Following in her father’s footsteps

Jonah Hinebaugh | USFSP
“I wanted to be able to tell the good stories, too,” says McWade, shown interviewing two men after a reported hit-and-run.

USFSP Student Reporter

ST. PETERSBURG – When police officer Dagni McWade isn’t working at the St. Petersburg Police Department, she’s dealing with a Felony.

No, not the criminal charge. Felony is the fat English bulldog she shares with her boyfriend of two years.

During her shift on March 30, her boyfriend was having trouble hanging curtains in their new home, which kept him pestering her over the phone.

But he has no trouble as an undercover vice and narcotics agent for the department. The two met while on the same squad before he moved to that division.

As corny as it sounds, McWade said, she always wanted to make a difference.

Her first venture was studying elementary education at St. Petersburg College. When she realized she didn’t agree with the rigidity of the curriculum, she dropped out and followed in her father’s footsteps, which led her to the Police Department.

Her dad spent 29 years at the department and now serves as assistant chief in Bradenton.

“My dad never complained and always told the good stories you don’t really see in the media,” McWade said. “Part of my draw (to law enforcement) was a fear of missing out. I wanted to be able to tell the good stories, too.”

She spent three years in the communications unit before moving to patrol, where she serves the Old Northeast area.

Between 2 p.m. and midnight on March 30, she fielded two calls from a 96-year-old woman who vaguely complained of hearing drums from her condo. There isn’t much the police can do about that on a Saturday afternoon in downtown St. Petersburg, McWade told her.

While the elderly complain about noise, the younger set usually causes it. McWade responded to a drunken brawl involving approximately 20 people at the popular bar Park & Rec on First Avenue S.

She said when dealing with calls, it’s all about respect on both sides – and running your mouth will only land you in jail.

She joked that sometimes when she encounters people drinking in public, “It’s like kicking their beer over is more painful than going to jail.”

The lower-income side of the downtown area surrounds St. Anthony’s Hospital partly because there is a homeless shelter one street over.

As she drives past, McWade sees drug use, alcoholism and contempt.

On one call, she encountered a man who wanted to be hospitalized under the Baker Act. He said he was hearing voices – the same claim he had made in a call to police a few days earlier.

Some of the people who call police repeatedly just want some attention, McWade said.

Police officers are required to take people like that man to either the psychiatric ward of St. Anthony’s Hospital or – if they’re deemed not a threat to themselves or others – to an organization called Personal Enrichment Through Mental Health Services.

PEMHS used to have a facility on Ninth Avenue N. The closest facility is now in Pinellas Park, a 20-minute drive in light traffic, so a trip to PEMHS ties up officers for at least an hour.

McWade’s most frequent calls are for domestic disturbances. Such a call came in the evening of March 30, when neighbors were worried about a 16-year-old boy’s safety after his parents were, in their words, “punishing him.”

Some people think cops are lazy, McWade said. Some think they are an authoritarian terror.

“People think (officers) can’t be normal, like we all have to be white supremacists,” McWade said. “We’re just a doing a job and, like journalists, we’re stereotyped because it only takes one bad representative.”

He uses sarcasm, but not his weapon

USFSP Student Reporter

ST. PETERSBURG – Police Officer Richard Van went to school to become a mechanic, but a criminal justice class led to a career in law enforcement instead.

Van, 27, is a first-generation Vietnamese American who grew up in South Florida. His girlfriend, a nurse, doesn’t mind his career in law enforcement, he says.

Van has a degree in criminology and law from the University of Florida. He has been with the department for three years. He has also worked in law enforcement for Santa Fe College, Marion County and the University of Florida

He patrols a zone that covers most of the near south side around 22nd Street. He works 2 p.m. to midnight four days a week. He has never fired his weapon.

Van says that he enjoys interacting with people in the community.

“We talk to all different people with different types of backgrounds,” said Van.

He says that many of his calls are for reports of domestic abuse and battery.

During calls, Van sometimes uses sarcasm as a technique to make people feel comfortable but also to obtain the information that he needs.

