Several calls came into the dispatch center shortly after 4 p.m. on Sept. 10. Callers reported a man walking down the sidewalk on Pokegama Avenue, south of the river removing American flags from along the sidewalk and tossing them into the traffic lane in front of cars. Drivers were stopping and residents were coming out of their homes to confront the man.
Two of us responded from the police station. In addition, Sergeant Heath Smith and Officer Sean Pomplun were en route from their patrol areas. As I crossed the Mississippi River and began driving up the hill toward Fourth Street, I saw Sean and Heath activate the red lights on their patrol cars and make a U-turn, parking along the east curb. I activated my red lights and pulled over to the same curb where a half dozen people were gathered on the sidewalk. As I stepped out of my squad car I asked, “Who was throwing American flags into the traffic lane?” They all pointed to the man walking south. I radioed Heath and Sean telling them that the man walking toward him was the suspect.
Heath and Sean stopped the man and began asking him, “Were you throwing flags into the road?”
“F you. What’s it to you?” He replied.
“Why were you doing this?” They asked.
“Because I hate this F-ing country.” The 37-year-old man continued in this fashion, which did not impress any of us.
Although he could walk and cuss just fine, there was a strong odor of alcohol on his breath. A check with a preliminary screening device revealed a breath alcohol concentration of over .30%. As a comparison, this is almost four times the legal limit to drive an automobile. Sean patted him down for weapons, handcuffed him and radioed the dispatcher to see if the Detox Center had room for him. In the meantime, I spoke with the group on the sidewalk. They had already replaced the flags that had been placed along Pokegama Avenue by the Grand Rapids Jaycees. They had set them out in honor of Labor Day and 9/11.
In the end, Detox was full. The man received a ticket for disorderly conduct and was taken to the hospital emergency room. Later that night, he became unruly and walked out of the hospital.
As I drove away, I could not help but think about the man’s comments, “I hate this f-ing country.” Did he really believe that? Certainly, the motorists that stopped and the people that came out of their houses did not. They wouldn’t tolerate the symbol of our country tossed onto the roadway. In fact, they had placed the flags back into their stands before police officers arrived at the scene.
The following morning I came into the police station. In reviewing police reports, I noted that officers had contact with this man two nights before. He had fallen off his bicycle in the downtown area. Alcohol seemed to be a factor.
Later that day I received a telephone call from another state. It was one of the man’s family members. He told me that they had not been able to get a hold of the man for several days and were concerned for his welfare. He had no idea what the man had done on Pokegama Avenue the afternoon before. I told him the story. He explained that the man had been struggling with alcoholism since he was a teenager. Upon concluding the conversation, I walked down the hall and spoke with Investigator Jeremy Nelson. Jeremy volunteered to go to the man’s apartment and check on him. Jeremy found the man at home and suggested that he give him a ride to Detox, which now had room for him. He declined.
Reflecting back at these events, I think the man doesn’t hate this country. I think he is angry at the world. His world. He hates his addiction to alcohol. The tragedy is that his addiction will probably kill him unless he asks for help. Maybe when he appears in court on the disorderly conduct charge, a judge will order him to get the help he so desperately needs. I hope so. Every life is precious.