RANSON – Robbie Roberts mildly scoffs at the so-called TV reality cop shows. Don’t believe them—real cops don’t act or talk like that, he said.
“How they interact with people and how they explain what they're doing,” he explained. “I think some of them are hamming it up for the cameras. It’s just not reality.”
Roberts knows firsthand what he’s talking about. He’s a 33-year, no-nonsense community cop who became Ranson’s police chief in October. He’s among those we ask, and count on, to enforce the law—the rules that they themselves don’t make.
From J-walkers to premeditated murderers, he’s dealt with and sometimes pursued a broad spectrum of humanity, from the comfortably privileged to those struggling to survive day to day.
“You know, I don't get paid every day to come here to please everybody,” Roberts said. “I get paid to come here and do a job and that's what I intend to do.”
People accuse him all the time of being too gruff or blunt, Roberts said. That’s not his intention, he explained, but his directness has a professional and well-intended purpose. He doesn’t want people—whom he often encounters in their most agitated, angry or anguished states of mind—to walk away with any misunderstanding, he said.
“Common sense is still 80 percent of this job,” he said. “Basically, treat people how you want to be treated if you were in their position.”
Equipped with handcuffs and a firearm, his job description sends him running toward chaos and danger. His training, experience and inherent personality compel him to say what he sees—not as what someone else hopes to hear.
SAFETY AND SOCIAL SERVICES
Ranson’s police officers wear body cameras that videotape their public interactions, which some people don’t realize, Roberts said. “Believe it or not, people lie to us,” he added.
Some of the police encounters on Ranson’s streets and living rooms are kooky, Roberts said. Crimes can be vicious, and calls for help can be heartbreaking.
Roberts said he has visited too many homes to tell relatives or parents that their spouses or children have died from an overdose or a car crash. That’s the worst assignment any cop is asked to do, he said. “Especially if it's a child, there is no good way to do it.”
Domestic calls are the most volatile and potentially dangerous for a police officer, Robert said. “It's not always women,” he added of abused spouses. “There are many good men who get abused too, believe it or not quite often.”
Recently one Ranson resident stopped by the police department’s headquarters on North Preston Street to shake Roberts’ hand and exuberantly thank him and the department for the work that they do. And that resident had been arrested by city police officers a couple of times, Roberts pointed out.
Serving a small community like Ranson requires interacting with the same people one day knowing you could meet them again the next. That’s a basic dynamic of community policing, he said.
“There used to be an old saying, ‘But for the grace of God go I,’” he added. “It could happen to any of us. … You got to realize you could always be there.”
As Ranson’s population has grown over the years, the city’s police officers can no longer know nearly every resident by name or face as they once did, Roberts said, but the force’s approach and philosophy haven’t changed. “So I may come to your house and not know you from Adam, but it doesn't mean it will treat you any less,” he said.
Increasingly 911 police calls have come to involve more social work than law enforcement emergencies, Roberts said. One call might involve a neighbor’s barking dog, another could be assisting a motorist with a broken-down car.
“It may be their only interaction with a police officer, and so you can't say, ‘Well, you know, don't call me for this stupid stuff.’” he said. “You say, ‘I’m here for you.’”
VARIETY ON THE BEAT
Working a murder investigation means solving the crime not only for the victim but also for his or her surviving family members, he said. “You feel obligated,” he said. “I mean one murder we had I know I didn't get home. I was out for three days straight, nonstop.
“When things are clicking, you’ve got to keep moving.”
Different crimes occur during the day and at night, giving a different tone and pace to the police shifts, Roberts said. Bank robberies and shoplifting, for example, occur during the day when the banks and most stores are open. Burglaries and drunk driving generally happen at night.
Police also encounter “a whole different type of people” during the daytime than they do at night, Roberts said. “You’ve got to be a little more direct and stern more in the evening hours and the night hours than you would during the day,” he said. “A person at night is probably going to be under the influence of something.”
“Drugs are 24/7,” he added. “It's a never-ending saga, and it’s been that way since I've been here.”
When he was first hired as a cop in Ranson in 1988, PCP and crack cocaine had an addictive grip on many of the city’s and the county’s residents, Roberts said. Dealers from Baltimore, Md., made those drugs widely available on the city’s streets, an illicit trade that generated regular violence.
“They were killing each other,” he said.
“Charles Town was ranked in the top 10 in the nation per capita for the drug problem,” he added, an observation illustrating how the crack cocaine affected every town or neighborhood in Jefferson County.
Today heroin arrives down U.S. 340 from Baltimore to fuel the current opioid problem, making overdose calls common for Ranson police, he said.
Methamphetamine is also a common drug in Ranson and the county today, Roberts said. Marijuana has always been here but not on a large scale, he said.
A Ranson police officer is assigned full time to the Eastern Panhandle Drug Task Force, an undercover group of police agencies from Jefferson and Berkeley counties. The task force works with federal officials and with other task forces along the East Coast, Roberts said. The U.S. District Court in Martinsburg handles most of its cases, he said.
Drug investigations often can take months to complete, a frustration for some who report drug activity, he said. Investigations can involve several suspects to convict suppliers rather than just a single person dealer, he said.
“It doesn't do no good to rush in and arrest somebody if you’re going to lose the case,” he said. “You’ve got you've got to do it right or you just wasting everybody's time.”
CAREER AND SACRIFICES
Roberts said Ranson’s smaller police force gives each officer the opportunity to handle a variety of both routine and police work, from traffic enforcement to criminal investigations.
Variety is what attracted Roberts to police work, a career that required personal sacrifices. Twice divorced, he acknowledges the toll the hours, wages and lifestyle of a police officer can take. Many Christmases and Thanksgivings he spent on patrol. Having to work last-minute shifts for other officers who were out sick has made schedules unpredictable as well, he pointed out.
“We’re 24/7,” he said. “No exceptions.”
Throughout his career, he’s worked extra hours as a bailiff and a part-time sheriff’s deputy—sometimes allowing him two or three hours of sleep in a day—to make his financial ends meet. His first salary at the Ranson force would have qualified him for welfare if he had been married with a child or two at the time, he said.
The starting salary of a rookie police officer on the Ranson force is about $43,000, but applications from people willing to become police officers are fewer nowadays than in the past, he said. Regardless, 10 of Ranson’s 15 officers with more than 10 years of service bring valuable experience and stability to the city’s police department, Roberts points out.
Two decades ago Roberts completed an elite national FBI academy training in Quantico, Va., that taught various aspects of police administration.
Roberts said he plans no significant changes to Ranson’s police force since working closely with previous police chief Bill Roper, who retired after leading the city’s force for 13 years.
Roberts said he plans to continue fine-tuning the training each office receives based on their particular skills and interests in police work. He’ll send an officer who excels at drug cases to attend more classes in that area of law enforcement. Another officer especially motivated to solve crimes against children will attend classes in that area.
“I think we're heading in the right direction,” he said.
However, Roberts pointed to negative public perceptions of police among some citizens—typically because of actions police on big-city forces—as one of the department’s biggest challenges. “Sometimes we get rubber-stamped as a group,” he said. “One person can get the whole country a black eye.”
Police should be criticized and punished when they use force inappropriately or overstep their authority, but often police are also unfairly criticized for doing the job they’re called to do, Roberts said. And he said he would be the first to root out and punish any Ranson office who abused his or her position, but he hasn’t had to do that in Ranson.
“We’ve been fortunate here,” he said.