Every police report that hits the newspaper or a radio or television broadcast is backed up by countless hours of training, years of experience (depending on the officer) and any number of thoughts and decisions that need to be made in fractions of seconds.
This week is National Police Week, which recognizes the service and sacrifice of federal, state, local, and tribal police officers, and May 15 is National Peace Officers Memorial Day, which honors law enforcement officers killed or disabled in the line of duty.
A ride-along on Saturday night provided insight into what motivates a person to choose a career of a peace officer and the decisions they have to make in a matter of seconds every day.
Sgt. Yovan Cardenas is always thinking of potential scenarios as he patrols the streets and highways in the Denison city limits, and when he gets a call, he runs through a number of options to prepare for what he will encounter on the scene.
Cardenas has been with the Denison Police Department since February 2016. He graduated from Denison High School in 2010.
Playing major league baseball was his No. 1 career aspiration; being an architect or a police officer tied for No. 2.
“I tried architecture at Iowa State and while taking some courses I found out about criminal justice. I fell in love with it and switched to criminal justice my sophomore year,” he said.
Cardenas graduated from Iowa State in 2014 and became a police officer with the Hampton Police Department in October 2014. He graduated from the Iowa Law Enforcement Academy in April 2015. In February 2016 he left Hampton to join the Denison Police Department.
“Hampton was a nice community, but I wanted to go back home, close to family and friends,” he said.
Cardenas was promoted to the rank of sergeant in May 2018, becoming one of four supervisors with the department. The others are Sgt. Daniel McGinnis, Assistant Chief Doug Peters and Chief Dan Schaffer.
Officers work a 12-hour shift. Just last month the shift time changed to 3 p.m. to 3 a.m.; it had been 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Cardenas likes the change because it covers times of more activity. He and McGinnis always work nights.
9 p.m. (approximate time): A half hour into the ride along, Cardenas is patrolling north on 20th Street and has just commented that vehicles tend to speed going south down the hill. He clocks a vehicle traveling at 37 miles per hour; the speed limit is 25. He turns his patrol vehicle around and stops the vehicle. The driver is from outside the county and had just left a graduation party. That is still no excuse for speeding, Cardenas says. He reduced the speed on the ticket, which officers have the discretion to do, especially if the driver is being cooperative.
Stopping vehicles is different at night than in the daylight, Cardenas said.
“You have to be especially cautious because it’s harder to see inside the vehicle,” he explained. “You have to approach cautiously because you don’t know what the individual behind the wheel is thinking.”
At the law enforcement academy, officers are trained that their most dangerous task is a traffic stop because they can be so unpredictable, even more so than handling a domestic dispute, Cardenas said.
“On domestic calls, you know to expect danger. On a traffic stop, it could be a grandma who is a serial killer or, for all you know, you might deal with someone having a rough day who wants to commit suicide by cop,” he said.
Cardenas explained that a peace officer should never become complacent when making a traffic stop or on any other call.
“The way I see it, I like to learn from my superiors and those who are wiser than I am and enhance my abilities as a cop,” he continued. “Learn from not only my mistakes but from others’ mistakes. One of the things we were taught at the academy is that after an officer gets so many years under the belt, he can start to become complacent, and I wish that never happens to me.”
Cardenas also recognizes the importance of leaving personal troubles at home, and if something major happens at work, to leave that outside the house.
He continued that having a positive attitude helps.
“Most of my guys will say they never see me upset. They may see some instances where I am having a more serious day, but that all depends on the calls and what I’m dealing with. They never see me mad. And something for me personally, I don’t swear. I try to hold myself to a higher standard as a cop and a person.”
Attitude is important when dealing with people, Cardenas continued.
“You don’t want to give the defense attorney any leeway. You treat offenders with respect,” he said.
After cruising the streets in town for a while, Cardenas heads east on Highway 30. He clocks a vehicle traveling at 67 miles an hour in the opposite direction; the speed limit is 55. He turns around at the next opportunity, near the turnoff to Western Iowa Tech Community College, and puts on his flashers. It takes a fair amount of distance before the driver pulls over, across the highway from Budget Inn, almost to the intersection with 20th Street. “Sometimes you wonder if they don’t see you,” Cardenas says.
By then it was raining steadily, and Cardenas put on his jacket. During the traffic stop, other police units cruise by. They are just making sure that he is OK, Cardenas says while working his onboard computer to print a ticket.
Cardenas said that being a police officer has offered him the opportunity to grow personally, and, surprisingly, it’s because of the negative side of the job.
