Wednesday, December 18, 2013
If there’s any chance at all the story you’re writing will involve a police officer at some point, and you aren’t yourself a cop, do your story a favor: sign up for a few ride-alongs. Even a high fantasy tale can benefit; your towns do have city guards, right?
If you’ve never heard of ride-alongs, they are exactly what they sound like: You go out with a police officer for part of their shift, usually around four hours, and what happens, happens. Sometimes you get a lot of coffee, scenery, and conversation; sometimes you spend half the day staring at the walls of the station while your officer fills out the mountain of paperwork that goes with each arrest. Sometimes, there’s a lot of screaming and crying.
I’ve done six ride-alongs with five different departments, mostly while I was getting my Criminal Justice degree and serving as a volunteer Victim Advocate. The procedure for all of them was essentially the same: call the non-emergency line for the department you’re interested in and find out when the patrol division can work you in. Expect a background check (you did get that warrant taken care of, right?) and a stack of disclaimers to sign.
The department will likely ask you to dress at least business casual. Don’t wear red. That’s not a Star Trek reference; it’s because red clothes can cause problems for people who have just been in traumatic situations. If you’re going at the beginning of a shift, try to show up half an hour or so early. Chances are you’ll get to sit in on the patrol briefing and be introduced to the other officers on the shift. Once you meet your officer, do exactly as they say until the ride is over.
Yes, you can get shot doing one of these. You are assuming the risk, however small it might be. One of my officers took his seatbelt off every time we turned in to certain apartment complexes. “If they start shooting at the car, jump out the door and roll away. Try to hide with your head between the front wheels of two cars-that way you have an engine block on both sides to soak up the bullets.” Charming notion ten minutes into the first hour.
Cops have a strange sense of humor, and they love telling war stories. Especially ones involving bugs. Bugs covering the floor, bugs on the food in the refrigerator, roaches falling out of the ceiling, coming out of a welfare check covered in scabies-every cop I rode with had at least two or three stories about bugs. Fabulous resource for terrifying/horrifying your readers.
The most active ride I did was 6-10pm on a Friday in Denver’s District 2. This was a two-officer car, so I spent most of it locked in the back seat. We hadn’t even finished the shift briefing when we got called to respond to a pursuit.
The back seat didn’t have shoulder restraints, just a lap belt and nothing to hang on to. The chase only lasted four minutes, but it seemed far longer. Excitement? Yes! Also terror, since we were tearing through a residential area. I was also feeling some intense anger at the person who was running, because of the danger they posed to everyone on the streets and in the chase..
The suspects finally pulled over and surrendered. End result: two arrests, no injuries or property damage, and a big bag of soap chips taken into evidence. Ivory soap won’t get you high, but it was being sold as crack, which is just as illegal. Who knows? If they’d sold the soap to the wrong person, their night might have ended very badly indeed.
It took an hour to process the evidence and transport it to the lockup facility in downtown Denver. Back in service, we did three noise warnings at different parties, warned a prostitute away from a hotel, and stopped at a Greek place for dinner. The owner didn’t charge us, because cops eat free at his place. I told him I was a civilian and insisted he let me pay for my food.
That small gesture made a big difference in the rest of the night. Both officers opened up, telling all manner of anecdotes about the hotels, pawnshops, and apartment buildings we came across. We broke up two more parties, wrote a bunch of speeding tickets, and chased the same prostitute away from a convenience store.
Our last call was for a domestic, resulting in the arrest of a combative gentleman who’d been smoking crack. Transporting him was the only time I got to ride in the front of the cruiser.
Back at the station, my last half-hour was spent listening to more stories while my officers did their arrest paperwork. Another officer arrived to do his booking papers as well. He looked at me and said, “Who’s this guy?”
My driver said, “He’s our ride-along. He’s OK.”
Her partner nodded. “Good ride.”
The new officer nodded. “Alright then.” He introduced himself and said, “Ask for me if you ever want to do an eight to midnight. We’ll have some real fun.”
I never took him up on it, but I bet some great stories would have come out of it.