Eight Hours with the Seattle Police
Author’s Note: I took criminal procedure in my second year of law school. The professor gave us the opportunity to earn extra credit if we did a ride-along with the Seattle Police Department, and wrote an essay about the experience. That essay, slightly edited, is below.
I have always appreciated the existence of police officers in our society. I am grateful for the “thin blue line” separating us from anarchy. Nevertheless, I was not a fan of the police in my youth. When I was a younger fellow, I was a bit rambunctious and I would occasionally come into the ire of some local cop. Those experiences were generally unpleasant.
To be fair, I grew up in Minnesota. Minnesota, and much of the Midwest, has notoriously power-tripping police. The police have power, and they know it, and woe to anyone who challenges their authority. The status quo required a lot of deference. Me, being me, often did challenge their authority, hence the occasional clash. I’ve mellowed out since then.
Law school was a good eye-opener on how the system actually worked. And I do respect the bravery of officers who put their lives on the line when things are actually serious. “Rushing in” is not my first instinct, but we’re jumping ahead.
For my ride-along, I signed up for third shift, which began at 7pm. People asked, and I didn’t have an answer, how long my ride would actually be. Would we cruise around the city, maybe get some beers and call it a night? Or four hours? Eight hours? No idea. I was told to be at the station by 7:15 to be grabbed by my cop buddy for the evening.
At the appointed time, a fairly good-looking, young officer came out to greet me. “Hi, I’m Offic- I’m Dan. Pleased to meet you.” We walked through the back room to get to the garage. Along the way he pointed to some pool tables. “That’s not taxpayer money. We paid for that ourselves.” “You mean the union bought them?” I asked. “…Yes.”
The stationhouse was neat. Besides the pool tables and rows of TVs, couches, etc everything looked very clean and modern. Dispatch was a bank of screens and officers in headsets directing police. It looked like a well-organized operation, all in all.
We went down to the garage to Dan’s cruiser. I’ll admit seeing all those police cars in one place gave me a visceral, uncomfortable feeling. Nine times out of ten, seeing a cop makes you nervous. I got over it, and jumped into Dan’s.
Dan began by emptying the trash and putting in a new bag, getting his papers in order, and so on. He explained that he was junior in the ranks, and so part of his responsibilities was to clean up from the last person using the car. The next rider was senior as well, so he’d be cleaning up from the shift before we clocked out.
While Dan cleaned up and spoke to some people, I hung out in the front seat. I exerted no small amount of self control to not flip all the switches and push all the buttons. Instead I spoke with an officer in the car over. We chatted a bit about why I was there, law school in general, etc. I told him “this is the first time I’ve ever been in the front seat of a police car,” a joke I used a few times that night. Dan came back and we were off!
We started with some basic questions, him about my interest in law enforcement, me about his beat. His area was the Central District, Capitol Hill, and the Roosevelt bridge leading to the University District; centralized Seattle. Since little happened with the latter area, the majority of our time was to be spent with Cap Hill and the CD.
Dan was…cool to my interest in criminal defense, and lawyers in general. It was probably the company line, which I can understood and forgave. I made it one of my goals that night to get Dan more sympathetic to criminal defense, or at least attorneys.
An example: we had been driving around for ten minutes. Over the radio, dispatch reported a suspect attempting to drop a crate of animals off a bridge (seriously). We laughed at the absurd visual, and Dan turned to me and said half-jokingly “Ok Mr. Lawyer, defend that guy!” I demurred, but there was a confrontational vibe again.
But he was a professional and I wasn’t about to defend the profession (yet). So conversation shifted to the actual purpose of our ride-along, namely police work. I had lots of questions, on practice and procedure, common situations that come up, technology…
Oh, the technology in these cars is incredible. Full radios and cherry switches and machine guns and all that, but also actual computers. Touch-screen monitors, along with keyboards, internet access, full access to crime databases, DMV databases, and so on. What did we do with all this tech?
