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No time for paperwork

| September 1, 2004 12:00 AM

EDITOR¹S NOTE: With the Libby Police Department the subject of recent criticism from downtown merchants for not doing enough to combat litter and vandalism problems on Mineral Avenue, Chief Clay Coker invited reporter Brent Shrum to ride along with him on a Saturday night patrol. The following is an account of the period from 8 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 28, to 1 a.m. on Sunday, Aug. 29.

By Brent Shrum, Western News Reporter

At 8 p.m., it¹s still pretty quiet on Mineral Avenue.

Chief Clay Coker, who spent much of the first three hours of his 10-hour shift working on administrative duties, decides to head from downtown to Education Way to check up on things at the high school and middle school. His route west on U.S. Highway 2 takes him briefly out of the city limits before coming back into the city near the high school.

As Coker approaches the high school at 8:19, he receives a radio call from the county dispatcher. A driver with a suspended license has been reported leaving Reese Court and is probably headed for Empire Foods. Coker turns on Mahoney Road and takes the highway to Empire, where he spots the suspect¹s car pulling into the parking lot.

A county deputy arrives for backup and Coker relays the driver¹s information to the dispatcher while the man waits in his car with a woman and two young children. By 8:32, the man is in handcuffs in the back of Coker¹s car, charged with driving with a suspended license, driving without insurance and obstructing a peace officer.

Upon arrival at the county jail, Coker explains to the man that he¹s been charged with obstructing because he gave him a different last name than the one on the identification card he at first said he didn¹t have with him but belatedly produced.

Leaving the man with the detention officer on duty in the jail, Coker goes to the dispatch area to write up his tickets. While he¹s at it. he calls a county detective at home to let him know the man is in custody. The detective is interested in talking with the man about another case.

By 9:02, Coker has finished writing up the tickets and is responding to another complaint. An off-duty police officer has spotted what looks like underage drinking going on in a pickup truck cruising Mineral Avenue and the county deputy who previously assisted Coker has pulled the truck over.

Using a portable device, Coker administers a breath test to the 17-year-old girl who was driving. When the device indicates an alcohol concentration of .04 percent — less than the .08 limit for adults but over the .02 limit for drivers under 21 — she puts her face in her hands and starts crying. At 9:13, with the deputy removing a cooler from the back of the girl¹s truck and making arrangements for a tow truck, Coker puts the now-handcuffed girl in the back of his car.

In the meantime, the dispatcher has relayed a report of another possible drunk driver. That one will have to wait.

³I¹m getting behind,² Coker mutters under his breath as he heads back to the jail with another prisoner.

At the jail, Coker administers a field sobriety test to the girl as the detention officer records the scene on video tape. Coker reads her the law explaining that if she doesn¹t agree to take another breath test on the machine at the jail, she will lose her license for six months. She agrees to take the test, which registers an alcohol concentration of .052.

Coker reads the girl her rights and then, with her consent, administers a standard questionnaire concerning her activities leading up to her arrest and whether she may have some medical condition that could give a false appearance of intoxication. When he¹s finished, he takes her to the dispatch area to write her ticket and make arrangements for an adult to pick her up.

The tickets are only the start of the documentation that must accompany each arrest.

³All this paperwork will be done tomorrow night,² Coker says.

After briefly explaining to the girl that her claim that she only had one drink more than two hours ago doesn¹t hold water — and is irrelevant anyway because of the results of the breath test — Coker heads back out to the street. It¹s now almost 10 p.m.

Things are picking up on Mineral Avenue. Coker is no sooner back in his car than he receives a complaint of a reckless driver spinning his tires, making a U-turn and exceeding the speed limit on the 600 block of Mineral. Coker arrives to find the suspect¹s truck parked in front of Timberline Auto Center.

The driver turns out to be the 19-year-old man who had less than an hour before shown up at the scene of the DUI stop to pick up his girlfriend, who was a passenger in the stopped vehicle. Coker talks with him for a few minutes about the complaint and writes him a ticket.

³It¹s the first ticket I¹ve ever had,² the young man tells Coker.

³The way you drive it¹s not going to be the last,² Coker tells him, warning him that another complaint could result in a trip to the county jail.

Back on patrol, Coker passes a group of young people loitering along the street.

³It¹s not illegal to stand there,² he says, adding ³I¹m getting so far behind.²

Coker makes a brief stop at his office to drop off some paperwork to be finished later.

