From the passenger’s seat: A night with WUPD
It’s 4 p.m. and, by this point, Detective Sergeant Ja-Maal Davis has already been on duty since 8:00 a.m. that morning. He’s not done yet. As he musters his robbery detail with five other officers in a room in the Washington University Police Station, he prepares for the night ahead.
On nights like these, Davis directs the new robbery detail. It’s a group of six officers that patrols the areas around campus from 4:00 p.m. to midnight, seven days a week. Each night’s officers are chosen on a mostly volunteer basis, so they rotate depending on the evening as a part of Washington University Police Department’s response to the recent crime spike around the University.
In light of Student Life’s reporting on recent crime in the area, WUPD offered to let a reporter ride along with an officer for a night. The following is an account of what happened on Thursday, Oct. 4.
Davis goes through roll call—everyone’s here—and they split up the zones. Rosedale, Delmar, Greenway. Each one needs two officers. They negotiate—“I don’t want Delmar, not tonight,” one says. They joke about WILD—it’s tomorrow. They tease each other.
From the front of the room, Davis tells them about a robbery on the Delmar Loop last night. Thanks to CCTV footage, police knew to look for a man in jeans and an army fatigue jacket. Luckily, they got him.
“Might get some rain in tonight,” he adds.
And before they head out for this typical detail night, one last reminder.
“Keep doing what you’re doing.”
With roll call over, Davis leaves the room. He stops at his desk to strap a bullet-proof vest around his torso before making a detour to the dispatch center down the hall. It’s dark in here, almost as if they’re processing photo negatives, but instead of prints on the wall, they have screens of CCTV footage.
Davis greets the two women sitting behind computers and grabs a marker to update a dry-erase board in the corner. He’s ready.
His car waits for him in the parking garage behind the station. It says Washington University Police across the doors, but, from the inside, the only clue that it’s a cop car is a black box with a glowing orange screen: It gives him updates throughout the night.
He gets in, pulls his seatbelt across his thick vest and reaches for the music. He doesn’t care about the artist, but he always has one genre in mind: “I’m a smooth jazz guy.”
With the jazz playing, he checks his email one last time—it’s always his goal to make it all night without any crime updates. That done, he turns left onto Shepley Drive and drives toward his first zone for the night: Rosedale, near the Kayak’s coffee shop.
He splits his time between the three geographic zones, listening to the police scanner and watching his email for updates. If anything happens, he can direct other officers as needed, all with the goal of deterring crime.
“Students in these neighborhoods appreciate the presence,” he says.
The Rosedale Zone–Forest Park Parkway down to Des Peres Avenue and then up to Delmar Boulevard–is where two of the recent carjackings took place, but tonight, like most nights, it’s calm. Students walk down the sidewalk on their way home, cars cruise past.
“By human nature, recency bias is really big,” Davis says. “Just because we’ve had this spike in these carjackings, that’s the most recent so that’s what’s prevalent. The image is, ‘hey, this isn’t safe,’ but the reality is, when you look at the big picture, overall in our neighborhoods where we patrol, where we offer our services, crime is down.”
Everything looks clear in Rosedale, so Davis drives north to the Loop to check out the Delmar zone. It’s still early evening, so people walk up and down the street, but it’s not too busy yet.
Then at 4:57 p.m., he gets a call. There’s been a car accident on Skinker Boulevard, midway between Piccione Pastry and Lee’s Chicken. There’s already another WUPD officer there, but Davis goes over to see if he needs anything.
Accidents like these are common. St. Louis City police have been called, so Davis and the other WUPD officer wait for them to arrive. There’s no University connection to this accident, but if there was, the officers would see it through to the end.
“That’s one thing we pride ourselves on, making sure that if it involves Wash. U., we’re there to assist if we can,” Davis says.
According to Davis, WUPD has a great working relationship with the surrounding police departments of St. Louis City, St. Louis County, University City and Clayton. They often rely on each other for help in cases that overlap.
St. Louis City police arrive at 5:13 p.m., so Davis gets back in his car and returns to his route. It’s a pretty good response time, considering how busy the city police typically are.
Davis has spent 17 years in law enforcement, the past five at WUPD, so he knows what to look for. He monitors foot traffic, checks vehicles for shattered glass and sees if there’s any other suspicious activity.
The other officers on the robbery detail do the same in their zones. The detail started last month when WUPD added two officers after the first carjacking and then four more, bringing the total to six, after the second carjacking.
