It was the spring of my senior year of high school when the editor-in-chief of my journalism class came to me and said, “Matt, I have a great idea for a feature piece and I want you to do it.” I said, “yeah, okay, sure,” because I liked doing features and because I tend to agree to things before asking what they are, which is just a really terrible way to go through life. Also, I was an eighteen-year-old boy and she was a cute girl and you can imagine why I was eager to impress her with my aggressively agreeable nature and my fearlessness and such.
The feature piece that I wrote was based on a police ride along. It’s exactly what it sounds like: you ride along with a police officer for an entire shift. As far as I know, most police departments will do this as a sort of outreach program for citizens who want to see what the policing process looks like. Or maybe they just want to get their fix by hanging out with the real cops for a while. There are as many stories online of good ride alongs as there are terrible ones.
After signing all sorts of liability waivers and such, I did my ride along. What surprised me the most was how extensive my participation was. My instructions were to stay in the car only during traffic stops; otherwise, every where my officer went, I also went. That meant going into a house during a domestic violence call and into the hospital to interview someone who’d been shot. It’s a front row seat and yes, it really did feel like I was living out my own episode of Cops.
I did my ride along, wrote my feature piece for the school newsmagazine, received some attention and accolades, and then went on to not have a career in journalism. But I always kept that experience in the back of my mind as something that I’d like to repeat one day in the future.
My brother Chris joined the Tucson Police Department about a year ago. When I was in Tucson last month for his wedding, he suggested that I do a ride along with him. He’d taken his then-fiance Haley on one a few weeks before. He’d heard me talk about my previous experiences doing a ride along and was interested to see what my take would be; also, I think he was secretly hopeful that I’d write the post I’m writing now so that he could read about himself. Hi Chris!
Anyway. Here is my report of my day as an official groupie for an officer of the Tucson Police Department, recreated from my notes that I took. All times will be expressed in standard time rather than military time, because I’m a civilian and I don’t want to do the mental math about what 1500 actually refers to (okay, it’s 3:00 PM, but still).
6:00 AM: We arrived at the substation. I felt sick from something (maybe last night’s dinner?) and spent about half an hour in the bathroom, which meant I missed the mission briefing. I was worried I’d be too nauseated to do the ride along but I decided to tough it out as long as I could. Fortunately, after some quality time worshipping the porcelain throne, as they say, I felt better and decided to roll with it. I’m only including this detail because if I don’t, I’m sure Chris will point it out in the comments.
7:00 AM: Chris started his patrol. TPD is phasing out the venerable Crown Victoria interceptor and moving to the larger, fancier, more luxurious Tahoe, but since Officer Chris is still a rookie, he’s stuck with one of the Crown Vics. I tried not to think about the fact that when I did my previous ride along, the black-and-white Crown Victorias were brand new models that were just starting their service because thinking about such things would only encourage maudlin reflections on the fleeting nature of my temporal existence and the brevity of mortality. Oh, shit, there I go.
Anyway, Chris’s patrol car has working air conditioning. His megaphone does not work. Only some of the emergency lights work. The trunk is filled with all the things you’d expect: rubber gloves, traffic cones, vest, shotgun. It’s not as organized as movies and television would suggest.
For privacy reasons, I won’t specify where exactly Chris patrols, but I’ll specify this much: it’s not a very good part of Tucson. We started off the day by checking a few abandoned houses that were popular among the “crack house aficionado and illegal squatter” crowd. When we rolled up to the first house, I was relieved to see another officer, Bri, had joined us. But I was still nervous, not because I’d never done a ride along before, but because this was my little brother and even though I’d seen him put on the uniform and he was wearing the gun and the badge and we were riding in an actual goddamn patrol car, even with all of that . . . it still didn’t feel real to me that this was my little brother. My kid bro.
We went to the side door. Chris told me to stay outside while they cleared the building. As the only person not carrying a gun or wearing body armor, that sounded fine with me.
