State College police officer sees work as problem-solving

Policing is about solving problems, said borough police Sgt. Chad Hamilton.

It might be circling around the block a few times where a house party looks hopping, in an effort to make his presence known. Or maybe it’s a warning to the party attendees that they should keep quiet, lest they want the police to have to come back.

Then there are the more serious incidents, such as assaults, DUIs, break-ins, etc. that may involve backup and more time.

While much of State College sleeps, borough police are scouting areas, handling calls, figuring out the next move. The department granted a reporter a ride-along late Sunday and early Monday, or, in other words, the last night of the Labor Day weekend and a sure-fire reason for students to hit the bars and seek out parties.

The big question was whether the student body would have stuck around for the three-day weekend. Penn State opened its football season on the road, though the semester is just a week old and the weather kept warm and rain-free.

Hamilton, who’s been on the force since 2006 and likes bike patrol, takes his cruiser though the numerous alleys in the downtown. That’s where people fight, pee, vomit — all the “quality of life issues,” as he said, that bedevil students who’ve had too much to drink.

Pulling through Calder Way, perhaps the best known alley here, onto South Pugh Street, Hamilton spots his first issue of the night.

Someone had parked a car in a no-parking zone, and the rear of the car was jutting into a crosswalk.

“There’s a parking ticket,” the sergeant said.

Hamilton wrote up the ticket, did a quick measurement using his feet to tell how far into the crosswalk the car was, and put it on the windshield. Inside, on the front passenger’s seat, were two parking tickets enclosed in yellow envelopes.

The owner came out, saying he’d gotten caught up inside the nearby restaurant where he works. The man was cordial and apologetic, but it was too late to rescind the ticket, Hamilton told him.

“I feel like a meanie,” Hamilton said after finishing up with the man. “Hopefully he knows better not to do that next time.”

Around 11:30 p.m. a call came in about a loud party. Hamilton already had circled the blocks of fraternities, and there wasn’t anything big going on. He’d driven around apartment complexes and houses that are student rentals, and it was shaping up to be an uneventful night.

This call didn’t pertain to a student party, and it was at the corner of Hamilton and Fraser streets, where it’s quieter than in the neighborhoods off Beaver Avenue.

The property owner said he was letting off some steam, celebrating with some friends, after having finished a monthslong construction project.

He also thought it was funny that the responding officer had the same name as the street.

The property owner was warned. Hamilton said he didn’t want to have to come back, and a woman at the party, agreed, saying she didn’t want him to come back, too.

Hamilton rode up the street before pulling up to type up his report from the inside of the cruiser. If it had been a busier night, the report would’ve had to wait.

Hamilton was on “field supervision,” as he said — scoping out possible problems and trying to prevent a situation from becoming a problem.

He noticed a house party on the 400 block of South Pugh Street had attracted quite a crowd on its porch. He circled the block and parked nearby in the hope of making his presence known.

It worked.

People on the porch either filtered in the house or left altogether, and after just four minutes there was no sign of a party on the porch.

“That’s how you shut down a party,” he said.

Twenty minutes later, Hamilton tried the same trick at another busy house party on the 200 block of Burrowes Street. He parked in a lot across the street, and the cruiser’s presence worked once again.

One young woman, apparently leaving the party, seemed to notice the police car, as she shouted something back to her friends as she crossed the street.

Hamilton surmised this party was full of college kids not quite 21, as indicated by the way they scurried off the porch. Within two minutes, the porch was clear.

One young man ducked away from Hamilton’s cruiser, a sign of guilt. Maybe he peed in public. Maybe he’s underage and had been drinking.

“He seems to be avoiding me like the plague,” Hamilton said.

Hamilton circled back and caught several glimpses of the young man, but there weren’t any indicators he’d done anything.

Hamilton headed east across the Highlands neighborhood, doing another lookout for possible issues. By 12:45 a.m., the pedestrian presence had picked up — people wandering around looking for a party.

Something out of the corner of his eye caught his attention: a young man scaling the exterior wall of a fraternity on Locust Lane. Hamilton was noticed, and one of the people inside said someone was heading down to talk to him.

A few minutes later, Hamilton was telling one of the fraternity brothers they’re not allowed to climb on the outside of the building. The brother said that’s not allowed there and was cooperative.

“These kids think they’re invincible,” he said back in the cruiser. “ ‘Nothing can happen to me.’ ”

The next 30 minutes or so found Hamilton assisting fellow officers, one issuing a noise ordinance violation for loud party and another who’d seen a driver make an illegal left turn onto South Atherton Street from one of the intersecting streets approaching the downtown. The driver was her friends’ designated driver and she passed the field sobriety tests.

The next few minutes took Hamilton from his field supervision in the downtown area to a report that sounded much more serious.

Dispatchers had relayed a trespassing incident on Kimport Avenue in Harris Township.

A man, wearing camouflage, was seen looking into a window. The resident had seen the man, asked him what he was doing, to which he responded, “I don’t know, I don’t know.”

The suspect apparently had taken off — possibly toward Boalsburg Pike.

Hamilton’s cruiser was one of a handful of officers who responded. He rendezvoused with a fellow officer in the dirt lot where Boalsburg Pike dead-ends and said he’d comb the Kaywood neighborhood for any signs of the suspect.

“We checked the surreptitious,” he said. “Let’s go check the obvious.”

The search in the dark, now approaching 2 a.m., turned up nothing. He tried the Pennsylvania Military Museum parking lot, but found nothing except fog. Same for commercial parking lots off Warner Boulevard. Hamilton headed back toward State College.

(Later on Monday, State College police said the incident on Kimport Avenue was being treated as a prowling incident based on information from their investigation.)

Hamilton’s night included one more serious incident, but it was in Ferguson Township. He offered assistance to Ferguson Township officers responding to a domestic incident in which a man threatened a woman with a knife and punched her in the face.

But Hamilton got as far as the outskirts of Pine Grove Mills before he was told his assistance wasn’t needed, and he headed back to State College.

By 3 a.m., Hamilton said he’d spend another hour on the road before heading back to the office to complete some paperwork.