In a Cruiser with the “Mom Cop”
One job: handling larceny, fights, collisions, wearing mascara
Day in, day out, nearly 10,000 people show up at Boston University—not to go to school, but to go to work. Often unsung, their efforts make everything possible. This is one in a series of stories about jobs on campus and the people who do them.
Diane Smith prepares for her first battle of the day: sanitizing the police cruiser. Frankly, she says, it smells and you don’t know what’s been in there.
She disappears with a can of air freshener and returns to the station minutes later to let the artificial smell settle.
“I’m kind of OCD,” she says, as she arranges her purse.
Smith—known to fellow BU cops as Smitty and/or Pumpkin—is many things other than obsessive compulsive. She’s a 42-year-old mother of two teens, a wife of 19 years, a cake baker (her retirement plan), one in a long line of law enforcement officers in her family, and a 16-year Boston University Police Department veteran whose job ranges from teaching sexual assault prevention classes to tackling streakers in Kenmore Square.
Smitty is your neighborhood cop.
Her shift starts at Dunkin’ Donuts for a vanilla-flavored iced tea. Smith and another patrol officer sip and chat before the long night ahead.
“Time to fight crime,” she says, slipping into her cruiser.
She’s wearing what she calls her “man clothes,” a silver badge, a uniform with a black tie, a bulky belt to carry bullets, a loaded gun, pepper spray, and a medical kit. She also wears makeup, her strawberry-blonde hair blow-dried into place.
Unlike her male counterparts, she doesn’t carry a baton, which she told her boss she won’t wear. “It pokes me in the boobs,” she says. “They don’t know what to say about that.”
Smith is one of at least eight patrol officers roaming BU’s Charles River and Medical Campuses on any given night. She spends a good chunk of time in a proactive search for suspicious telltales, broken windows and doors, young people loitering on fire escapes.
A scanner bleats as Boston and Brookline police transmit their goings-on. If a call is directed toward University property, a dispatcher sends a BUPD cruiser to the scene. Officers also can call in to check on the progress of ongoing cases.
Right now, all is quiet. Smith travels up and down Commonwealth Avenue, making sweeps behind Nickerson Field, along Bay State Road, through various South Campus alleyways.
Times like these are when she gets restless and opts for a “walk and talk.” It’s her version of community policing, and a reality check.
“I drive myself crazy in this car,” she says. So she gets out and reaches out, soliciting the inside scoop from residents and students. Those who don’t know her often react with a tight “Hello, officer,” Smith says, “like they think there’s something wrong. They always expect the worst.”
The scanner crackles: a barking dog in a nearby apartment. Reports like that are common, she says; another officer responds. Larceny is another typical call—a backpack, a wallet, a laptop. Collisions involving cars, bike, and pedestrians are also all too frequent. Three of those will cross the scanner this shift.
Smith has been involved in some hairy situations over the years. Filling in for the dispatcher one night, she answered a call about an impaled broomball player. Officers had to transport the student to a hospital, broom in place, where doctors took over.
“I still think about that,” she says. Her 13-year-old son, Ryan, plays hockey.
Smith recently responded to a fight at BU Central. When she arrived, a college-aged man rushed at her with what looked like a broken jaw. When she asked him what happened, he turned and ran away. “He wanted nothing to do with me,” she says. Even so, “I was covered in blood.”
She went in the club and found several people injured. She radioed for backup and helped one person with a badly injured eye until an ambulance arrived. Incidents like that require quick reactions, and as the adrenaline flows there’s little time for reflection—it’s the memories, she says, that sometimes bother her.
A woman in a red truck stops alongside Smith’s car to ask for help finding Brookline’s Arcade Building. The officer leads her there, admonishing her twice for failing to put on her headlights.
The scanner bleats again: a gunshot victim has been brought to Boston Medical Center, and a horde of people, apparently family and friends, is gathering outside the Emergency Room. Officers have called for backup.
Smith picks her way through evening traffic, arriving to see two patrol cars and an unmarked cruiser. Their presence is preventive, to ensure no fights erupt.
With the situation under control, Smith makes a loop behind the School of Medicine, spying a woman standing on the north side of Melnea Cass Boulevard staring at the South Bay House of Correction across the highway. Shadowy figures of men standing by the windows are outlined by the light of their prison cells. One of them makes exaggerated arm signals to the woman; she signs back.
Smith abruptly parks and searches for her radio intercom. “You gotta move,” she says authoritatively. The woman doesn’t. “Now.”
“Yeah, I heard you,” she says, shouldering her bag.
“Good, I’m glad,” Smith replies. She watches the woman cross the highway, continuing to sign, and then disappear along the prison wall.
Landing a job as a BUPD officer was a mixture of timing, luck, and family history. After Smith was laid off from the Belmont Springs Water Company, she and her husband, Steven, decided to test for a job on the BU force; her father, brother, and uncle were police officers and other family members were state troopers or in the U.S. Navy.
BUPD called Smith, but not her husband. She says the department was looking to expand the number of women on the force, and probably still is: 3 of the 54 BUPD sworn officers are women, according to Deputy Chief Scott Paré.
Smith had to qualify for the police academy; the physical endurance test was her toughest challenge, she says. Finishing 62 sit-ups and timed running trials seemed unrealistic, but her husband trained alongside her with a stopwatch.
“I was the skinniest I’d ever been in my life,” she says, her face illuminated by the dashboard light.
Hours are long, holidays don’t exist, and danger always is a possibility. But she loves her job and speaks of coworkers like family.
“These people are actually going to save your life some day,” she says.
Barely two years into the job, Smith announced that she was pregnant with her daughter, Ashley, now 14. “The guys” brought her snacks and Sgt. Patrick Nuzzi treated her to a monster bowl of ice cream. Nine months after Ashley was born, she had more news.
“I’m going to have a baby,” she remembers telling her boss.
His response: “You just had a baby.”
Her children have known her only as a “mom cop,” Smith says. The positives of the job (Ryan’s easy access to BU hockey games and a schedule that allows her and her husband to stagger home care) balance out the negatives (Ashley’s ban from Facebook and Twitter because Smith knows their dark sides).
At mid-shift, Smith stops for dinner at T. Anthony’s Pizzeria and Restaurant. She stands out among hockey players and other college students grabbing a slice, but chats with everyone, including staff. People are the best part of the job, she says.
As she heads back to her cruiser, a deliveryman shouts, “I love you, Diane.”
“I love you too, Altimar,” she replies.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever been there,” she says with a grin.
This story originally ran January 11, 2010.2 Comments