Van says he isn’t bothered by the way the news media covers law enforcement but finds it entertaining.

“It’s interesting what they say in the news and what they report,” said Van. “It’s like reading Reader’s Digest. It’s a book; it’s there but you’re not going to remember everything.”

Van says that he hates dealing with people who don’t care. He urges people who are suspects in minor crimes to own up to it. If it’s a major crime, he suggests they get a lawyer.

Van says he aspires to work his way up and become an undercover officer.

He knows to appreciate the finer things

Courtesy St. Petersburg Police Department
Johnson was honored as Field Training Officer of the Year in 2016 by the St. Petersburg Civitan Club.

USFSP Student Reporter

ST. PETERSBURG – While he was growing up behind the Mini Mart at 7100 Fifth Ave. N, the sound of police sirens rushing down the busy road inspired Dale Johnson to want to help people.

And after taking his first criminal justice course in college, he was sure he wanted to join the police force.

Now, after 11 years with the St. Petersburg Police Department, Officer Johnson says the most important thing he has learned is how to appreciate the finer things.

“Life is precious,” Johnson said. “Time and family – you just can’t get enough of those.”

Johnson, 35, has a wife and two daughters. At the end of the day, going home to them is what matters most.

His wife works in the department’s public records unit so, unlike most of the spouses and significant others of Johnson’s fellow officers, she understands when he gets home late.

The most frustrating part of his job, he says, is that the department does not have enough resources. He would like to see more officers patrolling the city. Spotty technology can also make it difficult to coordinate officers in the city that Johnson grew up in.

He knew that his would often be a thankless job, Johnson said. Pedestrians often shout angry words at him.

Paul Congemi, a controversial figure who was making his third unsuccessful race for mayor in 2017, even sent Johnson an angry letter after Johnson had to escort him out of Tyrone Square Mall. The letter came in a black envelope with a sticker of Congemi’s face on it.

However, there are also people who try to show Johnson how grateful they are for his work.

Restaurant staff, convenience store employees and other customers offer to pay his bill from time to time. Johnson always tries to refuse, he says, and goes back later to put money in a tip jar when the patron won’t accept no for an answer.

Taking advantage of generous civilians goes against his moral code, Johnson says. He became a police officer to serve and protect, not take advantage of his badge.

The less violent side of his job includes easing tense situations. On March 27, he stuck with child for nearly three hours until she could be picked up by a guardian. Later that night, he comforted a man who had been involved in a car accident by trading square dancing stories

The man wore a shirt depicting a chicken that stood on the pie symbol and had a cooking pot in its mouth. He explained the graphic to Johnson in three words: chicken pot pie.

Johnson was named Field Training Officer of the Year 2016 by the St. Petersburg Civitan Club and has been nominated for Officer of the Year by the Exchange Club of St. Petersburg. His wife has attended every ceremony.

This officer doesn’t horse around

USFSP Student Reporter

ST. PETERSBURG – You might not know it from her calm, collected demeanor, but Kristen Thomas craves activity.

Thomas, 28, is a native of New York City. She attended Morrisville State College (now SUNY Morrisville) in upstate New York, the only college in the country with her major: horse racing.

While earning a degree in equine racing management, Thomas worked part time as a horse trainer in the area. She once rode a $14 million horse that won the Belmont Stakes, a prestigious thoroughbred race in Elmont, New York.

Now, she’s traded the saddle for a badge, and she rolls through the streets of St. Petersburg in a police cruiser, eager to find crime and take it down.

Thomas graduated from Morrisville and went into the workforce as a foreman working in natural resources. Her job brought her to Florida in the winters, and she fell in love with the warm weather. She moved down and soon entered the police academy in St. Petersburg.

Thomas says she is drawn to police work because of the variety of activity and interesting cases. She drives long distances across District 2 in north St. Petersburg and spends a lot of time at red lights filing out reports, but it’s clear that she’s ready for anything.

“I have to be outside doing things,” Thomas said. “I have the attention span of a goldfish.”