Chris and his partner went to the door, drew their guns, held them at their sides. Goddamn, I thought. It really does look like the movies.
“Tucson Police!” Chris barked with the kind of authority I would not have associated with my little brother. He and his partner swept through the building and cleared it. Fortunately (or unfortunately, I guess, depending on your perspective), nobody was home, although there was plenty of evidence that yes, this is a bona fide crack house.
“Be careful where you step,” Chris said. “Also, I wouldn’t touch anything if I were you.”
I looked over at the pile of used hypodermic needles, double checked where I was standing, and decided that I would burn my shoes once we were done. With no customers at house, it was on to the next establishment, though not before Chris and Bri moved a few pieces of detritus around in front of the door, just to see if they’d get moved to verify that there were indeed fish in this illicit little fishing hole.
We rolled up to another house and repeated the process, but once again, despite all the evidence of recent activity, nobody was home.
As I stood outside and looked around, I reflected on the fact that these neighborhoods really weren’t all that far from where I’d been living at various points in my life. They looked . . . normal. Tucson is weird like that. Although people will say, “well, the south side is the bad side of town,” it’s actually more complicated than that. There are little pockets of urban blight and decay all over the place, and often, the same road can get better or worse depending on how far you travel down it. Sadly, at least in my opinion, it seems like the rotten spots are getting worse and they’re getting bigger. But that’s a thought for another post.
7:30 AM: I knew that at some point, we’d have to do traffic. But what’s interesting is that traffic isn’t assigned to any particular time or location; the officer uses his or her discretion to decide when to set up a traffic stop. At first, I thought this was somewhat petty, just a bit of that quota-filling ticket writing that everyone complains about. That was until I noticed where we’d set up shop to watch for traffic: we parked near an intersection that has no less than five signs and five sets of red arrows, all of which are telling the driver that right turns on red are illegal. Why, you might ask? Because the cross walk leads directly to the School for the Deaf and Blind. Huh. I wonder why they don’t allow people to turn on a red there.
Waiting for somewhat to break the law is pretty boring, but it also gave me some insight into the cop mind. After we’d been there for a while, in frustration, Chris exclaimed “someone break the law already!” At first, I thought this was counter-intuitive; a lack of violators means that people are following the law which means society is better as a result. However, after you’ve sat still for a long period of time, watching the same traffic signal with the intensity of a circling hawk, eventually you need a rabbit or you start to go crazy. I think I cracked from the boredom after about thirty minutes. I reflected on the fact that Chris comes to this intersection or others like it at least four times a week. Pretty soon I was desperate for someone to run the light just so there was something to do.
Eventually, a guy did turn and we did pull him over. I waited in the car while Chris did the usual license and registration thing. The guy didn’t speak a whole lot of English but Chris was able to get him to understand why you really don’t want to make an illegal turn around deaf and/or blind children. You know. Chris asked me what I thought we should do; I voted for a warning, because I’m a liberal and liberals are soft on crime.
8:05 AM: We received a call about a wounded cat, possibly dead already, on the side of the road.
8:07 AM: We listened to gangsta rap on the way over.
Cuz in the city of angels, it’s all about survival,
Fuck the 5-0, they wanna see you DOA,
Welcome to L. A.
I guess even cops like to sing about cops killing people. Ironic, that.
8:16 AM: Here are my notes from this call. “Found two dead cats, one was actually a rabbit.” Really, what else can you say? The police officer’s lot is a glamorous one.
8:34 AM: It was turning out to be a slow morning. We checked behind a few grocery stores, just fishing for people doing things they aren’t supposed to be doing. Behind a Safeway, we found a dumpster diver. Chris asked the nearby Safeway staff members who were unloading boxes if they wanted the guy removed from their property, but the manager said the guy wasn’t bothering them, so they didn’t care. Chris spoke with the guy anyway and let him know why it’s not a good idea to be climbing into dumpsters if you can avoid it.
