Yesterday I wrote about my decision to do a "ride-along" with the San Diego Police Department on Friday night. The experience began with me pulling into the police station parking lot in one of the city's most active divisions at about 1:30 p.m. It ended some 10 hours later in the then-empty parking lot – well, empty except for one car with four flat tires, its owner (me) cursing parka-clad ninja warriors. More on that later. In between, I was treated to an enlightening adventure.
My ride for the evening, "Ofc. Burt," is an experienced officer -- and busy. Over the course of the evening, he responded to a domestic violence call, a report of an armed man fleeing a heated altercation, a reported assault, and a request for assistance from a nurse trying to retrieve reportedly unauthorized pharmaceuticals from a patient's home. He also investigated two gunfire incidents and helped establish a perimeter around a canyon where a suspected shooter had fled. And between such activities he patrolled his beat. Ofc. Burt was so busy that we didn't even have time during the ten-hour shift to stop for coffee or a sandwich -- or doughnuts. In the interest of full disclosure, he did offer me some store-bought doughnuts he'd brought from home, which I declined. But I accepted his gracious tender of jerky and corn nuts. Twelve hours after lunch, I found them delicious.
The gunfire incidents were particularly fascinating, if a little scary. The police dispatcher radioed a report of numerous gunshots in a nearby neighborhood. When we arrived, we saw no sign of anything amiss, but an officer who had stopped on the opposite side of a nearby canyon saw our unit, and radioed Ofc. Burt that he had seen activity in an apartment complex on our street. The other officer visually guided us back up the street to the apartments. I followed Ofc. Burt as he cautiously walked through the apartment parking lot, interviewing residents and looking for spent shell casings, all the while scanning the area for shooters.
We learned from the residents the direction from which the shots were fired. More units arrived, and the officers searched the neighborhood. They found no shooters, but did discover six .45 caliber casings in the street. They also searched (unsuccessfully) for impact points and interviewed neighbors up and down the street. Another officer who had recently completed training in evidence collection, "Ofc. Dante," methodically photographed the casings, marked in chalk where they landed, and bagged each one. He explained that hospitals are required to report shooting victims, and if a patient (or body) showed up with .45 caliber wounds, detectives would return to the scene for further investigation, and forensic specialists would analyze the casings.
Just as the officers were concluding their investigation, we heard more gunshots from across the canyon: five shots in rapid succession, followed by a pause and then four more quick rounds. The officers suspected the shooter was aiming at us. Ofc. Burt reported the gunfire, and we headed in that direction. As we cruised the alleys near where we'd heard the shots, we received word that Ofc. Dante had (amazingly) located the casings; he found five casings grouped together in an apartment parking lot and four more nearby. Their sharp sergeant explained that the casings' appearance revealed them to be .40 caliber rounds fired from a Glock pistol. Ofc. Dante repeated his methodical marking and collection of evidence while Ofc. Burt strode through the nearby apartment complexes interviewing witnesses. The police later located and questioned a young man witnesses reported fleeing the scene. Ofc. Burt swabbed his hands for gunpowder residue. The swabs would be sent to the lab for analysis if further investigation was needed.
I was struck that police officers do almost as much writing as lawyers. Ofcs. Burt and Dante spent the end of their shift preparing reports on the night's activities and "impounding" their evidence. I was also struck by how similar a police station is to other workplaces. As they went about their tasks, officers teased each other, caught up on family news, and groused about printer malfunctions. One, "Ofc. Julie," asked if the snazzy little Mini Cooper in the parking lot was mine. She had a similar model and offered that I probably should have parked in the "secure lot." But it was already past 11:00 p.m., and I commented that nobody would be dumb enough to bother a car at a police station. Ofc. Burt just shook his head at that. He said around there, even cars in the secure lot aren't safe from rock-throwing vandals.
It seemed to me that Ofc. Burt's experiences have left him more cynical about humanity than I am (though I was having second thoughts about where I parked). I suppose seeing people at their worst every day does that to a man. He told me there are neighborhoods where even an armed officer might be jumped if he went in alone. He also said he treats everyone with respect, though he quipped to me that he's not paid to be nice. But the funny thing is, Ofc. Burt was far nicer to every person we met than I would be -- like that aggressive fellow in the liquor store who loudly and persistently insisted that the rapper "50 Cent" (aka Curtis James Jackson III) was cruising the streets trying to kidnap the man and force him into a usurious contractual arrangement for unspecified merchandise. The man then admitted that he had smoked two joints that night ("medicinal" I believe), and Ofc. Burt allowed as how he would do well to just go home before he got himself into trouble. The man bought a cherry Gatorade and left. We never did see 50 Cent.
The street-hardened policeman might object, but in Ofc. Burt's dealings with the public I observed a patience, empathy and kindness that gratified me. I suppose seeing families struggling to survive every day under the most awful conditions does that to a man.
As I made my way through the empty parking lot at the end of the night, I reflected on what an eye-opening experience it had been. I thought about things I haven't described above, like the two Hothian* Ninjas in identical parkas who shuffled past Ofc. Burt's patrol car -- intent on criminal mischief, I was convinced. Ofc. Burt said I was "profiling," but I swear I couldn't see the skulking miscreants' faces or hands beneath their bulky wraps. (And who wears concealing arctic gear in 55-degree weather, anyway?)
My musings were interrupted by the Mini's onboard computer, which informed me that I had a flat. Oh, bad luck, I thought. But looking closer I saw that all four tires were deflated! I got out to inspect them, but Minis have run-flat tires so you can't tell from looking at them that anything is wrong. It was still obvious what had happened: some neighborhood a-hole had slashed them all! A set of tires doesn't just spontaneously deflate. And profiling or not, I was certain that the %<~%@+¥ ninjas were responsible. (I ruled out 50 Cent.) Damned criminals, I muttered, cautiously eyeing my surroundings.
After dedicating an impressive string of invectives to my long-gone tormentors and humanity in general, there was nothing else to do at that point but drive home. Since one's not supposed to exceed 50 miles per hour on deflated run-flats, I had my GPS chart a course home avoiding the freeways. Unfortunately, the GPS can't also route around neighborhoods where even police get jumped. I saw potential assailants lurking at every corner. But I made it home just fine -- well, as fine as a man with four slashed tires could be.
I called my insurance company today to submit a claim, and then headed out to replace my tires. But I decided to stop at a gas station on the way to try filling them -- you know, just in case. As it ... um ... turns out, a set of tires does sometimes spontaneously deflate ... or at least my computer waits until all the tires are low before bothering to tell me. Oops. So nobody had slashed anything on my car.
Apologies to parka-wearing youth everywhere. I guess I could never be a police officer; I'm far too cynical about humanity.
Many thanks to the SDPD -- America's Finest -- and particularly Ofc. Burt for an educational experience!
*Star Wars fans will doubtless recognize Hoth as the "desolate world covered with ice and snow located in the Anoat sector, a rarely-traveled portion of the Outer Rim Territories."
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