My Day as a Renegade Cop (On a Police Ride-Along)
Last week, Chris Bucholz wrote a brilliantly researched column about the primitive ways we use technology, John Cheese published an insightful article about introverts, and Robert Brockway made a damn-near poetic rundown of some of the most extraordinary sci-fi short films on the Internet. Of course the unifying theme is that all three columnists wrote their respective articles from the safety of their own little bubbles in their own little homes because they are, by their very nature, cowards. But not me. I spent last week out in the shit, living my goddamn life and scribbling it down on the soggy napkins of a bar called "The Real World" parentheses "Only the Strong Survive" and then colon "Journalistic Integrity." I don't know, MAYBE YOU'VE HEARD OF IT.
But probably not, it doesn't have many Yelp reviews.
I got to spend a night in the passenger seat of a patrol car as it hurtled through the mean streets of Los Angeles County's upper crust. A department of law enforcement I've agreed not to name read about my recent altercation with the LAPD and offered a ride-along through a fairly wealthy neighborhood as an olive branch. An olive branch I gladly accepted, then promptly used to crush the windpipe of crime with my new partner. I shadowed an officer for his entire eight-hour shift, sitting shotgun (next to a literal shotgun) as we smeared warm justice over a city that was clearly starved for it, and when we got tired of that, we ate some chicken nuggets at Jack in the Box. It was incredible.
From the moment I arrived at the station, trouble was afoot. A murder of men in yellow jumpsuits strolled past my car and down the block. Their tattoos and creative facial hair assured me they were prisoners, but they had no escort with them. If they were escaping, they were doing it very very casually.
"You guys go on ahead, I'll catch up at the commercial break."
"Hey you," I called.
"Hi," they said.
"Did- are you guys leaving?"
We stared at each other for awhile.
"OK," I warned them.
I let the front desk clerk know that some of their most listless prisoners were making a break for it. He explained that they were trusted prisoners, men incarcerated for non-violent crimes and now they were responsible for manual labor in and around the station because they weren't a flight risk.
"Like indentured servitude?"
His eyes narrowed. "Did you just come in to report our trusties?"
"I'm doing a ride-along."
He sighed a long, heavy sigh that I'm pretty sure meant he felt bad for all the crime happening that night because it wouldn't stand a chance against me. In another life, he and I could have been great partners. We both knew it, especially after we closed the books on that prison escape so quickly. But that's life on the force: It never works out like you thought it would. Maybe. I don't really know.
You're probably closer with your partner than your own wife. Unless your partner is your wife. Oooh, dibs on that CBS show.
When I finally met my ride-along officer, he was tall and quiet, like an Old West sheriff. Together we walked to the car and he immediately showed me how to unlock the shotgun from between the seats. I liked him. As we left the station, he rolled down both our windows, even though the AC was on.
"Do you have any questions?" he asked.
"Do you always keep the windows down?"
"Yep. It lets us hear everything and keeps us connected to what's happening outside the car."
"Denzel Washington does that too. Are you trying to Training Day me?"
"I'm not trying to Training Day you."
"How faithful was Training Day to your job?"
"You mean how often do detectives try to frame each other for murder to settle a debt with the mob?"
"How faithful was End of Watch?"
"Eh, that was probably an entire career pressed into a few months. I liked it, though, it was entertaining."
"How faithful was RoboCop?"
"Maybe we should take a break from questions for now."
Our first call was a domestic disturbance between a dad and his son. The dad was being evicted and the son came over to help him pack, and also to help drink all the beer in the house. Once the two were sauced enough, they started throwing things and fighting, because alcohol makes everyone the wrong kind of honest.
"I am more critical of your bad decisions when they reflect my own!"
When we arrived, I took off my seat belt, but my partner said he thought it would be best if I didn't go inside. I agreed that was probably a good idea -- the last thing that house needed was one more hothead, especially one who still remembered some karate from third grade. You don't just throw a loaded gun into a bonfire. I consented to doling out justice in spirit from the car.
