A Saturday night on campus takes on a different form when you’re sitting in a Bradley University Police Department vehicle.
Especially when you voluntarily put yourself there.
I spent my Saturday night with BUPD Sgt. Nora Fales on third shift, starting the night at 11 p.m. I had participated in a BUPD ride-along two years ago, and it had been a fairly tame night. This time, however, I was able to experience what happens behind the scenes when a robbery near campus takes place.
It was a muggy Saturday night, and campus seemed more active than usual. Fredonia Ave. was especially crowded, so Fales and I spent some extra time patrolling the area.
A car with a headlight out drove by, but she let it slide.
“I try not to get bogged down with traffic stops on nights like this with a lot of kids out,” she said.
After 23 years with the BUPD, Fales has learned that students don’t always perceive the police as protectors.
“Some students think we’re just picking on them, but they don’t realize that we do all this to keep them safe, and to make sure we are visible to people who are not students,” she said.
We walked to many fraternity houses, stopping to speak to members of the executive boards. It was a preventative measure to notify the houses that if the music got too loud, members of the surrounding neighborhood might complain. Even though she did not give out any tickets, some students were still clearly uneasy when speaking with Fales.
In the course of the evening, I noticed there seemed to be a few different types of student-officer interactions.
Some students were incredibly talkative and told Fales everything from when they received their most recent drinking ticket to what their friends were doing that evening. Others fled the area when Fales approached a house to talk to the members.
Others would yell insults or make obscene gestures as the squad car drove by.
I know what it’s like to be on the side of the students, avoiding eye contact with the officers even if you have done nothing wrong, but it’s different to be in the squad car, on the receiving end of those suspicious glances and catcalls.
“People have the innate fear of the police, but we have a job to do,” Fales said. “I think sometimes students think we are just here to write them tickets, but we’re here to protect them.”
That night, I did not see a single ticket handed out, but I did see what the BUPD does when something potentially dangerous happens.
While driving past the St. James Complex just before 1 a.m., an alarm rang out through the squad car, and I heard someone say over the radio, “Armed robbery-Papa John’s.”
At that point, we were hardly a block away from Papa John’s on Bourland Ave. Fales sped back to Papa John’s and slammed the brakes as an employee ran out.
“We just got robbed!” he said, and we quickly turned around when he pointed out that the suspect headed right through St. James.
To put the situation in perspective, I live in St. James. It would not be out of the ordinary for me to be walking outside my building after midnight on a weekend. In fact, there were a few groups of students I noticed watching as we raced down the street. The suspect was running right past them, and I was terrified that he might be dangerous.
But then, like the hundreds of “Cops” episodes I have watched over the years, I noticed a man running near the fence with an officer just behind him. Fales slammed on the brakes, parked the car and ran toward the man, yelling for him to get on the ground.
At that point, all I could think was that he might have a gun, and I should probably sink as far into the seat as possible. But I watched instead as two Bradley officers and two Peoria police officers tackled the suspect and placed him in handcuffs. He looked at me yelling something inaudible, and I was suddenly immensely grateful that the officers arrived on scene as quickly as they did.
The suspect was placed in another car and taken to Papa John’s, where he was positively identified as the suspect. After the ordeal ended, I watched as two officers and a German shepherd searched the area for any items the suspect may have left behind while running.
I was most surprised with the officers’ demeanors; they acted like anyone else who had been doing a job for many years. They were calm, going through the motions, making conversation with each other. Bradley and Peoria police officers work closely on many cases, and because of that, it was sometimes hard to distinguish between the two.
By the end of the night, I was exhausted. But I had a new appreciation for the officers on that late night shift; as one officer said before dropping me off, “It’s only 3 a.m., our night is just beginning.”