34 New Things: Do A Police Ridealong

Every year I make a new list of things I want to try.  Some are fun, some are difficult, some are shockingly mundane.  You can read about past shenanigans here.
I had absolutely no idea what to expect when I signed up for a police ridealong.
I mean, obviously I prepared by watching a bunch of ‘Cops’ clips on youtube, but that’s about it.  And I wavered between hoping we’d be involved in some sort of high-speed chase and hoping we’d spend the night poking around Bloomington, Minnesota pulling people over for expired tabs.

And, for better or for worse, my experience was the latter.

Over the course of four hours, my ridealong officer:
* Ran a million license plates
They can do this from inside their car, using a computer.  So if a cop is sitting behind you at a stoplight, it’s entirely possible that they’re putting your license plate number through their system as you change radio stations.
Some police cars come equipped with technology that reads plates automatically as you drive past; sometimes police officers have to type the plate numbers into a laptop.  The computer announces the findings, so the whole time we were driving around, a robot voice was reciting things like “VALID LICENSE.” “CANCELLED LICENSE, SEX OFFENDER.”* Pulled over an old lady who was driving in the dark without her headlights

* Pulled over a guy who was driving with a cancelled license
He wasn’t an American citizen so we spent an inordinate amount of time shuffling through paperwork + passport + international ID cards.  The driver was cooperative so the officer decided to give him a ticket rather than arrest him – which he could have done.

* Drove around looking for a suspect who had just stolen a purse from an elderly lady’s shopping cart
Apparently, thieves often work in pairs, targeting the elderly at big box stores.  One person distracts the mark and the other one steals the purse.  Then they usually fill up their gas tank and head to Target or Walmart where they buy as many gift cards as possible.  The gift cards are untraceable so they can use them without attracting suspicion.

When we got the call about the robbery, we drove from gas station to gas station and checked out the Target and Walmart parking lots, but since the description of the car and the suspects was woefully vague we didn’t catch anyone.

* Stopped at Home Depot because there was a 911 hangup that came from one of their lines

After standing around making small talk with the employees while we waited for the manager, we discovered they didn’t have a phone number that matched the one that allegedly called 911.
Between all of this excitement, I quizzed my officer about All The Things.
What was the most exciting thing that had happened in the last week?  Arresting the same guy twice in one day.
What are the personality traits of a good officer?  Communication, being able to perform under pressure, having a certain amount of empathy for people in tough situations
Did the police department have a psychologist on staff?  Yup.  But that wasn’t always enough.
What drugs were causing problems these days?  There’s been a 300% increase in heroin use.
Were there sex workers in Bloomington?  Yup, they operate out of the hotels.
How often have you felt really, really scared?  Very rarely.  Maybe only a few times in a police career would you feel like that.
Do people ever thank you for the work you do?  Yes.  Sometimes the people in line behind him pay for his coffee!
When you watch Law and Order do you think it’s ridiculous?  Yes.

Super interesting, right?  Even without any car chases!  Ridealong policies and programs differ from state to state and city to city (I organized mine through a friend), but many cities have programs in place if you’re interested in doing a ridealong of your own.

Have you ever done a ridealong?  Would you?  Do any of your work in law enforcement?

P.S. Other New Things that I’ve tried: flying lessons, writing an inmate, take an overnight train ride.

photo via tarrant county DA’s office

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  1. Sharlyn Lauby

    I've done two ridealongs – one with a K-9 unit, which was really interesting to learn about K-9 dogs and how they are trained. It included a car chase!

    It's a terrific learning experience.

  2. The Dame Intl

    I've never even heard of a ridealong! I wonder if it's an American thing? Honestly, I would be a bit scared going in a UK one, we have police reality shows here and people are really violent in this country, but then I guess it also depends on where you do a ridealong, a country town would differ from a city.

    I am so intrigued! Thank you for this!

    • Leslie Pauley

      We have COPS in America, and it is a really violent show too (and sometimes naked 0_0), but those instances are probably few and far between as the officer interviewed in this piece said. If they just put the every day stuff on TV nobody would watch the show. 😉

  3. Stefan, Sarah and Lukka

    I loved your questions. My husband has been on a few ridealongs and has wanted to pursue policing for awhile. He has gone all the way to 3rd (or 4th?) interview stage with two districts, but hasn't gotten a job yet. All the officers he's met up with told him most people have to apply 2-3 times (it shows dedication) before they're seriously offered, but I suppose it could be the area, too.
    Arrested twice in one day…that guy is no good, ha!
    Sarah M

  4. kaitastrophical

    WOW! I so want to do that. I've never even heard of ridealongs before!

