Protect and serve: My weekend with Ames PD

Michael Heckle

My two evenings spent riding alongside Ames Police were what officers — and perhaps most observers — would have called boring nights.

There were no exhilarating car chases or big drug busts or internet worthy altercations. There were no gunshots or knife fights or long winded foot chases, the kind you become desensitized to by midway through a 24 hour binge session of “Cops.”

Yes, my time spent shadowing Ames Police officers was absent the movie style action every journalist dreams of being a witness to. But by the end of my final night, I realized that I’d become witness to something much more real, something much more important.

There’s a reason why Ames is so routinely establishes itself as one of the safest communities in the state (and, if at least one poll has it right, the nation). That reason is the Ames PD.

I arrived at the Ames Police Station just before 11 p.m. on the night of my first ride. It was a cool, wet Friday night in late October, the rain that had soaked the city that afternoon had dissipated, leaving a thin but all to noticeable mist in the air. After a few minutes of waiting, I was greeted by Officer Lane Thayer. He was tall and lanky, clean shaven with blonde hair cut closely to his head.

I filled out paperwork while we waited for Thayer’s patrol vehicle to arrive from the final call of the afternoon shift. When the car finally arrived, Thayer gripped jokingly to the returning officer about being late, then again once he saw his patrol car parked bumper to bumper with other police vehicles.

Thayer began to go over his “morning” routine. Turn on the computer, login, then check the guns. Ames Police Officers typically carry their sidearm along with a shotgun and AR style in every car. Thayer was loading was shotgun and beginning to tell me about his personal rifle that he carries every shift when he stopped suddenly, the earpiece in left ear broadcasting the radio discreetly.

“We’ve got to go,” he said. Our first call.

I’d barely put on my seat belt when Thayer took off from out of the parking spot. We turned around Clark St. and sped toward Grand Ave., then down Lincoln Way. A tow truck driver had called in a vehicle driving on the wrong side of the road on Lincoln Way a few minutes east of us. It’s the kind of call that requires urgency; lives could be in danger. The driver was following the car, relaying its location to dispatch, who relayed it to Thayler.

There’s something truly remarkable about traveling down Lincoln Way at 80 mph. Red and blue lights flashed briefly against trees and buildings. Vehicles pulled out of the way in front of us. Traffic lights switched from red to green as we approached. It’s a necessary part of the job, one that Thayler doesn’t take lightly. 

“I’ve got to justify the potential hazard,” he said. “I’ve got to get there before something happens, but if I hit someone or cause an accident on the way there, that’s not good either.”

But damn if it isn’t fun.

We caught up to the vehicle near the eastern edge of Ames PD’s jurisdiction on a country road no more than a block south of Lincoln Way. It was a tan Buick, a driver with a passenger in the front seat. Thayer radioed that license plate numbers to dispatch before getting out and approaching the car. The red and blue lights reflected like strobes against the white, iridescent POLICE on the back of his vest.

By the time back up arrived Thayer was walking back to the patrol car, drivers license in hand. He handed it to the other officer and said a few words before sliding back into the driver’s seat. The wrong-way driver was a kid barely older than 16. He’d gotten confused by the median near Lincoln Way and Grand. He wasn’t drunk or high, just inexperienced.

“You just never know what you’re going to get.” Thayer said. He handed the call off to the second officer and headed back toward the PD. We still needed to finish the “morning” routine.

Thayer is a five year veteran of Ames Police. Originally from Indianola, IA, he went to seminary at Faith Baptist Bible College in Ankeny before interning out of state. During his internship, it became clear that seminary wasn’t what he wanted to do. A buddy turned him onto Ames Police shortly after. He’s been an officer ever since.

Ames PD splits its cars into two different categories, utility and area. Utility cars for the most part feature more highly ranked officers. They respond from call to call as need, but don’t have a designated patrol area. Area cars, on the other hand, are broken up into three patrol areas: North, south and west. We’d be working the north side of town that night, everything east of Grand Ave. and north of Lincoln Way.

The area, Thayer and a few other officers admitted to me, wasn’t nearly as action packed as the bar-heavy, student filled west side. We spent most of the night performing routine traffic stops and clearing out the number of parks along Grand.

For Thayer, the job is all about helping the community.

