I had the most interesting night last night. As part of this Citizen’s Police Academy class I’ve been taking, I got to do a ride along with a police officer. (A lot of people in my class don’t take advantage of that opportunity, but it seems to me that’s where you really find out what police work is all about.) My ride along was last night.
I specifically requested a ride along with the K-9 officer (Officer B.). Before we went out on the street, Officer B. was kind enough to take me downstairs and give me a brief demonstration of how Ivan (the dog) does his thing. This dog LIVES to find the ball! That’s what he thinks he’s doing when he’s given the command to search; he thinks he’s looking for the ball. Officer B. actually fakes a throw, then gives the command (in Czech) to search…and Ivan goes at it. He doesn’t just find drugs; he can find things (like money) that have touched drugs. Officer B. showed me a pair of cotton balls that had been in with some marijuana for a while. He put the cotton balls in an empty jar and hid the jar…the dog found it!
I also got to see what 28 grams of cocaine, methamphetamine, ecstacy and marijuana looks like and smells like.
After that, we went out on the street. It was about eight o’clock at night…the Friday before spring break in a small college town. I figured we’d spend the next four hours cruising up and down the strip, stopping an occasional speeder, maybe catching an OWI, but for the most part Officer B. would just tell me interesting stories all night because we couldn’t possibly be all that busy. This was Coralville, after all…not much happens in Coralville.
Boy did I underestimate what police officers do!
As we were walking out to the car, Officer B. was stopped by three or four officers from Muscatine. They were involved in a homicide trial there…and the trial was going on NOW. They were after some witness whom they had reason to believe was in Coralville. They had an address and wanted to go bring him in, but they needed Coralville officers to go with them. (Apparently they’d gone after this guy before and he’d jumped out a two-story window and escaped.) So that was the first thing…we went to the address the other officers had for this guy. Along the way Officer B. informed me that if something really bad went down anytime tonight (i.e. if there was a big shoot-out of something), I would be dropped off wherever we were; he would not take me into a situation like that. I was also told that if at any time I ever felt uncomfortable with what was happening to let him know and he’d take me back to the station. I said I was fine and we continued on to kind of a seedy part of Coralville. I was told to wait in the car (with the dog…)…so I watched as one guy went to the front of the building, another guy went around back, and four guys went inside. This whole thing was pretty anticlimactic because the guy didn’t live there after all.
So then we started driving around. I learned where all the “hot spots” are in Coralville. We cruised through a motel parking lot that tends to have some problems. Officer B. checked plates. Plates that were from Johnson County were “suspicious” because why would a local person be staying in a motel? (I thought of my friend D. whose family stayed at a local hotel for two nights just last week because her kitchen is being redone and the spray they used was toxic…though they certainly didn’t stay at THAT motel!) I also learned that sometimes people who have something to hide will take the front plate off their vehicle and back into a parking stall in a motel like this…which is kind of stupid because when Officer B. sees a vehicle like that, he automatically checks it. It’s not that hard to get out of the vehicle and walk around to the other side to get the plate.
There wasn’t much going on at the motel right then (though a call came in from that same motel a little while later…another officer took it), we got back on the strip. But we didn’t get very far because Officer B. spotted a car driving around this car dealership up ahead. The dealership was closed, so that was suspicious. And there’s been some vandalism in there recently, so he wanted to check it out. But the car left right away as soon as we pulled in.
Then we got a call for a “sexual harassment charge.” I was allowed to go up to the house and listen as Officer B. talked to the people this time. A neighbor directed us to the right house…the person who called the police claimed she’d bought beer for this guy down the street earlier that morning and he told her to…hmm, this is a family blog, so I better not come right out and say what he wanted her to do to him. This guy supposedly also called and harassed the lady who’d called the police…she said she still had his number on her caller ID. So Officer B. explained that he could go down and tell that guy to leave her alone, but he really couldn’t do anything else unless the other guy actually posed more of a threat. So we went down to the other house to talk to the guy. (Some lady who lived halfway between the two obviously knew what was going on…she’d directed us to the lady’s house first and then she directed us to the guy.) The guy said yes, that lady had bought him some beer that morning, but he swore he did not tell her to [fill in the blank]. Nor did he call her tonight. Officer B. told him to “do him a favor” and just not talk to the woman anymore tonight. He said okay and we were on our way.
