University Police Department Officer Frank Herrera has a reputation around campus. “(He was) nice and really eager to help us learn how to make sure we all follow the rules and make sure the residents follow the rules,” Tenaya Resident Advisor and business administration junior Yenifer Origel said.
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I didn’t know if I was supposed to be nervous. I wondered if I needed to be.
“Since we don’t know what’s happening, stay in the car,” University Police Department (UPD) officer Frank Herrera said as he exited the police cruiser.
He walked toward the Cal Poly Corporation building (building 15) to deal with the “suspicious activity” call UPD dispatch had called him about.
Half of me wanted something exciting and dangerous to happen. The other half wanted it to be a false alarm.
Suddenly, the in-car radio screeched.
“Go to the north door,” dispatch said.
A few seconds passed and the radio screeched again.
“Have any idea what I am looking for?” either Herrera or his partner said.
“Negative,” dispatch responded.
Herrera soon emerged from the building. He got back in the car and said the building alarm had gone off prematurely. There was no real situation. Part of me was relieved, the other disappointed.
Only a few minutes earlier, I was sitting in the UPD lobby waiting to start my ride-along with Herrera.
I thought about what I was getting into, but I doubted there was anything to fret about. Cal Poly’s campus crime level seemed low enough that I wouldn’t have to worry about encountering anything. I was more worried about getting paired with an officer who did not want to tote me around.
As I thought about this, a door opened and Herrera emerged. I expected to shake hands with a stern officer annoyed at the fact I was joining him for the night. I got something entirely different.
Herrera shook my hand warmly and smiled, then gave me a personal UPD tour. The gesture seemed like something a person would only do for friend. I was honored.
When the tour ended, we began the ride-along. After the premature alarm at Cal Poly Corporation, I started to think nothing exhilarating was going to happen for the remainder of the night.
I was right.
During the two hours I spent with Herrera, he responded to three other calls, pulled over a car to tell the driver to put her headlights on and flagged down a biker for a broken back-end reflector. To a reporter with action movie cop scenes embedded in her head, these situations seemed pretty tame.
The lack of action was somewhat disappointing, but it didn’t spoil the entire ride-along. It was still an interesting night. In the end, what was most intriguing about my trip was not so much the trip itself, but the officer who let me tag along.
While Herrera moved from one seemingly stale call to the next, I shot off question after question. Initially, they weren’t deep. They just dealt with how long he worked each day, what titles he had and what accessories he had on his person and in the car.
After rattling those off, I found myself going silent. I didn’t know what to ask anymore. Finally, I racked my brain for one more question.
“What is the most strange situation you’ve have encountered while on call?” I asked.
“There was a car that was parked in the parking lot and (students) were hot boxing in it,” he said.
Herrera asked the student if he had any drugs on him. The answer seemed obvious, but the student didn’t think so.
The student, with a joint blatantly on his person, said he did not have anything, Herrera said.
We laughed at the situation. His laugh was hearty and joyful compared to my nervous chuckle.
He gladly shared another story with me.
A student had called UPD saying he was drunk and stuck in a fence. UPD dispatched a few officers, including Herrera, and tried to find him. The student said he was somewhere near the road. He was not.
The student was found stuck, upside down, in a barren field in San Luis Obispo. He had tried to jump the fence and got caught, Herrera said.
“Three counties sent out officers to find this guy,” Herrera said.
We also talked about his time at the police academy and the grueling process.
Though it only takes a few months to a year to graduate — depending on whether a cadet is a full-time or part-time student — the academy is full of challenges.
Academically, most exams in the academy require students to score at least 80 percent. Anything below is failing.
There were plenty of physical tests and simulations as well. But to Herrera, one was especially unsavory.
“The only day I didn’t look forward to was chemical agent day,” Herrera said.
In this simulation, the cadets were exposed to pepper spray and forced to go through an obstacle course. For Herrera, it took 45 minutes for the painful effects to wear off.
“Your face was on fire,” Herrera said of the effects. “It sucked.”
Nevertheless, Herrera graduated and began his career as an officer at Hancock College in Santa Maria. He then worked at Cuesta College before moving to the Cal Poly police force in 2006.
Though he has witnessed interesting and hilarious scenes during his tenure at Cal Poly, Herrera did mention there have been some not-so-fun moments.
Many times, he was the first responder to disturbing scenes where a car passenger or driver was hurt or close to death.
“Dealing with some traffic accidents where the person has either passed away or gotten hurt, that sucks sometimes,” Herrera said.
The look in his eyes when he described these scenes left me speechless. This seemingly hard, imposing man started to look more like a concerned father. With pain-stricken eyes and a small, sympathetic smile, he turned away and the conversation ended.
With all my questions answered, Herrera and I drove back to campus.
On the way there, my phone lit up with a message. It was a friend from my dance team. The door to our on-campus practice room was locked and the friend — knowing I was with a police officer — asked if Herrera could open it.
Herrera is known for helping students with situations like these, along with more serious situations. Tenaya Resident Advisor (RA) and business administration junior Yenifer Origel knows this by experience.
Herrera had helped Origel and other RAs with their training at the beginning of the school year to prepare them for real-world situations in the residence halls.
“He gave us tips on how to detect the smell of marijuana and how to deal with residents if they are being hostile,” she said. “(He was) nice and really eager to help us learn how to make sure we all follow the rules and make sure the residents follow the rules.”
I hesitated and wondered if making the request would be overextending my stay. I glanced at Herrera and realized he was the kind of person who would be willing to help. I asked, and he said yes — without hesitation.