“You get to help people,” he said. “There are times when people genuinely can’t get out of the situation their in. Things like mental health and domestic issues. That’s when we can really help.”

That sense of community policing became readily apparent a few hours after our race down Lincoln Way. While patrolling the parks, we came across a red van parked in Inis Grove Park. The driver was a small woman in her late 20’s. Two infant children sat strapped into car seats in the back. The woman had run out of gas and spent the last four hours sitting in the park reaching out for help. She had no money and no one close than Fort Dodge to come help her.

“We’ll find away to get you some gas and get you on the road.” Thayer said to her.

She had enough gas to make it to the gas station on Grand Ave. and Wheeler St., we followed in the patrol car. As she pulled up to the pump, Thayer parked in a spot in front of the door. He told me to grab something for the kids to eat as he payed for her gas.

“It’s not a big deal,” he said to me. “You don’t have to put this in your article.”


The next night was just a cool, albeit less rainy. I arrived around the same time as I had the night before. I knew I’d be riding with a new officer, Thayer had the next few days off. After a few minutes of waiting, Officer Dilok Phanchantraurai greeted me in the waiting room. He was short, with dark skin and an infectious smile. We’d be patrolling the north side of town again. When I asked how to pronounce his last, he laughed.

“Just call me Di.” he said.

Phanchantraurai has been on the force for three years. Originally from Thailand, Phanchantraurai is a former international student adviser at Iowa State, only becoming a police officer at the age of 40 years. He’d worked as a volunteer officer in Polk County and Des Moines, but his love for the city brought him to Ames PD.

Our first call of the night was responding to fireworks on the northern section of Duff Ave. Dispatch had received eight separate calls from the area, but by the time we arrived the sparks and booms were nowhere to be found. We waited in the area for 20 minutes or so, slowing creeping through neighborhood streets with the windows down and our ears open.

The next call to us to Dangerous Curves, a gentlemen’s club in downtown Ames. Someone had called in a domestic situation, a dancer’s boyfriend was causing problems in their dressing room. There were three patrol cars parked in front of the club by the time we pulled up. An officer-in-training was handcuffing a bald man in a bright orange shirt. A scantily clad dancer stood with her back to us, turning around ever so often to glance nervously at the scene.

I would only witness one more arrest during my ride-a-long. Around midnight, Phanchantraurai was dispatched to investigate a noise complaint in residential on the northeast side of town. A neighbor had reported loud banging coming from the area. When we arrived we founded a bald-headed man with a long goatee and tattoos across his forearms and neck. He’d been building a bumper for his truck before he arrived.

His wife, he told us, was out with a friend. Their three young children were inside sleeping. A cigarette dangled out of his mouth as Phanchantraurai ran his name through dispatch. He’d just gotten out of prison, he told us, 18 months for forgery. He was still on parole with a GPS monitoring bracelet attached to his ankle.

The man was exceedingly polite throughout the encounter, chatting about his freelance contracting business and his family. That demeanor never changed, even when it came back that he had a warrant for his arrest out of Colorado. Phanchantraurai handcuffed his hands in front of his body so he could smoke a few more cigarettes before the ride to Ames PD for processing, then to Story County Jail.   

For Phanchantraurai, a large part of the job is being proactive. It’s the kind of community policing that Ames and Iowa State University PD have worked hard to develop, and the kind that goes a long way in keeping the community safe. Part of that is doing bar checks — snaking through crowded bars, chatting with the bartenders and bouncers and making sure no one is underage or disorderly.

“Can I buy you a beer?” one bargoer asked as we made our way from crowded bar to crowded bar.

“Have a safe night!” yelled another.

Bartenders and bouncers smiled and waved at us. I caught a few dirty looks, but not nearly as many as I’d expected weaving through bustling bars on a busy Saturday night.

“We’re not here to ruin anyone’s night,” Phanchantraurai said. “We want the people in the bars — the bartenders and bouncers — to be on our side.”

It’s clear within moments of meeting him that community policing plays a central role in Phanchantraurai’s day to day life. He talks about educating the community, about creating strong bonds with business owners and community leaders. When I asked him what he liked most about the job, he didn’t talk about car chases or free time at the shooting range.

“It makes me become a better person.” Phanchantraurai said. “I some ways, I’d like to think that I influence my family and friends to be better persons too.”