Dan’s favorite move was to run plates. Constantly getting behind someone and running their plates, to see if the car was stolen or a warrant was out on the driver or their license was suspended. When pressed, Dan admitted the constant running of plates was not something most officers did. But, he liked staying busy on patrol.
What else did the technology let Dan do? It let him send chat messages to other officers. And boy do these cops love to send chat messages to each other. It’s not like they were texting each other about Twilight and boys. But they weren’t talking about the latest developments in crime-fighting tactics either. It was usually something like “How was patrol last night?” or “I have a rider with me tonight. Says he wants to be a defense attorney” or “I hope we get to shoot someone tonight” (just kidding on that one). There were more practical things the computers were used for, like sending in reports and seeing where hotbeds of police activity were, but the IMs were by far the most amusing.
We did a lot of traffic stops. People were amazing brazen on the road, from 8pm all the way to 2am, even on a Sunday night. Speeding through lights, aggressive passing, etc. And all in front of a cop! The nominal hunt was for drunk drivers, but there were infractions a plenty.
Unlike some of the other events that night, I did not join Dan on traffic stops. He explained traffic stops were one of the more dangerous actions by police, which seemed true. He certainly took his precautions.
A common stop would be finding a car and flipping the overhead lights. The car would pull over and Dan would let them sit for a bit. Observe the driver, look for furtive activity that would demonstrate drug hiding or gun retrieving. Dan would then walk out and slide his hand on the trunk as he approached the driver. They’d have some exchange, Dan would get their license, and walk it back to the car for a check. Depending on a variety of factors, sometimes he would give a ticket and sometimes he wouldn’t. We didn’t find any DUIs that night, so the people were generally let go either way.
There was some interesting stuff for even this “routine” work. Dan had to fill out a form for every traffic stop he made, ticket or no. This requirement was to detect and/or diminish allegations of racial profiling. According to Dan, the unintended effect was that less people were pulled over at all, which had the effect of allowing the cops to give less warnings to people, which (Dan argued) ultimately made the streets less safe. And the hand sliding? He was happy I noticed that. Its purpose was to leave Dan’s prints on the car. Should Dan get shot and killed during the stop, those prints could be used to better identify the vehicle and driver.
A lot of Dan’s driving was around the CD (a sketchier part of town); his presence was used to deter drug crimes. Not for the first time that evening, I was impressed with how knowledgeable Dan was on the local denizens. He would point out certain bars or shops as places of frequent drug activity. He would also point out particular individuals and their cars as drug dealers or gang affiliates. We made some stops through the CD, but as I said his role was to drive around and let people know there were police in the area. Did it help? I do not know.
People act dumb around cops. What does someone do when they’re engaging in illegal activity and a cop car rolls around? They try to get out of his line of sight. Drivers would make the most circuitous routes when the police were tailing someone. It was genuinely funny, the enormous target people put on themselves when they randomly drove down side street after side street. Pedestrians would stop in the middle of the sidewalk and jump into an alley, or vacate a bus stop they had been hanging out at. After one car was followed for a block or two with no change in the driver’s behavior (aside from perhaps driving slower). “Looks like he doesn’t have anything to hide” Dan said. Indeed, and we drove on. Lesson there: don’t try to lose the cop car that’s following you. It’s really obvious and it doesn’t work.
Dan also did some “community caretaking” at Cal Anderson Park throughout the night. Cal Anderson is a nice park in Cap Hill, and once the sun sets, is frequently used by the public for drug activity and, more commonly, a place to sleep by the homeless. On our first trip to the park, we met with another officer. The Cal Anderson beat was not complicated and not dangerous, but as the IMing shows, the local force is a social entity. Many times through the night Dan would meet with other cops to hang out or do some police work together.
Other than the traffic stops and one incident later in the night, I was out of the car and shoulder-to-shoulder with the cops all night. At Cal Anderson, we got out and began by walking the paths. The first stop was a nearby construction site where, sure enough, a few people were sleeping on some elevated construct.
