I arrived at the Central District Police Station looking out of place (think: geeky grandma-chic). I stood in line to sign my life away, and it came up that I was the “cat lady” who would be riding along with Officer Jon Boyer. I laughed, because let’s face it…that’s basically true.
Upon hearing that, Officer Jill Beauregard perked up and said, “He’s been rescuing critters since he first started here. He’d bring in some dirty little kitten and we’d all be like, ‘Jon, what are you going to DO with that thing?’ and he’d say, ‘I’m going to take it to the shelter and make sure it finds a good home.”
Of course it’s an admirable mission for anyone, but when a 26-year-old Baltimore police officer who stands 6’5” and looks like he could be in the NFL makes it a point to help homeless animals, it’s downright remarkable.
Let me assure you, the soft side you’ve all grown to love does not hinder Officer Boyer’s sense of duty on the gritty West Baltimore streets he patrols.
“I just have one rule,” Officer Jon Boyer said. “If I get out of the car and run, stay in the car and lock the doors.”
“Ok, got it,” I said as I adjusted my ill-fitting bulletproof vest. Surprisingly I wasn’t nervous; I felt more like a little kid on Christmas Eve.
We started out with a tour of the sector for which he is responsible, and also with a warning. “I’m going to give it to you straight up and tell you how it is,” he said. “I’m not going to sugar coat anything.” I assured him I’m not easily offended, and there’s no point to this story if I’m not getting the real deal.
Our first call came in not long after we got on the road; a trespasser in a high-rise who would not leave.
We parked in front of the building and he got out of the car. “Come on,” he said.
“I’m sorry, what? I can come in with you?”
“Yeah, come on.”
Clearly I did not understand what a ride-along entailed. No problem, I’ll puff myself up and try to look official. Maybe they won’t notice my skinny jeans and Betsey Johnson boots aren’t regulation. I’m undercover. Yep, that’s it! Undercover Officer Carly. Should I leave my purse in the car?
Before I could finish my barrage of thoughts, he was on his way in the building.
I scurried to catch up as we entered the lobby, filled with residents and staff milling about. They all focused their attention on us, while some offered a little back-story about a guy lying on the floor that either couldn’t or wouldn’t leave. We took the elevator up to the 14th floor and sure enough, there was an individual on the floor, using his duffel bag as a pillow and arguing with two residents who wanted him out of the building. He popped up at the sight of Officer Boyer, who asked what was going on. The individual who, in my non-professional opinion looked like he was on something, said that he was waiting for someone in one of the apartments. The two wheelchair-bound residents insisted that the resident was not home and that there was no reason for him to be there. A little back-and-forth ensued, but Officer Boyer put an end to that quickly.
I have to admit, I’m 5’10” barefoot so I don’t often feel small. Standing slightly behind Officer Boyer, I had to muster all my willpower to resist being the stereotypical wimpy sidekick who yelled “YEAH!” after everything the tough guy leader said. I had a personal security guard. I felt invincible.
He offered a solution that seemed to satisfy both parties. The individual was to wait for his friend in the lobby, and was not to return to the 14th floor until he was accompanied by the resident. Surprisingly, the individual gave in rather respectfully and we all piled into the elevator. “I better not get another call that you’re back up here,” Officer Boyer said.
“No sir, no sir. I’ll wait downstairs.”
And with that, it was time to get on with the tour of sector three. Officer Boyer pointed out notable places, and places with high crime activity.
“Most of my drug dealers either live or know someone who lives there,” he said, pointing at a cluster of section 8 housing. “I hate foot chases in there; so many little openings in the fencing.”
As we approached a bar with a large adjacent parking lot, Officer Boyer said, “We just had a homicide there last week.”
“A lot of the people you’ll see and maybe even some we’ll talk to are killers. They’ve killed people.”
How do I even respond to that?
Just then, we were driving past another section 8 housing complex, known to police as “The Bricks,” when I spotted a scroungy-looking little cat asleep in the dirt. “Look! There’s a kitty! Should we try to get him?” I said, probably more excitedly than I care to admit. “Sure, we can try,” Officer Boyer said and he pulled the car over.
