Riding along with Ledyard police
Ledyard — It's a Wednesday night shortly after 9, and aside from an accidental home alarm, things have been relatively quiet for local police.
Over the past two hours, Officer Bobby Kempke has already made a couple of motor vehicle stops, both related to drivers mistakenly driving without their headlights on along Route 2.
But then a white Silverado pickup blazes past his parked cruiser on Route 117 going 60 mph in 40-mph zone. Kempke, a 13-year veteran of the department, is quick to act, turning on his lights and accelerating in pursuit of the vehicle. The driver pulls over, Kempke calls in the stop on his radio and then approaches the vehicle on foot.
Everything from the number of passengers in the car to the types of bumper and rearview stickers a vehicle has can heighten his awareness.
"It's never personal, I treat him like I'd like someone to treat my wife, my mother or my kids on a traffic stop," Kempke said when he returned to the vehicle, describing his approach to interacting with people he's pulled over.
Kempke, 48, then goes on to explain the things that influence whether he's going to issue a ticket or a warning. The location of the incident, degree of the infraction, how the driver interacts with the officer and even time of year are all contributing factors.
"I don't know too many officers who are going to write someone a hefty fine for speeding around Christmas time," he said. "If you're doing something that is more unsafe than just going a little fast, it is a lot different than someone speeding through a school zone at the center of town."
In this case, he decided to issue the driver a ticket.
Police say that motor vehicle safety is of paramount importance here with the town's many dark and winding roads. So even on relatively quiet nights, the officers say they work to ensure that drivers are obeying the rules of the road.
For decades, the Ledyard Police Department operated under the state police resident trooper program, and from 2010 to 2015 the town averaged 319 motor vehicle accidents a year.
Then in 2015 the Town Council voted unanimously in favor of the town establishing its own independent police department. At the time, the vote was met with a great deal of enthusiasm from local police officers, and town officials praised the decision as one that would increase efficiency, add consistent leadership and produce long-term savings.
Increasing motor vehicle safety was established early as a priority of the department, and now those 319 motor vehicle accidents have been reduced to 288 and 277 crashes in 2016 and 2017, respectively. And overall, the department hasn't shied away from making its presence known, conducting more than 6,500 motor vehicles stops over the past two years.
After stopping the Silverado, Kempke was back on his patrol. Earlier in the evening he checked on a convenience store, as well some roads that often prove rather perilous.
And although he's talkative and happy to answer questions, throughout the ride he remains constantly observant.
Kempke joined the Ledyard police after working in Air Force security and in corrections. Early in his career as an officer he became K-9 handler and worked in that capacity until his dog retired about a year ago.
He said he loves the job and one of his only regrets is that he didn't get into when he was younger.
"It's kind of the excitement factor," Kempke said of why he loves the work. "No two calls you take or go to as a police officer are ever going to be the same scenario."
He added that for him, like many officers, it's really fulfilling to help people. And for someone who didn't come from the most stable home, it's also a way to help people in a situation he's all too familar with.
"Trying to right those wrongs and help people who are in kind of similar situations is something I've always been drawn to because no one was there for me growing up," Kempke said. "That's always kind of in the back of my mind."
The rest of the hour before he returns to the station to drop off his ride-along guests remains quiet, but also allows Kempke more time to share a bit on what it's like being a Ledyard police officer.
He said some of the common misconceptions people have of police are that officers are racist, issuing tickets to meet a quota or just plain bullies.
But he also said another thing that might surprise people is the diversity of the cases the Ledyard Police Department actually sees.
"People think it's just a laid-back country town, but we've had our fair share of activity," Kempke said. "I've been involved in investigations of three attempted murders, and the rest of whatever you can think of."
"Sex assault, domestics, burglaries, larcenies, just about everything has been through this town," he said.
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