As we rolled slowly down the street (Officer B. was logging this visit) we heard a loud POP! I said, “Uh…was that a gun shot?” He said, “I don’t know.” (Hey, if he didn’t know, who did???) An older lady came out of her house a few houses up, so we pulled over and Officer B. asked her if she’d just heard a noise. She said yes. He asked her what it sounded like. She said, “it sounded like a gun shot.” (And I’m wondering if I’m about to get dumped out of the car…and thinking I don’t really want to be dumped out HERE…) But we cruised up and down the next couple of blocks and didn’t see anything.
So then there was a traffic stop…some guy was driving without his headlights on. I learned that if you’re driving around town at night and you have a light out, YOU WILL BE STOPPED! (In fact, based on my experience last night, it seems to me you’re more likely to be stopped for having a light out than you are to be stopped for speeding…unless you’re REALLY speeding…in fact, neither of the officers I rode with (I ended up riding with two different officers last night) had the radar on much at all. Apparently, they do a “visual check” of speed first…Officer B. can tell how fast you’re going just by looking at you. If he thinks you’re going too fast, THEN he’ll turn on the radar. And THEN he’ll stop you. But no one was stopped for speeding while I was out last night.)
After that traffic stop, we went after another guy without lights (BTW, they don’t give tickets for not having your lights on…they take your license and registration back to their vehicle and run your plates and your license through the computer. If everything comes out okay, they send you on your way). As we were driving along First Avenue Officer B. actually seemed surprised that these two cars in front of us wouldn’t get out of the way. They were driving side by side and we couldn’t get by. I was surprised HE was surprised…after all, we were in a POLICE CAR! We didn’t have lights/sirens on, so I wouldn’t have expected either of those vehicles to move. They’re not going to go faster than 25 mph when a police car is behind them.
So anyway, we followed the vehicle we were actually after onto the freeway, but by then the driver realized he didn’t have lights on and turned them on. So we turned around at the next exit and headed back to town. On the way back, we saw a vehicle on the other side of the freeway that looked like it was sitting perpendicular to traffic. Not good. Nothing had come through the radio yet about an accident, so it had obviously just happened. (In fact, we found out that when the woman who had been involved in the accident called 911, the dispatcher asked the woman if she could see a police car…she knew we were in the area.) So Officer B. turned on the lights and sirens and we got to go through a couple of red lights so we could quickly get to the accident scene. I get a little freaked out about car accidents, so I didn’t get out of the car for this one. I could see that everyone was okay, though, so that was good. Officer B. wanted to get everyone off the freeway, so he asked them to drive to the next exit and go down to the church on Foster Road (which is actually in Iowa City) and he’d write everything up there. What happened was the woman was headed down the on-ramp first and she slowed down for some reason, so the guy behind her had two choices: rear end her or go around her and hope he’d make it. Unfortunately, he ended up over-correcting and the two vehicles collided head-on. It’s not the responsibility of the police to determine fault (that’s up to the insurance companies)…all they do is determine whether a citation will be issued. Officer B. couldn’t say right then whether one would be issued or not (he’d have to think about it), but he thought one would probably be issued to the guy for failure to maintain control. Even though the woman’s car was drivable, Officer B. suggested she might want to have it towed anyway because her airbag hadn’t deployed. She’d just been in a head-on collision, so there was a possibility the airbag would randomly deploy on her way home (she was driving all the way back to Quad Cities that night).
