Wednesday, April 29, 2009

One Semester Down, Six to Go!

Wow, I can't believe that my first semester at GW is over. Those three and a half months went by fast. I had one final exam on Monday, which consisted of four essay questions, for my Criminal Investigations class. My other final exam, for Criminal Law, was 100 multiple choice questions plus extra credit for writing out the Fourth Amendment.

I have never enjoyed school more than I did this semester. In fact, I recall being so sick of school in my Junior year at Virginia Tech in 1984 that I dropped out . . . to work in pizza, no less! My, how things change in a quarter of a century. I only wish I'd chased this dream of mine years ago.

Well, I have 2.5 weeks off from school. Summer school starts May 18 and only lasts 10 weeks, so it's pretty intense. I'm taking Risk Analysis & Loss Prevention and Ethics & Leadership. Classes are three hours long, which will put me home around 9:30PM on school nights. Those are going to be some long days, leaving for work at 7:30AM and getting home 14 hours later. Poor Baby. She doesn't like to be alone that long. She really needs a playmate!

Off to bed. It'll be intersting trying to work tomorrow with a fried brain.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Baby Antics

What is it with cats and water? Several weeks ago, Baby stopped drinking from her fancy bubble fountain bowl. Since then, she only drinks from my water cups or licks up remnant water drops from the bathroom sink.

I keep a little acrylic water cup on the bathroom counter top. Every time I turn on the water in the bathroom sink, Baby comes running and jumps up onto the lavatory. She plops herself down on the counter and waits patiently for me to fill the cup for her, then she starts lapping away. Never mind that she has a full bowl of fresh bubbly water in the room where I feed her.

Almost always, I have a big glass of ice water next to me, either on my desk or on the table next to my TV chair. Baby doesn't hesitate to help herself. I know that cats like their water fresh, hence the bubble fountain which keeps the water circulating. I give the bowl a thorough cleaning every weekend and refill it with cold water from the Brita pitcher. What more could a cat ask for?

I recall Martin liked his water cold. So, with Baby, I've tried adding ice cubes to her bowl. Still no go. She liked her old fountain, which was on its last legs and finally had to be thrown away during the last move. She used the new bubble fountain for several months; suddenly, it just isn't cutting it for this spoiled little girl.

This is cat behavior that I just don't understand. True, they say that cats like their water really fresh. The bubble fountain should provide that. Several explanations are offered on this web page. The only one I haven't tried is separating her food and water dishes. I'll do that next and see what happens.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Surveillance: Not for the Weary

March 9th was surveillance night for my Criminal Investigations class. I had been looking forward to this night as much as our earlier crime scene night. The teacher warned us that our measely 1.5 hours of surveillance would wear us out.

She was right.

My team of four was tasked with tailing a young woman who had suffered a fall at her job at Staples. Doctor's orders mandated strict bed rest for this employee, who was receiving workman's compensation for her injury. She was supposed to be at home, healing.

The subject left by car, and we had two cars following her. I was a passenger in the second car. Naturally, we were parked on the opposite side of the road when our subject took off past us in the opposite direction. The lead car was able to stay behind her. (Thank goodness we opted to use two cars.) I had suggested GPS units, and my driver had one - but it was in his glove box, not mounted on the dash board ready to go. There wasn't enough time after we got going to set that up. (A huge chunk of surveillance is planning.)

Meanwhile, my partner circled around the block and managed to get on the wrong road. Using my cell phone, I remained in communication with the passenger of the lead car. He kept telling us "turn right on Fillmore," but we weren't even close to Fillmore. We were off in a completely wrong direction. I had brought a map and was juggling getting the GPS unit up while also looking at the map and talking to the other agent on the phone and trying to listen to my partner barking questions at me while I was on the phone listening to the other agent.

Finally, we were headed in the right direction. We turned on Fillmore, and found no Crate & Barrel, so we knew it was the wrong street. Our teammate couldn't remember the street name, so we went up another street and finally found the shopping center where the subject had pulled in and parked. We lucked out and got a parking space out front, like the subject, but on the other side of the median from her car. Perfect. Not only that, but the woman in the car parked in front of us came up to our window and told us to use her spot because there were still 30 minutes left on the meter. Such luck! We pulled up and parked.

Meanwhile, the other two agents had parked in the garage and alternately followed the subject into Barnes & Noble and Ann Taylor Loft. Fortunately, one of those agents got some fantastic photos of the subject bending and reaching for books in B&N. Unfortunately, he hadn't set his camera to date- and time-stamp the photos, like we'd all agreed ahead of time. He had the date stamp enabled, though, which is better than nothing—especially since his partner failed to enable the time/date stamp at all on her camera.

Communicating via Bluetooth, I got out and sat on a bench that faced the rear of the subject's Toyota hatchback. I was wearing a lavender cap and black pullover. It was windy that day—and COLD. I about froze my butt off sitting there while she shopped for what seemed like forever. I realized I needed a prop, so I called another agent on my cell and had her bring a notebook over for me to casually flip through as I waited.

The subject shopped in just about every store at this outdoor mall in Arlington. We watched her go to William-Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Crate & Barrel and more. But surveillance was tough without having 4-way communication available to us. I had a Bluetooth headset and kept my phone in my pocket. I was pretty much on the phone with one of my teammates for the entire exercise, until near the end.

