We sit at a long flat stretch off Hwy. 72 and look at the west-bound traffic coming our way toward Athens. It’s cold but not cold enough for snow, though it sure feels like flakes could drop at any moment, the way the gray blankets the sky on Georgia/Auburn week, around that time when winter seems to break in its teeth. The radar on the left corner of Jason Ring’s dash is showing the speed of the oncoming traffic. Georgia law requires him to give motorists 500 feet of sight distance.
“The state patrol, they can hide, but not us,” said Ring, a lieutenant with the Madison County Sheriff’s Office, who has been with the department since 2001. Ring is waiting on a speeder, but the numbers popping up on the radar so far aren’t warranting a stop. He’s got Copenhagen between his gum and lip and spits into one of two empty Monster Energy drink cans in the cup holders.
“I wish I could quit this,” says Ring of the dipping. “But then deer season comes along.”
Ring enjoys hunting and fishing and just being outdoors. He said his 8-year-old son also enjoys hunting. And he’s proud of the fact that his son isn’t into video games and enjoys being outdoors instead.
“It’s all about getting him one (a deer),” he said.
We talk about speeding. Ring stopped at the county farm when we first got in the car and he showed me the 40-mph and 25-mph tuning forks he must ping before and after his shift to make sure the radar calibration is right. If the radar is off, all tickets must be thrown out and the radar must be taken out of commission. In case you’re wondering, if you pass a patrol car going the opposite direction, yes, they can read your speed. I ask him what people are like when he pulls them over for speeding.
“They’re usually honest about it,” said Ring. “They know what they did. You get some you pull over who will argue with you all day long. I’m like, look, this is what court is for, just show up.”
I’m thinking about what he’s saying but also remembering what’s in his patrol-car trunk — a bullet-proof vest for me if I need it. He showed it to me before we got in the car. I think about that. What could happen? What will I see? Will I actually need that vest? Unlikely, sure. But not out of the question, right? That’s a daily risk assessment for anyone getting in a patrol car — probably not today, but maybe. I realize as we ride that this fact is abstract until you’re in the car. Then, it becomes objectively real.
Ring has never been shot, but a few years ago in a call in the northern part of the county, that seemed like a real possibility. In retrospect, Ring said the man was attempting suicide by cop. But no shots were fired. Ring ended up Tasing the man and cuffing him.
“You see a guy walking out carrying three firearms walking down the road at you, not listening,” he said. “It puts you on edge. You got to take care of you, number one. You get behind cover and all that stuff, but you also got to get out there too. You can’t go hide behind a big tree and not be seen. You got to get out there and deal with him. But you got to be smart about it. You can’t let him get away and hurt somebody else.”
Ring’s bullet-proof vest is under his sweater. It’s bulky.
“That can’t be comfortable,” I say.
He says he’s used to it.
“It’s hot in the summer; it’s hot in the winter,” he said. “You can be out here directing traffic in 20-degree weather, but with that vest, you will still sweat.”
Truth is, if I wore the bullet-proof vest while riding, I might not even fit in the passenger seat. Ring has a Toughbook computer that sits mounted on the passenger side of the vehicle, and I have squeezed in with about three inches to spare over my gut, reminding me that dieting should be back on my life agenda.
I’ve brought a pack of peanut butter crackers and I hand him one, too. But eating isn’t much of a priority to Ring on work days, he says. He gets by on energy drinks and dip as he rides the roads. Officers work two days one week, five days the next week for an 84-hour pay period.
“I usually eat once a day,” he said.
Ring, the son of the late Jim Ring, a long-time teacher and coach at Madison County High School, oversees one of the four patrol units for the sheriff’s office, and his laptop allows him to see where each of the deputies under his command is in the county. We talk of the good and bad of technology. One good thing — he can know where everybody is under his command at all times.
“We used to not know where people were,” he said.
Ring moves like a roverback over the whole county, going where needed. There’s a Hwy. 106-area deputy, a Hwy. 72-area patrol person, someone in the Dogsboro/Hull area. Colbert has a day-time deputy four days a week. There’s a “one-to-one” officer working a 1 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift.
“If it’s hot, I’m there,” said Ring. “Hot” means serious business. And yes, there’s frequently serious business. It’s all in the incident reports that come every Monday to this newspaper from the sheriff’s office. I am well acquainted in reviewing reports that qualify as “hot” in the bad way.
But this morning, dispatcher Amy Duncan’s voice isn’t sounding any alarms for major incidents. There are no “10-16s” or “domestic” calls. No one is hurting anyone. Love hasn’t turned ugly today in Madison County.
Earlier we stopped at a Colbert man’s house to inform him that the man who stole his vehicle is being released from jail. The sheriff’s office notifies victims of crime about the release of perpetrators from prison. But the man isn’t answering his door.
Last night was “hot.” There was an armed robbery at Tiny Town in Carlton, with two men reportedly holding a clerk at gunpoint. But today, the scanner is pretty chilled like the weather.
And then, “Oh look, that car doesn’t have a tag.” So, Ring puts the car in drive, pops on the blue lights and hits the gas. The acceleration is remarkable. If the woman driving the beat-up, white Geo Prism without a tag thinks she can outrun this 2019 Dodge Charger, then well, no.
