Journalists and police officers are never going to be best friends. That natural friction comes with the territory of being a crime and courts reporter, a beat I’ve covered at the Richmond Register for the past year.
However, we strive for a relationship of respect and understanding, and part of that for reporters is learning what police work actually entails. It’s one thing to read police reports, day in and day out, but to actually see what it’s like on the streets is a whole different reality.
I recently got the opportunity to accompany a Richmond patrol officer during his eight-hour shift. I elected to do the ride-along on a Friday, hoping that was a good night for some action.
When I arrived at the police department, I learned I was riding with Officer Paul Lay, who has been a patrol officer for about a year.
The RPD has split Richmond into four patrol quadrants, and Lay was assigned to cover the northwest corner of town during his shift.
From 3 p.m. to nearly 10 p.m., we cruised the streets of Richmond, and I learned several important lessons about police work and officers’ interactions with the community:
There are several wrong ways to react to a traffic stop.
During my ride-along, Lay pulled over a car that was traveling 41 mph in a 25 mph zone. After Lay activated his lights, the driver pulled over onto the left shoulder of the road, directly into the lane of oncoming traffic.
Lay immediately instructed the driver to pull into a nearby parking lot.
After talking to the driver and obtaining her information, Lay returned to the cruiser to write up the speeding ticket.
After about five minutes, the car’s passenger got out of the vehicle and started rummaging around in the back seat.
“What in the world is she doing?” Lay exclaimed. He quickly jumped out of his cruiser, and while standing behind his car door, he told the woman to get back in the vehicle. She said she was getting her cell phone out.
Based on all the police reports I’ve written over the years, my initial thought was the woman was trying to hide drugs. However, Lay said as a police officer, his first thought in that situation is someone is going for a gun. That’s why he stood behind his cruiser’s door.
He told me if things got hairy on the ride-along, I should duck under the dashboard.
That’s when it hit home that even a simple traffic stop can turn deadly. I know that police work is dangerous but seeing first-hand how unpredictable people are made me truly understand that fact.