At last, new police officer rides alone - East Valley Tribune: Public Safety

At last, new police officer rides alone

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Posted: Sunday, December 11, 2005 5:09 am | Updated: 7:28 am, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

The city is drifting to sleep as Chandler officer Blake Fairclough hits the street at the start of the graveyard shift.

In the first five minutes, he pulls over a car missing its light above the license plate.

"I want to stop him and see who he is," he says, the red-and-blue police strobe flashing overhead.

The rookie has been taught that this is one of the most dangerous parts of the job. You never know who is in the car. He walks cautiously to the driver’s side, hand resting on the butt of his holstered gun.

Walking back to his cruiser minutes later, he swivels his head behind him, eyes locked on the car. Never turn your back, he’s been trained. "I gave him a warning," Fairclough says, climbing back in the cruiser. "They just came back from Bible study."

He turns the car around and sets off in search of other lawbreakers. It has taken the 22-year-old more than a year to get here — out on his own in the blue uniform, using his training to make his own calls on whom to arrest and whom to ticket.

The Tribune has followed Fairclough from the beginning of the recruitment and hiring process with the Chandler Police Department, from the written test on a Saturday morning last November in a high school auditorium through intensive psychological exams and oral interviews through months at the police academy. He saw his first body during field training. Fairclough was the only one in a recruiting pool of 145 to make it to the streets of Chandler .

Of his group, 106 wannabes failed the written test; 32 went on to attempt the physical agility test.

After a litany of oral boards, mental tests and background checks, only two, Fairclough and Jose Rangel, 23, made it to the police academy.

When Rangel was dismissed for undisclosed reasons just weeks into the academy, Fairclough remained the lone graduate.

The painstaking process illustrates the desperate position of most Valley police agencies. Fewer and fewer individuals want to become police officers and those who do may not be the most qualified.

The job has become increasingly dangerous with more guns being used against officers. Besides, other jobs pay more.

And then there are the relative few people such as Fairclough, who knows this is what he is meant to do.

"It’s all been worth it," he says. "I can’t imagine doing any other job."

The rookie is clearly enjoying himself, even on this relatively quiet weeknight.

The stress and fatigue in his voice that besieged him during 16 weeks of the academy and 12 weeks of field training have completely lifted, leaving an officer confident and at ease.

He had little trouble adjusting to his new middle-of-the-night shift, a classic rookie assignment.

"Graves are good if you like to hunt," he says with enthusiasm. "If we get a call, it’s legit. We don’t get kids prankdialing 911. If they’re calling 911, there’s a good reason. Day shift gets burglary reports, but we get the burgs in progress."

He has the zeal of a new officer who wants to get in the mix and work the busiest beats in the city. On this night, he and the other officers wear a black band on their badges, mourning another rookie, a Phoenix police officer who died when he rolled his police cruiser last month.

Officer Paul Salmon — the same age as Fairclough — was in his last few weeks of the police academy when Fairclough entered. Authorities are still trying to piece together why Salmon, who was responding to a call with lights and sirens, flipped the car.

Fairclough hasn’t had any death-defying calls yet.

"The fear comes in when you don’t have the tactical advantage," he says. "Luckily, I haven’t come across that yet, but it could happen anytime."

Fairclough chose to buy his own .40-caliber gun rather than take a 9mm provided by department.

"It has more stopping power if I have to actually shoot somebody," he says.

He spends much of his shift actively looking for crime, from creeping through dark parks looking for druggies to hunting for stolen vehicles to spotting drunken drivers.

Sgt. Sunny Wilkins says many rookies bring a little too much enthusiasm to the job at first.

"They’re so eager to do everything, I need to tell them to slow down. They can get overwhelmed with paperwork," Wilkins says. "We need to keep them from getting burned out."

Some rookies also tend to want to ticket people like crazy. Wilkins says Fairclough has been "a breath of fresh air" on the squad in that regard as he carefully weighs whether a situation warrants a citation or warning.

Still, there are times his inexperience shows.

During one traffic stop, Fairclough is unsure whether a woman’s driver’s license is valid or not, so he asks another officer for advice. Later, he is on the lookout for a drunken motorcyclist reported by Chandler Fashion Center valets.

"Do we know if it’s a crotch rocket or a cruiser?" Fairclough asks the dispatcher over the radio, using the slang term for a racing motorcycle.

"Unknown," the dispatcher replies, but soon sends him a computer message: "I can’t believe you said crotch rocket over the air." His fellow officers just laugh.

Other officers have warned him about women they call "uniform groupies," or women who chase after police officers.

"You just have to stay professional," says Fairclough, whose girlfriend has remained supportive throughout his journey.

His family says the experience of becoming a cop hasn’t changed Fairclough too much.

"He’s really the same person he was before," says his mother, Helen. "He seems to have matured more when I think about him last year compared to now."

Blake Fairclough isn’t the only one she worries about out there on the streets. His twin brother, Richard, went through the police academy at the same time as a Glendale police officer.

"I don’t think (Richard’s) gone one week without drawing his gun, even if it’s going through an empty house," she says.

Blake Fairclough said he is already seeing cop habits touch his personal life, such as not wanting to sit with his back to a crowded room or a door. He also wants to get in the habit of carrying a sidearm while off-duty.

"Naturally, in this line of work, you become more observant. In my personal vehicle, I’ll notice expired tags, or say, ‘That guy’s probably drunk,’ " he says. "Some people said I’d be a different man when I got out of the academy, but I don’t feel I’ve changed."

Police departments around the Valley are finding that lately, hopefuls such as Fairclough are becoming harder to come by.

"A lot of people that would be coming to the law enforcement community are still in Iraq," said Chandler Sgt. Dave Austin of the professional standards unit.

In 2002, four testing dates in Chandler drew 1,099 applicants. But the number has steadily declined since then. Last year, 527 people showed up for three testing dates; this year, there were only 368 applicants for five testing dates.

Despite the low turnout, the Chandler department has hired on 13 new officers since July. Many are waiting to enter the police academy while others are ready to start street training. Thirteen more positions remain unfilled.

Fairclough is just happy he got his lucky break. He tested with several other police departments before winning with Chandler.

"I’ve got a career now instead of just a job."

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