“It can be tiring,” Davis says. “But when you think about the mission, it makes it worth it. You know your mission is to provide a direct presence to deter criminal activity. If I can say ‘no incidents to report,’ that’s a success.”
Davis winds his way through the neighborhoods in the Delmar and Greenway zones, including a drive down what he calls “party block”—better known as Kingsbury Boulevard—before pulling into the Delmar Station at 5:41 p.m.
It’s a plain brick building housing WUPD, St. Louis City and St. Louis County officers. He has one more roll call here. This time, it’s for the Neighborhood Services Bureau.
Just before 6:00 p.m., officers start to sit down around their oval table, partitioned off with gray dividers in this shared space. Like the officers before, they joke around. A Keurig machine purrs in the background, and a few of them sip coffee. They’ll have a long night—they patrol the neighborhoods from 6:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m.
It’s a similar procedure to the roll call before, just with different officers. They divide up the zones, go through crime report emails and talk about WILD. Davis lets them know how appreciative students have been lately because of their new crime-prevention measures—a student and a mom brought in snacks to the station on the South 40. They’re good, too—Famous Amos.
BACK ON THE ROAD
Since the start of the semester, the areas surrounding Washington University have seen several armed robberies and carjackings, plus a shooting on the Delmar MetroLink. The increase in carjackings is part of a recent trend in St. Louis.
Officers like Davis volunteer their time every night to add extra protection to the streets, but it’s difficult for them to not take that crime spike personally.
“You accept ownership,” Davis said. “This is our area, this is our community. We’re providing a service, so you feel bad when you arrive and that student is distraught because they were a victim of a crime. You feel bad for them.”
WUPD also increased the frequency of Sidewalk Safety Talks in response. Officers go out on foot in high-traffic areas and give pedestrians handouts, such as whistles, pens or safety cards, with the goal of providing safety information.
Additionally, the University bumped up the number of green line buses in service and introduced a partnership with Uber to get students home safely for free. Davis says these new transportation options have been popular with students.
WUPD officers attend twice-monthly meetings of a task force comprised of St. Louis City, County and municipality officers created last summer after the city noticed the uptick in crime. They also go to neighborhood meetings around the University.
It all fits into the University’s goal to keep students as safe as possible.
“There is nothing more important to us than your safety. At the Washington University Police Department, this is what drives our officers every single day. It is a responsibility we take very seriously,” Washington University Police Chief Mark Glenn wrote in an email to students on Sept. 10.
By 6:50 p.m., Davis is in the Greenway zone when he gets another call. There’s a man in the Rosedale zone watching the officer over there, paying too much attention to him. Davis thinks it’s suspicious, so he goes to investigate.
He makes his way through the neighborhood streets until he gets to Des Peres Avenue, where the officer saw the man. Davis drives down Des Peres slowly until he gets to a dead-end by Washington Boulevard. The only person in sight is a man in a white t-shirt headed south, right toward the car.
Davis doesn’t know if this is the man the other officer meant, so he does a slow circle around the end of the street and heads south again to check in with him. The man turns to look back at Davis.
Further down Des Peres Avenue, away from the man, Davis stops his car next to the other officer’s. He confirms that it’s the man he noticed before, the one in the white t-shirt. They wonder why he changed directions when he saw the first cop, and why he watched both cop cars so closely. They decide to go back down Des Peres Avenue.
When they get there, he’s gone.
Maybe he slipped into the trees next to the street. Maybe he went back north. Maybe he really wasn’t going to do anything wrong.
“You never know. You just kind of watch and see,” Davis says.
Davis doesn’t like to use the “q-word”—quiet. Instead, he says it’s calm. And, like most nights, tonight has been exactly that.
He pulls into an alley behind the Loop to call his daughters—they both had games tonight, but they’ll be asleep by the time he gets home. 7:30 p.m. hits and with it comes the rain he predicted earlier. It falls against his windshield as he lets his daughters go and puts the car in drive once more.
Davis always knew he wanted to be a police officer, going back to his days playing cops and robbers with his siblings. He’s a triplet. They’re all cops.
“Sometimes you see people at their worst, but other times you can be a source of inspiration,” Davis said. “You can brighten that moment for them.”
However brief, this is his only break until 8:20 p.m., when he returns to the South 40 station to rehydrate. And so far, he hasn’t gotten a single crime report email.
It’s been a good night.