  5. Janelle @ Two Cups Of Happy

    I don't know if they have these in Canada… So interesting! Thanks for sharing your experience.

  6. Margit Mae

    I've wanted to do a ride along for such a long time! Though the burn on Olivia Benson makes me question how much I want to go …

  7. @distract_me

    Interesting post. I guess all the things we see in police dramas don't really happen that often! The idea of being a police officer has never appealed to me… xx

  8. Cassie

    Fun! I have a friend that has a police scanner app. I think? that she listens to on the regular. It would be fun to listen in sometime, but way more fun to ride along! I bet you brightened that officer's day. 🙂

  9. FMD

    Oh man! Brilliant idea. It's one of those things everybody wants to do, but no ever really thinks it's possible. As a writer, I just KNOW I'd make a phenomenal detective. As long I was positioned in London, Prime Suspect-style.

  10. Kaleena's Kaleidoscope

    I did a ride along in high school as an extra credit assignment. It was pretty interesting! Although I did it super early in the morning so all we did was pull people over who were speeding on their way to work and deal with some vagrants and tell them not do drugs in front of the museum, please.

    In high school, one of my good friends used to do ride alongs a lot as he wanted to become a police officer (he is one now) and one day the car got a call about an armed robber at Wal-Mart. As they pulled up and got out of the car, the robber opened fire and shot the cop. My friend had to run out (in front of the armed robber) to help the officer and hand him a gun, as he was collapsed on the ground. The cop was then able to shoot and kill the robber. All in the Wal-Mart parking lot of our tiny little town. My friend became a national hero and went on all these TV shows, it was pretty crazy! So you never know what can happen in a ride-along!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Whoa! That's insane! I actually had to organize my ridealong through a personal hookup (instead of through a program) because they're afraid of stuff like that happening on ridealongs.

  11. JennAventures

    I love that you did this.

    I grew up in a law enforcement family. My Dad was a cop for 40+ years and all of my "uncles" growing up were a part of my Dad's unit, as a bi-product I have a lot of empathy for Police Officers. It really surprised me when I got older how many young people have fear/animosity towards police officers from such a limited few cases of Police corruption/bad experiences being pulled over for *only* going 20 miles over the limit.

    Police officers do so much good work in their community besides just law enforcement, they really want their communities to be a safe and wonderful place to live!

    • Sarah Von Bargen

      Yes! I totally agree! Truly, they put their lives on the line to protect us.

  12. anna

    Wow interesting! I never knew this was something you could do either!

  13. Amanda Cobb

    This was really interesting! Thanks for sharing. Although now I'm going to be paranoid whenever a cop is behind me at a stop light. Not like my license is expired or anything, but still!

  14. mel

    haha a (safe) car chase would have been pretty exciting. I feel like the police around here can get pretty bored… they always sound waaayy too interested in things. Like, over-enthusiastic when interviewing me about shoplifters.

    HAHA or that one time I found a random knife wrapped in plastic in the parking lot. The guy was like "OHHHHHHHHH!" lol

    I admit I do feel a little animosity toward the police, not only because of their horrible reputation but also because they LOVE to flash their lights just to get through an intersection on red, and they're always speeding no matter what. That kind of annoys me.

    • onechicgeek

      Actually, when they're speeding, they're probably going to a call. I don't know the exact number, but I would say at least 85% of calls don't involve lights and sirens. We actually try to limit how often those get used. For one thing, it kills our hearing. Plus, it lets people know we're coming, and we usually don't like to let them know we're coming. The faster you get to a call, the faster you avert a situation, plus the faster you clear yourself for the next one, so you can catch a moment to take a break and you're not fighting a backlog.

      As for lights through the intersection, in my state there's a law that you can't use lights without a siren – so anyone who was doing that would be reprimanded. I'm guessing your area doesn't have that law.

  15. onechicgeek

    I'm actually in law enforcement. I spent four months last year going to a police academy full time, 40+ hours a week, and I just got hired on at the biggest jail in the area. I'm hoping to work there a few months and get to patrol.

