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On patrol with the MIPD

Mercer Island police are vigilant. It is a reputation that keeps transients away, teenagers in check and I-90 drivers extra alert when crossing the Island. Indeed, the city’s 32-member police force has helped Mercer Island earn its place as one of the safest communities in the Puget Sound area.

Although this is common knowledge for most Islanders, the effort that goes into ensuring a safe community is, nonetheless, surprising. Few would expect that, while driving home from the North-end QFC, the officer trailing behind may be scanning your license plate, pulling up your driving and vehicle records. Yet it happens every hour of the day.

This is one of many things I learned while accompanying MIPD Sergeant Brian Noel on a swing shift “ride-along” earlier this month. Four hours in the passenger seat of an MIPD police car gave me a glimpse into the thorough system which, thanks to the men and women behind it, quilts the community in a collective promise of safety.

A quiet Island

The Island’s crime index, a measure of the crime rate per thousand citizens, is one of the lowest in the state. Yet Mercer Island has more crime than most would expect, according to Noel.

True, the Island is a relative safe-haven for raising a family and quiet retirement. There is little fear of street crime, drugs or violence. Gangs are almost nonexistent. The parks are safe to stroll at night. Yet shady incidents do occur. As Noel quietly commented, “More goes on here than people probably expect.”

The fact that Mercer Island is one of the region’s most affluent neighborhoods has its consequences. The weekly police report is riddled with late-night car prowls. Household break-ins are reported less frequently; about one or two a month. Driving with a suspended or revoked license is the most common crime.

Due to the Island’s location off I-90, a highway car chase will sometimes end on Island Crest, West and North Mercer Way or in the Town Center. Late-night transients find themselves pulled over after stopping for gas on the Island. Others are here for premeditated reasons.

“But the flip side,” Noel emphasized, “is that transients know that Island police are very pro-active, so they stay away.”

The Mercer Island Police Department works a unique milieu. With Seattle to the west and Bellevue to the east, the department serves an essential role in regional safety. And its police force is as multifaceted as its terrain.

Police operations include a Marine Patrol, with a fleet of three vessels and an award-winning dive team, Bicycle Patrol and an eight-member Special Operations Team, which is trained to respond to situations “beyond the scope of normal patrol duties,” such as a barricaded gunman, dignitary protection, and high-risk warrant service.

In the history of the department, Noel said, only five Island officers have been involved in shootings. Yet MIPD officers are often put in situations where they need do draw weapons. Ammunition is one of the department’s biggest expenses.

The Mercer Island Police Department, one could say, works in threes. At least three officers are on patrol in a given 24-hour period, which is broken down into three shifts: day shift (7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.), swing shift (3 p.m. to 11 p.m.) and graveyard shift (11 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.).

I spent part of a swing shift with Sergeant Noel on a rainy and quiet Thursday evening.

“It’s going to be real dead because of this rain,” he said. “Bad guys don’t like bad weather.”

And he was right. In nearly four hours of patrolling downtown Mercer Island — plus a slow loop along West Mercer Way — Noel received only a few scratchy radio calls from dispatch, all of which were taken care of by the other officers on patrol.

“Usually, swing shift is the busiest, but this rain is keeping everybody in,” he repeated, almost apologetically.

However, I wasn’t out for a car chase. Nor a dramatic arrest. Mostly, I just wanted to get a feel for an ordinary night on patrol. What might have been mundane routine for Noel was absorbing to me.

The dashboard Polaris computer system alone had my full attention. With a keyboard positioned for quick typing, officers can pull up a database with every registered license plate in the nation. The computer also provides an on-screen map of the Island, along with Internet access and a host of other departmental features.

The computer is used alongside the age-old radio system, with its numerical codes, scratchy dispatches and disyllabic back-and-forth between officers.

Because the computer system was down the night I was riding along, Noel depended on radio dispatch to look up license plates. The situation lent itself perfectly to Noel’s avowal that every officer needs to be competent without a computer.

“You can’t always depend on a computer. You need to have it all in your head,” he said.

Even so, since purchasing the Polaris system several years ago, the number of license-related arrests “has quadrupled,” according to Noel.

An officer can scan any license plate she wants. But usually, police target a vehicle that “looks suspicious.”

“This is a giant game of Sesame Street. What things don’t look like the others,” Noel said, nodding toward an idling car outside QFC. “That car back there, both mirrors were knocked off and hanging by the wires — that’s different for here, so I at least run the license plate to see if there’s anything else suspicious going on.”

It turned out that the vehicle was clear. But there have been plenty of cases, the police sergeant said, to the contrary.

“Seventy-five percent [of our time] is spent dealing with traffic and hunting bad guys. The way we find them is by running plates or stopping them [for infractions],” he explained.

Most of an officer’s time on patrol, I observed, is spent cruising the Town Center streets, rolling into Island parks and up the main artery of Island Crest Way. Always on the look out. Always ready.

“I like to call it hunting,” Noel said. “My job is to drive around the Island and see if there’s anything that needs my attention.”

Hunting for speeding drivers is another priority, especially on a dead night.

Tucked into a small enclave in the 3500 block of Island Crest Way, right where the road spirals down to westbound I-90, Noel waited, holding a clunky radar gun at the cars flying by. Bleeps and static. Bleeps and static. The sonic radar’s rolling cadence kept Noel from stepping on the gas. Yet once its tempo soared, the sergeant was off into the road, lights on, sirens bleating.

And so it happened that Thursday night; A young man, gravity on his side, flew down the last stretch of Island Crest Way, 53 miles per hour. Before I knew what had happened, we were flying along after him.

The man pulled over just meters before the I-90 on-ramp.

“Often we follow drivers onto I-90, sometimes even into Seattle. It’s still within [our jurisdiction] to pull them over,” Noel explained.

Clearly in the wrong, the driver passively turned over his license and registration, which Noel promptly carried back to the police car.

“Once this is in my hand, they can’t go anywhere. I’ve got their information,” the patroller explained, adding that, if a driver were to act out in a threatening way or peel away from the scene, Noel would throw his license and registration into the air as evidence ­— a safety tactic the MIPD sergeant teaches his trainees.

After looking up the driver’s information, Noel confirmed that he had no outstanding warrants, was the registered owner of the vehicle and had legal insurance coverage. He then methodically looked up the fine for driving 53 mph in a 35 mph zone: $195.

And that was the peak of my rainy night ride-along; a few radio calls and a speeding violation. Yet interestingly enough, the time flew by. Each hour was different. Each was unpredictable. And this, Noel explained, is why he loves the job.

“No shift is the same. There’s always something new,” he said.

Once a computer analyst, Noel left that career in his mid-thirties to join the police force. Eighteen years later, the MIPD sergeant doesn’t have one regret.

“Becoming a cop,” Noel said, “is the best thing I ever did.”

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