Catch and release: ride-along with Officer Minkevitch angling for some big fish

Levi Minkevitch
Newton Police Department’s Levi Minkevitch poses by his patrol vehicle on July 31 outside the police station. Mike Mendez/Newton Now

By Mike Mendez

Newton Now

 

Before Newton Police Department Officer Levi Minkevitch heads to his patrol car to begin his 12-hour night shift, he has to make a quick stop in the office of a detective friend of his.

“Unfortunately for him, I have a key to this office,” Minkevitch says.

With a straight and sober face, Minkevitch cuts a piece of scotch tape and puts it over the button in the cradle of phone in the office so when the phone is picked up, there will be no dial tone.

It is one moment of levity before another moment so serious it is at first unclear if it is a joke. In the car, there is an AR-15 and a shotgun locked in place. Minkevitch tells me the most important thing I need to know about how the inside of a patrol vehicle works: how to unlock the guns. If he gets shot during this ride-along, I am to return fire.

“I assume you have shot an AR-15?” Minkevitch says.

I smile nervously back at him, thinking, “These wacky cops are always joking around…I hope.”

“Yeah, I have,” I said.

There are many times during the course of the night when Minkevitch jokes around, smiles and laughs. This isn’t one of those times. However, it is clear he isn’t out to wield a bunch of power strictly enforcing traffic regulations. The idea of a ticket quota in Newton is a myth. He is not pulling people over to bust them. He is just trying to make contact in the hopes he catches a real criminal.

As we hit the streets, we barely make it away from the police station before he hits the lights and pulls over a vehicle for running a red light. Minkevitch talks to the driver, who is honest about the mistake that was made, and runs the license to make sure there are no outstanding warrants. When everything comes back clean, the driver is free to go without a ticket.

Traffic stops are at the foundation of what the police officers do. It is a proactive approach to law enforcement, catching things like dangerous people or drugs before they hit the streets. It is better to catch someone in a traffic stop than to respond to a call when damage has already been done.

And traffic stops account for the vast majority of contact the department has with citizens. It is important to enforce the law but to also keep up public relations. Minkevitch does traffic stops, but he isn’t out to catch people on minor violations. He is trying to catch bigger fish.

There is one exception. At a stop light, Minkevitch hits the lights and flips a U-turn with the pedal on the floor that forces me into the passenger door. Minkevitch says the driver wasn’t wearing a seatbelt and that he always writes tickets for seatbelt violations. It is a cheap fine that doesn’t cripple people’s wallet, and it is a good lesson to be learned.

Throughout the five hours in the car, this is the only ticket he writes. On this evening, 90 percent of people stopped are sent off with a warning.

Newton Police Department’s Levi Minkevitch drives his patrol vehicle on July 31 in Newton. Mike Mendez/Newton Now

Minkevitch’s desire to become a police officer came from now Harvey County Sheriff Chad Gay. Gay was the school resource officer when Minkevitch was in high school and lit the fire.

“I applied to be a cadet when I was in college, and I got it,” Minkevitch said. “The day after I graduated college, I started here. I would say that Chad was probably the biggest influence.”

The training to become an officer is intense. The academy is a combination law school, gym, driving school and gun range. It is designed to prepare officers for the many situations they will encounter on the job. It also weeds people out.

“No guy here is under-qualified by any means,” Minkevitch says. “It is not like you go to some business or something and they train you up for a week on how to use a computer system and you will get it eventually. This is very rigorous training for a very long time. Not to mention that Newton has got one of the hardest field training programs in the state.”

There is also quarterly qualification to carry a firearm every year. Newton qualifies more often than that.

While heading back north, Minkevitch hits the interstate. There is a trooper in the middle of a stop that leads to Minkevitch stopping a car for some poor driving trying to get over for the stop already in progress.

As Minkevitch gets out of his car, I remember the speech about returning fire in the worst case scenario. I unbuckle my seatbelt so I won’t be trapped in the vehicle in the event of a firefight.

The trooper pulls in behind us and has me roll down my window. In a stern cop voice he asks me why I am not wearing my seatbelt. I stumble over my words trying to explain that I don’t want to have to waste movement fumbling with a seatbelt in a life or death situation. His eyes got really big as he leaned in to emphasis the importance of what he was about to say.

“Do you know how to get the guns? You shoot back.”

That really wasn’t a joke.

I notice during every stop Minkevitch touches the car. It looks like a sort of superstitious ritual. But the reason is actually more than a good luck charm. It is a way to solve his own potential murder from beyond the grave.

“It is to get fingerprints on the car,” Minkevitch says. “The reason for that is say I get in a shooting and they kill me or I get maimed or something like that and they find that car later and they pull the prints off that car, then they know that that car was the one involved. There are some people out there that want to kill us. So you just have to come to peace with that.”

There were a lot of nerves during traffic stops when Minkevitch first started five years ago. Over the passage of time, those nerves have subsided considerably. Though there is always a state of what he calls, “Code Yellow.” It is a situational awareness and preparedness for anything that may happen at any time. It is the reason I started taking my seatbelt off sitting in the passenger side during stops.

The danger is always present. But Minkevitch says the best feeling in the world is when he is able to help someone. It is clear he believes that based on the amount of people he lets go. Many are pulled over, but he says it is just a numbers game. The more people you stop, the more likely you are to find someone committing a serious crime. Because there are no serious crimes being found on this night, people are turned loose with a warning on traffic violations.

There is one suspicious car Minkevitch was hunting all night. He thinks he has it and flips around to follow. The car makes a bunch of turns and gets away for a brief moment. But he picks it up again and pulls the vehicle over. It is suspicious, but it isn’t the car he was looking for. There isn’t any reason to hold the car and they go free.

There is another car that fits the description. Minkevitch is flying to catch up and has to stop at a light and wait for another car to cross the intersection.

“Come on,” he says. “Speed up.”

Any time he needs someone to be speeding, they just see a cop and drive by the numbers. It is a revelation that sometimes the police want you to speed.

Throughout the entire experience of going through Code Yellow awareness at all times, the night is slow. Minkevitch is a little disappointed no arrests came out of traffic stops, no one tried to fight him and there was generally speaking no excitement. However exciting stops have the potential of being, the sense of adventure isn’t the best part of the job.

“Every once in a while you get that 10 percent when fun stuff happens,” Minkevitch said. “What is really worth it, yeah all the young cops, and I am probably in that group, too, say, ‘I like getting in the chases and getting in the fights,’ but really nothing is more satisfying than helping somebody, as cheesy and corny as that sounds. Nothing is as satisfying as helping people in domestics or helping a kid out.”