The prevailing image of Sgt. Ray Arnder is not that of a typical police officer — starting with his uniform.
While most law enforcement personnel wear long pants, Arnder’s preferred attire with the Mount Airy Police Department was shorts. And while officers also tend to rely on cars for transportation, he has been more at home on a conveyance with two wheels rather than four: a bicycle.
“I try to be on it as much as possible,” Arnder explained recently while taking a break under a picnic shelter at Riverside Park, with a sport utility vehicle he also had driven that morning parked nearby. “I’d rather be on a bike on a pretty day than sitting in the truck.”
In addition, Arnder’s patrol territory was non-traditional. It mainly included city greenways and parks, as opposed to local roadways — along with appearing at schools for programs such as DARE and gatherings including health fairs, prescription pill take-back events and other venues through his longtime role as a community police officer.
“I’d rather be out here than in an office,” Arnder said from the picnic shelter as birds chirped in apparent agreement and walkers on the Ararat River Greenway greeted him as they passed.
Arnder could be described as the quintessential “Officer Friendly,” one always concerned for the more-vulnerable of society such as children and the elderly.
His familiar presence at various locales in Mount Airy, however, has come to an end with Arnder’s retirement from the city police force he first joined nearly 30 years ago, in 1987.
And in the view of Chief Dale Watson, a major void has been left in the community policing ranks Arnder headed for several years.
“When it comes to a true dedicated community police officer, Sgt. Arnder will definitely leave a legacy behind for others to follow,” said Watson, one of four police chiefs Arnder worked under during his time with the department.
“Looking after people”
Ray Arnder’s roots with the Mount Airy Police Department were planted early in life, while growing up in the Bannertown community as the oldest child in a family that included two sisters and a brother.
“I was always interested in law enforcement,” he said.
While a boy, Arnder would visit a grandmother who lived on Spring Street near the former city police station on the lower level of the Municipal Building.
“I always saw the patrol cars coming out and they (officers) would stop and talk to me,” recalled Arnder, now 50. This made a lasting impression on the youth.
His eventual career in public service was mirrored by one of the first jobs he had after graduating from Mount Airy High School in 1984, working as a lifeguard. “So it was always kind of looking after people,” Arnder said of his professional interests.
When he joined the Mount Airy Police Department, Leo Shores was chief. “He was the first one that hired me,” Arnder said.
In June 1989, Arnder was drawn to the Pilot Mountain Police Department, joining a force then led by Chief Mike Hill, which he now attributes to wanting to explore something different while trying to find his niche in law enforcement. And when Hill left in 1992 to become police chief in Surf City, Arnder tinkered with the idea of following him there.
Yet the lure of Mayberry proved greater than that of sandy beaches, and after nearly three years in Pilot Mountain Arnder found himself in a familiar spot.
“I decided to come back to Mount Airy and Leo hired me again,” he remembered. “And I’ve been here since.”
Arnder would join the city community policing unit later in the 1990s, which coincided with the formation of a bike patrol manned by its officers, a present four-member group that also includes school resource personnel. Like a fish to water, he would become entrenched in that role for about the next 18 years until his retirement.
With his affable demeanor, Arnder seemed a likely choice for the community police division when that personnel decision was made by higher-ups in the department.
“They asked me to come into it — I guess I had the gift of gab, so to speak,” Arnder said, relating what those officials apparently thought at the time: “He likes talking — put him in there.”
Arnder worked with Officer Jim Armbrister, who headed the community police unit before retiring in 2012 and later joining the Mount Airy Board of Commissioners.
Being part of the bike patrol became a source of pride for Arnder and Armbrister, including trying to reach crime scenes before their car-driving counterparts.
“Actually, me and Jim beat patrol cars with blue lights going to a call,” Arnder said, due to the extra maneuverability their bicycles provided in certain traffic situations and taking shortcuts.
Arnder said that on such occasions he could hear the guys working dispatch laughing about how the bike patrol “is already there. And I said, ‘now we’ve got it on tape.’”
The bike also allowed Arnder a degree of stealthiness that came in handy in gaining close proximity to drug violations including marijuana use — “because I could smell it,” he said.
In more recent times, Arnder’s work has included leading a fitness program for fellow officers, in which he’s supervised “push-ups, sit-ups and throw-ups.”
Working as a policeman in any capacity can present tense moments, and Ray Arnder had his share.
One involved a chase of a suspect police had warrants on, with the pursuit heading out of town and culminating in the Laurel Bluff community just off N.C. 89-West.
A passenger in the suspect car jumped and ran at a church there, but the driver “came off the bank right at me,” Arnder said. “He was trying to run over me.”
At that point, Arnder relied on his training. “I had to dive out of the way to keep from getting run over — he was driving a Mustang and I remember that emblem (on the car) and the sound of the motor.” The suspect was apprehended later.
Then there was the time officers responded to an ominous shots-fired call, which proved to be not as serious as initially thought — with the perpetrator an elderly woman. “Everybody was diving on the ground,” Arnder said, but “the little old lady was intoxicated, and she didn’t like people being on her property, so she was shooting in the air.”
Arnder believes the ability of community officers to interact with people on a friendlier level than that of the police stereotype has helped make Mount Airy a safer place over the years. He thinks that’s especially true in its public-housing neighborhoods, which once were hotbeds of crime.
Developing close relationships with the public also has produced its special rewards, including “people coming and thanking me for things I’ve done for them in the past,” Arnder said, and assisting children with problems — “just little stuff like that meant a lot.”
He also has enjoyed helping with toy drives during the holiday season “and having them (kids) send a Christmas card thanking you.”
The veteran lawman equally is grateful for the time spent with local youth.
“I’ll miss working with the kids probably most of all,” said Arnder, who quickly added that this is because he’s a big kid himself.
In addition to dealing with the public, Arnder says he’ll miss being around his fellow officers, who are like family. “Just their camaraderie, being able to see them every day, just enjoying their company.”
They will miss Arnder, too, although Chief Watson says they’ll still stay in touch due to Arnder filling in from time to time as an auxiliary officer.
“He will be missed by the community and the department,” Watson said. “He had a genuine concern for the community.”
Yet his retirement will allow Arnder more time with his family, wife Lisa and son Hobie, 16, a student at Surry Central High School.
‘The main thing I think is, God’s blessed me,” the longtime officer said in summing up his career.
Arnder said he might not have achieved a lofty rank during his time on the force.
“But He put me where He needed me.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.