Routine UP ride-along leaves reporter with scent of success

Sheila Burt and Sheila Burt

Routine UP ride-along leaves reporter with scent of success

By Sheila Burt

The Daily Northwestern

My Friday night date with University Police started out politely as most dates do — a little chit-chat, a talk about traffic stops. But by the end of the night, I had smelled pot for the first time.

I rode along in a squad car with Sgt. Steven Stoeckl of UP for about four hours Friday, ducking in and out of hidden areas of Northwestern’s Evanston Campus on a breezy night. Sitting in the front passenger seat, I observed students cautiously peering into the car, wondering if they — or I — were caught doing something illegal.

With the sun setting at about 7:30 p.m., swarms of residents and students crowd Sheridan Road in anticipation of the Waa-Mu Show. The night’s first thrill comes at about 7:45 p.m. The squad car is stopped at Orrington Avenue near the Emerson Street intersection. A car speeds by Emerson and misses a stop sign.

Stoeckl runs a traffic check on the license with a computer database system and calls for back-up, a standard procedure. As he prepares to get out of the car, he explains to me standard precautions — even in the most routine stops.

“Always keep your ‘gun hand’ free,” he warns as he exits the car.

When he returns, he explains to me that he will not issue the driver a ticket. The driver, Stoeckl says, was considerate and acknowledged his mistake. The driver told Stoeckl that he was visiting his daughter, who was in Waa-Mu, and was looking for Cahn Auditorium.

UP’s jurisdiction runs as far south as Lake Street and as far north as Isabella Street near Ryan Field. Stoeckl, who works the 3 to 11 p.m. shift, says there tends to be more activity north near the fraternities on the weekend. But officers also concentrate patrols south of campus because of several student robberies, he says.

The next stop is McGaw Memorial Hall at Ryan Field in response to an ambulance call. A wrestler hurt himself while competing in a tournament. As the fire department and ambulance arrive, Stoeckl leads them into the building.

Out in the parking lot, Stoeckl looks around. He places his thumbs on the tip of his belt. I ask him about this “standard cop” pose and if cops are trained to stand like that. He laughs and says that cops should place their hands in front of their body for protection, but placing thumbs on a belt is only a habit.

Stoeckl explains that he grew up in a predominantly Irish and German neighborhood of Chicago where many police officers lived. That atmosphere influenced his decision to become a cop, and his first job was with UP when he was hired January 1994.

Although policing a university may not seem like a high-profile job, Stoeckl has seen his share of danger during his 10 years on the job.

About nine years ago, UP assisted Evanston Police Department with an armed robbery in progress at Dunkin’ Donuts, 1728 Sherman Ave. Officers chased the armed man to the Davis Street El stop, but he would not drop his gun.

“The whole time the offender — he was looking at me the entire time,” Stoeckl said. “That was a very high risk situation.”

The man ended up dropping his weapon, yet the story is emblazoned upon Stoeckl’s memory.

Driving back to the southern end of campus, Stoeckl parks on University Place near the Sorority Quad. A car flashing its hazard lights is parked in front of a fire lane, causing a traffic disturbance. Stoeckl positions his car behind the illegally parked car and enters the license plate number into the computer.

The search yields one person who is “wanted” and another with a suspended driver’s license. The driver turns out to be the brother of the person with the suspended driver’s license. Stoeckl warns the driver to tell his brother that his license is suspended.

Just as the night seems destined to consist solely of traffic stops, a call comes on to the radio about the smell of marijuana coming from a room in the Foster-Walker Complex.

We arrive at the dorm at about 9 p.m. and Stoeckl parks at the building’s front. Stoeckl and I stand in the room from which the smell allegedly emanated. I distinctly smell the pot and hear folk-rock singer Beth Orton’s wispy voice echoing from the room’s speakers. Police locate the room’s residents and open an investigation.

We leave the dorm at about 9:30 p.m. I sit in the squad car, and a person nervously stares at me from a dorm window. I smile thinking that a lot of people probably figure I am being arrested.

The night is kicking into gear by 10 p.m., but Stoeckl’s shift is winding down. He turns into UP’s main offices, 1819 Hinman Ave.

“I like doing this because one, you’re outside,” Stoeckl says of his decision to enter the police force. “You’re not stuck in an office. You have a lot of interaction with people in person.”