It is 9 pm on Wednesday April 1 and I am standing at the end of my driveway waiting for Sgt. Milo Thornton to pull up. I am going to ride along with him for the last remaining hours of his shift.
It's the NIGHT SHIFT, BABY! I am wearing my sheriff green pants, a somewhat stinky bulletproof vest, and a black shirt. I have two cameras, an audio recorder, some coffee and some almonds, in case I get hungry!
"Days have an extremely high call volume because people are out and about," Sgt. Thornton explains as I get into the car. "But when they go to sleep, the tide changes! At night we have different types of problems to address."
Add to that the fact it is Spring Break.
"When kids are out of school, usually the number of auto burglaries goes up," says Sgt. Thornton as we pull out into the night. "Most cases are not forced entry either. The car doors are usually unlocked. In most cases, they are only looking for change, Garmins, GPS devices. Tangible things they can get rid of easily and quickly - and make 5 or 10 bucks. They are not looking to steal a car."
Of course, sometimes people leave firearms in their unlocked cars, he explains. Can you imagine??
"I think the most important thing for the public to know is we need them to help us. Simply by locking your car can determine if you will be a victim or not."
He adds, "Our job is to make sure that community sleeps comfortably, knowing that we are out here. We live in the moment and are proactive in our approach to prevent crime. We create a presence which deters crime. We are proactive and go check business doors too. You would be surprised how many are left unlocked. As a supervisor, that is the approach I like: Prevention. If I can go home without there being a victim, I am fine with that! At the end of the night if I can get all these guys that you see here on the screen (he motions to the computer screen that shows the GPS position of each patrol car in the county) home safely to their families, then that is my #1 priority. I make sure they get home safe. I don't want to ever have to deal with that situation. Ever."
Sgt. Thornton was born in Fort Pierce and spent summers in Vero Beach with his cousins. "I fell in love with it here. I like the environment. I like the vibe. I like the things they do here - from Under the Oaks to comedy shows. There is always something going on."
He began his LE career in corrections for two years with SLC Sheriff's Office, then worked four years with Vero Beach Police Department, and is now starting his fourteenth year with IRCSO. He is also a full time student, an adjunct instructor at the college police academy, and coaches high school football. Apparently he doesn't sleep.
We are on US1 now, heading south.
"See that woman here," he points off into the darkness. "She doesn't have any lights on her bike, so we are going to stop and figure out what she is doing."
As we safely maneuver toward her, Sgt. Thornton explains that it is a violation to not have proper lighting on a bicycle at night. The first reason that comes to mind is for safety, but there is more to the story!
"On the night shift, our biggest goal is crime prevention," he says. "Crime analysts at IRCSO send us crime patterns and trends on what to look for based off the reports we generate. They will go through 100 reports and say, 'this is what you need to be looking for in this part of town.' Crime trends will change on you and go to different areas. In a situation like this, she is riding without proper equipment and those are known tactics that some burglars will use for transportation. They ride around at night without lights. You can barely see them among the heavy vegetation. They see us coming and how easy is it to lay your bike down here in these bushes?!"
The good news is she was just out to get ice cream and she seemed to appreciate our stop. "It's for your own safety, maam," I tell her as we leave. Sheesh, I am such a dork, I think as I hear myself talk.
It's after 10pm now, and we head to some neighborhood areas in the south county area. Soon we come upon a group of 7 or so juveniles walking with a great intensity and purpose. Sgt. Thornton rolls down the window and says hello. They are not so interested in chatting, and continue their forward movement. Sgt. Thornton gets on the radio and calls in for some back-up. He probably would have pursued them on his own, but there I was, so he was being cautious. I appreciated it. Before we can even turn the car around, they vanish. We drive around a bit and Sgt. Thornton uses the brightest flashlight I have ever seen. It is attached to the outside of the patrol car and its light penetrates the farthest area of trees I can see. Still, no sign of the kids.
Then a deputy calls us. He has found them. We head over. They are a good 6 blocks away already and sweating. "After they saw us they ran," says Sgt. Thornton. "Why are you running?"
I stay in the car while Sgt. Thornton does a Field Interview - seeing who they are what they are up to.
Sgt. Thornton gets back into the car and tells me, "Coincidentally, three of them I know because I coach football at the high school."
We are now making our way to a large property to check on something for one of the detectives. Along the way, I ask Sgt. Thornton about why he chose a career in law enforcement.
"I actually didn't want to be a cop, but it has been a blessing in disguise for me. I was pursuing a career as an orthopedic surgeon, but life deals you a hand and you don't pick the cards. You play the best possible hand and here I am! Look, you are not going to get rich doing this job, but it offers other gratifications that money can't buy. When you help somebody and they are genuinely grateful - that can range from giving someone a ride out of the rain up to convincing someone to stand up for themselves and stop being a victim of domestic violence - you can't put a price on that. In cases of domestic abuse, indirectly you have saved that person's life and in most cases the lives of their kids. You have to break that cycle for them. Our job is to restore the peace. We have to be counselors, mediators. You gotta come with a bag of tricks! I enjoy it and we never know what is about to happen. I am sitting here and dispatch hits the tone. My thing is to get there safely. We don't need to put other people in danger. One of the reasons I like it here in Indian River County is that everybody gets involved. People like it safe here. It has always had the label of being a safe community ever since I was a kid."
We pull into a dark winding driveway and make our way back toward a large house.
"So right now we are going to check on an empty, bank-owned house," he says. We are joined by Corporal Flores and Deputy Ruiz. "One of our detectives has asked us to try and locate an individual with warrants for breaking into this home and who has been, for lack of better words, squatting here. Being that it is dark, we can approach stealthily."
