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Riding shotgun with a believer in blue

The late shift

By Kirk Noonan

Editor’s note: While high winds and rain blasted Florida’s coastline on a Saturday night in January, Kirk Noonan, associate editor, rode along with Sergeant Mike Simmons through the streets of Pensacola, Fla. Though rain squelched many people’s desire to be out and about, some still found ways to get into trouble. Following is Noonan’s account of the night that started at 7 and ended a few minutes before 4 a.m.

8:33 p.m. First call
Slashing rain pelts the police cruiser as we speed to the J-Street Apartments where a gang fight is reportedly in progress. "The dispatcher says there are weapons," Mike Simmons, the Pensacola police officer I am riding with tonight, says as he negotiates thin residential streets, traffic and puddles of rainwater. "We’ll see if that’s true when we get there."

The cruiser’s red and blue lights pierce the stormy night as I let my mind wander to the frightening possibilities of what a gang fight might entail. I envision worst-case scenarios before opting to scribble down notes and concentrate on the sanguine voice of the police radio dispatcher.

At the apartment complex, Simmons works a spotlight, in search of the fight, as we roll through the dilapidated area. There are no signs of a fight and after five minutes of looking he determines the call was a hoax.

"This is not a night for fights," Simmons, a 16-year veteran and second-generation police officer, says. "If there were really something going on there would be people fighting or waving us to where the fight was."

Satisfied, Simmons, who is a member at Pensacola’s First Assembly of God, returns to his beat. For the next seven hours he will help protect the citizens and property of this beachfront city on Florida’s panhandle and I’ll get a glimpse of what it takes to be a police officer.

Simmons grew up in Pensacola and is as familiar with the city as he is his own backyard. As he drives, he points to a corner where he worked his first murder case, then to a house where he rescued a family overcome by carbon monoxide. We enter a small parking lot and he tells the story of serial killer Ted Bundy’s desperate escape attempt from a Pensacola police officer that began at the lot. The enthusiasm in Simmons’ voice tells me he’s proud to be on the force. "I feel called by God to be doing this. I can’t imagine doing anything else," he says. "But I don’t know how an officer who is not a Christian can do this job.

"Every single day I put on the full armor of God," he says. "I’m not a brave guy, I just know God is going to protect me. But I always keep in mind that the worst thing that can happen is that if I die I’ll go to heaven."

In 1993, Simmons came close to death while escorting visiting dignitaries around Pensacola. As he tried to pass a vehicle, his motorcycle slammed head-on into a truck. At the hospital, doctors told Simmons’ wife, Jerri, that one side of her husband’s face had caved in, crushing his eye socket and shattering his cheek and jawbones. Because of the head trauma doctors believed Simmons would die. Jerri began praying.

"Some people’s perception is that police officers and their families are towers of strength," Jerri, who is a school secretary, says. "But the only strength we have comes from God."

Simmons made a remarkable recovery and doctors were stunned when he returned to work, says Jerri. "It was God," Mike Simmons says with certainty. "The accident focused my faith. I’m on His time now."

10:08 p.m. Serving and protecting
Simmons is the second officer to arrive at a hospital parking lot where an intoxicated passenger refuses to pay his cab fare. The first officer on scene advises the man to pay the fare or he’ll be arrested. The man complains, then begrudgingly hands over a credit card and threatens never to use the cab company again — his threat falls flat and only seems to please the driver.

Simmons says many of the calls he responds to involve drunks or people who are acting irrationally. For many rookie officers, he adds, such a reality is disenchanting. "A lot of young officers see the chases and excitement on television and think that’s the way it is all the time," he explains. "But when reality sets in, some are disappointed because they realize this is a hard and dangerous job that is oftentimes thankless."

Whether being thanked or scorned for his presence, Simmons tries to make every call he responds to a positive experience. "I pray all the time," he admits. "When I am called to a scene … my job is to be a police officer, but I pray under my breath. People are open to God’s love during times of crisis."

