The ride-along


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Some time ago, I did a ride-along with an officer from our local police department. My only request was that the experience be on the Saturday night shift. So at four in the afternoon, I found myself in a police car riding down 6th Street with an officer whom I had just met.

We had not been on the road more than five minutes when the first call came in. I had not had much conversation with my partner except to learn that his fellow officers thought he was the fastest runner on the force; indeed, he said he had once had a tryout with a professional football team. 

A female voice on the radio suddenly gave instructions. Immediately my partner diverted our course, and soon we entered the parking lot of what I thought must be an assisted living facility: single story, side by side units on both sides of an asphalt parking lot.  Every unit featured a satellite dish on a post outside its front door.

My partner was taciturn, all business. 

“Domestic call,” he said. 

Inside the unit, my first shock was the TV screen. It was altogether too big for the size of the living room. A couch with overstuffed cushions sat directly in front of the screen, not a few feet away; on the couch sobbed a middle-aged black lady, holding her head in her hands.

My partner, quiet, unruffled, asked another black lady sitting next to the sobbing woman what happened. The sobbing woman couldn’t or wouldn’t talk.

“He beat her up. It’s not the first time. And next time I told her he was gonna kill her.”

The distraught lady kept sobbing.

My partner flipped open a spiral notebook and began writing. The consoling lady had become frightened when the sobbing woman’s head thumped the wall separating their units. The consoling woman had called the cops, not the sobbing woman.

It became apparent we were not going to pry the details out of the battered woman. Her neighbor told the story.

The boyfriend, who worked in construction, habitually came to the battered woman’s apartment and ate her food. But he never replenished it. He had a good job as a plasterer, but he spent his money on drugs. The sobbing lady lived on a fixed stipend; she couldn’t save enough money to restock the refrigerator but couldn’t keep him out of it, either. If she tried, he beat her.  This time, he had wrapped his hands around her neck and whiplashed her head against the wall.

My partner wrote it all down. Then I heard the gurgle gurgle of a diesel engine outside. The ambulance had arrived, lights flashing.

Two EMTs entered the room. Any extra living space was suddenly filled up.

The EMTs examined the victim and advised my partner that the woman needed to go to the hospital. The woman refused. Her neighbor pleaded for her to go: “He’s going to kill you next time.”

Then another gurgle gurgle. A fire truck had arrived, lights flashing, engine running. Soon the room really was too small as two firemen entered, complete with rubber boots and overalls.

My partner took pictures of the crime scene and made more notes. 

The neighbor lady finally prevailed. The EMTs loaded the victim into the ambulance. As we drove away, I asked my partner what would happen next.

Matter-of-factly he said we would go back out on patrol, but later we would have to circle back to the hospital to check on the woman. The level of crime the construction worker could be charged with would depend on the findings of the doctor. We would also put out an APB to have the worker picked up. 

In fewer than five minutes, the radio crackled again. A minor automobile accident on Depot Avenue. We arrived without lights or siren.

Two cars had come together in a fender bender, one turning too shortly into the lane of the other.  Both had damaged their left front headlights.

I had already privately opined that our first call had taken up an exorbitant amount of time and employed a redundant amount of public resources. But I kept my opinion to myself. Besides, my partner had assured me that the law required him to thoroughly take notes, photograph, and otherwise document every detail, should the incident eventually need to withstand the scrutiny of the courts.

The young lady driving one damaged car was black, neatly dressed, and shy. She had called her parents, who were on the way. The driver of the other car and his passenger were Asian. They were loud and spoke no English. Presently I realized why they were pointing and talking so loudly: the female driver was black, and my partner was black. As Asians, they were victims of racism. Although they never stated this in English, it was easy to tell they thought this. But it wasn’t easy to tell if they believed it, or if they simply had discovered how to play that card. Needless to say, I was fascinated.

The parents arrived; that only made things worse. A black man and his black wife, very pleasant and concerned for their daughter, but pointed and shouted at by the Asians. 

I watched my partner try to sort things out. Suddenly I realized I was the only white guy at the scene, but no one seemed to notice me. The Asians were apparently convinced that they were about to get the short end of the deal, or else maybe they had found a way out of it. 

Calmly but firmly, my partner indicated to the garrulous Asians that one of them needed to speak English. After much finger pointing and handwaving, one Asian went to the apartments across the street and came back with a translator. I kept waiting for someone to lose his cool, but the black family and my partner never did. The Asians kept talking through their newly-found interpreter about the process being unfair, especially after receiving the ticket for having turned into the other car.

I filed away in my mind’s notebook how much training and character it took to deal with people in these emotionally-charged situations. And then, too, how expensive it was for society.

Now it was time to double back and check on our battered victim. Again I had no idea what to expect. I was along for the ride.

A hospital emergency room is a dramatic place in and of itself, but I found my heart beating a little faster as we waited for the doctor.

My partner reminded me that it all depended on what the doctor said.

“What do you mean?” 

“If the doctor says the injuries were life-threatening, the boyfriend can be charged with a felony. Then we can put him away.”

Presently, the doctor appeared. A big guy who looked as if he pumped iron.

My partner asked the question. Were the injuries life threatening?

Surely they were, I thought. If being choked and having your head banged against the wall isn’t life-threatening, what is? Especially if you’re a middle-aged female and the man choking you and banging your head is strong enough to work construction and you’re on a government stipend.

Incredibly, the doctor said “No.”

As we rode away, I asked my partner what he thought about that.

