Northwestern University Police Officer Neil Gunderson climbed the stairs of Allison Residential Community on his way to investigate the alleged smell of cannabis on the fourth floor. Gunderson found the room in question, leaning into the crack of the door to smell for the stench of marijuana. Not detecting anything, he returned to his squad car.
“This is a pretty common call,” Gunderson said. “It’s dissipated so much by the time we get here that you can’t smell it anymore.”
At 10:58 p.m. this was the first and only call Gunderson received during his 9:00 p.m. to 3:00 a.m. shift Friday night.
For NUPD, last Friday and Saturday nights were unusually slow. These were also the nights that two North by Northwestern reporters rode along with Gunderson to get a sense of the dynamics of NUPD, the experiences of a typical officer and some of the issues facing the Northwestern community.
“Most action happens between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. on weekends,” Gunderson said. “Weekends in the fall are usually the most active, but this is the first cold spell so people are probably in calling it a movie night.”
Gunderson said that at the beginning of the year, he shuts down three to four parties a weekend. As the year progresses and the cold sets in, this number dwindles to about one. “We shut down parties due to noise complaints typically,” Gunderson said. “There are probably less parties in the winter, and windows get shut, people stay off the porches and out of the backyard. It keeps the noise in.”
Gunderson said that when it’s warmer, students tend to wander between parties more than they would in the winter.
“Students will congregate on corners figuring out what party to go to next, and I’ll tell them to keep moving,” Gunderson said. “If I make contact with you and you’re noticeably intoxicated, I have to call an ambulance just to check the level of intoxication.”
This takes the liability off of Gunderson if something were to happen to the student later that night.
“We’re not writing you a ticket though,” Gunderson said. “It’s more about your health than to get you in trouble ... Our report will go through Student Affairs, and the University will deal with consequences.”
NUPD is “pretty laidback” and more lenient with students, according to Gunderson. “We know you are here to study, and also to have a good time,” Gunderson said. “We’re not trying to prevent that, just trying to make sure you’re doing it safely. We’re not kicking in doors and stuff.”
NUPD officers have no need to kick in doors, as they carry keys that let them through any door on campus.
During Big Ten football games, Gunderson said, at least 15 officers work the event.
“If there’s a football game, we’re at the game,” he said. “We deal with alcohol ejections, those who drank too much and are disorderly.”
Gunderson said that two sergeants travel with the football team when they go to away games. On the Saturday night ride-along, Sergeant Timothy Reuss, clad in Wildcat gear, was coming back from such a game, after Northwestern’s defeat over the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.
In addition to policing the games, Gunderson said NUPD tries to establish a positive relationship with the football team by having every freshman football player do a ride-along with an officer. “I think we are well-liked [by the students],” Gunderson said. “We don’t really have a lot of tension with them. We get along pretty well.”
While students and officers don’t often conflict, according to Gunderson, the community is not necessarily safe.
“A crime can happen anywhere. You never know when gangbangers or shitheads are going to come up here to escape the heat a little bit,” he said. “Crime happens anywhere. Crime travels. It doesn’t stay in the ghetto or stay where it has begun.”
This is something that Gunderson keeps in mind every time he makes a traffic stop and is in fact something he lives by. He got a tattoo in 2010 reminding him of what he said is “the ultimate goal in law enforcement: to make sure I don’t get hurt and my colleagues don’t.” The “y. g. h. t.” on the side of his finger stands for “you’re going home tonight."
“This seems like a pretty nice neighborhood, but you never know who you’re stopping,” Gunderson said. “It could be a serial killer that no one yet knows about ... You have no idea who’s in that car.”
Gunderson said NUPD is not overly focused on traffic infractions, but it does monitor for safety violations.
“I’m known to be a more aggressive officer,” Gunderson said. “On any car I can typically find something wrong, so it’s not hard to find a probable cause to stop someone.”
While pulled over at the intersection of Chicago Avenue and Sheridan Road looking for a driver to violate the “No Turn On Red” sign, Gunderson was “feeling antsy.” “Let’s stop somebody,” he said.
The other night, Gunderson said, he walked up to the passenger side window of a car stopped in the middle of the road.
“This guy was so weird,” Gunderson said. “When people weird me out, or I get the hairs on the back of my neck I go up to the passenger side.”
The man, a Polish speaker, refused to roll down his window further than a crack and instead chose to step out of the car.
“He stumbled out and failed DUI tests, even though I couldn’t smell any alcohol on him,” Gunderson said. “We brought him back to the station, and he refused to sit down when we handcuffed him because he said his back hurt, so he stood in lockup for five hours, hunched over because he was handcuffed to the bench.”
According to Gunderson, the man then refused to sign the document that would release him for the night, instead opting to spend the night in Cook County Jail in Skokie.
“That’s not a pretty place,” Gunderson said.
NUPD officers are sometimes limited by the gender makeup of their police force while on duty. According to Gunderson, law enforcement is a male dominant field, but the ratios of male to female applicants and those hired are pretty similar.
“I can’t search females, only female officers can,” Gunderson said. “Sometimes if there are no females on a shift, we’ll call the Evanston [Police] Department to see if they have a female officer on shift, [and vice versa].”
Gunderson worked the eight hour “midnight” shift, 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., for four years before transferring to afternoons, 3 p.m. to 11 p.m.
“Most officers don’t eat [during the shift],” Gunderson said. “I feel like sometimes I’m the only one taking a lunch break. But I’m a big guy. I need to eat.”
He either goes to the Starbucks on Sherman Avenue or Dunkin’ Donuts on Green Bay Road and Livingston Street. However, Gunderson said that the coffee-drinking, doughnut-eating stereotype of a cop is not true.
“[Dunkin’ Donuts is] usually open late, when there is really no other place to get food except for Burger King, so that’s why cops like them,” Gunderson said. “That’s where I think the stereotype comes from, although I have never been [at Dunkin’ Donuts] with an officer and seen a doughnut ordered by any one of us.”