Throughout the night the police could have charged people with crimes and citations. Numerous traffic stops were for valid reasons, but if Dan wanted to give him a warning, Dan did so. The driver was likely scared straight, and wouldn’t have to pay $120 for the transgression. This impressed me. Dan’s was genuinely interested in making the streets safer, and took the least restrictive means to do so.
With the homeless folk, Dan and his friend could have cited the people for Trespass, maybe Littering and, if they really wanted to push it, Malicious Mischief (property destruction). But instead, they roused the sleeping fellows, gave them some contacts for social services and got them out of there. Respectful and effective. Dan promised he’d be back in an hour to make sure they were gone, and when we returned the construction area was deserted.
We came back to the park a few more times that night. On one we found a couple arguing well after the park had closed. After establishing there was no violence, Dan ran the guy’s ID and found a few warrants, from Kansas of all places. Dispatch took a while on it, but they ultimately determined the police had no authority to bring the guy in for extradition back to Kansas. So Dan cut him loose. A few times that night we found people with outstanding warrants in other jurisdictions. Dan explained that the local authorities used the tool to basically run certain undesirables out of town, i.e. if they showed up again their warrants would kick in. Seemed like an abuse of the system, although that begs the question of what, or who, the system was actually there for. In any event, we could only move forward on certain felony or King County warrants.
Another trip through the park saw some young people playing a large dodgeball game in the tennis courts. One of the players was off to the side, blatantly smoking a joint as the cop car rolled past. Dan called out to the idiot smoker, who I hoped would try to eat the J or do something else absurd. No such luck, the guy came over and Dan told him to “try to be a little more discrete.” And we moved on. Again, I was impressed.
Prior to joining the force Officer Dan was an army Ranger for seven years. He married his high school sweetheart where they live in Olympia. Dan had been with the force for only 18 months, but seemed well-suited for the job. “Being a cop is awfully fun” Dan said many times through the night, and I had to admit I could see his point of view. On the side Dan owned a business with his family, and it was this business that made him dislike lawyers so.
Much, much later in the night I called him out on it.
“Dan, what’s wrong with lawyers?”
“I’ve got nothing against lawyers,” Dan replied.
“C’mon, this is your chance to tell us off. I promise I won’t be offended.”
“Ok, here’s what I don’t like about lawyers…” I expected a rant on how criminal defense attorneys try to undo the police’s good works, but it turned out Dan didn’t like civil litigators. Apparently, thanks to lawyers, businesses were constantly walking on eggshells for fear of getting sued. The threat of a suit, if not an actual complaint, was bankrupting some business and stymieing others. I thought it was a valid complaint actually.
I was looking forward to debating the merits of keeping the people with guns in check and safeguarding the rights of the indigent, but Dan seemed the most part resigned, if not appreciative, of the role defense attorneys played. Dan’s only complaint was when they were too smug and/or disrespectful to the police on the stand. Another valid complaint, and I told him treating witnesses, police and otherwise, with disrespect didn’t fit my philosophy. Then I really made his night and told him he would be a defense attorney’s nightmare. His respect to the citizenry, besides his meticulous paperwork skills, would be tough to crack. Admittedly he had an observer in the car that night, but my impression was that Dan was a compassionate and by-the-book cop, i.e. unimpeachable.
Dan suggested I drop out of law school and join the force. I laughed lightly and suggested he sign up for law school. As Dan gave a positive impression of the Seattle police to me, I hope I was a good representative of lawyers to him. But still, being a lawyer was anathema to his views, although he was very polite when he smiled and declined my offer.
At around 11pm, we met up with three more officers for a coffee break at the Starbucks on Olive Way. As before, the cops were happy to know a citizen was interested in police work, slightly less enthusiastic when they learned of my career interests. I suggested I could be an Internal Affairs guy instead, and that shut them up pretty quick. Yet again, when they got to talking, the popular subjects were days off, families, and fishing. Certainly not police work.
