cashier, with tell-tale saucer round eyes, pointed toward the back. I headed down the long aisle toward the dispensary.

The pharmacist looked at me and, using his eyes, directed my attention to a thin man wearing a parka with the hood pulled over his head. The man had his back to me and was rocking back and forth. As soon as I spoke, he spun around and lunged at me with a plastic butter knife. I raised my arm to redirect him and saw the blade break as it struck my coat sleeve. The frequency and ferocity of the subsequent blows to my body and head took me completely by surprise. I reeled back while he continued screaming and pummelling me with his fists. I managed to grab and disable one arm while he continued hitting me on the side of the head with the other. The man’s screams were deafening. I grabbed his other arm and quickly realized this seemingly frail man was very strong. Obviously high on speed, he had sought out drugs from the only source he could think of.

We both fell to the floor and I managed to roll on top of him but had no idea how I was going to control such a violent person by myself. A knee and arm suddenly crashed down on the suspect and I heard a reassuring voice say “here, I’ll give you a hand.”

Must be an off-duty officer, I thought. I was almost right – it was my old partner’s highschool age son. Turning the wired suspect over we managed to put on the manacles and carry him, kicking and screaming, to the cage in the back of my car.

With a big broad smile Steve Sanderson shook my hand. I thanked him and suggested he might visit our recruiting office. He simply smiled, laughed and said “no thanks.” He must have had other plans even at that tender age.

Steve went on to found Accident Support Services. This internationally recognized company couples up the insurance industry with police agencies to more efficiently clear up motor vehicle collisions. The service improves the availability of police resources on the road and, in a sense, he has maintained his tradition of backing up every copper on the street.

That was a back-up to remember by one grateful copper.

( Want to know more? Go to http://www.accsupport.com )

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