Calmly, as if it were just another day at the office, he said, “Well, we’ll pick him up on the street corner somewhere, and he’ll get out. And eventually he really will kill her.”

I can’t fully explain why, but I found myself about as mystified as I have ever been in my life. All that time and resources and we couldn’t effect change? 

After dark, we received the first of two tension-filled calls. When we started out on the ride-along, I told my partner I wasn’t shy about anything we got into. I had signed a release when we left the station. I would go where he went; I was there to learn.

It was about an hour before midnight when we rolled up to a darkened house with our lights and engine off. That surprised me because my partner never suggested we would arrive that way.

The house was in what any city would call a bad part of town. The house was a dilapidated affair with a sagging front porch. The place was dark. As we approached the front door, we stepped lightly, trying to keep the porch boards from creaking. Then I noticed my partner had his hand on his holstered pistol.  

My partner knocked on the front door but did not stand in front of it. I stood behind my partner’s shoulder. Another knock. Again my heart beat faster.

Another knock. Suddenly a loud voice came from the intersection across the street. A large black man, grey-headed, grey-bearded in soiled bib coveralls was shouting from directly under the street light.   

“What the hell is that?” I whispered.

“That’s the lookout. He’s warned everyone I’m coming. He’s drunk. He does this all the time.”

We backed away from the door.

“They’re gone from here,” my partner said. “Maybe next time.”

Who was gone? Why? Where? Perhaps the lookout knew, but we sure didn’t.  

The second tension-filled event came well after midnight, and once again in a bad part of town. I say bad because that is supposedly where the crime statistics are the worst. But someone from that neighborhood, maybe more than one, had called in a concern that troubled them considerably, and they wanted the cops to check it out.

A pickup truck had been seen driving into the woods behind a row of houses with its lights off. We were the first on the scene, and right away the call presented problems.  

The woods were dark and deep. There was not a road into them, so someone in the truck had to be pushing through the underbrush undeterred. Why? To dispose of criminal evidence? To lie in wait? If so, for what? For whom?

My partner turned on his car spotlight to shine into the woods, but immediately a fuse blew, and the woods went dark.    

“I’ll have to go in,” he said, once again matter-of-factly. This time there was no mention of me following close behind. This was a perfect place for an ambush. Obviously, whoever was in the woods could see us, but we couldn’t see them. My partner decided he’d better call for backup.

The twirling blue lights of another cop car arrived. Both cars shone their headlights into the woods.

The white cop who got out of the second car began to talk with my partner about a strategy. Suddenly the ability to run fast crossed my mind. Was my partner the one to go first? Who would cover whom? Or would either go in at all? Maybe they would wait for a dog.

The blue lights twirled. A small crowd of neighbors had gathered and were standing in the shadows in front of the houses. As I glanced at the faces lit up then darkened, lit up then darkened by the twirling lights, I saw one face I have never forgotten. 

A small boy was standing in the reflection of the blue lights. Maybe six or seven, barefoot, red haired, and freckled with a ball cap on his head, he was staring at the scene, taking everything in. He was absolutely unaccompanied by any adult. The boy was not six feet from us, fascinated, eyes wide open. 

Bright lights suddenly flashed across us, so bright that we were blinded by their direct aim in our direction. The lights were coming out of the woods.

The cops watched quietly.

The lights got closer, and then we saw it was the pickup truck, and it was coming straight for us.

The cops stepped aside. Then the truck stopped right beside us. It was a single cab truck, a working man’s truck with a tool carrier in the bed and a dent in the driver’s door. 

Now long flashlights were shining in the driver’s face. A female passenger sat beside the driver close in the middle.

Under intense police scrutiny, the story unfolded. All the obligatory questions, identification, and then more questions until my partner and his backup were satisfied.

The boy had pulled into the woods to be with the girl. He had never figured the neighborhood would be alarmed. He had rolled into the woods with his lights off. He was scared to death when he saw the blue lights arrive and was almost afraid to come out of the woods for fear of what might happen.

A crime had not been committed. The couple went on their way.

In the wee hours of the morning, my partner and I sat having breakfast in an all-night diner. The shift was over, and my partner was busy writing while occasionally taking a bite of his meal. He wouldn’t let me pay for anything. I sat quietly, not wanting to bother a man at his work. Besides, as a writing instructor, I was particularly proud that he was taking the craft seriously. 

I took a sip of coffee when my partner looked up and said, “All this over a sandwich.”

I knew immediately what he was talking about. The note-taking, the fire truck, the ambulance, the repeated violence ineffectively addressed by the courts, the mysterious opinion of the medical doctor that it would seem could have just as easily gone the other way.

But it was the sandwich in the refrigerator that almost cost the lady her life, and still might.

All the routine stuff seemed to pale in comparison: the race card at the fender bender, the habitual mystery of the howling sentry signaling that the cops were on their way, the strange situation with the blown fuse on the spotlight when the light came on.  

My partner and I had at least figured that one out: Cops hang their handcuffs on the spotlight handle. The handcuffs jangle, rubbing metal against metal and creating a short. It was a wonder the lights ever worked at all.

This ride-along was done a while back.  The hospital where we visited the battered lady has been torn down. (Whatever happened to her?) A tech building now sits on the lot, luring startups to their incubator.  

But I wonder how much has really changed. One significant difference between now and then has crossed my mind: there were no cell phone cameras anywhere we went.  

It would be interesting to go back and do the exact same trip, only now.  But in effect, I have just done that for you.  Now you, too, might wonder about all those issues I have been wondering about all these years.

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