What impressed me the most is how Chris handled the discussion. Earlier, I’d watched him go into a house with a gun drawn and an aura of authority. Now he’s talking to this homeless dude like they’re best friends, just having a chat, even asking him if he’ll turn over his knife to Chris while they talk, just for everyone’s safety. It was an impressive display of diplomacy.
Since the Safeway staff didn’t have an issue with the guy being there and he wasn’t bothering anyone else, Chris let him go on his way. We talked about that after we pulled out of the parking lot, of the importance of trying to establish a good presence with people on the street. Chris told me about his hopes. “These homeless guys, they have a lot of interaction with us,” he said. “We see the same guys a lot. I just hope that if a guy like this has some good experiences with cops, not getting busted for minor stuff, maybe that’ll make a difference and help the guy trust us more when something more serious happens.”
We also talked about the importance of diplomacy. “I still get nervous when I’m driving and I see a cop behind me,” Chris said. “I’m like, fuck, it’s cops.” I pointed out that he’s also the cops. He laughed.
9:06 AM: We received a call about a possible trespasser at a different Safeway. This was the most promising call all morning; Chris said he was really hoping he’d get at least one arrest today so he could show me jail. Being something of a square, I’ve never had an opportunity to see jail before. I’ll touch more on that point in a bit.
9:10 AM: We rolled up to the Safeway and found a homeless guy staggering outside the grocery story with a half-empty bottle of Tequila in his hand. In my expert opinion, he was heavily intoxicated. When Chris attempted to talk to him, he attempted to hide the bottle of Tequila in his pants. This did not prove to be a sound strategy.
Two other officers arrived (like I said, it was a slow morning and cops get bored too) to assess the situation. Based on interviews with the staff, the suspect was actually in the nearby Subway restaurant and it was they who’d called the police, evidently because they take it seriously over there about the whole “you’re not allowed to drink in a Subway” and “you shouldn’t drunkenly threaten the staff of a Subway when they tell you to get the fuck out.”
The Subway manager decided to press charges, which meant that our suspect was getting arrested. Hooray! We have a reason to visit jail. Wait.
Here’s the really fun part. After you arrest someone, you have to search them. That means checking all their pockets, searching through all their clothes. This homeless dude was ripe, and I do mean ripe, in the worst possible sense. I stood several feet away and moved whenever the wind shifted. Chris wasn’t so lucky. As the rookie on the call and as the arresting officer, he got to do the honors. Including checking the man’s shoes.
I will give my brother credit. He did not vomit, although I could tell from my safe distance that he sorely wanted to.
The suspect also developed a conversation loop which consisted of asking “where are we going?”, “why am I arrested?”, “what the charges?” and “where am I going?” It ended up being a long ride to the jail.
10:00 AM: As we were pulling out of the Safeway parking lot, a call came in about possible gang activity at a nearby apartment complex. We weren’t able to respond since we had a human being cuffed in the backseat of our car. The report was that several people had been brandishing weapons and threatening some guy. Chris said that the call was probably bullshit, but several more reports came in and his expression changed. “Maybe it’s not bullshit,” he said. “Damn! That would be an interesting one.” Fortunately (or unfortunately, again), the call turned out to be bullshit; there was no gun battle in an apartment complex and the guy who called was a known factor with a history of mental illness and paranoia. Fun times. Regardless, it was off to jail for us!
10:05 AM: We arrived at the jail and began processing the suspect. It was pretty empty that morning, so we mostly had the place to ourselves as Chris led his arrestee into the processing room and I followed behind. A sense of dread began to build up in me as we went through the security doors and they locked behind us. I couldn’t help but imagine what it would feel like if the circumstances were different and I was here for a different reason, not as an observer alongside my brother, but as a prisoner. Needless to say, the claustrophobia was sudden and strong, although I didn’t make a big deal about it.
