Not every police call can be like the show "Cops."
Even in a city seemingly defined by crime, a typical shift with a typical police officer can be as typical as the commercial break.
And so on Friday, when Ray Syzmczak of Medfield joined residents from across the city and climbed into a patrol car, he had no expectation of having a wild night. The major in charge of the Northern District, Ross Buzzuro, told residents they were about to have a "unique experience" and that he hoped "it will not only be educational but interesting."
He left out the word exciting.
And at first, Syzmczak's shift with Officer Bexley Collins seemed to be living up to all of the boss' expectations.
The first call took them to a residential street for a man complaining that his landlord wanted to kick him out. But before the man could utter a single word, Collins' radio buzzed with a far more urgent matter. A woman reported that men had just broken into her neighbor's house on Loyola Southway and were at that moment sitting in a red car in the back alley.
In an instant, Syzmczak would see a man arrested at gunpoint, a police chase and a scuffle in which another suspect got away. All on one call.
"I was a little surprised to see this much in literally the first three minutes," he said.
Friday night's community ride-along was the second time since this summer that the Baltimore Police Department has put a citizen in every patrol car in every part of the city. It's part of the commissioner's attempt to not only help residents understand how cops work and what they do, but to help them feel a part of the crime-fighting team. It's important in a city where it seems few trust the police and crime dominates the discussion.
The Northern District police station serves residents who live in roughly 50 neighborhoods that stretch from Charles Village to the county line and from the York Road corridor to parts of Park Heights. The officers patrol some of the city's wealthiest and some of the city's poorest communities, and one of the biggest urban retreats, Druid Hill Park, and the neighborhood with one of the nation's top universities, Johns Hopkins.
Before the folks who signed up to team with a cop hit the streets of the Northern, they pored over maps of the district. Some wanted to patrol their own neighborhoods, others saw it as an opportunity to see new parts of the city. Syzmczak simply chose a spot at random.
Collins, who had joined the city force in 2001, left and then returned four years ago, got the call for the burglary and sped to Loyola Southway through alleys, careful to not use his siren to avoid tipping off the culprits. He pulled up behind the red car in a narrow, trashy alley and certainly took the four occupants by surprise.
Two jumped out of the Ford Taurus. Collins tried to grab one. He broke free and the officer, his gun drawn, ordered him to the ground. They scuffled as Syzmczak stayed in the front seat of the squad car, his view now blocked by the red car in front. All of a sudden, the suspect popped into view and ran by the police car and down the alley, with Collins running behind. Meanwhile, another officer arrested the other man farther up the alley.
In the commotion, a third man got out of the Taurus, paused to make sure no one was after him, uttered a profanity and took off. A fourth man, the driver, sat patiently in the car until Officer Timothy Coufal came over and ordered him out at gunpoint. Collins then returned, but without the man he had been chasing.
By now, it seemed half the district was in the alley, including a supervisor, Lt. Joseph A. Orem, and detectives who took over the investigation. "The cavalry is now on the scene," Syzmczak said.
The driver of the Ford told Collins that he had rented the red car in his name and that the others had forced him to drive to the house so they could break in. "I have no problem testifying against them," he said as officers put handcuffs on him. "It makes no difference to me."
So much for witness intimidation.
The man did stay in the car until police came to get him, even though he had plenty of time to get out and get away. But the car had no rental sticker and a glance inside showed it to be well lived-in, with old cigarette butts, a supersized McDonald's tea and baseball caps - one a New York Yankees' - decorating the rear window. An air freshener in the shape of a pine tree dangled from the rearview mirror. When police searched the man's jacket, they found a white sock in the sleeve, which could've been worn over a hand to cover fingerprints.
The man renting the house told police he had returned home that same morning and found his house burglarized. He got upset, left and then got a call that people were inside again. "They came back," he yelled.
In the back of the car: the man's flat-screen television, a pile of cables that had been part of his surround sound system and a digital video recorder. The owner said he has several buildings in the city and that three of them were burglarized in the past couple of weeks. He met with detectives to give them names of workers in case any of them could be suspects.
Said Syzmczak: "It's a shame two got away."
But it was the quick 911 call by the neighbor, who provided a detailed description, and the quick response from the cops that got two suspects. Lt. Orem noted that people like the neighbor "are the key." Bad guys, he said, "they may see us and hide in the shadows. But the public sees their activities and if they just give us a heads up. ..."
His voice trailed off, frustrated because so few people do offer meaningful help, yet it's so obvious what the cops can do when help does come.
In this case, Collins said, "Hopefully some stuff can be returned to its rightful owner."