    I've done several ridealongs, and on one, we had to respond to a code 3 (high priority) that was about fifteen miles away (it was with the sheriff's department). We wound up on the highway driving at about 120 mph, full lights and sirens. I knew then that I would adore this job. I can't wait to be on patrol somewhere, because I know this is the right path for me.

    It's definitely not an easy job. While there are some out there who do this job because they're power-tripping, the vast majority of people in law enforcement want to make a positive impact on the community. We do it because we honestly care about people.

    In return, you get a job that will give you serious back problems – probably cause you to be depressed – increase your chances of suicide and divorce – make you be outside in the worst weather – and let you see the absolute worst humanity has to offer. And you know how teachers complain about their pay? I wish I was getting paid as well as they were. Even experienced patrol officers don't get that kind of money. Most of the ones I know work other jobs on the side (private security, academy teacher, jujitsu instructor…). You pretty much have to be a bit crazy to do it.

    But it's a great career. I loved going to the academy and learning about it. I graduated from college in 2009 and spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I wanted to do, before realizing this was it. I actually gave up my dream graduate program to pursue this. I have never regretted that decision.

    • Domestic Kate

      What's with the jab about teachers? Some districts pay well; most don't. I imagine there is similar variation in law enforcement. We're all on the same side here. Better education leads to less crime.

    • onechicgeek

      Not trying to put a jab in – but I have a lot of friends who are teachers (education was a huge program at my college) and I see them complain about their pay when around here, they get about $5,000-10,000 a year more than most police jobs. I totally respect what they do, and I realize a lot of them use their own money to pay for materials which cuts into their take-home pay, but it still comes out to be more, usually.

    • M Pfeifer

      A 2 year college education is not going to get you the same pay as someone with a master's degree…sorry

  16. Rachel

    Super super interesting! Love the license plate robot reader… who knew?! That really taps into my lifelong wish to see people's secrets in little bubbles above their heads (like the AT&T bars). Creepy! I'm glad your ridealong was relatively unexciting; I'd be terrified of something happening like what Kaleena's friend had to deal with!

    Funny side note: a (really weird) friend of a friend used to be obsessed with being a cop, so much so that in high school he managed to acquire a full police uniform and would walk around at big events pretending he was an officer, just for fun. Disaster struck when he got arrested for impersonating an officer… which record means that he could never henceforth be accepted into a police academy. Whomp, whomp.

  17. Towely

    @Janelle – they do! I'm a police dispatcher in B.C. and I've gone on countless ridealongs. Never anything too dangerous although being in close proximity to very drunk people is always a danger in and of itself.

    If you want to go on one, you generally need to know someone (or a friend of a a friend or a relative etc) involved in policing and/or have some interest in becoming a police officer or becoming involved in any number of postions that support law enforcement.

  18. Towely

    @Janelle – they do! I'm a police dispatcher in B.C. and I've gone on countless ridealongs. Never anything too dangerous although being in close proximity to very drunk people is always a danger in and of itself.

    If you want to go on one, you generally need to know someone (or a friend of a a friend or a relative etc) involved in policing and/or have some interest in becoming a police officer or becoming involved in any number of postions that support law enforcement.

  19. Domestic Kate

    Very cool. But the thing about the headlights reminded me–is driving without headlights on the new thing? Just about every time I drive at night I see someone without their headlights on. Even on streets that are not well-lit. What gives? (sorry for the rant)

  20. kathrynoh

    It's not nearly as exciting but last year I did some contract work with the police here. Just a desk job but I got to go into a few departments that are generally off-limits, some of them I wasn't even allowed to know exactly what they did.

  21. Shelley E

    Just found this post. Thank you, I am going on a Ride Along through a Citizen's Police Academy class this weekend. Looking forward to it, but have heard a few stories that make it a little scary. Most people go at night, I am going in the daytime. I was shocked when I heard what police make, at one point I was making more as a Pharmacy Technician at Kroger. They put their lives on the line everyday and deserve our respect.

  22. Anonymous

    Recent horrible experience with Bloomington Police. I ask myself Would I have been treated the same if I called from a big home instead of my apartment. Something tells me it may have been different…better. I will avoid Bloomington Police at all costs. In fact I do not want to live in a community where officers are allowed to treat tax paying citizens poorly. Especially when they are not committing a crime, but simply trying to do the right thing.

  23. Timothy

    I did a ride along about 4 months ago boring the 2nd shift heated at night

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