³That¹s about four hours worth of paperwork, but I¹m not going to get it finished right now,² he said.

The time needed to fill out all the necessary forms will go up if there are any more arrests tonight, Coker said. If things quiet down he plans to come back to the office for a while at the end of his shift to get a head start on the paperwork.

³When I¹m doing this there¹s nobody out there,² he says.

Coker¹s shift is technically over at 3 a.m. but he¹s on-call until 5. He says he usually just stays on for those two hours instead of going home and taking the chance of getting called back out.

At 10:35, Coker is back out on the street. Things have quieted down considerably and there¹s little traffic downtown.

³Mineral¹s pretty tame right now,² Coker says.

He¹s quick to add that Mineral Avenue is only a small part of the city. It¹s been a busy enough night so far that he hasn¹t yet had a chance to patrol the residential areas or the schools.

Coker heads down to Second Street and turns left. He makes a cruise through the park next to the American Legion ball field, shining his spotlight around to look for anything out of place.

Heading up Sixth Street to the highway, he gets another call. This one concerns a possible open container violation on Mineral Avenue, so Coker heads back to The Gut. Out with the suspect, Coker finds that the man is over 21 and the beer can he took out of his truck and set on the sidewalk was empty. Coker issues a littering warning and watches as the man walks to the end of the block to put his trash in a garbage can.

Coker¹s third attempt of the evening to patrol the high school and middle school grounds is successful. He drives slowly around the high school, looking for broken windows and anyone who shouldn¹t be there. Seeing movement, Coker turns his spotlight to a door around the back of the gym and surprises a coach locking up after everyone else has left. After a few friendly words about the evening¹s football game and the team¹s prospects for the rest of the season, Coker heads over to the middle school where the only trespassers are a pair of white-tailed deer on the lawn.

The trip to the schools has taken Coker in and out of the city limits. State law gives city officers enforcement authority within a five-mile radius of the city. While Coker says his officers don¹t actively patrol that far out, they do go that far to back up county officers and sometimes make DUI stops on their way back into the city.

³It gives you kind of a buffer zone,² he said.

Back on Mineral Avenue by way of Balsam and Cedar streets and U.S. Highway 2, Coker finds that things have slowed down considerably. He warns some young people on a corner that if they are under 18, they have 32 minutes until the midnight curfew takes effect. He cruises around the Timberline Auto Center lot, a trouble spot for vandalism that he tries to patrol whenever possible.

³Sometimes you can, sometimes you can¹t,² he said. ³And it¹s the night you can¹t that it gets hit.²

All things considered it¹s been a pretty quiet night with no domestics or ambulance calls so far, Coker says. He¹s planning to go back to the office around midnight to get started on his paperwork, then return to the street when the patrons start leaving the bars.

³You never know with this job,² he says. ³It could be dead for nine and a half hours and then you¹ve got Charles Manson out there running around with a machete.²

Coker heads over to Montana Avenue and warns a visibly intoxicated man weaving his way up the street to stay on the sidewalk. Over the radio he hears that the county deputy has made a traffic stop at Whiskey Hill. It¹s within five miles, but knowing that the deputy has a reserve officer with him Coker waits to see if he asks for backup. No request is made, so Coker heads up Bowen Hill to patrol around the city water treatment plant. Once again, his route takes him out of the city limits and then back in.

Returning to a quiet Mineral Avenue, Coker stops to talk with the manager of the Dome Theater for a few minutes before getting a report from the dispatcher concerning a possible drunk driver heading into town on Montana Highway 37. With the county deputy on the way to check out the complaint, Coker plans to wait near the intersection of the state highway and Second Street. Within a few minutes, the deputy has the car stopped on the north side of the Kootenai River bridge and Coker is providing backup.

The county deputy makes the arrest, and Coker waits for the tow truck, returning a favor from earlier in the evening. By the time he¹s clear from the scene, it¹s getting close to 1 a.m.

Coker drops off the newspaper reporter who has been riding with him tonight, still hoping to get a head start on his paperwork before his shift is over.

A review of the county dispatcher¹s log shows Coker responding at 1:59 a.m. to back up the county deputy on a report of a man choking his wife at 910 E. Lincoln Blvd., and then leaving the scene a half-hour later to investigate a report of a man who had been assaulted. The paperwork would have to wait.