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?