At 6:55 p.m., Sgt. Thon Overstreet punches the keyboard on the computer in his police patrol car, and the location of patrol officers throughout Lake Highlands appears on the screen.
Two officers are handling different traffic violations. One officer is on a disturbance call. Two others are taking prisoners Downtown. And one officer is on dinner break.
This is only a glimpse of the policing that goes on in Lake Highlands. About 23 officers patrol our streets every night, averaging 10 calls a piece and seeing what goes on behind our closed doors.
Overstreet is the supervising sergeant of Section 250 at the Northeast Substation, located at Northwest Highway and Audelia. He and the patrol officers he supervises police Lake Highlands from 4 p.m. to midnight.
They deal with the good, the bad and the ugly every night in our neighborhood.
They are the ones we call with problems ranging from a loud neighbor, a burglary, a robbery to a death.
They help make us feel safer in our homes and on our streets.
The Advocate spent a night with Overstreet to see what it’s like to be a police officer in our neighborhood. The job is scary, gratifying, frustrating, at times humorous and other times downright depressing.
But being a patrol officer in Lake Highlands is never boring.
Overstreet’s shift begins with paperwork at his desk in a small cubicle he shares with three other officers.
He works the second shift, 4 p.m. to midnight. Because he is a supervising sergeant, he only goes on “hot calls,” such as rapes, fires or murders or when another officer needs backup.
In the horizontal locker above his desk, Overstreet stores the manuals of the regulations, laws and rules Dallas police officers need to know.
A light blue book called General Orders Code of Conduct covers information from tornado responses to evidence handling to deaths of retired police employees.
And there are two thick white books of traffic and criminal laws, not to mention all of the City ordinances.
Before each shift, the patrol officers are updated on what they need to look out for while on the street – wanted criminals or a rash of a certain type of crimes.
“We want to have a constant flow of information,” Overstreet says.
Overstreet oversees about 15 cops each night, and each one answers 10 to 18 calls a shift. Last year, more than one million calls were answered in the City. Each officer is assigned a beat, which is determined by call load and is constantly realigned as conditions change. The best officers learn their beats well, Overstreet says.
“That kind of attachment is like an old bulldog in a backyard,” he says.
Patrol officers – signified by the green bars on their shoulders – are the front-line of the department, pounding the streets everyday fighting crime. They are the first ones at every crime scene.
“The patrol officers are the backbone of the department,” Overstreet says.
Cpl. Randy Blankenbaker and his partner, Police Officer William Bolentz, who is off this night, patrol Beat 253 with boundaries of Whitehurst, Abrams, Church and the railroad tracks near Skillman.
Since they are a two-man team, they answer “hot calls” – family violence, robberies, burglar alarms.
“We’re out here everyday and see things that people wouldn’t believe when you tell them,” Blankenbaker says. “We see their worst side.”
He started his shift by arresting a teenager for shoplifting at the Sound Warehouse at Skillman and LBJ. He left with the teenager at 4:45 p.m. and didn’t complete processing the youth through the system until two hours later.
“We get the full gambit of calls up here,” Blankenbaker says.
He has been with the force for five years. He was in Louisiana in a dead-end position at a small manufacturing company and says he was bored when he decided to become a police officer.
“It is different everyday,” Blankenbaker says. “You can’t start coming in and saying it’s the same thing everyday.”
Blankenbaker trained in Lake Highlands, then worked in South Dallas for two-and-a-half years. He’s been back in Lake Highlands for a year-and-a-half.
The calls are a little different in Lake Highlands than in South Dallas, he says. In South Dallas, he answered a lot of disturbance calls and was always in a potentially explosive situation.
In Lake Highlands, Blankenbaker says he answers a lot of burglar alarm calls. All of the calls may not be as hostile as those in South Dallas, but he says he still sees a lot of disturbing things.
On Halloween night, he went to an apartment complex where two children were beaten up and their trick-or-treat candy stolen.
When Blankenbaker arrived, the perpetrators’ car was in the parking lot of the complex where the children live. The criminals were visiting the children’s neighbors and sharing the loot.
“When you see it over and over again, the callousness of people, it’s hard to keep from getting cynical,” Blankenbaker says.
One of the most disturbing calls Overstreet recalls was when a 12-year-old boy accidentally shot himself in the head while playing with his father’s fun.
“It was just such a profound situation,” Overstreet says. “You can’t help but respond when you see a child dead like that.”
The only call he answers this night is a fire, where a woman burned down her kitchen by leaving her stove unattended. The fire was put out before Overstreet arrived. But there are nights he drives throughout our neighborhoods trying to keep up with all the calls.
The toughest calls are injury or death of a child, family disturbances, rapes and burglaries where people have been totally cleaned out, Overstreet says.
Many time, people aren’t happy to see the police because it means something bad has happened in their life.
“We are seen as the bad guys,” Overstreet says. “We become the focal point of any problem.”
The patrol officers drive the streets of their beat until they get a call. They know the trouble spots and are constantly patrolling them – driving through parking lots of apartment complexes or checking out empty lots.
“I’m of the belief that officers need to take care of their territory,” Overstreet says. “That’s how you get good policing.”
There are known criminals in the neighborhood they keep an eye on. Each officer has a “hook book” with notes on criminals and people on their beat.
While out patrolling, Overstreet once chased a car going 70 miles per hour on Skillman at Northwest Highway.
The driver cut through to Abrams and crashed into a light pole on a median by Dan D. Rogers Elementary. When Overstreet arrived, the guy ran down the street and cut through the school’s playground. Overstreet got out of his patrol car to chase on foot; he planned to corral the man until backup arrived.
The man made a break and started running back to Overstreet’s patrol car. When Overstreet started for him, the guy ducked and Overstreet dove over his head and broke a finger on his left hand.
Eventually, he captured the guy and held him until backup arrived. The car was stolen and filled with property from a house the man had just burglarized. There was also pornography and drugs in the car.
“That’s what happens in the middle of the night,” Overstreet says.
The Life of an Officer
Broken fingers and toes are common, Overstreet says, not to mention a high level of burnout. There were 32 officers in Overstreet’s police academy graduating class 12 years ago.
Today, 15 remain on the force.
Most officers with families work extra jobs to make ends meet. It’s fairly typical for officers to work 60 to 80 hours a week, Overstreet says.
“It’s a real rare bird that doesn’t,” he says, “or an officer who doesn’t have a family.”
The starting salary of a patrol officer is $23,901 to $25,101. They only receive raises when the City Council votes them one or if they are promoted.
Many live outside Dallas because they can’t afford to live within the City limits, plus it is really the only way to get off duty.
“I’m a police officer 24 hours a day in Dallas,” Overstreet says.
Overstreet says officers tend to become isolated and associate primarily with each other because it is hard for the average citizen to understand their job.
Plus, there are unflattering misconceptions about police officers, such as “we all love doughnuts,” Overstreet says, and that all of them are egotistical and racist.
“We’re not all fat slobs,” he says.
Many people would probably be surprised at how highly educated the Dallas Police Department is, Overstreet says. A requirement for the force is 45 hours of college, but many officers have college degrees. Overstreet has a master’s degree.
A reason for the bad rap given to officers is that they normally arrive when someone has done something wrong, he says.
“People look at us and say, ‘He didn’t have to do that,’” Overstreet says. “But we have to, the law says we have to.”
It is common for officers to burn-out and make career changes. The first burn-out happens around five to seven years, Overstreet says. But the ones who make it the 20 years to retirement and their pension plan learn to find humor in what they see everyday, which is life in its rawest form.
“After a while, you learn to laugh, chuckle and go on,” Overstreet says.