12:23 a.m. Dealing with the lost
Simmons and several other officers rush into a crowded nightclub and usher two women, both in their early 20s, out of the building. The two have been fighting. One has a gash on her arm; the other has one on her head. As Simmons and the other officers interview the women, accusations, curses and threats spill from the women’s mouths. Drunken bystanders, eager to get in on the action, also hurl insults at the women.

"All police officers see is the bad in people," Simmons says later, explaining some of the challenges he faces as an officer. "We see so much bad we begin to think everyone is bad."

The rain abates, leaving the streets black and glistening. As if on cue, people come out and once-empty corners and sidewalks suddenly become meeting spots. Simmons pulls the cruiser next to a prostitute who is working a dark corner.

"I thought you were gonna quit doing this," he yells out his open window.

"One day," she says approaching the car. "If I ever get beat up like I did last time, I’ll quit. Where’ve you been?"

"Been training."

"A real job must be nice."

"You could get one too," Simmons says. "Might not make as much money, but at least it would be safe."

"Someday," she says, giggling. "Someday."

The prostitute searches for more to say before settling on goodbye. Suddenly, she has someplace to be and staggers in the opposite direction of the corner where she had been standing.

"She’ll be back as soon as we leave," Simmons says. "She is really a he; that’s why he got beat up. It’s sad how messed up people’s lives … "

A call from the dispatcher crackles from the radio. In a matter of minutes we’re in the parking lot of a seedy strip joint. Simmons enters the lobby and is directed to a dark, smoky room where two scantily clad dancers sit. In the lobby, a woman with a stocking cap pulled low over her eyes is crying as she talks to an officer.

She tells the officer that the women Simmons is interviewing attacked her and yanked out a clump of her hair. When the officer asks to see her head she takes off her cap revealing thin, wispy hair. She tells him she has recently undergone treatment for cancer and is pregnant.

"What are you doing in a place like this?" the officer asks.

"Just having fun," she mumbles.

All of the women are given two choices: drop the matter or go to jail. They decide to drop it and we leave.

1:58 a.m. Beyond the call
The "Blocks," Simmons tells me, is an intersection where young people party into the early morning hours after Pensacola’s nightclubs have closed. Nearby there are a bottle-club (a club where patrons bring their own liquor and can party until 5 a.m.) and two mom-and-pop businesses that serve barbecued ribs and chicken.

"This is probably the worst intersection in the city," Simmons remarks as we pass through the intersection. "There have been more murders, shootings and stabbings here than anywhere else in Pensacola. In an hour or so, this place will come alive because the nightclubs close at 3."

As we move on, Simmons tells me of the Royal Rangers program he started for inner-city children. Each week 15 to 30 boys gather at a community center to learn survival skills, camping techniques and about Jesus. "Most of these inner-city kids don’t have Little League, church groups, clubs or even stable homes," Simmons explains. "They have nothing, but Rangers offers some of them a way out."

An hour later, we are called to a housing project where a resident has reported suspicious activity in the parking lot. Simmons pulls the cruiser behind a low-riding Oldsmobile Cutlass and turns on his takedown lights. He cautiously approaches the car then begins ordering people out. Slowly, an embarrassed 15-year-old female and a 21-year-old male emerge from the backseat. When backup arrives the young woman cries and begs the officers not to report her to her parents. They refuse and call her father.

A half-hour later, a tired and disgruntled man, the father of the 15-year-old, pulls his truck into the parking lot. As Simmons and the other officer tell him what happened the man’s anger boils over and he tells his daughter to get in the truck.

"We’re always dealing with strange situations out here," Simmons says as he drives back to the station. It’s almost 4 a.m. "Some people come out here and they think it’s a game, but when you think like that you eventually lose."

As we pull into the Pensacola police station I am thankful that God has kept Simmons and me safe. Having only experienced a glimpse of what police officers go through on a daily basis I am reminded that police officers and their families need God’s protection and peace and especially prayer.

Kirk Noonan is associate editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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