Atlantic City Police Officer Joe Procopio gets to N. South Carolina Avenue at about 11:45 p.m. on July 16. The night is winding down on what’s been a normal patrol.

And then the screaming begins.

A locked door. A home already known for weapons. Children inside.

On the sidewalk, K-9 Officer Sterling Wheaton tries to count how many people he can see through the second-floor windows, so police have an idea of what they're dealing with. Neighbors gather across the street, their phones out. Some text. Some make calls. Eventually, they all have captured at least one picture or a brief video of the scene.

Officer James Hurley walks to his car and pulls a long gun out of the back. The click is loud as he racks a round.

"Whoa," comes the chorus of observers.

*****

Atlantic City may have gotten an ugly reputation for nightly shootings and lots of violence, but things can often be slow for police who patrol the city's streets. And then, the call comes.

"You don’t know what to expect,” Officer Darrin Lorady says, driving his patrol car near the city's Stanley Holmes Village earlier this summer. “It’s been quiet all night and then that can change.”

Lorady and partner T.J. Moynihan are members of Tac 1, one of two directed patrols in the city. Their assignments are based on where the most violence is happening.

"We're kind of like a proactive unit," Lorady explains. "We back up patrol, but if they don't need help, we try to go in high-crime areas and deter as much as we can."

As Lorady drives, he and Moynihan never stop scanning the area around them, looking for the first sign of trouble or a recognizable face.

"Isn't that the guy we arrested ..." Lorady begins.

"Yeah, that night he was with ..." Moynihan continues.

The sentences don't need to be finished. Each seems to know what the other is thinking.

Partners for three years, Lorady and Moynihan have developed their own language. Their mutual experiences are evident as they spot various people during their shift.

“I didn’t know he got hurt that bad,” Moynihan says when the two see a young man in a wheelchair, the victim of a shooting.

Throughout the night, they stop several males walking. There is no resistance as the men are patted down. Some smile or talk easily with the officers. Others say nothing and, after they are given the all-clear, continue on their way.

*****

The men sitting on a porch in Back Maryland don't live there. Lorady pulls up and he and Moynihan get out of the patrol car.

"What is that, 'Gangland'?" one man asks when he spots the cameramen in the back seat.

One of the men walks away immediately, pulling his shirt over his head.

"You guys live here?" Lorady asks as Moynihan steps up on the porch, where he finds what looks like a discarded plastic bag.

Moynihan taps it lightly with his foot, seeing if there might be something inside. He then walks to where there are bushes, peering all around.

Nothing is found, and the men move on.

*****

Officers in the city know drug dealers don't always carry their product on them. Hand-to-hand transactions are, instead, a money exchange and then a drug pickup.

Sometimes dealers take over stoops that are not their own, the officers say. Knowing residents are sometimes afraid to call police, the officers try to move those trespassers along when they see them.

Driving past buildings on Indiana Avenue, Lorady remembers a chase last summer that led into one of the apartments nearby. It was pitch black inside.

“We knew he had a weapon on him, and couldn’t see his hands,” he says. “It’s the unknown. You don’t know what they’re going to do, what they’re thinking.”

The gun wound up going down the suspect’s pants leg, “and everyone was safe.”

“You don’t have time to be scared,” Moynihan says. “Lots of times things happen so fast, you get scared afterwards. ‘Oh, what just happened.’”

Moynihan and Lorady know that well. Both are members of the city’s SWAT team, ready to pull on their gear and rush to a major event at a second’s notice.

*****

Helmets flapping, rifles swinging, radio mics slapping against them, the SWAT officers are set on one target: Austin Clark.

Clark, the son of a former city councilwoman, was believed to be responsible for hours of shootings throughout the city June 22.

The shots started about 5:30 p.m. Then there was a carjacking and more shots. Reports were it was all one suspect believed to be on a shooting spree. And now, he had a car.

“Call all officers on detail back to the compound for cars,” came the order over the scanner.

Off-duty officers who had been working casino security details were called into action, as reports of shootings kept coming.

Personal cars zipped west down the Atlantic City Expressway, turning quickly at an opening just beyond the overpass, and out Exit 2, toward the police compound on the Black Horse Pike.

In the city, SWAT went active. Officers who had already headed home for the day returned. On-duty patrolmen on the team grabbed gear they always keep in their car trunks. Pulling on vests and helmets, they gathered with the others on Delaware Avenue, where police cars blocked access at Adriatic and Drexel.

Also there were uniformed police officers with guns drawn, searching for anything suspicious. SWAT had found — and cleared — the stolen car, but Clark remained at large.

After 11 p.m., he allegedly showed up at Schoolhouse Apartments, where a man was pistol-whipped.

It ended on the 500 block of Robinson Avenue around 12:30 a.m. SWAT Officers Chris Smith and Justin Draper spotted Clark on a second-floor balcony. He tried to get inside, but couldn't.

