- Daniel Fishel
A University of Vermont student relieved himself on the side of a house on North Union Street last Thursday night as two friends stood by. Late as it was, his timing was poor. Detective Richard Volp stepped out of his cruiser and approached as the student hastily zipped up. Volp asked the young man how much he'd had to drink, and the latter responded that he'd had "a beer" 10 hours ago.
"Oh, what kind of beer?" Volp asked casually. This tripped up the student, who mumbled something about not remembering. He couldn't produce an ID, either, so Volp asked his name and checked it against the Department of Motor Vehicles database. Arms crossed, Sperry Top-Siders firmly planted on the sidewalk, the young man sighed repeatedly and seemed both defiant and devastated as the officer wrote him a ticket for underage drinking and a warning for public urination. Volp told him he could avoid the $300 fine by attending a diversion class.
Earlier in the night, Volp had explained that when posing the inevitable cop question about drinking, he's learned that asking "How much..." rather than "Have you..." leads to more useful answers.
Being a killjoy takes skill. And the Burlington police have developed their urination-busting techniques since the department stepped up its presence in student neighborhoods during party nights — Thursday through Sunday — several years ago.
The strategy: Saturate the area with cops, and students will be less inclined to take a leak on the sidewalk or cause a ruckus. Officers respond to noise complaints and often dole out tickets, but they'll also show up during the early stages of a party, imparting advice about how carousers can avoid further attention.
Volp was anticipating a busy night when he agreed to take a reporter on his rounds through the student ghetto on that balmy spring Thursday starting at 11 p.m. A member of the Burlington police's drug investigation unit, he had already worked a full shift that day, so he was logging overtime on night patrol. Blond and muscular, with a tattooed songbird peeking out from under his uniform sleeve, Volp didn't want his photo taken because it could blow his cover on certain drug cases.
The quality-of-life patrols, he emphasized, are mostly about education — they'll ask en-route revelers to tone it down while on residential streets or tell revelers at a house party to close the windows to cut down on noise. He said officers have no illusions about eradicating underage drinking; they're simply trying to encourage more intelligent partying.
That may still sound like a hopeless cause, but Volp, who's been a Burlington police officer for eight and a half years, clearly enjoys the challenge. He approaches the patrols with an anthropological interest, analyzing behavior and trends.
He said he's gotten used to encountering the political science major who wants to "educate" him about policing theory and practice. Typically, students tell Volp how he could do his job better, which in their view means paying more attention to rapists and murderers and less attention to them.
Volp said people assume police officers are uneducated — a stereotype that, he pointed out, is not borne out in Burlington's department, in which roughly 20 percent of the 100-person force have a master's degree. That includes Volp, who has a bachelor's in fine art and a master's in criminal theory.
Around 12:30 a.m., a dispatcher relayed a complaint about glass bottles being thrown, and Volp was one of two officers to arrive on the scene. The two young men who'd reported the incident were in the parking lot outside their apartment. One, a stocky man in his twenties, wore shorts and hefty boots; his skinny companion stood in his socks among the glass shards.
"Did you fear for your safety?" the other cop asked them.
"We were worried the glass was going to bounce off the pavement and get in our eyes," said the guy in socks.
The one in boots seemed to hesitate. "He didn't technically do anything wrong," he suggested, referring to the man who had dropped bottles from the apartment above.
"No," Volp corrected him. "He did."
The officers snapped a photo of a shattered Glenlivet bottle, then climbed the fire escape to the apartment identified as the source of the projectiles.
It took two forceful bouts of knocking to get the suspect to open his door, and, when he did, the fellow made it clear the two cops weren't invited in.
"What's with the bottles?" asked the other cop.
"I don't know what bottles you're talking about," the guy inside responded, with unconvincing bewilderment.
"Hmm," Volp said.
Moments later, the suspect claimed the guys in the parking lot had been the ones throwing bottles against the wall, noting one of them had also been playing the violin.
"Why would they call the police on themselves?" Volp wondered aloud.
Then, seeming to tire of the cat-and-mouse interrogation, Volp moved to end the game: "We have an intern who's looking to get some practice fingerprinting. If we got fingerprints on the bottle, would they come back with your prints?"
Upon being issued a $250 ticket for disorderly conduct, the accused vowed to take his case to court.
"The fingerprint thing was a bunch of bullshit," Volp explained afterward. "People who are confrontational aren't the ones minding their business," he added.
At around 1:20 a.m., after a coffee and energy-bar break at Cumberland Farms, Volp responded to a noise complaint at the Wharf Lane Apartments on Maple Street. Burlington's ordinance prohibits "unreasonable noise" at any time of day. A higher standard applies between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m.; during those hours, making noise that is clearly audible in another dwelling can result in a first-time fine of $300.
An agitated, balding man let Volp into Wharf Lane. He urged the police officer to fine his upstairs neighbor, who, he said, made noise at all hours. Then he quickly retreated to his room.
The neighbor who answered Volp's knock was perhaps more distressed than the caller. He said he'd been taking extreme measures to mute his noise, but even the sound of doing the dishes seemed to disturb his downstairs neighbor. Another resident came out into the hall to vouch for him.
The alleged noisemaker told Volp that this was the third time his neighbor had called the cops on him. He said he'd waited two years for the Section 8 voucher that landed him the apartment and was worried about losing it because of the complaints. In an anxious, stream-of-consciousness digression, he also brought up his sex life, his orchid plants and his recent diagnosis as bipolar. Volp said there wasn't much he could do, but he'd pass the information along to the police department's social worker.
Later, around 2 a.m., Volp drove by a half dozen students who had congregated around a doorstep. On the sidewalk, a young, brown-haired man was freestyling, loudly and poorly. His friends, noticing that a cruiser had pulled up, started to disperse, but the amateur rapper remained oblivious to his new audience. From inside the vehicle, Volp adjusted the external spotlight on his hood, and flicked it on, illuminating the man just as he concluded an expletive-laden verse. Chastened, the performer walked away, studiously avoiding eye contact with Volp, who continued on his way.
After parking at a gas station on Pearl Street, Volp set out on foot. Stopping by a backyard party, he suggested that people keep it down. When Volp made it clear he had no plans to issue any tickets, the same group greeted him as if he'd shown up with a keg. "That's so great! Thanks so much," said a blond woman.
At 2:20 a.m. a red-bearded man in a knit sweater ran up to Volp's cruiser, which was stopped at the intersection of Pearl and North Winooski.
He told Volp that a kid in a black hoodie, who had walked across the intersection moments before, had just stolen from him. The man didn't know the kid but had invited him into his place, whereupon he had swiped $25 off a table. It was the second time this had happened, he added. But when Volp asked if he wanted him to pursue the kid, the man hesitated, and didn't answer when Volp asked if he knew his name.
"I guess I'm just trying to get advice," the alleged victim said. "Am I allowed to beat the shit out of him?" he asked.
"No," Volp responded. Heading back to the station, he noted, "I don't want to be cynical, but I'd bet it's drug-related."
It was, Volp concluded, an unusually quiet night.