OXFORD — Oxford Police Patrol Officer Shane Dunnagan drives through one of the city’s neighborhoods of which he has become so familiar keeping his eyes out for the unfamiliar.
Accompanied by an Anniston Star reporter given permission to ride along with the veteran policeman, Dunnagan carried out his normal duties on a recent early evening shift. It was an unusually quiet period, giving the 44-year-old native of Belleville, Ill., a chance to reflect on the meaning of his profession’s pledge to serve and to protect.
The patrol is a deceptively simple task during challenging times for law enforcement.
“When I got into this profession 18 years ago, things were completely different,” Dunnagan said. “Looking at the big picture, we are treated worse than when I started. Locally, 90 percent of the people we deal with are more thankful now than when I started because they see how we are being treated. They say things like, ‘How do you put up with that?’ and “We appreciate what you do.’”
“I think when I started people respected us more and people appreciated us,” he said. “Now that things have gotten so bad for us a lot of people are being more vocal about letting us know.”
Dunnagan said society as a whole has diminished the respect factor for police officers.
“There are young kids who don’t respect their adults like we did when I was growing up,” Dunnagan said. “And when I was a kid, parents worried about us drinking or smoking some pot and that was about it. I wouldn’t have even known where to get the harder drugs when I was a teenager. It’s so easy to come by now and much more dangerous.”
The father of three expresses amazement that he has attempted to keep some kids out of trouble “and then we get fussed at by the parents for doing it.”
Dunnagan says his days on shift start at 5:30 a.m. when he and another officer look at overnight information and review other potential issues that might arise as they begin a 12-hour shift at 6 a.m.
They do five of those 12-hour days one week and then two 12-hour days the next week.
Dunnagan said younger officers tend to look for “smaller issues” such as speeding, stop sign violations or turn signals “and all the little things you do have to watch for.”
“I’ve been doing this for so long I have somewhat gotten away from that,” Dunnagan said. “I like to ride my neighborhoods and maybe notice someone I don’t normally see there that doesn’t seem right. That someone might be casing a car. Me driving by is like hitting a reset button. If they are thinking about doing something illegal and the police are driving by, they will think they had better not do that.”
He said even if the neighborhood is not one with a prevalent crime level “it lets them know we are there.”
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“In our profession, if you aren’t out there making those connections with the public — all those things you have seen happen across the country recently wouldn’t have happened if there had been a good connection between the community and the police department,” Dunnagan said.
Dunnagan said he believes the OPD has a “good connection with the community” which is why the distress of other departments in other parts of the country has not happened locally.
That connection can get frayed at times especially when it comes to the safety of kids at school, which is a worry amplified by the recent number of school shootings across the country.
Dunnagan said there needs to be better understanding, when such a threat is involved, of why all the information cannot be made public immediately.
“When I was working at Cleburne County, we ran drills and began determining what we might do should that happen here,” he said. “We got together with the EMA, the sheriff’s department, other police departments, the local paper and the principal.”
He said that same type of protocol was also in play during the recent scare at Oxford High School.
“If there was shooting at the main building, we may have the option of taking all the kids to the gymnasium and keeping them there to make sure everything is clear. We would then allow the parents to come to the gymnasium to get their children,” Dunnagan said. “That’s not information we are going to put out there immediately. Hopefully that day will never come, but we would get the information out when and where parents can come to get their kids. We just can’t say where we are sending the kids at that very moment because if there were a second shooter involved, we would just be telling them where their targets are. There is some information that must be kept until the right time.”
Dunnagan said there is an even more basic reason to be in law enforcement.
“If this was just about catching criminals, I probably would never have been interested in doing this,” he said. “This is about helping people.”
“I can’t even imagine just passing by someone who has locked their keys in the car or has a flat tire,” Dunnagan said. “We are here to help and it would really bother me not to stop and do that. It’s what they mean by public service.”