In my former lives as an Assistant U.S. Attorney and U.S. Army JAG officer, I dealt with many federal law enforcement agents and military police officers. But I had little interaction with local police. (Okay, I've received a few tickets for speeding and rolling stops and such things, and I did get yelled at once for jaywalking, but let's not go there, shall we?)
That changed when I joined the San Diego City Attorney's Office not long ago. Now it's my job to defend police officers in lawsuits filed by people they arrest.
I cut my teeth on cop-on-the-beat shows like Adam-12, Hill Street Blues and Car 54, Where Are You? The latter show featured happy-go-lucky, somewhat clueless cops and had the best theme song of any TV sitcom (this is not open to debate, although All in the Family's theme runs a close second). But I had a nagging sense that watching police sitcoms and getting scolded for jaywalking did not give me a realistic picture of what actual patrol officers experience on the job in San Diego.
A good trial lawyer learns as much as he can about his client. So my supervisor urged me to do a ride-along with the San Diego Police Department. "Ride along." That sounded innocuous enough. Why, there's even a movie out now by that name -- a comedy, no less. I jumped at the chance ...
... and quickly learned it's nothing like TV or the movies.
I arrived at the police station yesterday before the start of Friday's two-to-midnight shift. After parking my snazzy little Mini Cooper in the police parking lot (what could be safer, right?), I met my ride for the evening. For officer-safety and privacy reasons, I'll call my sponsor "Ofc. Burt." Ofc. Burt is a beefy, confidence-inspiring eight-year veteran of the force. He patiently described all the equipment a beat officer like him carries, including a side-arm, AR-15, 12-gauge shotgun, Taser, pepper spray, and retractable nightstick. As a long-time government employee, I'm used to footing the bill for good pens, notebooks and various other office sundries. But I was surprised to learn that because of funding shortages, Ofc. Burt had to supply his own rifle and shotgun and certain other life-preserving equipment. He did not complain about that, but ... seriously?
Like me, Ofc. Burt is an Army veteran. After learning of my military experience, he pointed out the emergency button on his radio and the release mechanism on his service weapon, instructing me on what to do in the event he should "go down." Unlike me, Ofc. Burt had served in an Army "combat arms" unit, and had been deployed to Iraq. I saw no sense explaining that if a JAG lawyer like me ever had to fire a weapon in anger, that probably meant things were not exactly going according to plan (read: the situation's pretty much gone to hell).
But "going down" (and not the good kind) is a realistic eventuality for police officers -- especially those like Ofc. Burt who patrol a beat in one of San Diego's more "active" police divisions. I quickly surmised that "active division" is a euphemism for lots-of-weird-and-dangerous-£#[*-happens-here-all-the-time. I was starting to have second thoughts about that waiver I had signed -- prepared, no doubt, by my conscientious colleagues (thanks a lot).
I generally avoid the areas Ofc. Burt patrols every night, which are far removed from the safe middle-class neighborhood where I live. When I have to venture into such parts of town, I keep the windows up and the doors securely locked, and get out of there as fast as I can. But Ofc. Burt has a disconcerting penchant for cruising slowly through such neighborhoods with the windows down, so he can see and hear everything going on around him. Even more alarming is his practice of stopping to investigate obviously hazardous events -- like gunfire.
I silently cursed my diligent colleagues.
My ride with Ofc. Burt reminded me of Army convoy training. My instructor, a grizzled First Sergeant with extensive combat experience, told my class, "If your vehicle is hit and you're taking fire from the left side, evacuate to the right. If the shooting is on the right, get out on the left." That makes good sense, I suppose, when you think about it. But I had to ask, "What if you're taking fire from both sides?" The First Sergeant didn't miss a beat. And his laconic response now came back to me as Ofc. Burt cruised in his much-too-slow-for-my-preference way through gang-ridden parts of San Diego:
"That's when things get really exciting."
This reminded me of a famous Chinese curse:
"May you live in interesting times."
... I hoped the evening would be interesting. But not too interesting.
Tomorrow: My Ride-Along with the San Diego Police - Part II: Interesting Times
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