A day on the road with MSP
ALPENA–The blue cruiser eased onto a county road, nearby vehicles slowing self-consciously to adhere to posted speed limits.
Trooper Alex Karsten of the Michigan State Police Alpena Post checked house numbers on the roadside, although he had been there before, several times. Two towheaded boys on bikes waived a friendly greeting, and a man in a gravel driveway took a long look as the cruiser passed.
Karsten was making his rounds, this time following up on an assault complaint. He reached his destination, where a yard strewn with children’s playthings surrounded a faded white trailer-style home.
“She’s not here,” Karsten said with certainty, getting out to check anyway. He would make a few more attempts to contact the woman about assault accusations, knowing the eventual encounter might not be the most pleasant. “She doesn’t like police much.”
At his job since December 2017, Karsten has seen from the driver’s seat the ins and outs of being the human behind the dusty-blue uniform, snazzy tie clip, and golden badge of a Michigan State Police trooper.
A trooper’s 10-hour shift includes a regular stint on road patrol. Quietly cruising the streets, Karsten knows he creates safety merely be being a visible reminder to slow down, use turn signals, drive smart. He drives county roadways, choosing his route by the time of day to avoid traffic congestion that could make a traffic stop into a hazard for other drivers.
There’s no quota for stopped speeders, Karsten said, no predetermined number of vehicles to pull over or citations to issue. The difference between a warning and a ticket is circumstances and an officer’s discretion, he explained.
Every officer has their pet peeves — Karsten’s is drunk drivers. He keeps a vigilant lookout for erratic driver behavior that might signal other drivers’ lives are in danger.
“If I knew that I had been working that shift and somebody had been drinking and crashed into another car and killed somebody, that wouldn’t sit well with me,” Karsen said.
A minivan sped past in the opposite direction. With a glance at his dash-mounted radar, Karsten whipped into a quick turnaround. Passing an intermediate motorist with a gun of the cruiser’s engine, he flipped on the vehicle’s red light and eased onto the shoulder behind the slowed minivan
Other drivers drove past as the trooper collected the driver’s license and registration. Traffic stops are hazardous for an officer, Karsten said. People don’t move over.
Karsten’s tricked-out sedan sports a mounted laptop that feeds officers information about complaints to be investigated, allows them to run a license plate while paused at a stoplight, and lets them log traffic citations and citizen interactions while on the road. The car’s trunk is stocked with medical supplies, rifles, and a tactical vest to protect officers when their lives are particularly at risk.
The vest isn’t needed daily, Karsten said, but it doesn’t spend all its time in the trunk. Only a few days before, Karsten donned the vest when approaching the home of a suspect wanted for assault and known to be a gun owner.
A dispatcher’s voice called for an available trooper to respond to a domestic violence complaint. Karsten didn’t need to look up the address on a map; he’d been there often.
Holding a pocket-sized notebook and pen, Karsten asked calm questions of a frazzled man in a gray T-shirt near the cracked cement steps of his home. The man described the incident still vivid in his mind– who said what, where he was hit, what the kids saw.
The kids, Karsten told the man, are the most important part of the story.
Visits to that home don’t always go so smoothly, Karsten said as he drove away, usually instead involving someone yelling or running away into the woods.
When he’s not on road patrol or responding to complaints and emergencies, Karsten pursues investigations. Any given day may find him reviewing security cameras, interviewing witnesses, or finding fingerprints. He described cutting out a portion of a door frame to send for analysis to compare to a suspect’s screwdriver, pursuing a lead on a larceny and uncovering a string of bad checks written in the area, and following boot prints in snow.
In between bursts of activity, a state trooper’s job requires patience. Driving, looking, being vigilant, being present, sometimes for hours at a time.
It has its fascinating, and even heart-tugging moments, too, Karsten said. He recounted assisting a crime lab in digging up a body that had been found by a cadaver dog and described driving an intoxicated veteran home, listening to the man’s stories of tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“He’s been through a rough time,” Karsten said sympathetically. “Instead of taking him to jail, we gave him a chance.”
Not everyone likes police. That knowledge is as much a part a part of the job as probing investigations and sedate road patrol. Still, Karsten keeps putting on his hat, scanning for danger, and deescalating volatile situations with human-to-human politeness.
“A lot of the time your interaction with people is on the worst day of their life,” Karsten reflected.
“I just try to treat people the way I would want to be treated if he were in their shoes.”
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @jriddleX.