She has been on the force for two years and is not afraid to get her hands dirty – sometimes literally.

If another officer offers to let her “glove up” and search a suspect’s belongings, she’s excited.

Her favorite calls are drug and DUI-related cases, where she knows her work won’t be wasted.

Sometimes a victim of a crime like theft or assault “will decide not to prosecute” a case, she said. But the state attorney’s office will almost always pursue drug cases to the end. Thomas appreciates that; she hates to see her hours spent writing reports go to waste.

On the job, Thomas seems to have learned a lot about awkward silences. She seems adept at using silence when questioning suspects.

Thomas is a dog lover and says her favorite activity outside of work is spending time with her sheltie, Winston. She also enjoys running when she has the time and energy, but acknowledges she doesn’t run as much as she would like.

She works closely with fellow officers in her district and sees them multiple times a day, helping respond to calls ranging from shoplifting kids to burglaries in progress. Even if they tease her for loving horses or her queasiness about bugs, Thomas says, she feels a strong bond with them.

“We’re a pretty tight-knit group,” she said of the officers in District 2. “At the end of the day, we know we would take a bullet for each other.”

She has applied to join the Police Department’s mounted unit, but she says she would want only part-time duty there.

She worries that she would regret trading regular police work for the prestige of riding a horse around downtown.

But she says that she “would have really liked to have had a horse in some of the foot chases I’ve been in.”

His forte is patience, his style laid-back

Carrie Pinkard | USFSP
The Howard Frankland Bridge is a good buffer between work and home, Fres says.

USFSP Student Reporter

ST. PETERSBURG – A couple sat on the curb. It was 2 p.m. and they were sharing a bottle of alcohol wrapped in a paper bag.

Police Officer Luis Fres looked over at them from a stop light. He rolled down his window.

“Hey, guys, do me a favor,” he said. “If that’s not fruit punch, please take it elsewhere.”

Fres, 29, could have given the couple citations. He could have stained their records the way a child’s upper lip is stained after drinking too much fruit juice. Instead, he decided to let it go, an action that unusual in his work.

Fres says he is a police officer who is out to keep the community safe, not to ruin lives for no reason.

He tries to see the person behind every offense. He says he understands that he sees them for a fraction of their existence, and that they lead rich, complicated lives outside of that time.

An arrest record can remain with a person forever, he says, and he doesn’t take that lightly.

Some officers set daily quotas for themselves when it comes to arrests and citations, Fres says. They do this to get their numbers up and appear busy to their supervisors.

Fres says he dishes out formal discipline only when he feels it’s truly necessary.

Fres has been a St Petersburg police officer for two and a half years. Before that, he was a corrections officer in Hillsborough County for three years.

Fres says his job is only part of his life, and he tries not to take it home with him.

He lives in North Tampa with his wife, Lily, and two cats, Onyx and Jade. He spends his free time taking Muay Thai lessons, finally catching up on Seinfeld episodes, and playing Zelda on his Nintendo Switch.

Fres might be the only person who enjoys traveling over the Howard Frankland Bridge.

“The bridge provides a good 20 minutes of time to clear my head before and after work,” he said.

He likes the separation the bridge provides between his work life and his home life. Since he lives in Tampa and patrols in St Petersburg, he’s able to get through the day without worrying about having to arrest his neighbors.

Fres says “extreme patience” is what makes him a good police officer.

It helped him last year when he was called to handle a domestic violence case, he said. A woman was being arrested after a dispute with her husband. While Fres was removing her from her home, she spat in his face.

Fres says he was patient with her. He continued to treat her with respect and finished his role in the case.

Months later, Fres was helping a group of kids on the side of the road when their mother walked up. It was the woman from the domestic violence case. She thanked Fres for the way he had treated her and apologized for her behavior.

Fres acknowledges that when you work in a community day in and day out, you’ll see the same people more than once. It’s important to him to build positive relationships with community members.

He also has an easy rapport with fellow squad members.

