Staff Writer Emily Topper rode shotgun with Plant City Police Department Officer Eric Cruz Friday, Aug. 26, for an eight-hour look at crime on the streets.
I had never been in a police car until Friday, Aug. 26. That’s the day I spent eight hours in one.
After the Dallas shooting aimed at officers during a peaceful protesting event this summer, I wanted to change the narrative. I wanted to see the work those who are called to protect and serve do on a daily basis — from my own perspective.
What that would include, I wasn’t entirely sure.
Officer Eric Cruz
I show up to the Plant City Police Department with my camera, coffee and multiple notebooks.
Patrol Sgt. Robert McLellan gives a briefing to the seven officers on duty, and then we are dismissed to begin patrolling the Plant City streets. I am assigned to Officer Eric Cruz, part of the Delta I zone. He joined the Plant City Police Department in 2014 and has been an officer for nearly five years. At 27, he’s the third youngest at the agency. He and his wife are expecting their first child.
In the parking lot of the police department, he logs into the computer system in his squad car to communicate with dispatch and his fellow officers. A rifle is accessible to him from behind the center console.
“I’m Delta one,” he says. “In our city, we have four zones. There are usually two cars per zone, depending on how big the zone is.”
We leave the parking lot of the police department and began driving toward his zone, which includes the area from Alsobrook to Baker streets.
There for the Youth
The first call comes in over the radio: an officer is requested at Jackson Elementary, non-emergency.
Calls can come in at any time and at any level of frequency, Cruz tells me.
“It really depends on the day,” Cruz says. “Dispatch averages five to 10 calls per day. Our squad in particular ... we like to be proactive. We’re assigned to a zone, but we don’t have to stay in the zone.”
At Jackson, a situation had occurred between two students. Cruz picks up bits and pieces of what happened from after-school caregivers. Many times, he said, the details of various scenarios are learned on location.
Thirty minutes later, the situation is resolved, and Cruz enters the report into the system.
Making an Impact
We venture into the center of his zone, at Alsobrook and Collins streets. As we drive, Cruz looks at license plates and enters them into the system, checking for valid licenses and expired tags.
We reach Magic Beauty Supply 101, across from the newly-opened police substation in the Plant City Housing Authority district. He waves to people as we pull up. Some break into smiles and wave back.
Others don’t. Cruz is accustomed to being judged by his uniform.
“We wave to people,” Cruz says. “We try to be friendly, especially with the current situation with law enforcement. We try to change that.”
A lot of the times, he says, the response will depend on an individual’s prior experience with law enforcement officers. Plant City is more of a welcoming community than others, he says.
Within moments of pulling outside of the beauty store, a woman walks toward him with a child in tow. She introduces herself as Tameka Griffin. The boy was her son, 8-year-old A’bias. Her son, she says, hadn’t been following directions in school. She wants Cruz to talk to him.
“I work with juveniles,” Griffin says. “I see the way kids go if they’re not steered in the right direction. My son has everything he needs. I’ll be darned if I lose him to the streets. I want (Cruz) to have a talk with him and get his attention.”
A’bias was crying when he first approached Cruz. By the end of their conversation, he is willing to pose for a photo. Griffin thanks Cruz, and she and her son head home.
“It’s about being visible, a lot of the time,” Cruz says.
Part of the Neighborhood
We leave the beauty supply store and continue driving around Cruz’s zone. At the intersection of Alabama and Coronet streets, Cruz pulls into another parking lot. Some nearby residents are sitting on parked cars while talking, others are sitting around a table playing dominoes. Cruz gets out to talk to them.
“We like to be known within our own zones,” he says. “I like to be seen, be visible. I like to show face. We’re not in the business of ruining people’s lives.”
It’s a business of helping people.
Cruz decided he wanted to become a law enforcement officer after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. He was in New York at the time, a seventh-grader living in the Bronx.
“That’s been my main motivation as to why I got into law enforcement,” he says. “Just the fact that those officers were there to ensure my family got home to me. My mom worked a few streets away (from the twin towers), and my aunt worked a few buildings away. I didn’t lose any family members that day. Because of the New York Police Department, my family came home to me.”
He’s now focused on the call to protect and serve.
The Night Progresses
As the sun sets, he answers call after call.
A semi-inebriated man is outside of the Taco Bell on James L. Redman Parkway.
A couple argues in the Bealls Outlet parking lot on Collins Street.
Another domestic dispute happens at Burger King on Park Road.
An alarm rings at Star Distribution.
At 9:15 p.m., dispatch receives a call about a potential “peeping Tom” outside of a residence on Alabama Street.
We drive to the street with a few other squad cars that were in the area and stop a few houses away. The street and house are dark.
“We don’t park in front of the house,” Cruz says. “It could be an ambush. It could be something worse.”
This time, it’s another easily-resolved situation. A resident thought he heard prowlers outside of his home, but none were found.
After we leave, we stop at a red light near James L. Redman Parkway.
“It’ll turn green now. Now. Now,” Cruz says, trying to guess when the light will change while drumming his hands on the steering wheel.
He stays alert at red lights. In January, a Philadelphia police officer was shot when a gunman walked to his car and started shooting.
Police officers never know what a night will hold.
A Sobering Job
Cruz receives a call to assist with a DUI test off of Interstate 4. A woman is pulled over and asked to follow a piece of duct tape along the ground. She is supposed to take nine steps forward and count them out loud. She stumbles and miscounts. After a few more tests, she’s arrested for DUI.
The woman cries and says the handcuffs are hurting her. Cruz re-handcuffs her in an effort to make her more comfortable. She says they still hurt.
“We get DUIs almost every night,” Cruz says.
As another officer transports her to the Orient Road Jail, Cruz and I wait for the tow truck, which will impound her car. An itemized list of belongings in her car have to be reported. Officers have found methamphetamine, marijuana and empty bottles of prescription pills.
The Watchful Guardian
After the tow truck arrived, we proceed to the Knights Inn. It is quiet. Room lights are off. The parking lot is empty.
Other nights, it can be more lively — and Cruz never knows what he’s walking into.
He always follows protocol.
“My first thought when I get a call from dispatch is, ‘How far is it?’” he said. “That helps me determine my response. Then there are the questions that go through my head, like, ‘How am I going to help that person?’ I let dispatch know if I’m responding.”
The next step, he said, is to watch the people.
“I always watch the people,” Cruz said. “I pick up their demeanor, and I’ll deal with it accordingly. I always look at the person first and check them all up and down. Most officers usually just keep a level head. If we approach someone with a calm demeanor, that usually helps keep someone calm. We maintain a level of respect and calmness, and that keeps things easier for everybody. Ultimately, we don’t know what’s in that car. We don’t know what’s on that person.”
At 1:15 a.m., Cruz drops me off at the Plant City Police Department. I drive home. Within minutes of crashing onto my bed, I’m out. I know, now more than ever, just how safe — and lucky — I am. Even while my eyes are closed, even when the world is asleep, there is someone watching out for us.
Contact Emily Topper at [email protected].