Eventually two other officers arrived and hauled the still screaming (and shirtless) son into the back of one of their patrol cars. The father and son had fought, but it was the dad's place so the kid had to go. We caravanned to the station for booking, and when they finally pulled him from the car, he was still belligerent and wrapping up a long-winded insult directed at the female officer who drove him there.
Then he saw me.
To give you some context, I was wearing a polo shirt and slacks, an outfit better suited for bellboying than busting heads. I was also quietly clapping my hands together like an overstimulated kid on Christmas. He wanted to know who I was, and when no one answered, he asked a little more urgently if everyone else there could see me. In the roshambo of emotions, it turns out confusion trumps anger. He stared at me in puzzled silence and I gave him a shrug that meant "I don't know either, but I'm having a great time." Then he disappeared into holding and my partner and I climbed back into the car to hunt for more criminals we could bewilder.
I asked him how often he spots crime as it's happening, as opposed to responding to calls.
"It depends on how hard you look," he laughed. He pointed to a woman driving the other way talking on her cellphone. He said it's rare he sees anything that really deserves a citation or an arrest. "I'm not out here to hassle people. Why? Do you see anything?"
I looked out my window. We were stopped at a quiet intersection in a gated community.
"That cat looks suspicious," I said, honestly.
"Roll on, Pinky, this ain't your neighborhood."
"Look how big it is."
"It is a big cat. Must be something in the water."
"This goes all the way to the top!"
Before we could crack that career-making case wide open, a call came in over the radio. Every time the ride-along officer's car was called, he'd say something like "We're at Lincoln and Colorado, we can be there in seven minutes." Always "we." We were a team. A team of crime fighters. This call was for a young woman whose brother was threatening her and her mother with a knife.
"Do you want me to hit the lights?" I asked.
"Do you even know where the switch is?"
I looked at the console and pushed a button. The shotgun unlocked.
"Hold on, I'm going to ask WebMD what type of learning disability you have and make sure it's not contagious."
At the address, an older woman came out to greet the officer and said it was some kind of mistake, no one there had called the police. Within seconds, the daughter came out and assured her mother that she had, then the two of them fought for a little while over the necessity of summoning law enforcement while the calm and stoic Old West sheriff waited. Finally they concluded that it would be OK if the officer at least spoke to the young man who just minutes earlier had threatened both of them with a knife. The officer disappeared inside and came out five minutes later, his handcuffs still on his belt. The kid was calm; he had yelled at them earlier, but there wasn't an actual knife involved. This became a common theme throughout the rest of the night -- a domestic disturbance where no one is actually interested in pressing charges. They would use the police as a threat to a family member, a weapon they kept in their arsenal to gain leverage during a bad argument. That also meant that occasionally they had to prove it wasn't a bluff, but in just about every circumstance, no one actually wanted law enforcement there, at least in this neighborhood.
Toward the end of the shift, we drove up to a lookout point and kicked out a bunch of kids for being parked there after dark. Then we parked there and looked out over the city. He let me track jackrabbits with the spotlight while he told me horror stories about his own altercations with law enforcement as a teenager. I told him the story about being tackled by the LAPD, but it paled in comparison to the time he got punched in the stomach by a cop while he was handcuffed.
"It's the same as you'd find at any job," he said. "There are some good officers and some bad ones. They're just people." We stared at the lights for awhile and watched cars approach the lookout, then quickly U-turn and leave. "Except RoboCop," he added.
Let he who is blameless cast the first .50 AE round.
I got to run the lights and the siren on the way back to the station, but for the most part we didn't talk. Instead we reflected on how the whole shift had been a whirlwind of steely nerve, heroics, and fast food. Even though we made a great team, he never found the right moment to ask if I wanted to be his partner for good. He didn't have to. I picked up on all the clues, because I was born for this.