For appreciation of Dan’s driving me around all night, I tried to buy him a cookie at the coffee shop. I did appreciate his letting me tag along, and what better way to show it than baked goods? For one of the few times that night, Dan blanched and strenuously declined the gift. He explained the SPD were absolutely prohibited from taking gifts from civilians, lest people perceive corruption. I was a little bemused until he told me he made $90,000 a year anyway. Being a cop was looking better and better…
Then again, perhaps Dan earned the salary. We were cruising around when the radio announced a burglary in progress by 13th, relatively close to the law school actually. We began heading over there when we heard the ominous “Reports of shots fired.”
At that Dan flipped his cherry and siren and accelerated to, I believe, Warp 8. Honestly, the only time I was nervous that night was that drive through the Cap Hill streets at the ridiculous speed. It was pitch black out and I could just imagine the absurd crash we’d enjoy if someone ran a stop sign (which had frequently occurred already). Dan joked the police drive their cars like they stole them.
As we sped there, I suggested that perhaps we shouldn’t get too close, cause it sounds like they have guns, you know? But no, of course we were racing to the thick of it. More details emerged: a burglary in progress was thwarted, a gun or guns were definitely involved, and at least one suspect was on foot crashing through backyards trying to get out. Dan requested I stay in the car while he went to join the perimeter on the hunt for the person on foot. I hung out and scanned the area, but it was deserted. Much, much later it turned out that the guy on foot in the backyards was not part of the original burglars, but was likely some other prowler in the wrong place in the wrong time. The original group was swiftly caught and booked.
That was the most excited event of the night, but we had a few more adventures. We responded to a DV call in Yesler Terraces which I was told was a particularly sketchy area. “Try not to talk to anybody.” I was told. I broke this one when we got to the apartment of the disturbance. A family from Zimbabwe were living in close quarters when some Aunt and 14 year-old niece got into a shouting match, or possible scuffle. The young woman was just depressed about her situation, basically, but she and I talked for a while about getting through school and moving on when she turned 18. She had a little cry while Dan spoke to some other family members. Nice girl. We left after everyone promised to try to act more civilly. No arrests.
A half hour later Dan and some other cops responded to a call of a possible prowler around some apartment buildings. I got out with everyone else and hunted around, but he was never found. I almost broke my leg on some invisible drop off, so that was something.
We took a report of a stolen camera around Broadway and Pike. Some students from Seattle Central CC had been doing a film project when, turning their backs for just a few seconds, all their equipment got swiped. They were pretty devastated, and Dan and I knew, but didn’t say, their chances of recovery were slim. Nonetheless, Dan spent a good 20 minutes dutifully filling out the appropriate paperwork to report the stolen camera. Perhaps the thief would try to sell it at a pawn shop, although the big SEATTLE CENTRAL COMMUNITY COLLEGE sticker on the camera made that unlikely.
Things began to wind down around 2am. One kid got a hefty ticket for not having any license plate, temporary or otherwise, on the back of his car. We drove by a Haitian club that was notorious for violence, although things looked quiet at that point. We called a massively drunk guy that had been wandering around in traffic. Dan and I kept up the light banter, but we were both getting beat.
At 3am Dan drove the car to the police gas station for a refill and parked the car back in the police garage. Dan cleaned up from the night and offered to loan me a book he had just finished called On the Take, a book on Seattle corruption. Dan swore it was excellent, and he was right. But reading books about corruption? Good lord, this guy was a boy scout.
We went upstairs, shook hands and called it a night. Dan confessed he usually drove I-5 at about 100 mph back to Olympia, and when pressed he admitted he was immune to speeding tickets. “Must be nice” I mumbled, but I was far too exhausted to offer more. I shuffled to my car, made it home and crashed hard.
The next day I told people where I spent my previous evening. Everyone was impressed, and with good reason: I had gotten a rare and valuable glimpse into the inside. I had plenty of good stories for them about idiotic drivers and shots fired, but the real value was another peek into the criminal justice system of Washington. It was a good experience.