In my 20 years as a law-abiding citizen, I’ve only had two experiences with the police. When I was 7, I misdialed 911 and almost gave myself a heart attack waiting for the police to track me down and show up at my door. The other was during my first year when my bike was stolen from the bike rack near my dorm.
This Friday, I had another encounter with the Chapel Hill police but under less stressful circumstances. I was able to follow Jason Bellavance, a Chapel Hill police officer of 15 years, around on his afternoon shift.
Bellavance attended a police academy near Greenville after graduating from East Carolina University. He moved to Chapel Hill after getting his certification and has been here ever since. A father of three, he enjoys running and takes the first hour of his workday to run, usually around campus.
As a member of the downtown force, Bellavance patrols Franklin Street and North Chapel Hill. He usually bikes or walks around campus, but on rainy days he circles the area in his car.
“My favorite part of the job is interacting with people and walking around," Bellavance said. "I like that I’m not stuck in an office all day."
It was a fairly quiet ride, interrupted briefly by a call about a drunken belligerent man wandering around an intersection. His first call that morning had been a complaint about two men fighting in front of Starbucks which escalated to hitting an innocent bystander waiting for the bus.
A majority of his job is interacting with people experiencing homelessness on Franklin Street.
“I want to make downtown Chapel Hill safer for families and a place for people to bring their kids and hang out," Bellavance said.
Besides the typical noise complaint calls that come with policing a college town, he said he has gotten some truly bizarre calls.
“People call 911 because they see a squirrel fall out of a tree and they want to know if it’s okay,” Bellavance said. “Or we had a woman call because she saw a mama deer with her baby deer in the morning, and then later she saw the mama deer without the baby and was concerned.”
The types of calls he receives and his daily job have changed significantly over the past 15 years he has been working in Chapel Hill. The area used to be much more dangerous, he said.
Drugs used to factor into more phone calls on North Rosemary Street, but slowly the area has transitioned into student housing, Bellavance said. Now the most common calls are noise complaints and littering.
The technology has changed as well from when he first started. In 2003, only a few police cars had computers in them, and no one had GPS or cell phones.
When they got a call, they would flip through a Trapper Keeper of printed and laminated maps of certain neighborhoods to find an address. Now, he has a GPS mounted on his dashboard next to the radio, and he is required to wear a body camera when responding to calls.
But no matter what technology he uses , Bellavance is still motivated by the reason he became a police officer.
“I was curious about how things happened, and I definitely wanted to help people," Bellavance said.
To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.