I once spent several hours on a “Ride Along” with a Police Officer. I got a small taste of what part of one day feels like for a member of the police department in Anne Arundel County, Maryland. Now that a dialogue has opened, asking Americans to re-evaluate the structure of law enforcement, I’ve been thinking about what I learned during the four hours I spent sitting beside that female officer, I’ll call Carol, one weeknight from 6:00 to 10:00 p.m.
The first thing that surprised me was that she patrolled alone. She seemed lonely and happy to have me as a companion to talk to in the car. The second thing that surprised me was her limited job and life experiences. A recent college graduate who majored in criminal justice, most of her professional work experience was in law enforcement. She’d never met a journalist before and was interested in hearing about the kinds of things I did and where I had traveled.
What would happen if she encountered a situation where she needed the help of another officer? Carol assured me, she’d immediately call for back up and they’d come quickly. I noticed throughout the evening she was on her cell phone talking to her colleagues, mostly about what they were up to. I sensed a certain level of boredom.
We started the shift looking for seatbelt violations, Carol parked the patrol car near a suburban liquor store and was carefully looking for drivers who might have forgotten to wear a seatbelt and then we got a call to investigate a possible suicide. A concerned family member had called the police. We drove to a house that had been left unlocked with a purse left behind. Worried at what she might find, I was initially told to wait in the car.
I imagined all sorts of things that might have happened, but after Carol talked to neighbors, the missing person returned. She was upset, but not poised to take her life. With her permission, I was present while Carol spoke with her. Wasn’t this really a job for a psychologist, I wondered, but Officer Carol spoke in soothing tones and gave her the card of a social worker. “So, this is what a police officer has to do sometimes,” I remember thinking. Not exactly what I expected.
Another call came in and we were off to investigate a domestic dispute—parents had kicked the live-in girlfriend of their son out of their house. A fight was taking place. Threats were made and faces were punched. Another officer arrived to assist and eventually tempers were calmed. Once again, I witnessed the police taking on the role of peacemakers and intermediaries—trying to suggest counseling for the participants but not in a position to order it.
The rest of the evening continued in this manner. During a coffee break at Burger King with another officer, they even tried to recruit me. “They’re looking for females in the force,” they said, “If you’d like a change of pace.”
Being past middle age, I was flattered. No way did I want to have the responsibility of carrying a gun. Why do all members of law enforcement even need to carry a gun? They don’t in other countries such as Great Britain, but then we have this problem in the U.S. of so many people wielding guns and using force to solve problems.
Yes, it is time to re-evaluate and re-imagine the way we enforce laws and keep the peace in our communities. Sometimes when a system is broken it is easier to start over fresh with a new beginning. Let’s bring some new ideas to the table while utilizing the dedicated police professionals in the force and retraining or eliminating those who are not supportive of personal rights and social justice.
Sometimes I write a story and after I revise it several times I discover it’s still not a good story. There are a few sentences I like, but it’s easier to erase most of the pages and start writing over again from scratch. Maybe we have to do that with our current method of policing. Change is never easy, but when racism continues to persist and so people continue to die during an arrest or while in police custody—that’s what has to be done.