Honestly, when I decided to do a book on Fire Rescue, I had no idea how it would mushroom into an ongoing series of adventures. Thank God it did. So there I was last March manning my booth at the Indian River Firefighter's Fair peddling my Fire Rescue books (talk about grass roots!) when Sgt. Mike Pierce of the IRC Sheriff's Office walked up.
"When are you going to do a book on us?"
I had not seen Mike in a long time. I remember him from the 1980's when we were in high school and he was in love with my best friend's friend Tonya. He never said much, he was always so into her. They were attached at the hip. But I always knew him to be a really good person. I just had no idea just how good until I saw him there looking smashing in his green Sheriff's uniform and learned that he had dedicated his life to serving humanity.
At that point I had not even considered adventuring with law enforcement, but how do you say no to that offer?
"Sure," I said. "Of course. Just tell me where to be and I will do it!"
He suggested I start with the Citizen's Academy. This is an 11-week free course where ordinary folks can learn everything - and there is ALOT - to know about our IRC Sheriff's Office. Look back all the way to May 2014 for weekly installments of this experience. I bet you will want to take the course too!
So fast forward to September 2014. Finger-printed, drug-tested, background-checked. I am now a full-fledged, official volunteer with IRCSO. Finally I have earned the chance to do my first ride-along. Naturally, perfectly and sentimentally, it is with Mike.
It's a Sunday. I am on for the last four hours of his ten-hour shift. I meet him in the parking lot at IRCSO. He is waiting for me in his sheriff's car and he has a bullet-proof vest for me to wear.
"It is not standard, but we are not taking any chances with you."
Thank you, Mike. Thank you, God.
"It is a slow day," he says kind of sad-sounding. Good grief - for me it is the thrill of a lifetime! And it proves to be so. Here I am wearing a bullet-proof vest given the opportunity to ride and experience this perspective. What could be better?
I know that no matter what the future brings, I can say with confidence that the very first encounter we had with the public after I got into the patrol car will always be the pinnacle for me.
"Everything starts with basic patrolling," he says. "This is the heart of law enforcement."
We were in Gifford. "You can see why this is called a 'front-porch community.' Everyone sits together on their front porches on a Sunday afternoon," he says. It's true. Then as we are driving down one of the quiet dirt roads, a group of young boys run up alongside the patrol car. They are eating home-made snow cones. They shouted collectively, "Do you have stickers? Do you have stickers?"
They want Junior Deputy stickers, and Sgt. Mike Pierce is happy to oblige. They all seem to know him, and ask, referring to me, "Is this your wife?"
Just then another officer I know from high school days pulls alongside us. It is Sgt. James Hyde. I love my hometown and its real life heroes!
Next Mike takes me to an area frequently occupied by our area homeless. I ask him why they are allowed to stay and he explains that the situation is complicated because the landowners allow them to stay. I learn also that law enforcement know our homeless population well and make frequent visits to keep an eye on conditions and to learn important tips on area crime. Often they are excellent informants. It is an interesting balance.
"We need to know who our homeless are," he says.
This particular group is a bit bothered by my presence. They ask him, "Who is your friend with all the camera equipment?" We survey the area and Mike points out certain things he looks for, such as certain materials used for making and using drugs. This time the area is clean and we go on our way. I begin counting my blessings.
Throughout the day Mike gives me insight into the job.
"We have the tools to take the three most important things a person can have: 1) their freedom, 2) their money (through fines etc.) and 3) their life. With this power comes great responsibility. We have to be ready at all times to do the job, and we can never let the power go to our heads."
The next couple of hours we get several security false alarm calls and an actual burglary. I stay in and near the car as Mike instructed. On the burglary call, the family was waiting for us in the yard. It was unknown if anyone was in the house. I watched as Mike drew his gun and approached the front door, shouting that he was coming in. I flashed back to my friend from high school, arms around his girlfriend, waiting to go into the movie theatre. And now here he was busting into a house, armed, and not knowing if someone was on the other side intent on stopping him. Then it occurred to me that he must do this all the time. That he has probably done this hundreds, thousands, of times in his career. He clears the area, our backup comes, and on we go.
Our last call of the day took place on the phone. Mike is also a negotiator on our S.W.A.T. team, and he does have a calm way with his words. I listened as he spoke on the phone to a distraught rape victim. He was compassionate and steady. Calm and supportive. He maintained his position of authority while giving her a sense of relief and protection. And then suddenly it was all over and once again he was on his way.
"Our deputies out on patrol often don't get a sense of closure," he explains. "We have to respond to what is right out in front of us, and then move to the next situation. I tell all our guys to treat everybody like they are your mother."
During the course of the day, I learned that while still in high school, Mike was covering a murder in downtown Vero Beach for the Press Journal. He said when he got on scene and saw all the yellow tape and the flashing lights, he just knew he had to be on the INSIDE of that tape.
Fighting crime and serving the community is "what we do," he says. "Someone's gotta do it and I want it to be me."
I look forward to our next ride. Thank you Sgt. Pierce, Sir.
Keep reading below to see the Final Exercises of the latest Graduating Class of Police Academy!
I am an official, fully vetted volunteer with the Indian River County Sheriff's Office (Citizen's Academy, background checks, fingerprinted, etc.). Since my expertise is photo-journalism, producing these stories is one way I give back to my community.
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