Sunday, December 17, 2017
Public safety

A year later, the squad of Officer David S. Crawford still feels his loss

ST. PETERSBURG — They don't finish up the midnight shift at Einstein Bros. Bagels anymore, writing arrest reports as the sun comes up. They no longer golf. And when the talk turns to baseball, they don't know as much about the Rays as they used to.

It has been a year since St. Petersburg police Officer David S. Crawford was killed in the line of duty on Feb. 21, 2011.

But for his squad, it's still the morning after.

"In some ways it seems like it was yesterday," said Officer Brian Bilbrey, "and in some ways it seems like it was an eternity ago."

Crawford was shot while questioning a teenage prowler. He was the third officer in St. Petersburg to die on the job in a span of 28 days last year.

Crawford, 46, left behind a wife, a grown daughter and a tight-knit squad that has spent years working the District II midnight shift together, 10 p.m. to 8 a.m. When the city goes to bed, they show up for work. They do more with less until the city awakens and it's their turn to sleep. Then the sun sets and they do it again.

For them, the wound is as fresh as ever.

"It's been hard, very hard. I'm not going to lie," said Officer Stu Crisco, who was Crawford's best friend. "Dave and I were so close that it's like I'm alone. I don't have the same heart for the job anymore.

"It's kind of like I'm going through the motions now."

• • •

Officer John Martini tried to leave the midnight shift once.

He transferred to days. He lasted six months.

That was 15 years ago.

"I've been on the midnight shift my entire career," said Martini, 44, who has spent 22 years on the force. "I don't know any other shift."

On the midnight shift, it's simpler to be a cop. It's more about the job, less about the bureaucracy. That's what attracted Crawford, who spent most of his 25-year career working overnight.

"We still follow the same rules," said Crisco, 53, who has 30 years on the job. "We don't have a different playbook."

But if there's a difficult arrest or a big crime scene during the day, everyone will start showing up: lieutenants, majors, an assistant chief. At 3 a.m. it's just the sergeant, the squad and maybe the one lieutenant left in the city. That's it.

"If you run into a situation, if there's chaos, one or two of us will make the decision if we have to break a door down," said the squad's leader, Sgt. Karl Lounge, 44. "You don't have to sit and ask permission from someone sitting in the station monitoring the radio."

The cops live for the work, the hours not so much. The kind of eating and drinking needed to stay awake is not always healthy. "And while you're sleeping," Martini said, "the guy behind you is mowing his lawn."

It's a 24-7 world these days, Lounge said, so nights aren't all that different from days. There are always drugs and prostitu tion and domestic violence. But during the day, the burglary is reported when someone comes home. At night, it's reported while it's in progress.

The newest problem comes from drunks, ever since last call was pushed back to 3 a.m.

"We deal with the same people as day shift," Crisco said. "They're just a little more drunk."

There are fewer officers on duty, so midnights are busier. They take pride in that.

"Sometimes fewer people can get things done easier," said Lounge, who has been on the force 21 years.

An officer working midnights also needs to be even more wary. During the day there are all kinds of officers around who can help in a pinch. In the early morning dark, after the night shift has gone home, what happens when someone decides they're not going quietly?

"If you're in the middle of a fight and you're requesting backup, it takes longer," Crisco said. "You have to be able to hold your own."

• • •

It was at Crawford's funeral that Crisco took the podium and introduced the city to the "Black Sheep" squadron, a band of "misfits" and "throwaways" — Crawford's words — who patrol the city until dawn.

"It's when he could be himself," Lounge said at the funeral of Crawford.

The sergeant got the nickname from the famed "Black Sheep" squadron of Marine pilots who fought in the South Pacific during World War II, and later got their own TV show starring Robert Conrad.

"They were a group of people thrown together and they were the best at what they did," Lounge said.

The name has another meaning: Lounge, the sergeant and a union leader, is a longtime critic of the top brass, like other members of the department's old guard.

Many on the squad, like Crawford, Crisco and Martini, had enough seniority that they could have left midnights long ago. But they were where they wanted to be.

"That's unheard of," Crisco said. "Usually guys with 20-plus years go to day shift. They call it 'retiring to day shift.' It's slower and supposed to be easier."

To Bilbrey, the reason why there's a waiting list for the midnight shift has nothing to do with the hours.

"I don't think people are drawn to midnights," Bilbrey said. "I think people are drawn to the squad. The loyalty and camaraderie that the 10 of us have with each other. We really all care for each other."

• • •

Crawford cared. Tough love was his specialty.

He mentored the squad's newest members — whether they liked it or not.

"Dave was the one who, if you messed up, he was the one who let you know it," Martini said. "God bless his soul, he'd come up and tell you."

Crawford wasn't afraid to use the radio to chastise an officer or chase down a young officer he thought had screwed up. He wasn't trying to embarrass them, just correct the problem.

Once, an officer left trash in a shared police car. Crawford put the refuse in the officer's mailbox.

Driving too fast was Crawford's biggest pet peeve. Some officers think they can drive faster on the midnight shift because there's less traffic. But there are more drunks at that hour, especially pedestrians.

"You can't fly everywhere, and that was Dave," Lounge said. "You know that a bar brawl isn't going anywhere. But if an officer's involved, all bets are off."

Bilbrey, 42, has been in law enforcement for 18 years, but he's new to St. Petersburg, with only three years on the job.

Crawford taught him how to police in an urban setting, he said. His first encounter with Crawford was sitting where he shouldn't have been: in the back row of the squad room. That's reserved for officers with 20-plus years.

Bilbrey apologized. Crawford accepted. That's how they became friends.

"That rule's not really observed on other squads," Bilbrey said. "Maybe they're not sticklers. But on midnight squad, the old guys, they're going to get their respect."

Crawford, who grew up in St. Petersburg, was the squad's historian.

All those historical markers downtown? Crawford had them memorized. That's how Bilbrey learned about the Stonewall Jackson Memorial Highway plaque sitting at Bayshore Drive SE and Central Avenue. Back then a section of Pinellas roadway was once known by the name of the Confederate general.

"He could rattle all this stuff off the top of his head," Bilbrey said.

When it was quiet, Bilbrey remembered parking his patrol car next to Crawford's at Sunken Gardens and talking to his friend. He doesn't do that anymore.

The squad doesn't do a lot of things anymore.

• • •

It was 3 a.m. on Jan. 23. A Chrysler PT Cruiser had rolled while exiting the interstate at Gandy Boulevard. Martini got to the scene and was getting out of his car when he was rear-ended by a driver who didn't stop.

From all over, the midnight shift raced in.

"Our hearts stopped," said Crisco.

No one knew Martini was okay until they arrived.

"I think we're a little more, I'd say on edge," Lounge said. "The last year has been extremely difficult. In a lot of ways it isn't real that Dave's not here anymore.

"I don't know at what point you do realize it."

Jamal Thalji can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8472.

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