Booking took a while, although when Chris saw my notes later, he pointed out that it actually went pretty quickly for jail since we were the only ones there aside from a few guys who were also getting booked Our suspect asked several times if he could sleep; Chris said sure. The suspect asked for a bed. I guess they don’t bring you a bed when you’re in the intake area.
I know now that, God forbid, if I’m ever arrested, I will not go into such a place with dignity and with my head held high. I will likely be sobbing and crying for my mother and apologizing profusely. Jail is really scary.
10:55 AM: Chris had some paperwork that he needed to get caught up on and since it was slow, we drove out to “Chris’s Special Hidden Paperwork Writing Spot.” What makes for a special paperwork writing spot? Well, it needs to be somewhere that’s out-of-the-way so people won’t easily approach you while you’re parked and focusing on your laptop screen. It needs to be close enough to your patrol area so you can respond to calls quickly. And it needs to be quiet so you can focus on your work. I will not reveal the location of Chris’s paperwork spot. He did say that he has several such spots and that he particularly likes cemeteries and churches because they’re quiet most of the time.
11:10 AM: Chris writes a report while I play with my smart phone.
11:20 AM: The report has been written! Paperwork is part of every officer’s life but by getting it out-of-the-way now, he won’t have to take care of it later when his shift is over, which means he can go home more quickly. This makes sense to me.
11:44 AM: We got a call about a fight breaking out a Home Depot. Since there was an immediate personal risk, this call was severe enough to warrant going “code 3,” which means flipping on the lights and sirens. This is exactly as terrifying and exhilarating as you imagine it is. There’s something about those sounds that just make one’s jaws torque and one’s soul to say, “fuck yes, let’s go help some people.”
After searching several neighborhoods with several other officers, Chris and a sergeant learned of the suspect’s location from a witness. Unfortunately, Home Depot informed TPD that they did not want to press charges against the suspect, since it was learned that basically he’d tried to steal twenty dollars worth of paint and then gotten into a fight with a security guard about it. The sergeant made the decision that since Home Depot didn’t want to press charges, the police shouldn’t approach the suspect, since it would cause a huge public backlash if, say, the suspect started throwing rocks at them and ended up shot. Better just to avoid the potential shitstorm, since without charges, there was no reason to approach the guy.
12:00 PM: Lunch! We went to Chipotle, as one does. Interesting note: cops love Chipotle. I saw several other officers there, including a few detectives. We also met our dad there for lunch and talked about our day thus far.
12:30 PM: Back on patrol. Chris was energized again after a good lunch. “It’s going to be a good afternoon,” he said as we pulled back into his patrol sector. “We’re going to have a good call. I just know it.”
12:43 PM: We approached a particularly busy intersection. Right away, I noticed something was wrong; traffic was moving in a stilted, uncertain manner, like no one was sure whose turn it was. I looked up and saw that the traffic light had gone out. I turned my head and noticed it was out on the other road as well.
Beside me, Chris had gone very silent and very still.
“Chris,” I said, “I don’t think the traffic light is working.”
There was an expectant pause.
“Fuuuuuuuuuck,” Chris said finally.
He called it in. It was immediately assigned to him, because, surprise, he was already on the scene!
We pulled over to the side of the road. He grabbed a bright orange safety vest. I looked at him, wondering what I was going to do.
He looked at me. “Fuuuuuuuuck,” he said. And then he left.
Traffic lights are annoying, especially when they stop working. Suddenly, your travel is inconvenienced, perhaps even delayed. You might even have to wait for several minutes while shit sorts itself out. But then you’re through it and you’re on your way and you don’t think about it any more.
It is infinitely worse when you’re the poor bastard who has to walk out into the middle of one of the busiest intersections in the city in the broiling heat of a summer afternoon and you have to keep that shit moving until it gets fixed.
