We see them parked, driving around or on foot, often acting as if they’re a nuisance. They’re in almost every city, every state, every country. They live among us and risk their lives every day to protect and serve us. They are police officers and until last Friday, I thought the same of them that you probably did. No longer.
As part of a year-long leadership class that I’m finishing up, I did a ride-along with one of Manchester’s finest. We got to choose our dates (on a recommendation, I picked a Friday at the first of the month. Apparently, the monthly checks of the societal underbelly cause a bit of a stir.) for an eight-hour shift. Originally, I was a bit concerned over how a cop and I would pass the time, but I soon found out that eight hours wasn’t enough to satiate my hunger for life on the street.
The day began easily enough as I arrived for the 3:30 pm shift change. After waiting for a bit, the nightly Officer-In-Charge called me in and we b.s.’ed for a while about the job, the perils involved and the technology/systems used in overseeing a group of officers and the safety of a city eight hours at a time. Then, my officer arrived. He informed me that we were hitting the downtown area and it promised to be a crazy night. His nickname? “Wild” Bill. I donned my flak jacket and it was on. My responsibility was to assist Bill in keeping the nightly log of events. That’s right – I was a secretary of sorts.
One of the things I came away from the experience with is how much of a constant unspoken fear and sense of awareness that policemen have to have whenever they’re on duty. In talking with Bill, he told me to keep a watch out at all times, that he would do the same, and that if both of us did our jobs, we’d both last the night safe and without incident. At first, I thought, “Is he kidding? Of course, we’ll last.” But as the night wore on, the more I began to understand exactly what he really meant because you just never know. You never know what crackpot decides that this is the night he becomes infamous, what situations strike a sinister synapse that causes them to do the unthinkable. Thankfully, police deaths are rare but when situations happen like they did to Manchester (NH) police officer Michael Briggs and Franconia (NH) Cpl. Bruce McKay, people understand the ramifications.
I would imagine that situation intensifies with the men and women who are left with the underlying thought, “That could be me” or “That person was my friend.” One of the situations Bill said he would be most cautious approaching was a bar fight, because of the uncertainty involved. You don’t know what weapons people are concealing and the environment itself can be a bad guy in its own right. I did notice Bill corrected himself on saying the word ‘fear’ when describing his emotion on entering such a scenario, but I completely understood why he did so. When you are a police officer, you cannot think of fear and you can’t show fear. It’s not even an option. One small lapse could mean your life.
Riding with Bill was an instant adrenaline rush because in such a position, you are looking for everything: expired registrations, speeding, people running stop lights, assaults, accidents, conflict. You are constantly on watch for things that are askew and how you can help. While most calls are dictated by the call center, you are always on duty and that’s a hell of a responsibility. I learned that sometimes you have to look at the larger picture as to why the police do certain things. For example, many of us have wondered why the cops don’t pull over someone that blatantly runs a red light. Well, what if the squad car is blocked in by traffic and can’t safely make the stop? Or what if they’re on their way to bust a suspected criminal and have to make the call as to what is the priority? As we patrolled the streets, I soon learned that the toughest decisions are never the easiest.
Some of the highlights and things we saw:
-We made a basic traffic stop for a suspected past due registration. Turns out she had one more day to register her vehicle, but her license address didn’t match her registration. When asked about it, she gave him attitude about why they didn’t match and said she just didn’t have time to do it. He asked me, “Now, what would you do?” I said, “Give her a ticket.” One of the golden rules is to have some respect for the law, so why reward disrespecting it?
-At a stop sign in a bad neighborhood, a girl ran up to the car (remember, be aware at all times?) and said that she was stabbed in the head and that there was a girl chasing her around with a knife. As we acknowledged her and drove off, I asked how he responds to that type of thing and if we were going searching around. Well, turns out the girl was a cokehead. There was no massive amounts of blood, not even a trickle anywhere. The thought was that the person with a “knife” was probably involved with her on a drug deal that went wrong. He made a judgment call that was the right one, learned by years in the street and knowing the people on it. A waste of time looking for someone that didn’t exist could have cost a real person their safety.
-We were summoned to take pictures of an accident on the other side of town, which prompted me to ask if other cars were equipped with digital cameras. They’re not. How are they expected to be out on the streets with a presence if just one car has a camera and gets pulled away to take pictures anytime it’s needed? A $99 camera per car is that hard to come across? It was my first taste of budgetary matters that affect the way they can do perform their jobs. The accident we went to go photograph was of the aftermath of a female driver who had driven her minivan into a pole, allegedly drunk and not realizing she had completely severed a telephone pole. All with a young girl no older than two in the car, in addition to two other people. Uh-huh. Did I mention this was around 5 pm?
-We were called to another basic traffic stop after following up on an unsuccessful lead regarding a guy Bill had been trying to bust for weeks (getting the notice and then racing across town to see if it was him was amazing). As we and the fellow bike cops ran the passengers’ licenses, we found one of the guys had missed some court dates, so he was arrested. Across the street at a local dive bar, a gentleman had been observing and flipping off the cops during this whole process. The boys and girls in blue showed restraint until the guy left the bar to walk across the street toward them, proclaiming he was “going to take a piss.” Unbelievably, he walked in an alley and attempted to do just that until he was promptly stopped and given a summons. He was told to head home by using the crosswalk. Mr. Idiot then neglected the order and jaywalked in the middle of the street, leading to his arrest for disobeying a policeman’s order (or something like that).
What was funny is that as we had just finished with the first arrest, Bill explained that you wait around for a few minutes until your fellow officers are ready to depart as well for safety’s sake. You never know who may have been watching and ready to cause a problem. 20 seconds later, Chester McJackass walks across the street and there you go. He had bad intentions in his eyes, almost like he wanted to be busted. This was around 5:30 in the afternoon and this guy was hammered, not to mention his dirty cronies that were still in the bar. I mean, wow.
-We took pictures of the aftermath of a domestic assault. Sadly, situations like what we saw are a common occurrence every single day.
-We took the report of a crazy lady whose homeless live-in friend decided to move out, allegedly taking one of her Eagles cd’s. (Funny thing is that it was actually just one disc of a double-cd set. I almost offered to burn her a new disc, but I digressed). Yep, we actually had to file a report on this.
-Finally, I was shocked at some of the inadequacies that the cops deal with that prevent them from truly being able to serve and protect. There are constant reports to file, which become more of a hassle with the slow computer systems installed in the cars. For an entire shift, we couldn’t look up license plate numbers on our own because that part of the system was down. I’m not sure how much of this could be solved by bigger budgets, but the reports were killing me. I guess the actual officer has to file it, but can’t there be someone at the station that takes down the information verbally? Wouldn’t that be more beneficial? Anyone? Part of it was probably my over-eagerness to keep my blood rushing. I was addicted to life out in Manchester’s streets. If I could pay a yearly subscription rate to do one ride-along a month, I would, hands down.
The men and women of law enforcement share a common unspoken bond and a camaraderie that is unlike most others. They face the same potential fears and must treat every situation differently, even if they’ve seen it a 1000 times, all while living a life that is about helping and protecting others. It’s a unique fraternity that I feel honored to have been a small part of just for one night. No matter where they are, in your city, state or country, they have a purpose, not an unseen agenda. At the end of the day, they want to return home to their families, to bbq with their friends on the weekends and to seek out those who threaten the sanctity of having a safe life for all of us.
Thanks for opening up my eyes, “Wild” Bill.