A ride-along with the Montmorency County Sheriff’s Office
ATLANTA — A boring night means people are getting along, said Sgt. Mike Brooks, of the Montmorency County Sheriff’s Office.
Then again, when 10-hour shifts stretch along county roads and roll in slow loops through quiet towns, all that getting along can make a police officer restless.
“Sometimes, you’re praying for something to happen,” Brooks said. “Something to do.”
A four-year county officer who found he didn’t have the patience for retirement after 27 years with the Alpena Police Department, Brooks said patrol in the county of 19 residents per square mile means a lot of driving, a lot of watching, and a lot of waiting to be needed.
READY WHEN YOU’RE NEEDED
On a recent Saturday evening, Brooks pulled a bag of dog treats out of the back of his squad car at the beginning of his shift.
You never know when you’re going to have to distract an aggressive dog, he said, flourishing a yellow tennis ball.
In a police car that’s nothing like the red Corvette — his dream car, Brooks said — that serves as his computer background, the officer headed toward the southwest corner of the county.
“You see how quickly this town gets small?” Brooks said, easing his cruiser to a stop on a side street.
Like his deputies, Brooks weaves around and around small-town streets nightly, watching for broken headlights or a speeding four-wheeler, listening for bursts of laughter that might warrant a closer look.
Bundled residents wave politely as he passes. Sometimes such greetings only include one finger, he says.
After a long, slow cruise, Brooks finds a stopping spot. Some of his shift is spent sitting, watching, waiting, sipping an energy drink. It’s not exciting, he said. But part of the job is just being there. Being ready when you’re needed.
Eight snowmobiles buzz by, then six more, headed to the corner gas station.
Downstaters think they can come north and not be under the eye of police, Brooks said, eyeing the snowmobilers.
WHEN ACTION STRIKES
Brooks heads to the next town. Side roads curl out of sight into the woods.
He doesn’t patrol the back roads as much as he’d like, Brooks said. From deep in the county, it takes too long to get where you need to go when action strikes.
The night before, a drunk man yelling in the street begged for suicide by cop. In grainy body cam footage, Brooks talks to the man like he’s training a wild-eyed horse, sidling closer. When the man glances away, Brooks rushes in and tackles him.
“That put an end to that,” said Brooks, rubbing the spot where his radio dug into his ribs during the tackle.
In a rural county, a 911 call can mean almost anything. Sometimes it’s elk in the road, or a farmer’s escape-artist cattle, or the deer that are constantly being hit on the county’s wooded roads.
Sometimes it’s a child being hit. Or a woman being sexually assaulted. Or a couple who have come to blows after years of quarrelling.
Brooks points out houses where two brothers live side by side, calling police on each other sometimes several times a week.
“I want to say it surprises me families are like that,” Brooks said. “But it really doesn’t.”
Brooks swings by a local pizza parlor. The woman who brings a pizza box to his passenger-side window tells him to be safe, and that she appreciates him.
He had to take a break from eating at a nearby diner because people kept buying him breakfast, Brooks said.
‘PRETTY MUCH JUST US’
Back at the police station, the officers snag a slice and look over reports. Deputy Lindsay Gutierrez, holding a note from the dispatcher, returns a call to someone looking for help with an eviction.
There are no city police in the rural county, and state police rarely come by, Gutierrez said.
“It’s pretty much just us,” she said.
On the wall, a printed bulletin shares news of an officer in another state who was shot and killed earlier this month during a routine traffic stop.
Brooks sends an email, checks a computer log. His cell phone rings. It’s a teenager to whom he gave his number during a police call years ago.
He’s heard the boy has been drinking and not doing well.
“He needs to get out of this place,” Brooks said.
Finishing his pizza and his reports, the officer heads back onto the road.
Montmorency has its share of poverty, drug abuse, intentional unemployment. Some homes he sees are places he wouldn’t want one of his dogs to live. Some things, he said, you can’t unsee.
Then again, the county is home to millionaires. Professional athletes. National pizza franchise owners.
When Brooks worked with the Alpena Police Department, he once responded to a call at musician Bob Seger’s grandma’s house.
“I know who he is,” Brooks told her when she pointed to her grandson’s photo. “Tell him I say hi.”
‘I DIDN’T SLAM THE DOOR’
Sometimes he wishes he worked in a big police department in Florida, Brooks said. He once thought of applying to the U.S. Marshals Service.
But, here is good, too, he said, easing into another small town.
Brooks weaves in and out of dark streets, pointing out a meth house where tenants were evicted the day before, then stops to wait.
As a younger officer, he gave out a lot of tickets, eager to show he was working hard.
Now, he gives a lot more warnings. They’re usually enough, he said.
A car passes, its headlights dark. Red and blue lights swirling, Brooks pulls the car over, fumbling with his body camera’s on-switch.
The cameras are invaluable, providing evidence that can keep an honest cop from going to prison because of false accusations, he said.
Still, the equipment is dated and temperamental. Upgrades are probably out of his office’s financial reach, though.
The office did recently invest in new bulletproof vests. Officers’ pounds of equipment can now be carried on their chests, instead of at their hips. Heavy police utility belts have been known to cause back injuries, Brooks said.
Finally coaxing his body cam to life, he completes the traffic stop.
“Did you notice I didn’t slam the door?” he asks afterward.
Even rural police need safety tricks at traffic stops.
Don’t slam the car door — that lets people know you’re coming, he tells rookie cops.
A seatbelt unclicked and a door cracked before the squad car comes to a stop means the officer can be out in an instant if the driver they’re pulling over decides to bolt.
He always taps the back of a stopped vehicle as he approaches a driver. If he gets shot and killed, his handprint will be on the back of the car as evidence, Brooks said.
CIRCLES IN THE DARK
On future nights, on other patrols, there may be excitement. Like the time he had to subdue a man and take his knives after the man attacked a family member with a hammer.
Like the attempted murder a few years back, when the victim lay bleeding on a front porch while the gunman prowled the house.
Like the time he almost shot a man who was pointing a gun at another police officer.
For tonight, though, there will be only the circles through small towns, the watching in the dark, the paperwork.
At 2 a.m., or maybe 4 if his shift runs long, Brooks will head home to watch an episode of Miami Vice.
He wants to write a novel, he said, a Tom Clancy-style action story.
In the meantime, he’ll keep waiting for something to happen.