I waited him work for a while and I was impressed by the level of energy it takes to direct traffic. In my nerdy way, it actually reminded me of healing a raid in World of WarCraft; you have to establish a rhythm, a flow, and you have to keep an eye on each lane lest one buildup too much. After thirty minutes, however, I was tired of watching, so I sat in the air conditioning of the car and waited. And waited.
Another officer showed up to help.
Sometime later, a work crew showed up to fix the light.
We learned that it was a power failure and a Tucson Electric Power crew would have to fix the outage first.
I waited some more. Chris came over on a quick break and I gave him some of the cold water I had with me.
Finally, at 2:30, a relief crew of a few more officers showed up so Chris and his partner could take a proper break. They hadn’t even made it into the intersection before the lights came back on.
2:45 PM: We were on the move again. Chris told me that was the longest traffic direction he’d ever had to do. I decided not to complain as I was the one who’d had copious cold water and a somewhat functioning AC going during the whole thing.
2:55 PM: Irritated that the entire afternoon had been completely blown directing traffic, Chris was hopeful that we’d get at least one more call before his shift ended at 4:00pm. He noticed a panhandler and realized that it was a guy he’d already warned several times about not panhandling there. He’d even let the guy know that panhandling is only illegal in Tucson city limits (read: if you go outside of the city, it’s Pima County’s problem and they don’t give a shit).
Chris decided to have a little chat with the guy. But when he ran the guy’s info, he saw that there was a warrant out for the dude’s arrest. Fortunately, it allowed for a stop and arrest, so there wasn’t a need to take the guy to jail. Chris explained the situation, let him know that he’d have to appear in court in a few weeks, and told him to stop panhandling on his streets.
3:30 PM: We returned to the station. Chris unpacked his patrol car and tidied it up so that another officer could use it during his vacation (he was taking two weeks off for the wedding and the honeymoon). After that, I sat in on the debriefing, which is a fancy word for “sitting around talking about the day and shooting the breeze with your co-workers for a few minutes.” You know, like you do.
4:00 PM: We were off the clock and on our way home.
Epilogue: My brother started his career as a police officer with unfortunate timing; just as he was beginning, the scandals of police misconduct and brutality were erupting all over the country. It’s made an already difficult discussion about the nature of his work that much more difficult. It’s an unavoidable topic, but I have nothing more to say on that front.
What I will say is that I have a newfound understanding for certain aspects of the job. I get why “cop humor” is so far removed from the norm and so filled with the darkest of dark jokes. You have to be able to joke about what you see; if you don’t, it’ll swallow you whole.
I also understand how even a relatively benign day is still exhausting, mentally and physically. Because you don’t know what’s going to happen at any given moment. Your body is always primed for action, even if nothing happens. That shit takes its toll on you. It’s a hard job.
I reflected on whether or not it would be harder to be a cop or to be a soldier. Surely, it would be tougher to be a soldier, I thought. You’re far from home and you’re in a goddamned war. But I also think there’s something mentally and emotionally draining about doing a job like this in your own community, in your city, in your neighborhood. You get to see the ugly side of life and it’s shocking how close that side is to the surface. It’s always around us. We just have the fortune of not having to notice it most of the time. If something goes wrong, there’s always the chance that it could hit far too close to home. It could be his family or his friends that end up a victim of one the calls he answers. At least in the military, one knows that one’s loved ones are safe and sound at home. I imagine that has to be worth something.
He has a hard job. I’m glad I was able to see it, so that I could understand it as much as possible without actually taking up a badge myself. But no matter what we were doing throughout the day, I kept thinking about how much easier I had it than he did. If something went wrong, it was his responsibility, not mine. My safety was his responsibility. Everything was on his shoulders. I had only to observe and to stay out of his way.
That’s my little brother. That’s what he does now. I’m proud of him. And I’m worried for him. But most of all, I’m impressed by him. Because it’s tough as hell to do what he does and I don’t believe that I, a mere writer and all around dilettante, could do the same. That’s a sobering thing to realize.