It was clear that our subject was feeling no back pain. She was out out trouncing around in her high heels, shopping, bending over and reaching up for books at B&N, and looking completely healthy. She even picked up a huge 15-lb. vase in C&B and set it back down.

As I sat on the bench, trying not to shiver or look obvious, I came up with a plan to get the subject to bend over. All I needed was for one of my fellow agents to photograph the encounter. I was on the phone with another agent when I asked him to call my partner and tell him to get his camera ready and be in position when the subject returned to her car and I accosted her.

I continued lying in wait while the other agents moved about.

Suddenly, my partner took off in his car. Another agent called me wondering where in the heck he was going? Our subject was on foot and we had a perfectly good parking space, yet this agent left the scene—and without communicating with any of us. It made no sense. I asked my fellow agents to be ready with their cameras.

When the subject returned to her car, I photographed her from about 20 feet away, right behind her, as she bent over and looked in the hatch. I was still snapping photos as I walked right up to her and called out, "Is this your car?" Hiding the camera when she turned to face me, I told her, "That guy in front of you hit your car when he was parking," pointing at the blue SUV parked in front of her. Sure enough, the ruse worked. We went over together to look at her front bumper. She easily squatted down to get a closer look. I'm praying that someone on my team is shooting the scene.

Nope. No such luck. My partner had returned and was looking for a parking space, of which there were none available. I parted ways with the subject, crossed the median, and signaled my partner to pick me up. In the car, I removed my hat, let my hair down, and put on a beige winter coat—all part of the plan we each had to change our appearance.

I went inside Crate & Barrel where there was a perfect window view to her car. I spoke to my partner on the cell phone, and we agreed he'd call me when the subject left Baja Fresh and headed back to her car. I was going to photograph her getting into her car and driving off. Meanwhile, I kept an eye out as best as I could from inside the store, hoping the store clerks wouldn't think I was a shoplifter. I made a small purchase and hung out, awaiting my partner's call and periodically passing by that window.

Finally I saw the car leaving. I was too late! My partner hadn't called as planned. He later claimed he texted me instead, but I never got a message from him. It wouldn't have mattered; my phone was in my pocket and I never would have heard the text alert.

Despite all of our little blunders, my team managed to get some great photos of the subject bending over, carrying shopping bags, squatting, reaching, walking in high heels, etc. We pulled the info together into a report with a timeline of our subject's activities and will present it on Monday.

It was fun! I must say, though, riding home on the subway that night, I suddenly found myself exhausted. I can't imagine how tired I'd be had I participated in a surveillance that lasted 12-18 hours, as can be the case in real life.

You gotta love this stuff! I've never enjoyed school this much in my life. Guess I finally picked the right field to study. And I'm 45 years old today, so it's about time!

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Letter to the Editor

Dear Editor:

I recently moved to Alexandria from New York City. I didn't own a car in NYC, and I don't own one here (despite it being a lot harder and more time-consuming to commute without a car here). I use the Metro to get around.

Each morning I must cross Eisenhower Avenue to get on the train. There is no crosswalk for pedestrians there. To cross at a crosswalk, apartment dwellers must either backtrack to the light or walk past the Metro and cross at the next light. Both of these lights are three long minutes when red. Long story short: everyone walks across the middle of the road to get to the train station. I see it every day. I assumed that this is how it's done here. In fact, in all my years in NYC there was no such thing as NYPD ticketing people for crossing the street. NYC is a pedestrian-friendly city (and New York's finest have better things to do than ticket jaywalkers).

Yesterday morning around 8:00 I was headed to the Metro. When the road cleared, I stepped one single foot into the gutter of the road. All of a sudden, I heard this booming voice screaming, "No, no, NO, NO, NO!!!" I looked up and saw a burly motorcycle policeman across the street, pointing angrily at me and screaming at the top of his lungs. The look on his face couldn't have been uglier; the tone of his voice could not have been less intimidating. I turned to my right and took two steps in the gutter, looking back at the big mustached officer; he contorted his face in anger and screamed threateningly at me, "Get OUT OF THE STREET!" in a tone that should be reserved for a fleeing felon.

Being used to the friendly, courteous NYPD, I was astounded by the excessively aggressive behavior displayed by this public servant. I stepped onto the sidewalk and ran the distance to the next light. I, of course, had to wait minutes for the walk signal, and missed my train.

I have two complaints: First, this officer's behavior was excessive and uncalled-for; it ruined my day. The sad part is, that was obviously his intent. If you ask me, this guy is in the wrong job. Scaring residents half to death is not fulfilling an obligation "to protect and serve." There's no place for that type of behavior when dealing with an alleged minor misdemeanor resembling attempted jaywalking.

Secondly, make the Metro more accessible and convenient. Compared to NYC where you can go anywhere (on bus and/or train), transferring endlessly for a mere $2, public transportation here in D.C. is exorbitantly priced. It's $1.65 to go one single stop. Obviously, jaywalking is a misdemeanor in Alexandria—as I am now aware. Why not use some of those Metro dollars to install a crosswalk to the Metro station or shorten the excessive length of red lights at those intersections?

Until pedestrian accessibility improves, people will continue to jaywalk there. Instead of coddling the motorists and punishing those who are doing the right thing for the city and our environment by using Metro, why not address the Metro access problem at Eisenhower Avenue and other stations? A pedestrian overpass would be a good start.