The next incident was the really exciting one. We stopped yet another vehicle because their headlights weren’t on. I sat in the car and watched as Officer B. S-L-O-W-L-Y pulled a rifle out of the backseat and set it on the top of the car. Then he S-L-O-W-L-Y pulled a hand gun out. Oh. My. God. There were three people in that vehicle in front of us…and there was only police officer. What if those three people in that car up there all got out at the same time and tried to get their guns? Before Officer B. brought them back to the police car before that happened. He set them on the hood of HIS car and got in with me (leaving the guns still sitting on the hood). I said, “A-a-are those real?” He said, “No. They’re Airsoft guns.” And then he said, “This is an example of really bad police work.”
He said he should have noticed those guns sitting on the back seat right away…and if he had noticed, things would have gone down very differently. He said that if he had noticed them, he would’ve pulled his gun and pointed it at those kids (yes, they were just kids! College Student’s age…or maybe younger.). He would’ve called for backup and held the gun on those kids until backup arrived (which likely wouldn’t have been long). He would have done nothing until backup arrived…but if one of those kids had reached for one of those guns while he was standing there, he would’ve shot the kid!
I was stunned. All I could think about was my College Student, who doesn’t actually own an Airsoft gun, but he has gotten together with some friends (out in the country) to play Airsoft. That could’ve been my quiet, well-mannered college student in that car! (In fact, when I heard they were Airsoft guns, I sat up a little straighter and tried to see those kids to see if I knew them. I didn’t.)
I said, “But they’re not real. And those kids would probably tell you they’re not real right away.” He said it wouldn’t matter…in Chicago they’ve had problems with “bad guys” painting the tips of real guns orange (I didn’t know that Airsoft guns have orange tips…) and then shooting police officers! Even the police can’t tell an Airsoft gun from a real gun unless they actually hold it (Officer B. said these guns were too light to be real…but College Student tells me there are Airsoft guns that are much heavier…almost as heavy as real guns). So…if the police see a gun in your car, even if it has an orange tip, they’re going to assume it’s a real gun to start with. And they’re going to proceed accordingly.
But like I said, Officer B. didn’t see the guns right away. He asked the kids what they’d been doing and they said they’d been out playing Airsoft…and THAT’S when he saw the guns. (Yeah, he took the time to explain all this to me while those poor kids sweated it out in the vehicle in front of us…not knowing what was going to happen to them.) So he ran the plates and the driver’s license…everything came out fine, so he returned the driver’s license and the guns. He had the kids move the guns to the trunk and then sent them on their way. He also had to alert the sergeant to what had happened since “guns” had been involved.
I also got a lesson in racial profiling. We pulled up behind a car in a left turn lane. Officer B. said, “I think I recognize that vehicle in front of us. I think I’ve stopped it before.” So while we were sitting there, he ran the plates. Then we followed that car for a while. He said to me, “So what race is the driver of that vehicle in front of me?” I just stared at him. First of all, it was dark…I had no idea what race he was. (I couldn’t even tell for sure if the driver was a he or a she from behind, much less what race he or she was!) Second, what difference did it make??? He got a little closer to the vehicle (as close as he really dared) and said, “now can you tell what race he is?” I said “No, it’s too dark.” That was his point! We hear so much about police stopping someone based on race, but the reality it at night, you really can’t tell what race the driver of a vehicle is. (BTW, the plates came out clean)
It was about 10:30 now and Officer B. was assigned to watch over some art work at an art show for the rest of the night. He’d told me this ahead of time…but he also told me that I was perfectly welcome to ride with somebody else when he had to go do that if I wanted to. Originally, I was planning to just call it a night when he was done, but the evening had been so interesting that I decided to go another couple hours with another guy. I’ll write about that in a second post. (I will tell you right now, though, that I got to see two arrests with the second guy…and neither of them were for DWI or PAULA!)
So…this was all in just two and a half hours out on the street…and I never did get to hear any stories…