Ride Along

As you all know, I’ve been doing the citizen’s academy program with my local police department and – although you might be sick of my blog posts on this – last Friday was my first opportunity to ride along with one of the officers. I chose the graveyard shift and got to experience first hand what its like to be on patrol in the middle of the night in the sleet and snow (since this is Colorado it went from 70 degrees to 30 degrees and it started snowing soon after I started the ride along). Although I’d requested to be assigned to a female police officer, it turned out that she was too junior to conduct a ride along, so I ended up with one of the male officers – a former marine and one of the K9 handlers (unfortunately his dog is currently recovering from surgery so I didn’t have the fun of having the dog with us that night – a good excuse to do another ride along!).

Within ten minutes of starting the ride along I realized that 1) I had no idea how local law enforcement worked; 2) all the questions I had planned to ask were dumb; and 3) I really had no idea how local law enforcement worked…

We started out patrolling the business and hotel district in our community which, late at night, is apparently is the place to be if you’re a criminal. Most of the crime that gets ‘imported’ into our community starts or ends up here. It’s amazing how different a place can look late at night from the vantage point of a police car, especially when you get an officer’s perspective on what looks suspicious (far more than I realized or even noticed, that’s for sure). Although we responded to a number of specific calls, the majority of the night was actually spent following up on these suspicions. License plates were run numerous times and it was impressive how many of the officer’s queries turned out to identify people with outstanding warrants, gang affiliations, or revoked licenses. I guess after years on patrol you know to trust your gut. After riding alongside him for just a few hours, I was impressed not only by his dedication (this guy loved his job) but also his proactive approach. I don’t know why I was expecting law enforcement to be simply reactive to calls…but this ride along certainly disabused me of that.

Starting out, I soon ditched most of the questions I’d intended to ask (I was like, what was I thinking?!) Luckily, the officer was willing to chat openly about his experiences both in combat and law enforcement. When we got a call to assist a veteran experiencing a mental health crisis, I witnessed first hand how, because of his experiences in Iraq, he was able to establish a personal connection with the veteran to help deescalate the situation and get her to agree to go to hospital. For him, these calls are personal. The incident also brought home to me how law enforcement increasingly have to juggle mental health calls with their other patrol duties. Sadly, the recent number of suicides, attempted suicides, and drug overdoses in our community was a sobering reminder of this.

I also learned just how random and capricious circumstances can be for law enforcement. They often have no idea what they’re going to encounter when they conduct a traffic stop or get out of the car and approach someone. They are well aware how many police shootings occur on routine traffic stops, and so, with this sobering thought in mind, the officer I was with always had (or provided) back up for every encounter, no matter the situation. Most of the incidents we attended during the ride along had at least 2-3 squad cars involved. Before every encounter, the officers ensured they had as much information as possible on the car/suspect/person they were dealing with. Technology available in their cars meant they could get access to photographs as well as background details almost immediately. Even with all this technology though, luck still come into play – sometimes an officer just had to be in the right place at the right time. My officer’s assessment of his job was basically “70% luck; 30% initiative.”

By the end of the evening, although I’d not witnessed any actual arrests, I had a renewed respect and appreciation for local law enforcement and a greater regard for the value of hands-on research (as I said, I quickly realized just how ignorant I was!). Even though I have no idea whether I’ll actually ever write a contemporary police novel, I’m sure I’ll incorporate what I’ve learned in some shape or form in my writing to come.

So amongst you TKZers who have done research on local law enforcement, what was the most surprising thing you learned or took away from the experience? If you’ve ever done a ride along, what was one or your key take aways?


9 thoughts on “Ride Along

  1. I’m also in Colorado and did a ride-along with a deputy sheriff shortly after we arrived (from Florida, where I’d done one in Orlando). I live in a VERY rural community, in one of the smallest counties in the state. I chose what I hoped would be relatively quiet, since I wanted to be able to ask questions.
    To contrast with your experiences:
    No computers in the vehicles. Everything was radioed to Dispatch, and radio contact could be spotty in the mountains. Sometimes he had to use his phone (a Cricket). He found addresses via a map book (a very small book). Where possible, I used my phone, but some of the areas hadn’t been digitized, so it was a blank screen with a pin. We went to the office to use their computers to pinpoint the address, which was in a new development.
    He did have good radar in the vehicle which could check speeds of vehicles both in front and behind his.
    No backup for the calls we made. Most were “routine” traffic stops and serving papers. The deputy said backup could take 20 minutes, and there were probably only 6-8 other deputies on patrol during his shift.
    The deputy was young, very professional, and answered all of my questions.
    Sadly, about a year later, I learned that he’d taken his life. I dedicated the book I was working on at the time to him.

    • How tragic to hear he took his own life. Your experience was certainly a contrast to mine but my officer could remember when it wasn’t so different even in the urban areas. I was impressed by the technology though to start out he couldn’t connect any of the systems to the internet so had to use his own phone’s hot spot…so all the technology these days can still let you down!

  2. My ridealong experience was similar to Terry’s–our county is 5000 square miles with four deputies per shift to cover that vast area. Back up? Not anytime soon. The car did have a computer and complete mapping system, which was fascinating, showing hidey-holes and areas I’d never encountered despite living here 30 years. Found some dandy locations for dramatic scenes.

    A weeknight shift was fairly quiet, mostly domestics that were settled w/o arrest. B/c the county jail is severely overcrowded, the emphasis is on diffusing situations to keep from having to take someone to jail where there may not be a bed available. Only the most serious violent offenders go to jail. That was a revelation for me.

    Clare, like you, I quickly threw away my list of questions and just watched and listened. How fortunate for the distressed veteran that your officer could relate and help her. Cops have to be psychologists, too.

    I’ve been through the citizen’s academy twice, plus participated as a role player and/or observer in several training sessions (including a SWAT operation). Every time, I learn new, useful details that contribute to the overall verisimilitude I strive for in my books.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences, Clare.

  3. My police experience consists of watching Live PD (my hubby and I have concluded we are the only people in the world with valid driver’s licenses and no warrants).

    My father used to relay stories from a cousin who was a deputy sheriff in the New Orleans area. I wish I had paid more attention – some of those stories were chilling, some were a hoot.

    I work in psych. We have close to a hundred beds. On any given day most if them are full.

    A couple of years ago Two police officers here were killed in broad daylight trying to arrest an alleged killer outside Wal-mart.

    Be careful out there.

    • I certainly felt that even in our relatively safe community the officers were always careful as there are so many unknowns out there. I was also amazed how many people out there were driving with evoked licenses and outstanding warrants!!

      • “I was also amazed how many people out there were driving with revoked licenses and outstanding warrants!!”

        In Orlando, after going through the Civilian Police Academy, we were allowed to take part in (meaning carrying water to the officers and standing back to listen) major scheduled DUI stops where they stop virtually every car going through a specific stretch of road. Despite there being signs posted at least a mile out, I was amazed at how many people didn’t have the brains to take another route if they’d been drinking, had expired licenses, warrants, etc. Easy pickings for the LEOs.

  4. I think that one of the great take-aways from ride-along programs with emergency responders (we did them in the fire department, too) is an understanding of the uniqueness of the job. By definition, they walk into the worst moments of strangers’ lives and are expected to bring order to chaos. It’s exhilarating.

    But that sense of exhilaration against a backdrop of other people’s misfortune makes talking shop very difficult. It’s why emergency responders tend to form cliques among themselves.

    I wish more civilians would volunteer to spend time in these folks’ environment.

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