I watched the no-nonsense Officer I accompanied into that high-rise transform into our Softie as he approached the cat, which by this point had woken up. I think I might have actually smiled in surprise when I first heard the kitty-call-baby-talk-kissy-noises emerge from this statuesque, weapon-toting officer of the law.
The cat was a little hesitant, so I went around to the other side to try grabbing him, but he ran across the street and underneath a car. Meanwhile, I could hear the kids from the housing project laughing at what must have been a ridiculous sight – a cop and some girl running around in the road trying to catch this little cat.
One said “are you trying to catch 300?” “Is that his name?” I asked. “Yeah that’s 300.”
If this cat has a NAME, why is he so dirty and skinny? Why don’t these people treat their animals better? Would spreading more awareness make a difference? Would ANYTHING?
It became clear that 300 wanted nothing to do with us, so Officer Boyer opted to stop stressing the cat out, and move on.
“You’ll see a whole lot of cats out here and it’s really hard not to be able to help them all,” he said.
During the evening, we responded to various calls having to do with domestic disputes, a minor fender bender and a stolen TV.
I suppose even criminals get hungry, as there is usually a “dinnertime lull” in calls, and that night was no exception. We used that downtime to make a quick food stop, which happened to be right near the Pet Valu in Mt. Vernon. “There are kitties in here,” Officer Boyer said as he peered in the window. “I like to come in here sometimes and play with them.”
We got our dinner to go, and returned to Officer Boyer’s sector. We parked near an establishment well-known for drug trafficking. Even though we were only parking to eat, people noticed the cop car and did their best to subtly scatter.
While we were eating, we had a little time to chat. I learned that when Officer Boyer was a little kid, he convinced his parents to let him have a cat. His parents took him to the local animal shelter where he adopted Whiskers, who lived to be 17. He’s always loved animals, but got seriously involved with rescue when he became a police officer. “I saw so many animals in bad shape and I wanted to help, and one thing led to another.”
I asked him if his job ever made his faith in humanity falter. His answer surprised me. “No,” he said. “I see the worst of it, but the worst isn’t normal. You usually don’t come across these types of situations in better areas.”
Officer Boyer had some pretty awful stories of neglect, and explained that there are sizeable fines for not having adequate supplies for animals in a yard. Unfortunately, most people who receive those fines can’t pay them, and end up in jail for a few days at best, without any real consequences. Sadly, the system doesn’t seem to have an effective way of handling these situations, which makes that aspect of Officer Boyer’s job incredibly frustrating.
It came time to start patrolling again, and as we were driving, we saw a black and white cat near a school. We pulled over and Officer Boyer began to call the cat. Before we could even get near it, the cat disappeared into the storm drain. “I’ve tried to save that one before,” Officer Boyer said. “Every time I try, he runs down into that drain. I think he has a kitty girlfriend down there.”
At this point, Officer Boyer explained his “kitty testing method” to help decide which cats to go after. Some cats are feral and therefore unapproachable, whereas some are more apt to respond to human contact. To easily tell which cats are which, Officer Boyer makes kitty noises at them. “If they perk up and look at me, I know I’ve got a shot. If they run, they’re probably feral and would need to be trapped.”
We drove on and Officer Boyer turned onto a block full of eerie, vacant homes, looking for any that weren’t properly boarded up. They’re supposed to be secured so drifters and drug users can’t get inside. We came upon one house that had wood ripped off the window, and nothing blocking the door. Officer Boyer got out of the car and radioed for backup as he entered the house to make sure it was clear.
“BALTIMORE POLICE,” he yelled as he opened the door. “ANYONE IN HERE?”
My heart started to beat faster, as I’m looking in the upstairs windows trying to see any movement. I had started to feel protective of my new kitty-saving friend, and did not want to imagine the worst case scenario.
Do I have anything on me that I can use to stab a junkie if I need to? Self-defense kitty key chain, don’t let me down!
The block we were on is desolate at best, and bad things happen here. In fact, the house next to the one Officer Boyer was checking is a known drug house. Users have stooped to the vilest of methods to keep police out. Suffice it to say that they have used excrement as repellant, and I’ll leave it at that.
