Columbia police officer shares his view of the Garth Corridor

Saturday, May 19, 2007 | 12:32 p.m. CDT; updated 7:01 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

Columbia police Officer Sterling Infield patrols Beats 40 and 45, an area in Columbia’s First Ward bisected by Garth Avenue and known to some as the “Garth Corridor.” It is a term Infield uses with sarcasm.

“Crime don’t pick a street,” he says.

His beat, however, from Providence Road west to Jefferson Street and from Business Loop 70 south to Worley Street, has the highest crime rate in Columbia. There were roughly 149 major crimes reported there in 2005, not including drug-related crime.

Infield has been a cop for 15 years, the last six in Columbia. He works the swing shift from 6:30 p.m. to 3 a.m. On a Friday evening in October, he began the night by getting his patrol car washed.

“Impression is very important,” he says as the car rolls into an automated wash.

Infield is on alert from the moment he pulls out of the gas station parking lot and heads toward his beat. The computer screen attached to his dash board shows #347, Infield’s call number, is green.

Green means the officer isn’t actively engaged in a call — but it definitely doesn’t mean the officer is inactive. Infield runs license plate numbers in his computer, keeps an eye out for trouble, answers questions over the radio — all while he drives toward his destination: Beat 40.

At times, Infield says the computer screen is completely red, with every officer on duty dispatched on a call.

“Right now we are about 50 officers short,” Infield says, citing Department of Justice statistics.

As he passes the corner of Garth Avenue and Sexton Road, Infield honks and waves to members of Chosen Generation Ministries, who hold up signs that say, “Honk for prayer.” They have become a staple on the street corner, working to combat increased crime in a declining neighborhood.

Three blocks north, on the corner of Garth and Forest avenues, Infield passes another gathering.

“See these young gentlemen here? They don’t live here and they’re not there to be social,” Infield says. “I can call at least two of them by name.”

Infield worked undercover for the Missouri Unified Strike Team and Narcotics Group, for two years, buying drugs in the Garth Corridor. “It’s like a drive-through service,” he says, noting that dealers would literally fight over his business. Now the drug dealers he once busted joke with him when he sees them on the street. “They don’t stay in prison for long,” he says.

Infield would have stopped and questioned the men standing on Garth Avenue, but now #347 is red, and he is headed to a disturbance call north of town at duplexes off Blue Ridge Road. The argument was soon resolved, and Infield returns to his beat area.

The crowd is gone. Infield circles the neighborhood, running license plates and names.

“You gotta know the people,” he says as he runs the name of a 17-year-old he sees walking in the 200 block of Lincoln Street. An active warrant pops up on the computer. Infield says he has been arresting this same person since the teen was 12.

“It’s a generational thing,” he says referring to a history of arrests in the young man’s family.

The officer follows the wanted teenager and his friend to the corner of Oak and Hick streets. He waits to get verbal confirmation over the radio that there is a hard copy of the warrant back at the police station — a trespassing charge that carries a $122.50 cash-only bail — then pulls over to arrest the teen.

“Man, I paid that,” protests the teen, who is a senior at Hickman High School. “If my mom brings the receipt will that work?”

“You have to take that up with the court,” Infield replies. He cuffs him and leads him to the back seat of the squad car.

At the Police Department, Infield frisks the teen, empties his pockets, puts his hat in a locker and takes off the handcuffs.

“How’s your grandmother?” Infield asks.

“Fine,” the teen says, taking off his belt. His pants fall to the floor. “You want me to take off my shoes?”

“If you would, please,” Infield says. He locks him in a cell.

“Daddy wasn’t there a lot, and when he was, daddy didn’t make the best decisions,” Infield says, who met the teen’s family five years ago during a disturbance call that involved a stabbing. It’s also not uncommon, Infield says, for adults and older teens to have impressionable younger boys commit their crimes for them, in effect training them for the streets.

“That’s what he’s been socialized to,” Infield says. “We have to learn how to break the cycle.”

After completing paperwork, Infield lets the teen out of his cell for fingerprints and a phone call.

“I don’t care how hard core the criminal, they always call momma,” Infield says. Sure enough, the teen calls his mother, who wants to talk to Infield.

“Yes, Ma’am?”

“Sorry, ma’am, you’ll have to take that up with the court.”

The phone is passed back to the teen.

“Momma, are you gonna come get me?” the teen asks before he hangs up.

“Your momma thinks I’m picking on you,” Infield says.

Infield locks the teen back in the cell to wait for bail and returns to his patrol. He runs the license plate number on a tan Lexus in front of him.

“Does that look like a Cadillac to you?” Infield asks when the information pops up on the screen.

The conflicting plates suggest a stolen car. Infield calls for backup and throws on his sirens, pulling the Lexus over on the corner of Providence Road and Hickman Road. Two other patrol cars arrive shortly afterward.

It turns out the car isn’t stolen, but there is a warrant out for the driver, a 17-year-old, and Infield proceeds to arrest him. While frisking him, Infield pulls a small amount of a white substance out of a pocket of the teen’s jeans. He then puts the teen in the back of the patrol car, pops the trunk and pulls out a test kit. He dabs a fleck of the substance with a chemical from the kit.

“See that blue there? That means it’s cocaine,” Infield says.

The 17-year-old watches from the patrol car as the officers search the Lexus.

“Oh, Lord, what did I do to deserve this?” he asks, laughing as the officers pull out a bottle of vodka from the car. “Don’t you think if I’d have had a little bit of crack, I’d have eaten it?”

Infield returns to the station to process his second arrest of the night at 11 p.m. — four hours before he’ll head home. Before he heads back out again, he learns there had been a clerical error made earlier in the shift: The warrant for his first arrest was old. The teen was released.

“It’s sad — they’re good people that have horrible conditions,” Infield says. “It’s not my job to judge them. I help them if I can. Get them into court to get treatment.”

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