“They could maybe outdrive you, but they can’t outrun you,” Rings says. At a certain point, speed becomes a weapon. It’s a matter of context and judgment. On a straight away, he’ll push it more. On Glen Carrie Road, or any other hilly and curvy road, he said the risk of hitting someone is too great to get over-zealous. He has advice for motorists who see blue lights behind them. Just calmly pull over. He said some people recklessly jerk the car off the roadway. He said he’s had a driver stop in the roadway directly in front of him.
“Yeah, that happened,” he said. “Sometimes people freak out.”
He writes up the woman for not having a car tag and gets a court date to put on her ticket. He does it the old-fashioned way, a ticket with carbon paper, because I’m blocking access to his in-car computer and he also can’t pull up information from the Georgia Crime Information Center (GCIC) with me able to see it, since I don’t have authorization to see such data.
“I haven’t done it this way in forever,” he said.
Ring tells me after the stop that he sees more cars without a tag since the state changed its car tag laws, requiring full tax payment up front on vehicle purchases. For the severely cash-strapped, that tax can be almost as much as a low-budget car. Some people just don’t have the money to pay both that fee and the car cost. They end up driving for a time without a tag.
Corporal Josh Smith has also pulled over a car this morning without a tag. And I hear talk on the scanner of a brown substance and possible heroine. Ring says the woman arrested is well known to the department and has just been released from jail. She is taken to jail and reportedly having a fit at the sheriff’s office. We’re headed back that way.
“And here she is again, back in trouble,” he says, adding that whatever is in her trunk is surely some form of drug. Ring is right. The test kit strikes positive for meth. “Everything stems from dope or domestic. That’s your two main things. And most of your robberies are drug-related somehow.”
We pull back into the sheriff’s office. The arrested woman is no longer in the booking room, but I see the restraint chair and helmet where people who are terribly agitated are sometimes put to calm down. It looks anything but pleasant.
The lieutenant soon gets called to deal with a walk-in request from a woman seeking a report for her damaged car for insurance purposes. She said someone hit her about a week before. But she doesn’t know when or where.
Ring tells her he can simply take her information and give her a report that says she showed the damage to the sheriff’s office.
We walk back in to the report room. Cpl. Smith is sitting at one computer typing up the meth arrest and Ring sits at another typing up the car damage report he just received. In between them is a television with news about yet another school shooting, this time just north of Los Angeles. No one stops typing. I don’t feel shocked by it either, not today. It’s just more news, more of the same. It’s so perversely frequent. I don’t feel like talking about it in that moment. Doubt they do either. I turn to investigator Steve Kimbrell and ask him about his duties overseeing the evidence room. Ring has mentioned Kimbrell’s evidence duty in the car: “That’s the last job I would want,” said Ring. “What a headache.”
Before long, we’re back out on the road. I’ve already brought up the topic on everyone’s mind, the shooting just four days earlier. I bring it up again with Ring. I scheduled the ride along a couple of weeks before the incident. And then on the previous Sunday night, Madison County deputy, Winford “Trey” Adams, 32, was charged with murder of Benjamin Lloyd Cloer, 26, Athens.
Adams had been at the office since August 2018. He was nicknamed “Milkbone” at the department because he had gotten bitten by a dog on his first day and had a couple of other canine incidents.
Ring said the shooting blindsided the sheriff’s office.
“That was a train wreck,” said Ring. “That was bad. I went out there. He called one of the other guys. I just went out there, hearing about it. He was one of our guys. We didn’t hang out and stuff like that. But he seemed like a good dude, a jam up guy. It was a shock.”
Ring was the officer who talked his co-worker into surrendering and handcuffed him.
“Yeah, that’s definitely one that will stick with you,” he said.
I ask Ring about tough calls.
“Some have seen things worse than I have,” he said.
But he said anything involving death, particularly children, gets to him. There are some images he can’t forget. He talked about one fatal wreck with a child from several years ago.
Days after this ride-along, a Hwy. 98 wreck claimed the life of a 5-month-old boy and severely injured two other children. Ring, and all those who respond to such calls, see the worst things up close.
Ring said his brother, Matt, was an officer in Athens the day Madison County resident and Athens police officer Buddy Christian was killed on the job.
“He was there beating the same ground that day when all that happened,” said Ring.
His brother recently got out of law enforcement, working at an electric motor business instead.
Ring likes the thought of leaving, too. The job has changed, he said. He notes that the county is growing as we ride past numerous homes under construction during the patrol. He said the staff size is the same as when he started in 2001.
“We’re going to need more people,” he said.
Ring said the life of patrol work is hard on a family. He has a wife and two kids and says he’d like to find another line of work one of these days. Ring has a second job doing grading work with Wesley Chandler. He said many at the department work two jobs. One guy shoes horses. One works at Home Depot. Others have lawn businesses. Others pick up court duties for extra hours.
“You basically have to,” he said about the finances.
Ring said humor helps officers get through it all. He said a group of co-workers enjoy pranking each other. He pulls out a little bottle of “Liquid @$$” and says he hit one co-worker’s car with it when he left his window partly cracked.
“It lasts about 20 minutes,” he said, smiling. “It smells awful.”
I chuckle, but no demonstration for me. I’m content with taking his word for it.
We roll back to the department. I have to go pick up my daughter from school. Ring said he enjoyed a few hours without drama.
“Some days, it’s four or five calls back to back,” he said.
But not today. That bullet-proof vest never touched my chest. And I’m fine with that. For others, putting on that vest is just part of getting dressed in the morning — or at night. It’s the unseen part of the uniform that carries weight, literally and figuratively.