Just as my imagination was starting to run away with itself, Officer Carlos Arias arrived to help clear the house with Officer Boyer. He was talking to me in the street when we heard someone yelling hysterically. We all looked at each other, and Officer Boyer started back into the alley with his flashlight. A woman held her hands up and said “It’s just me. I’m looking for my cat. I can’t find my cat!”
Really? I couldn’t make this up if I tried.
As we got closer, we were able to tell the woman was yelling “CUPCAKE”; her lost cat’s name. Unlike the other cats that had crossed our path that day, Cupcake was an inside cat. The woman’s home was adjacent to a vacant home, and after some flashlight searching, Officer Arias spotted Cupcake’s little reflective eyeballs peeking out from a top floor window of the vacant home next door.
After a backyard debate amongst ourselves and the woman, it was decided that we would attempt to retrieve Cupcake, as the woman was too afraid to enter the home.
As we got closer to the vacant home, the huge crack in the house made it evident that the structure was probably not safe. With that in mind, we opened the basement door, and it was like something out of a nightmare. Spider webs everywhere. A rat skeleton. Dead bugs. Years of dust.
Officer Boyer is fearless when it comes to anything with two legs or four – eight is a deal breaker.
“You go first.” Officer Boyer said.
“No YOU go first.” Officer Arias said.
This went back and forth for a few seconds.
“Ya know what? I’ll go first.” I said, as I broke off a spider web-slaying stick from a dead tree in the yard.
I felt mighty. Like Harry Potter or Superwoman, ready to save the day.
We entered the basement in a line, keeping close together and trying not to look around at all the yuck, meanwhile the woman was still yelling “CUPCAAAKE” continuously from outside. The rat skeleton was directly in the center of the doorway that we had to pass through. I tried my best not to look at it or step on it, and eventually found the dust-covered stairs up to the first floor. The floors on the first level were already starting to feel dicey, and there was major visible water damage on the stairs to the second floor. The other scenery wasn’t much better – faded, peeling yellow wallpaper, mold, so many more spider webs draping down from the ceiling.
After more debate, it was clear that we all wanted to do our best to reach Cupcake, so Officer Boyer started to climb slowly and cautiously up the rotted stairs. I followed, and then Officer Arias. Unfortunately, the damage to the second floor was too drastic, as Officer Boyer said he felt like he was literally going to fall through the floor if he went any further. We opted to get the heck out of that dilapidated house, and felt confident that Cupcake would emerge once things quieted down and now that she had a safe exit. Officer Boyer advised the woman (who was still yelling “CUPCAAAKE”) to stop yelling and to leave food out for the cat. The woman agreed that this was the best solution, and thanked the officers profusely for trying to help. We were all disappointed, but in the end we knew this was the safest choice for all involved.
We returned to the cars dusty and covered in spider webs, but the adventure was worth it. A call had come over the radio advising officers to look out for a robbery suspect who is believed to possess a gun. We kept an eye out for anyone matching the man’s description, and stopped by the scene where the suspect’s partner had already been arrested. This guy was MAD, and he let the officers know it. The disrespectful, defiant suspect was “NOT going to jail,” the officers were “dummies” and “cocaine was his medicine.” He might even sue them.
By this time it was getting close to the end of the 3-11 shift, and they said this was a “slow” night!
As we headed back to the station, I began to think about all the great folks I had met, and the fact that the dangers they face on a daily basis are real. For reasons that don’t make sense to me, Baltimore City police officers are paid significantly less than county officers, and are put at far greater risk. In spite of that, every officer who crossed my path was friendly and accommodating. They all truly had each other’s backs, and so many I spoke to were also animal lovers. Riding along with Officer Boyer really opened my eyes to the realities of the problems plaguing our city, but it also made me feel hopeful. Officer Boyer uses his unique role in society to help where he can, even though the animal abuse situation might seem unrelenting and overwhelming. If others take that lesson from him – do what YOU can do to help, no matter what it is and no matter how dire the circumstances – the good guys will win.
We’re pleased to welcome Carly McGee on board as a special SYSS correspondent. In the coming months, she’ll be shadowing and reporting on what goes on behind-the-scenes in Softieville.