Copping a ride

Greg Masse

Between routine patrols, eating doughnuts and filling out paperwork, police work can be exciting. But according to Glenwood Springs police Sgt. Neil Wagstrom, who was recently promoted to sergeant from patrolman, just being out there is half the battle.

Until his recent promotion, Wagstrom worked as a school resource officer, where he tried to debunk myths, like the one linking cops and doughnut shops, from taking hold in the minds of Glenwood Springs youths.

“Everybody has fun with the cop eating doughnuts thing,” he said. “I’d let the kids tease me about that.”

But he says the officers the Glenwood Springs Police Department are in good shape for the most part, so that myth doesn’t fit here.

Wagstrom recently allowed this Post Independent reporter to ride along with him during part of his shift.

Wagstrom has worked for police departments in Durango, Boulder, Rifle and Glenwood Springs. Wagstrom says his post at the Glenwood Springs department suits him the best.

“I feel comfortable here,” he said. “I feel like I fit in better here.”

Before being promoted, Wagstrom worked as a Glenwood Springs Police Department school resource officer. So he was able to help another officer talk some sense into a kid brought to the police department on a Monday afternoon for allegedly shoplifting from a store in the Glenwood Springs Mall.

Then it was time to deliver City Council agendas and packets to each of the city councilors’ homes.

During those deliveries, he talked about being cop and patrolling the streets.

“For traffic items, we’re looking for speeders,” he said. “The chief directs us where to specify our efforts.”

They also target drivers who run red lights, among other things.

“We don’t always write tickets. Generally we try to warn a lot more than we ticket,” he said.

Speeding is a great cause of concern, Wagstrom said, because it invariably leads to accidents – especially in slippery winter conditions.

When the sun sets and the skies get dark, Wagstrom said police look extra hard at each driver on the road.

“We’re going to be a lot more aware at night,” he said. “At night, we’re going to be looking for virtually any violation. All we need is probable cause.”

And sometimes something as minor as a burned out taillight can lead to a more serious situation if the driver has been drinking.

Key indicators police look for in suspected drunken drivers, after making a traffic stop, include bloodshot eyes, slurred speech, an odor of alcohol and sluggish hand and finger movements.

Wagstrom said when these signs are noted, he has the right to ask a person to step out of the vehicle.

“We’ll ask them to get out of the car and talk to them and continue to evaluate them,” he said.

If he feels someone is possibly intoxicated, Wagstrom said he’d next ask the driver to perform voluntary physical maneuvers, also known as a roadside sobriety test.

“They are voluntary. You don’t have to take them,” he said.

The tests can help an officer determine if there is probable cause to force the driver to take a mandatory blood or breath test.

“Under state law, you have to submit to the tests,” he said.

If someone refuses, they’ll automatically lose their license for a year.

Patrols are always heavy during the holidays, Wagstrom said.

“Normally, people drive under the influence during the holidays,” he said. “We’re trying to respond to the problem.”

The team down at the Glenwood Springs Police Department is a good one, Wagstrom said, a quality that’s very important in a job like his.

“If you’re going through the door of a house on a domestic call, which could be dangerous, you don’t want to question whether the guy behind you is really going to be there for you,” he said. “That’s why we really want to have teamwork in our line of work.”

Throughout the ride-along, Wagstrom showed that team spirit by checking in with the other officers on the streets.

“We have a good team,” he said.

The leader of that team, Glenwood Springs police chief Terry Wilson, recently announced a crackdown on speeders and drivers who commit other moving violations. But Wagstrom did offer a little advice for anyone wondering how fast is too fast.

“If people hold it to five over the speed limit, they could get stopped, but most times you won’t get a ticket,” he said.

Anything above that and drivers run a much higher risk of getting a ticket, he said.

One more reason to slow down is the danger of hitting wildlife on the road. While on patrol at night, Wagstrom said he’s seen all manner of wildlife from bears to foxes to deer and elk.

Right around 6 p.m., after delivering the last council packet, Wagstrom was called to assist on a minor accident near the Garfield County Courthouse where a driver backed into a parked car.

“We probably have more backup accidents than any other type. People just don’t back up carefully enough,” he said.

Wagstrom drove slowly and calmly to the scene because the dispatchers advised him there were no injuries.

Once there, Wagstrom took some measurements and some notes on the accident so a report could be written later.

“They need to draw a diagram that’s close to scale,” he said of the officer who responds to an accident.

Often, those reports are used for insurance claims.

Helping someone who was involved in an accident is part of the reason Wagstrom said he became a police officer.

“I look for the good in people,” he said.

The others in his department generally do the same, he said.

“They legitimately want to be helpful. You wouldn’t be in this line of work if you didn’t want to be helpful,” he said.

While not true at some departments, the Glenwood Springs Police Department shies away from people who seem like they’d be on a power trip, Wagstrom said.

“There could be the ability to abuse the power and be too authoritarian. We don’t choose those people who are badge-heavy,” he said.

Also, Wagstrom said he tries to make situations positive for people – especially with younger people.

“I try to make it into a positive contact so that they don’t hate cops,” he said. “I’ve got a job to do, and I want them to hear what I say without being a jerk.”

As a general rule, Wagstrom said the most important thing any officer can do while patrolling is pay attention and watch out for anything out of the ordinary.

“You have to keep your eyes open,” he said, “and temper it with common sense.”

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