Ride-along lets this reporter be ‘cop’ for a night

When I was a kid, I wanted to be a trash man.
I think the idea of riding on the back of a truck is what appealed to me the most.
phjeffburkheadTalk about setting your sights high, huh?
Not that there’s anything wrong with being a trash man, mind you. But many kids dream of being something more glamorous — an astronaut, a fireman or a policeman.
There was the time, when I was in about the second or third grade, and we were studying about different professions. For whatever reason, I told the class my dad was a policeman. I’m sure I did it to get attention. Everything was fine until the teacher wanted to invite my dad to speak to the class. That’s when the jig was up.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a chance to be a “cop.” For a night, anyway.
Mike Joos, Rio Blanco County undersheriff, had extended a standing offer to ride along for the night, when he’s on patrol. So, one night here a couple of weeks ago, I took him up on it.
We left the sheriff’s office a little after 5 p.m. on a Friday.
“Unless we’re working a case, we just head out,” Mike said.
There are some 3,200 square miles in the county and, typically, on a weekend night, there are two officers out patrolling county roads. One on the western end of the county, and one on the eastern end. They cover a lot of ground.
“We don’t have enough personnel,” Mike said. “The night guys get off at 3 a.m., and the day guys come on at 7 in the morning. So, if we need help, either (the night) guys stay late, or a guy comes in early.”
When Mike and I headed out, we took off driving south on Highway 13.
It didn’t take long, maybe about 10 minutes, before we had our first “customer” of the night. We met a car going 92 mph. The speed limit is 65.
“Twenty-seven (mph) over. He just bought himself a mandatory-day-in-court ticket,” Mike said. “Anything 25 over is mandatory court, by state statute.
“Unfortunately, this is not unusual for this highway, which is why we work it so much,” Mike added. “It (the amount of traffic) has definitely slowed down (in the Piceance Basin). It’s not like I-70 in the morning anymore, but the companies are still there.”
The driver of the car — a young guy — was on his way to see his girlfriend in Wyoming, and he must have been in a hurry, because this was his second speeding ticket of the day. He had received one earlier in the day on I-70.
“He won’t have a license left if he doesn’t slow down, but he’s probably not done for the night,” Mike said. “Now he will have two court appearances on the same day in two locations — Rifle and Meeker.”
When asked if there was a “magic” number for stopping a driver who is speeding, Mike said it is up to the discretion of the officer. For him, the magic number is 12 mph over the speed limit.
But, there are times, like when Mike is on his way to respond to a call, he’s not in a position to stop someone for speeding.
“Sometimes, they just get lucky,” he said.
Another discretionary call an officer makes is when to consider it dusk. The speed limit changes at night on Highway 13, from 65 mph to 55 mph.
Sometime after 8 p.m., Mike stops a driver going 77 mph. Is the speed limit 65 mph or 55 mph?
“It’s a judgment call,” Mike said. “If you can still see blue sky, if you can still see off into the fields, it’s not night.”
One reason for the slowdown at night is because of wildlife crossing the road. Case in point, during the seven hours or so I spent riding with Mike, we stopped twice to pull dead animals off the road.
As for the woman who was driving 77 mph, Mike said, “It’s her lucky day. I didn’t tell her yet, but I’m going to give her a warning.
“People should be thinking about slowing down, not speeding up,” Mike continues. “It’s worth it to give her a warning. I believe in giving breaks. The idea is to be seen. I give people the benefit of the doubt. The whole idea is to get people to slow down. I just flash my lights and everybody slows down. Amazing how that works.”
Minutes later, when it was still in that gray zone between when the speed limit changes from 65 mph to 55 mph, Mike stopped a man who was driving 86.
“At 55, he’d be in deep trouble,” Mike said. “This way it’ll be 21 over, instead of 31. The cost of a ticket goes up significantly 20 mph over the speed limit. It adds about another $100 more.”
As it stands, the cost of the ticket was $274. The man explained he and his family were on their way to a funeral.
“They have a hardship, I know,” Mike said. “But it’s not worth him killing himself or somebody else.”
Earlier in the night, after “we” stopped the driver going 92 mph, a call came in from the dispatcher about a domestic dispute between brothers, where one brother had allegedly threatened another brother with a fence post.
When we arrived at the scene, a few miles outside of Meeker, another sheriff’s deputy, two Meeker police officers and a highway patrolman were already there. I waited inside Mike’s Ford Expedition while different groups of officers talked to the brothers separately.
After about 30 or 45 minutes, the situation seemed calm.
Later in the night, we responded to another domestic dispute, this time between a husband and a wife, and it was a more urgent call.
We were quite a ways from the scene, which was out in the country, so Mike stepped on the gas. I asked how fast the vehicle would go.