I stay behind at a safe distance, and once they have done a proper 'sweep' of the home, they take me through a portion to show what they just did.
"All of our departments work together as a team," he says. We do follow-ups all the time for the detectives or any other unit. After, we document and communicate. That is critical: DOCUMENT AND COMMUNICATE!"
Next we patrol the area of US1 south of 12th Street. "At night we pay close attention to what we call 'target-rich' areas."
These include car and marine dealerships, because I learn that thieves like to steal items they can sell easily, like GPSs, Loran devices, and even stainless steel props and catalytic converters! Other target-rich areas include banks, hotels, apartment complexes.
"The most important thing you can do at night is listen," he tells me. "You can hear things like breaking glass, tapping, or trying to pry something open. Everything else is quiet so you roll your windows down and listen. If we sit here, we can hear that conversation across the street."
He is right. From where we sit, I can clearly hear everything the two people across US1 at Checker's are saying.
"There was a time when people were stealing entire ATM machines using front end loaders," he laughs. "Remember, if you see a front end loader driving down the street late at night, Milo said that's a problem!"
During this time we spend listening, Sgt. Thornton also catches up on reports from earlier in the evening. He also must review each deputy's reports as well. "At the end of the night I have to send an event notification to our command staff. This is a summary of all of the significant events that occurred throughout the night. This communication keeps everyone in the loop. It's a small town so a detective may recognize a name, or if deputies are called to the same house tomorrow, they will know what we were dealing with last night. GOOD COMMUNICATION streamlines our work and we can come up with a resolution without taking shots in the dark. I also check for grammar, and make sure there was probable cause for arrest. I am not second-guessing my deputies. I call it checks and balances. I am 100% convinced that my time working as a detective with IRCSO is an asset to me being able to do my job out here as a supervisor. In an investigation you are responsible for the management, preparation and presentation of your cases. Everything we do and say has a chance of being in front of a courtroom. I want to see all of us being successful!"
Around midnight we crossed paths with Deputies Michael Ruiz and Florentino Arizpe.
"I am originally from New York and have lived in IRC since 2002," says Deputy Ruiz. "My grandfather was with NYPD for 30 years and now is a volunteer for Fellsmere Police. Growing up, there were always detectives at the house. Law enforcement and the military were always around me."
Deputy Ruiz started with IRCSO first as a volunteer on the night shift, and then began his career two years ago. Sgt. Thornton was one of his instructors!
"Nights are exciting," says Deputy Ruiz. "We can catch people committing crimes at night, breaking into houses, sneaking around. I enjoy working nights because the call volume is a little slower which allows us to be proactive and catch crimes in progress. It is very rewarding when we can return the stolen property back to the owner. One thing I really want people to know is that the public's involvement is very important in helping us solve crimes. People do not have to be afraid to contact us. They actually help us better enforce laws and protect the community. It is important that people reach out to us to report anything suspicious at all."
Deputy Arizpe, who has served on the IRCSO night shift for over 15 years, agrees. "The more eyes we have looking out, the better we can do our job."
Growing up, he spent half his time here and half in North Carolina, moving back and forth with his parents for their seasonal work. He discovered while here in high school that he wanted to go into law enforcement. "I had my first pickup truck. Somebody stole it! Officer Shapiro with VBPD responded to the call and by late that afternoon I had my truck back. I thought WOW that is really fantastic and made me feel good and I thought I would like to do that for others as well."
What does he most want you to know?
"..that we are here. Regardless of how minor or major people think the problem is, we are here to help all the time. 24 hours a day! While you are sleeping, I am driving around your neighborhood looking in bushes, watching the streets. Keeping it a quiet little town, still."
He emphasizes that he doesn't make assumptions either. "Maybe we see someone walking late at night. Maybe they are not up to no good, but they just need help! I keep my eyes open and when something just doesn't look right, I am going to check it out. If I see a light on in the car, maybe it was burglarized or maybe the homeowner forgot to turn off the light and then the battery is going to die. So they come out and turn it off and make sure all is OK and you leave feeling good about it."
Just then it is after 1 am, and Sgt. Thornton still has to go by the station to finish paperwork so he starts heading to take me home. The streets are empty and we are only a few blocks from my house when we pass through an intersection. We see one car heading north, and another heading east. The one heading east is going too fast. Sgt. Thornton starts to say something about an accident and BAM - the cars collide.
We turn around, first on the scene. I understand the meaning of FIRST RESPONDER! Sgt. Thornton makes some calls on the radio and soon other deputies are on the scene and an ambulance is on the way.
The occupants of the car at fault are already out of the car - two young barefoot girls. Beer bottles have fallen out of the car and I can smell alcohol on them. They are unharmed but in shock.
I keep wondering if anyone is going to get out of the second car which is completely smashed to bits. After a few moments, like a miracle, the car door opens and out comes a young man who was on his way to work.
Before long the first car is on fire! Captain Jamie Coleman, Fire-medic Will Smith, and Engineer Carlo Marquez arrive in IRC Fire Rescue Engine 1 - the same engine I got to ride in when I did my Fire Rescue book in 2013.
With that, it was time to go home! What?? I was wired until at least 3 am when I finally fell asleep, a million thoughts and images going through my mind. I am ready for NIGHT RIDE - PART 2 !
THANK YOU to all law enforcement and fire rescue people who care enough for humanity - that's us folks! - to stay up all night to be sure we wake up to a safe community! Seriously, what would we do without you? I don't even want to know.
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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