OTHELLO — When Officer Brittney Morice pulled into the Walmart parking lot here, she didn’t see the line of souped up racing cars parked in a neat row.
But as soon as she did, she pulled her police SUV over and got out to talk to the drivers, most of them members of a club that modify street legal cars for racing, who all wanted to take selfies with a cop.
They gathered around, and talked a little about legal and illegal changes to cars, and refusing to admit too openly about where they raced.
“Maybe we do it in the county,” one young man said.
“If you see me driving too fast, you signal me,” another driver told Morice.
“If I see you driving too fast, I’m going to pull you over,” Morice responded, smiling.
As she got back into her SUV to resume her patrol of Othello, Morice felt the need to explain something about small town life and being a police officer in a small town.
“Let me tell you about small towns,” she said. “There are a lot of little groups like this, and there’s not a lot to do. When I see them gather like that, I like to get and talk to them, get to know them, and get them to know me a little.”
That way, if there’s any trouble in the future — either directly of with family members — the officer responding is more than just some stranger in a uniform. It’s someone they’ve met, who has shown an interest in what they do.
“I’d rather be a friendly face that they’ve seen before,” she said.
It’s a quiet Friday night in Othello, a town of about 8,000, and Morice cruises the streets alone, running license plates, responding to calls, looking for suspicious activity, generally being a visible presence of safety and order. She’s only been in Othello for a few months after spending roughly three years as a police officer in Quincy.
But in that time, Morice has made this little town her home.
“I like to have something different each day,” said Morice, who is also an intelligence officer in the National Guard. “I don’t like a nine-to-five desk job.”
Earlier in the evening, officer Claudio Garza was doing the same, driving a loop around the city, running license plate numbers on his computer, especially if something is wrong with the car, like expired tags or a burnt-out license plate light.
Garza explained that running plate numbers is usually a good way to catch people with outstanding warrants or even stolen vehicles.
In fact, that evening, Garza pulls over a black Chrysler with a Batman sticker on the rear window and registration that expired in December.
“I gave him a warning,” Garza said. “Hopefully, he’ll go take care of that tomorrow (Saturday) or first thing Monday. But if it had been more than two months (since his registration expired), I’d write him a ticket.”
While prowling through a neighborhood, Garza spots a man ducking into a backyard. It looks like the man is peeing against the side of the house.
“What’s going on here?” Garza asks.
“It’s OK,” another man, who had been sitting in a small, battered Japanese car from the 1990s, said as he walked up to the police SVU. “We live here. We live here.”
Garza asks the man for his address.
“I don’t know,” he said.
Garza than gives a fake address. “Is that it?” he asks.
“Yeah, that’s it.”
Now very suspicious, Garza runs the plate.
“He’s not lying,” Garza said, surprised. “He really does live there.”
Around midnight, dispatch tells all the officers on patrol there’s been a hit-and-run accident near SR-26 and First Avenue, on the overpass. Morice, who is patrolling near McCain Foods, hits her lights and sirens and reaches 80 as she speeds down Broadway.
There is a white car, its front end bashed in, and already two police cars on scene. Apparently, a vehicle driving from the west veered into the center, smashed the white car head on, and then sped from the scene. Neither of the occupants of the white car appear injured, but the west-bound lane of the overpass would be blocked until a tow truck could get to the scene.
“Can you go block and direct traffic on the other side?” police Sgt. Josh Silva asked.
“Sure,” Morice said.
For 45 minutes, she holds traffic at bay, letting a few cars through. There aren’t many cars — it is after midnight — but Morice is needed, with her reflective vest, her “stop and slow” sign, and her commanding presence, to make sure cars stayed stopped when she told them and went across when it was clear.
It’s just another night in January for the Othello Police. Both Morice and Garza said is would be much busier in summer, with more people out, and more people misbehaving.
“I take quiet nights as a sign I’m actually doing my job,” Morice said.
Charles H. Featherstone can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.