“A hundred and five mph,” Mike said. “At 106, the governor kicks in.”
After that first domestic dispute incident, we headed back into town and Mike called another deputy about joining us for a quick bite of dinner. But the off-duty deputy had other plans.
“Oh, so you’re going to dinner with your wife over us, huh?” Mike said, giving the off-duty deputy some grief. “OK, I’ll tell the guys.”
This sort of good-natured ribbing is all in fun, Mike said. Because of the line of work they are in, with its inherit risks, the officers look out for each other.
“We give each other crap all the time, but we’re like family,” Mike said. “Everybody backs everybody up. Most of my friends are cops. It’s been that way my whole life.”
For as long as he can remember, Mike had wanted to be in law enforcement.
“My mom said all I ever wanted to be was a police officer,” said Mike, who was a cadet with the Federal Heights Police Department (north of Denver) when he was 15. “They call ’em Explorers now.”
In November, Mike will celebrate his 30th anniversary in law enforcement.
“This is all I’ve ever done my whole adult life, since I was 19,” Mike said.
Besides his work “family,” Mike keeps his immediate family close by. There are photographs of each of his four daughters — ages 22, 20, 17 and 13 — taped to the inside of his sheriff’s vehicle.
“Yeah, they ride with me every night,” Mike said, his hand touching the photographs of his daughters.
That second domestic dispute was one of the last calls I went on. Around 12:30, which was way past my usual bedtime, Mike dropped me off at home. The night was still young, though, for him.
“Let me know when you want to go again,” Mike said.
I told him I would like to ride along again sometime. But, even if I don’t take Mike up on his offer, it’s nice knowing he and others are out there, doing what they do.
Now, if I could just earn that junior badge.
A new group in Meeker is all about losing. Weight, that is.
Actually, it’s more than losing weight, it’s about developing a healthy lifestyle, said Tammy Edinger, who started the Weight Watchers group in March.
“This group has lost 580 pounds in 10 weeks,” Edinger said. “That’s pretty amazing. They’re doing great. They’re really working hard and changing their lifestyles. They should be very proud of themselves.”
I received this nice note last week from an out-of-town reader:
“Just got the 5-7-09 edition and was reading your column and couldn’t help but note the item about asparagus and Powell Park. I wouldn’t doubt that the asparagus on the old Cross “L” ranch that John Halandras now owns dates back to the time of the agency. I was raised in the park about four miles on west, and there was a patch of asparagus and rhubarb on the old Valentine place that my family owned. I had a course at CSU in horticulture that was taught by a visiting professor from England who made the observation that the early settlements and homesteads would oftentimes have these types of plantings as well as lilac bushes since they were relatively easy to transplant and would survive the time needed to make the trips.
“I do, however, have to take exception regarding the origin of the name ‘Powell Park.’ The park was named for Major John Wesley Powell, who following his service in the Civil War was named head of the U.S. Geological Survey and is most famously remembered for being the first person to lead an expedition down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon.”
The new target date for the opening of Meeker’s farmers’ market is July 11. It sounds like the location for the market will be on Fifth Street, between the courthouse and the elementary school.
Ann Toney is enjoying her new gig.
Ann, the former deputy district attorney in Meeker, has opened her own private practice.
“For the past two and one-half years I have grown very attached to the people of Rio Blanco County,” Ann said. “I feel right at home here, so when I decided to open my own law office I couldn’t think of a better place to practice than right here in Rio Blanco County.”
Ann will open her office June 1 in downtown Meeker. She’s assisted by another “Ann,” Annie Purcell.
“We look forward to helping even more folks in Rio Blanco County,” Ann said.
Meanwhile, the new deputy district attorney in Meeker is Jay Barasch.
“He seems to be a very nice young man,” said Anthony Mazzola, an investigator for the district attorney’s office in Rio Blanco County. “We are looking forward to working with him.”
With some of the major automakers putting the brakes on selected dealerships, local GMC dealer Northwest Auto continues to cruise along.
“We’re going to do business as usual,” said owner Doug Overton.
The new citizens’ group — started, in part, out of a frustration with the direction of the county — continues to meet.
“Our meetings are starting to take hold as people feel more comfortable attending and also are glad for a chance to learn information from the county employees and to be able to ask questions,” said Ginny Love, one of the group’s organizers.
County Assessor Renae Neilson spoke to the group last week. This week’s presenter was Debbie Morlan, the county’s sales and use tax administrator.
“Thanks to all who comment, attend and support the meetings,” Ginny said. “We are making a difference and we are gaining ground with opening up a good rapport with the local governments and getting issues on the table in other areas.”

Jeff Burkhead is editor of the Herald Times. You may e-mail him at jeff@theheraldtimes.com.