Each squad member that Fres interacted with on a recent shift had a friendly relationship with him. One officer had white marks all over his back. Fres asked what it was and the officer had no idea. All he did was iron the shirt, he said.

“Oh, those are iron marks, you just don’t know how to iron,” Fres fired back, laughing, before getting into his car.

During his time as a police officer, he’s been at the scene of many gruesome accidents. He’s seen a foot severed from a man’s body and fly 100 feet in the air. He’s arrived at houses where dead bodies have been sitting for weeks.

He says he is able to stay calm through these situations, but animals suffering is what really gets to him.

“I’m a sucker for animals. I see a dead body and it doesn’t affect me, but with an animal I get emotional.”

Fres’ soft spot for animals extends to children. He hopes to become a detective who specializes in child abuse cases.

But for now, Fres is happy with his role as a patrol officer. He says he wants to put in several more good years at this level and learn as much as he possibly can.

“I’m not doing myself any favors if I rush into a detective position,” he said.

He battles paperwork, misconceptions

Dinorah Prevost | USFSP
The juvenile justice system is frustrating, Brandow says.

USFSP Student Reporter

ST. PETERSBURG – At 52, Scott Brandow is one of the oldest officers out on patrol at the St. Petersburg Police Department.

Most patrol officers are in their 20s and early 30s. Going on patrol is the way they learn the groundwork of policing.

Brandow patrols District 1, specifically the Jordan Park and Wildwood Heights neighborhoods.

He became a police officer in 1985. He came to the St. Petersburg department in 2016 from the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office.

Spending a day with Brandow offers a glimpse into basic police work:

  • On traffic stops, officers show up in pairs – or more – to protect themselves and back each other up. It’s not meant to intimidate or scare the driver. Brandow went to a traffic stop to support Officer Cody DeLoach, 29, who patrols the next neighborhood over.

  • The juvenile justice system is probably the most broken part of the local justice system, Brandow said. The kids who commit offenses leave police custody without much punishment and sometimes go on to offend repeatedly.
    He said those situations can be much more of a burden to the parents who have to pick them up and deal with the aftermath.

  • In the neighborhoods that they patrol, Brandow said, officers have to consciously avoid stereotyping residents based on the officer’s or law enforcement’s previous interactions with the person’s family.
    If a father deals marijuana, that doesn’t mean that his son is also a dealer, he said. He works to approach a person with a clean slate every time.This is key to maintaining good relationships with neighborhood residents, he said, especially those who are already skeptical of police.

  • There’s an enormous amount of paperwork in police work, and it’s compounded by the number of charges a suspect racks up.
    An arrest at a problem liquor store resulted in four charges, including one for possessing spice, a synthetic drug, and another for possessing ammunition as a convicted felon. In between calls during an eight-hour shift, Brandow spent much of his time in the car filling out forms in two different systems that the department uses.
    He also logged the evidence in the department’s evidence room at the station and went back to the liquor store to get a statement from the owner.

Brandow wishes that the news media would highlight more positive things police officers do, such as their follow-ups with neighborhood kids whom they’ve picked up for shoplifting and other offenses. He said that they also check on kids who officers have noted are in less-than-ideal family situations.

He said most cops are good. They end up paying for what the bad cops do in the department’s relationship with the public and news media.

Often only snippets of incidents are caught on tape, he said. That leads to misconceptions, and it makes it hard for police to tell their side of the story.

This cop sees people, not suspects

Emily Wunderlich | USFSP
“Treat people like people, whether they’re the bad guy or not,” says Gaddis.

USFSP Student Reporter

ST. PETERSBURG – In 19 years with the St. Petersburg Police Department, he’s never fired his weapon.

That’s because, to Officer Douglas Gaddis, it’s all about “how you treat people.”

“People don’t call us to say, ‘Hey, I’m having a great day, let’s go get a drink,’” he said. “It’s, ‘Hey, I’m having a bad day, and you need to come fix it.’”

Gaddis, 41, patrols the near south side of the city, usually from 2 p.m. to midnight.