“It’s opened my eyes to all the negativity in the world, all the evil in the world, but it’s shaped me in a good way, not in a negative way. It hasn’t darkened my soul or anything. It’s helped me to create more light to the darkness,” he explained.
He said that’s because he does his job from his heart.
“I don’t do it for the money or the benefits, although those are a plus,” he continued. “I could have become an architect and made six figures easily but I did this because it was more of a calling.”
He said he knew that becoming a cop was a calling. Part of this stems from being the eldest of six children and always wanting to protect his siblings.
Cardenas recently responded to another calling he ignored for a number of years. He joined the Army National Guard and on April 25 graduated from 10 weeks of basic training at Ft. Benning, Georgia. He will attend officer’s candidate school and in a year or so will be a commissioned officer with a military police unit based in Des Moines.
11:33 p.m.: Driving west on Broadway about a block from the intersection with Main Street, Cardenas observes the results of an accident that hasn’t yet been called in. A vehicle is in the node on the northwest corner of the intersection. Debris from the traffic light litters the pavement. The traffic signal pole is on the ground. He approaches the vehicle and finds a female subject inside. Another officer takes the driver to jail in his cruiser and Cardenas follows to conduct the sobriety tests. The driver does not pass the tests, refuses a breath test and is placed under arrest at 11:53 p.m. She is read her rights. Later, while Cardenas is going through the process of booking the driver, she refuses to sign a document that says she refused the breath test. The driver is allowed to make a phone call and is processed into jail by a matron. After checking prior offenses, the driver is charged with OWI 1st offense.
Cardenas turns his attention to filling out reports. He explains that he currently has three documents open on the computer and will have to open two more documents.
“OWI involves several steps, and if you fail to meet one step or do one too soon, it could terminate the charge and cause the defendant to be found not guilty,” he explains
By the time Cardenas finishes and is walking back to his patrol vehicle, the defendant is being bailed out.
What Cardenas wishes people would take into account is that real police work is not like a TV show where crimes can be solved in an hour.
“DNA testing takes weeks, if not months, to process, or if you send in a phone to be checked, it’s not a one-day deal,” he said.
“Sexual assault doesn’t get solved in 24 hours; it takes weeks. And for the case to be resolved in court can take up to a year if you’re lucky,” Cardenas added. “If the victim knows that it’s going to be a long drawn-out process, they are better mentally and physically prepared because it takes a toll.
Another factor that peace officers deal with is the time they have to make decisions compared with the time a case spends in the court system.
“As an officer, at most you get 30 seconds, or if we’re lucky, we get a minute to deal with what’s put in front of us,” he said. “They (the attorneys) get months or years to prepare.”
He said his peace of mind is in making sure he didn’t do something that allowed a subject to be released or a charge to be reduced.
Cardenas explained that peace officers would rather help out people in whatever way they can. Unfortunately, though, sometimes people end up forcing the officers’ hands. They become belligerent and uncooperative.
“They end up going to jail for their attitude,” said Cardenas. “Ultimately, it’s their decision.”
1:10 a.m.: Cardenas drives back to the OWI accident location to make sure it has been cleaned up. Then he heads south on South Main Street but then quickly slows down as he reaches the median that separates the southbound from northbound traffic. The sign that alerts motorists to the median is on the ground and a large boulder behind it has been pushed back. Walking out in the rain with his flashlight and cell phone, Cardenas starts investigating the tire tracks and discovers pieces of a vehicle. He picks up a broken fog light for evidence and discovers a car part on which a bar code sticker is attached. He takes a picture with his cell phone, runs the part number on the onboard computer and discovers it belongs to a Chevrolet Suburban.
Officer Francisco Cruz stops by, and he and Cardenas agree that the vehicle couldn’t have gone far based on the parts that remained behind. They can’t determine when the hit and run accident happened but it may have been when they were booking the OWI subject. By that time, the vehicle could be anywhere, perhaps parked in a garage where the driver hopes to leave it until time has passed. The police will alert body shops.
Cardenas said that in the future, he would like to be a detective. He pointed to his love of math – basically solving puzzles - and his predisposition for organization in his life as traits that attract him to detective work.
Trying to be organized in a disorganized world may sound like a conflict, but Cardenas offers an analogy from his life – cleaning up his room or cleaning up the house. When an officer gets to a crime scene, the job is to create organization, by discovering clues, from a chaotic situation.
Cardenas also spoke about the concept of “to serve and protect” that is taught at the law enforcement academy.
He said being able to help people in their time of need is what he enjoys most about his job as a peace officer.
“That’s the No. 1 thing,” Cardenas said. “It goes hand in hand with solving cases.”