Monday, October 27, 2014

Behind the Scenes

I haven't written about this at all, but since September I've been involved in a unique leadership class in my city, where I get together monthly with thirty-some other local leaders and we learn about the challenges and opportunities in our area from a systems perspective. Each month has a focus (city history, diversity and inclusion, education, health, etc.), and the goal is that by the end of the year, we'll come away with a network of smart, connected people and some good information about the needs of our city, and that we'll each be better equipped to figure out how and where we can make a difference in the future.

All of this to say, I found myself in the passenger seat of a cop car on Thursday night as part of a fascinating shadowing experience before our November class on public safety. I'm not going to try to summarize lessons learned, but I wanted to write down some moments and memories, and this is the best place I can think of to do that. I've changed or abbreviated names and any identifying details.


I've arrived at the station at 6:15 p.m., donned a bullet-proof vest, met Officer W and the K-9 companion B, who barks his head off at me each time I enter and exit "his" squad car, and we're off to our first stop, a house on the west side where a search warrant has already been used to enter a home where someone was dealing drugs. Before we get there, a team has already been inside, served the search warrant, secured the house, arrested the dealer, found most of the drugs -- and, somehow in the chaos, shot and killed a dog that was living in the home.

W and I make small talk on the way there. He's married, a dad, been a cop for 14 years. Calm, good sense of humor, tells me I can literally ask him anything I want for the whole night, stay as long as I want up until his shift is over at 6:30 a.m., stay in the car or get out, whatever. He warns me not to try to touch dog B, who will quite literally try to bite my fingers off if I reach through the screen that divides us from him. I try to act unfazed by this.

Officer W has me wait on the sidewalk with the supervising officer while he takes B inside to sniff out any remaining contraband. I make small talk with him. How long has he been on the force? Twenty-nine years. Where are the people who were inside? In the back of that SUV, handcuffed. Who's that woman across the street, pacing back and forth? The owner of the home, who wasn't there when the search warrant was executed. She's not the dealer, but the people who were dealing were living in her house, and now she'll lose her home. She's section 8, he says, and she knew what was going on. What happened to the dog? He tried to attack the SWAT team. He says he loves dogs, has one at home. In his 29 years on the force, he's only shot a dog once. Hated to do it, but the dog was coming right for him; even the dog's owner agreed it had to be done.

Officer W comes back out, puts B back in the back of the car, says there was a lot of blood in there. Let's go.


We're poking around the southeast side when the next call comes in. It's another drug bust, this one just a mile or two from my house. It's dark now, and Officer W uses his spotlight to find the address, but I see the house with its door off its hinges and all the lights on before I see the house number. We park, get B out and put his harness on, and Officer W tells me to wait on the porch while he searches a car, then heads inside.

The glass from the door frame shattered when the police took the doors off its hinges to enter and it's all over the front porch and the entry. It was a beautiful old door, very much like what's on the front of my 1930s bungalow at home. Inside I can see an older black woman with gray hair in her housedress, sitting on the couch, crying quietly. The house is modest but clean and well-decorated, with candles on the coffee table and houseplants, and it actually looks a lot like my grandparents' house except for the framed pictures of Martin Luther King, Jr. that decorate the living room walls.

One of the SWAT officers, a woman with a mask covering all of her face except her eyes, asks the woman kindly if she has any tissues around. The woman shakes her head no, so the officer returns with a roll of toilet paper, which she sets on the coffee table after offering it to the woman. The old woman continues to cry silently while six or seven officers root through her belongings. They open every drawer, take out each box, look inside the cupboards and under the couch cushions while the dog goes methodically from room to room. The cops chat with each other quietly, jovially while they search and the woman just keeps crying and I stand there feeling helpless (who will fix that door? Will they just leave the broken glass? How can this grandmother possibly be a drug dealer? Why did they break down the door?), feeling like something is vaguely, awfully wrong. I try to silently telepath genuine empathy to the woman as she cries, find myself praying one of the Anne Lamott prayers, Help, Help, until Officer W reappears. I never see the older black man, who's back in the kitchen, but as we drive away W tells me that an undercover officer bought crack from him just yesterday.


A CPS/DFS employee has requested back-up at an apartment complex; the employee is going to try to talk to "mom" about the violent incident between mom and dad earlier in the day that landed both of them -- and their four-year-old daughter -- in the hospital with injuries. We're waiting to meet her in the apartment parking lot and W is telling me there was a homicide here last year, that this is also the place where the woman stabbed her boyfriend to death a few months ago: "Did you hear about that on the news?" I shake my head no, say I don't really watch the news. I can see televisions flickering in each of the apartment windows, and I ask whether it's safe to assume that behind each of these doors is a weapon, and W says yes, probably. He says these are the calls that can take a turn, situations that start out calm but then you're talking about removing a child from the home, or maybe the dad is back in the apartment and still angry that the mom called the cops in the first place, and you never know how things are going to turn out. It's the first and only time I feel afraid that night.