“Some days it can be really busy and it still drags,” he said.

As a white police officer, he’s frequently met with looks of distrust and even fear when he patrols communities of color.

But he waves to everyone he sees. And sometimes people will flag him down to shake his hand and tell him he’s doing a good job.

“Treat people like people, whether they’re the bad guy or not,” he said.

He graduated from USF Tampa in 1999 with a degree in criminology before joining the police force. He said his uncle, a police officer in Austin, Texas, inspired him to pursue a career in law enforcement.

“You either play pro baseball or do this,” Gaddis joked. “Pro baseball stopped working out for me after high school.”

Gaddis told himself he’d never end up romantically involved with another officer. But that changed in 2002, when he started dating Sarah, a co-worker with whom he’d grown close over the years.

They’ve been married since 2004 and have two children: Jacob, 15, and Julia, 10, whom Gaddis calls his “little hockey-loving ballerina.”

The couple can still work the same hours, but they no longer patrol the same area. Sarah’s focus is downtown, with special attention on the growing homeless population.

Although his job is full of ups and downs, Gaddis prefers to focus on the ups. His favorite “up” is when he feels like he’s made a difference, especially when he reconnects with people later on and sees they’re in a better place.

He pulls over on the side of the road to finish an incident report. As he does, a little girl on a Razor scooter waves from her driveway. She’s wearing a red polo shirt, and her hair is braided with beads.

“Are you the police?” she hollers, a look of uncertainty briefly crossing her face.

“Yes, I am!” He pauses before opening his car door.

“You know what?” he says. “She’s so cute, I have to give her this.”

He leaves the car to give her a sticker with a police badge on it.

“I love kids,” he says. “And it infuriates me when bad things happen to them.”

He gives the girl a high-five before returning to his car and responding to the next call.

He patrols with a smile and a wave

Courtesy St. Petersburg Police Department
Capra, shown with a fellow baseball fan, drives a cruiser that once belonged to the uncle of Rays pitcher Ryan Yarbrough.

USFSP Student Reporter

ST. PETERSBURG – John Capra had been on his morning patrol shift for just 29 minutes when three chilling words came over his police radio.

“Two officers down.”

It was Jan. 24, 2011, and Capra recalls it as the scariest day of his career.

He had been in the St. Petersburg Police Department for 11 years, but he still did not feel prepared to deal with the sudden, violent deaths of two of his colleagues.

“I had to go right back responding to calls after that,” said Capra, 45. “It was really weird.”

Being a police officer was something Capra fell into.

He was born and raised in St. Petersburg and attended college 30 miles away at the University of South Florida Tampa. He majored in chemistry.

A part-time job working security at Sears led him to the St. Petersburg Police Department in 2000, the same year he married his wife, Bonnie.

They have five children, a German shepherd named Elsa (after the ice princess in Frozen), cats named Cleo and Teddy, and a 50-gallon fish tank.

“My family is very supportive of what I do,” Capra said. “My wife knew what she was getting into.”

While patrolling District 3 from 2 p.m. to midnight on April 7, Capra snacked on peanut butter M&M’s, brainstormed ideas for his son’s surprise party and caught snatches of the Tampa Bay Rays game as the radio played in the background.

To this baseball fan’s delight, his police cruiser previously belonged to retired officer Pete Yarbrough, whose nephew pitches for the Rays.

That Sunday shift led him to a yard strewn with angel statues, Halloween masks and empty cans of Fancy Feast cat food; a bank parking lot where six transients were reportedly loitering; an animal hospital where a young man had been bitten by a dog; and the house of one of his “regulars” for a domestic violence call.

As he drove from call to call, Capra smiled and waved to a woman on a walk, a man working on his car and three young kids playing in their yard with toy lightsabers.

“People are usually friendly when they see me,” he said. “They like to feel safe.”

Capra says he doesn’t feel scared most days – just alert.

In almost 19 years as a police officer, he has never fired his weapon. He has seven years until retirement and hopes he’ll never have to.