At one point, a shot was heard, then the pursuit began. Clark was incepted by SWAT Officer David Shapiro and taken into custody. The gun was later found on the third-floor balcony.

*****

But an Atlantic City police officer's shift isn't all about guns drawn and sirens blaring.

Sometimes it may mean pulling over to update the written log of calls answered that night, or getting on the phone to check out something that can’t be discussed over the open mic.

"Someone drives by and all they see is a cop not doing anything," Procopio says. "That probably wasn't the case."

It's still light out as the officer drives through the city's Carver Hall apartments around 6:30 p.m. July 16. Two boys and a girl are standing on a stoop. The younger boy, about 6 years old, waves to the police officer. Procopio smiles and waves back.

One day, driving through this same area, he remembers a boy — maybe even this one — waving to him and his partner. From up on a balcony someone yelled: "Don't wave at them."

Distrust of police, at least for show, is not ingrained. Instead, it's taught.

Fear of retaliation is why many residents who witness crime don't speak up, police say. The tactical team is one part of an effort to try to change that. The areas and times they patrol can be moved depending upon where the violence seems to be increasing.

Procopio is a part of Tac 2, which mostly patrols the Tourism District. But when shooting incidents began to ramp up in the neighborhoods last month, both tactical teams were assigned to those areas: one in the day and one at night, alternating weeks.

Procopio always knew he wanted a job in public safety and that it should be a community where he had a connection. He grew up in Mays Landing and summered in Atlantic City, where his parents were casino workers. He took both the police and firefighters tests, dropping out of college when he got the call to join the Atlantic City Police Department six years ago.

Like any other resort town, he says, most of the crimes in the city's tourist areas are those of opportunity: "I think for the everyday tourist ... it shouldn't dissuade them from coming here."

"The biggest misconception is when it comes to violence," he says. "People don't want to come here because they're scared. Yes, there are very dangerous parts of the city, that's a fact."

****

"You hear any gunshots back here?" Procopio asks a woman walking near Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Magellan Avenue at 11:11 p.m. July 16, shortly after dispatch got a call of shots fired in that area.

The city's audio detection system, ShotSpotter, hadn't picked up anything. But nearby, a man Procopio pulls up to says he did.

"I heard, 'Bang, bang,'" the man says pointing down Virginia Avenue. "About two blocks over there."

At Caspian and Virginia avenues, shell casings are found.

But as Procopio and K-9 Officer John Devlin scour the scene, another call comes over the radio.

"Male running north on New Hampshire Avenue."

The cars take off, sirens on, lights flashing. They speed through the city, slowing only slightly at an intersection to make sure the vehicles that have the green light see them.

"Hispanic male, shorts, no shirt," says the voice on the radio. And then, "He's on the beach! He's on the beach!"

As the cars pull up at the end of New Hampshire Avenue, an officer is seen running onto the beach. But it's already over.

Ismael Lopez, wanted in a sexual assault from earlier in the day, is face-down in the sand. Officer Matthew Schmidt is on top of him, putting on the handcuffs. Then he begins walking Lopez off the beach.

Either tired or perhaps under the influence of something, the suspect stumbles to the sand. Schmidt eases him up, and other officers join him in getting Lopez into a patrol car.

****

Back at the scene, where shell casings were found, a patrol car sits waiting for forensics to come. No injuries will be reported from this shooting.

An earlier call of a man possibly with an automatic weapon doesn't result in anything.

"The caller said they saw it about five or 10 minutes (before they called)," Procopio says. "He could be anywhere by now. Why would you wait five or 10 minutes to call?"

At 9:17 p.m., officers answering a call in Back Maryland learn that, for one suspect, an unpaid $10 debt is apparently worth busting up an apartment. Inside, the borrower is cut up. He was hit with a bottle and pushed into a fish tank. The call came over as a stabbing or cutting. The suspect has already left.

There were just 15 minutes left to Procopio’s shift when he drove by the apartment building on N. South Carolina Avenue and heard the man screaming.

Within 10 minutes, several officers, including a K-9 team and SWAT members, would be on scene. The man had locked himself in an apartment and refused to open the door. A gun had been found in the home before and there were kids inside.

"We have to investigate, so open up."

During the standoff, two men and a woman come out separately. Each time, those remaining inside slam the door behind them and lock it.

The three are loaded into patrol cars. Detained, but not yet charged.

"Nobody had guns out until you started slamming doors on people," Officer Chris LoDico says to one of the men in the back of his patrol car.

The officer's demeanor is calm. Even friendly.

"I get it," he says as the man says something to him. "It looks bad. It just looks bad."

At 12:15 a.m., the shouts come: "They're in!"

It's July 17 now. A half-hour since Procopio happened along this scene.

The officers come down the stairs with several more people. A tall man walks with a small baby in his arms. With nothing more to see, the neighbors disperse. The officers drive off, some finally ending their shift, some just starting. Each knowing on the next patrol, anything can happen.

Contact Lynda Cohen:

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