The CPS employee arrives, and we knock on the door for the mom to let us in. She's expecting us, it seems, and I stand around the corner as W ascertains that it's just mom, four-year-old, and one other woman in the apartment. No dad. The CPS worker seems sufficiently comfortable with the situation that she says we can leave, but W says we'll wait outside in case she needs us. We stand outside in the dark and the cold, and he says it's too bad, the cycle of poverty that's happening in these places. He wonders if maybe Michigan should start making assistance contingent on recipients passing a clean drug test, like they do in Florida, and I say that the main problem with that is how many recipients are minor children. He concedes. I say, what do you think the chances of this four-year-old girl are? He says, sadly, slim to none.


We're cruising Eastern and we see a lone woman turn on her heel and walk back toward the shadows as soon as she sees the car. W turns right, turns right again, and circles around to get another look. "We don't usually get much prostitution around here, but . . . " he trails off, and we see her again, standing on the sidewalk, and again she spins around and starts walking in the other direction as soon as she sees our car. W drives straight to her and parks, gets out of the car to start asking her questions.

I get out (B barks his head off at me, as usual, every time he re-remembers I'm in his car) and listen as W quizzes her politely: What's she doing out here? Where's she going? Does she have any ID on her? I feel sorry for the girl. She looks maybe 20, 22, and she says she's just trying to figure out which bus will get her home. She was visiting her family and she worked all day and she can't figure out if the number 4 has already come for the last time or not.

W asks for her name, which she gives, and then for her birthdate, which causes her to hesitate for just a few beats too long. He takes it down, along with her address and phone number, and we get back in the car so he can get on the radio to the dispatcher. "I know she's lying to me, I just don't know why," he says, as he has the dispatch run her information.

"Why would she lie to you about her name?" I ask, clueless law-abiding mom of two who's never so much as been pulled over for speeding. He says most likely there's a warrant for her arrest. A few minutes later, the dispatcher responds: There is a woman of that name living at that address, but the birthdate is off by two years and the last name spelling has two letters transposed. Aha, says W. I knew it. I'm still looking at her, standing bravely in the cold dark night, trying to get home from work while this officer questions her just for walking away. She wasn't doing anything illegal, I think. She's tired. She's afraid. She's just nervous. But then again, she did hesitate strangely before giving her birthdate.

Meanwhile, W asks the dispatch to find out who else lives at that address. "That's her," he says, and writes down another name, which, when he runs it, he finds has three warrants for arrest. My eyes get big. He gets back out of the car, tells her calmly he knows who she really is and she can save herself a charge if she tells him outright. She breaks down, admits her real name, and he cuffs her and neatly puts the contents of her purse on the hood of the car while he waits for another squad car to come take her to jail.


No sooner has W put away his notepad than another call comes in, a request for B's tracking abilities on the west side, where five people stole a car, took it for a Dukes-of-Hazard joyride, crashed it after being pursued, and all made a run for it when the car came to a stop. "You have your seatbelt on?" W asks, and when I say yes he guns it down Burton, sirens on and lights flashing, and we start going so fast once we get on 131 that at one point I'm smiling in spite of myself. (It's fun.)

When we get to the scene, there's a purple car with a front so twisted and wrecked, all the doors wide open, police officers milling around waiting for B to come sniff out what he can.

"People really do that?" I ask, as W puts B's harness on, "People really run from the scene? I thought that was just in the movies," I say. "All the time," says W. In fact, it happens one more time that night.


Amazingly, that is not all I witnessed over the course of one evening riding shotgun with Officer W. I'm leaving out the second "driver-made-a-run-for-it" abandoned car, two routine traffic stops (he lets both drivers go with warnings), and a multi-car stakeout to look for three attempted burglars (as far as I know, no luck finding them). Around 2 a.m. I tell W I've seen more than I ever imagined and I'm ready to head home to bed. He drives me back to my car, where I remove my bullet-proof vest, shake his hand, and thank him -- but not before we've talked candidly about the new police chief, what it's like to live with a K9 dog at home, the pros and cons of dashboard cameras and voice recorders, whether or not the average citizen should carry a gun or keep one in their home, where to get good coffee, and which of our kids are the biggest pains to wake up and get off to school in the morning.

I drive home marveling at the things happening behind the scenes in the mid-sized Midwestern town I call home on a regular Thursday night in October. I drive home with the strong sense that W is one of the good guys, but that even if most of them are one of the good guys, they're ultimately engaged in a nightly losing battle of Whack-a-Mole: seize the drugs from this house, sure, and then watch the same dealer pop up two blocks over a few months later; hope the CPS worker trying to resolve an abusive situation can protect a four-year-old girl, but know the accident of her birth makes a bright future pretty unlikely; maybe get lucky and track the drivers of that stolen purple car, but know someone else is going to steal another car tomorrow night. I don't know how they do it. I also don't know what it feels like to be the old woman crying on her couch as her home is searched so casually, or to be the 22-year-old woman arrested on a street corner for three outstanding warrants, or the four-year-old girl whose parents hurt her during their fight. And I definitely don't know what the long-term, sustainable, system-wide solutions are for any of these people or their problems. But I'm grateful for the glimpse into this world, and to Officer W for keeping me safe last Thursday night.