by Camille Sinaguinan
When I told an officer of the Flagstaff Police Department last December that I was a writer, and that I was always looking for story, he suggested that I go on a ride along. I wasn’t sold on the idea at first–couldn’t you get shot at on ride alongs?–but when I mentioned it to a group of writer friends, they insisted that I do it.
So, when I got back from California, I went to the Flagstaff Police Department and filled out an orchid-colored form. I would not be issued a bullet-proof vest. I would obey all commands given to me by my officer.
The next day, I received a call: my request was approved. When would I like to schedule my ride along? I chose a Thursday night from 5:30pm-9:00pm. Our dispatch handle was “David 20”, and here are some of the things I learned:
- The cops are the good guys. At least in Flagstaff. The officer I shadowed that night pulled over two vehicles for traffic violations. Both drove away with warnings. When I told the cop that I’d never been pulled over in California without getting an actual ticket, he said it’s probably different in larger cities. I was both pleased by his kindness and disappointed in my hometown.
- It is an unspoken rule that the older cops get the better patrol cars when on duty.
- If you are accompanying a cop on a ride along, you are referred to as a CO or Civilian Observer.
- Everyone knows everything that’s going on all the time. It’s called dispatch. There are no secrets in police work. Also, a good dispatcher can save a cop’s life.
- Civilians often use the police to do the dirty work for them. Our first call was made by a woman who sent us to her ex-husband’s house so we could ask why he hadn’t returned her two-year-old daughter. We find out after meeting the man that he always keeps their daughter until Sunday per their custody agreement, and he’s tired of the police coming over all the time to heckle him at his ex-wife’s behest.
- Traffic stops–when a cop pulls a vehicle over–can be more dangerous than actual calls. We did two on my ride along. Both times I was told to stay in the car. The second time he radioed for backup and approached the truck with his hand over his holster.
- Cops wear around 40 lbs of gear when on duty.
- Because of the nature of their work, cops have above average adrenaline levels when they are on duty. When they’re off duty, their levels drop below average to allow the body to recuperate. This constant high to low shift can cause real problems for officers. Some manage the imbalance by working out and taking on hobbies. The less fortunate can become alcoholics.
- A lot of patrolling is driving the same route over and over. This doesn’t mean the job is easy, though, because…
- Cops are crazy multi-taskers. Here was what my officer was doing minute-by-minute while we were in the car together: driving, checking vehicle registrations on his laptop with one hand, talking to me about the necessity of a police force, listening to the dispatch radio, listening to the regular radio, and looking out for traffic violations. There were times when we would be talking and he’d stop abruptly, hearing something only he understood from dispatch. Then the next second he’s making a U-turn to pull over a guy with a busted headlight. After completing his calls or traffic stops, he would continue our conversation as if we’d never been interrupted. It was really impressive, but it made me seriously wonder how adequate I was at life in comparison.
- Working for the police can be like any other job. Some people actually work, some don’t. Some can be trusted, some can’t. Bonds made doing difficult work are some of the strongest bonds around.
- We let cops into our most private lives, sometimes without even knowing it. One of our calls was a student who thought she heard someone inside her apartment when nobody should have been there. My officer and one other did a sweep of her apartment before deeming it safe. The girl was so grateful, and on the way back down to the patrol cars, the cops talked about how nice her apartment was. When cops check our registrations from their patrol cars–and this happens every free minute they have–pulling up our license plate numbers brings up all our information: name, age, eye color, home address. And we don’t even know our plates were run. I watched my officer run a plate once. I didn’t look long–it felt wrong, seeing that person’s information without them knowing.
- Cops don’t have ticket quotas.
- “10-4” is the most common code I heard over the radio. It means something like, “Got it” or “Understood.” When I asked the cop where the codes came from he laughed and said, “I don’t know. I just work here.”
Not much happened on my ride along in terms of violence or crazy people, but I got as much as I could about the day-to-day. For those of you that are curious, anyone can go on a ride along. You just need to go to the Police Station and fill out that form. Usually you can schedule to shadow the same week.
It’s a good thing to do, if you’re looking for story. Getting to know the people we trust with our lives doesn’t hurt either.