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.
Patrol work is not just arrests and traffic tickets
Just an hour into his shift, Lay took a call from a woman who wanted to talk to an on-duty officer. She said she was worried about some rumors that were being spread around town about her. Lay handled the call professionally and courteously, although there obviously is nothing a police officer can do about the Richmond rumor mill.
Later on that evening, Lay was asked to return to the police station to meet with a man who had arrived to pick up his kids for the weekend. The children’s mother had not shown up. Lay said sometimes people who are involved in contentious custody suits will meet at the police station to exchange their children because it is a safe, neutral location.
The man told Lay he had been showing up to get his kids every other weekend since November, but their mother was refusing to allow the court-ordered visits. While custody orders are enforced by family court officials, not by police officers, Lay agreed that he would be a witness to the fact the father had been present to pick up his children.
Finally, Lay received a call that some children on Ballard Drive had found a syringe on the ground. None of the kids had been stuck by the syringe, thankfully, and it turned out to be unused. Lay took it back to the police department to for disposal.
Observation and instinct are the basis of good police work.
As a journalist, a big part of my job is being a good observer. It takes a lot of time to hone that skill, and I often wonder if I’ll ever truly master it.
I learned on my ride-along that police officers also heavily depend on that skill but with the added element of gut instinct. Learning to trust that instinct, which is developed through experience and training, is a critical part of being a good police officer.
Around 8:30 p.m., Lay and I both spotted a man walking along Turpin Drive. I commented on how the man kept staring at the cruiser as we drove by. The man appeared to be holding an aluminum can in his hand.
Lay said he suspected the item might be a beer can, so he pulled over and asked the man to come talk to him.
“This is a consensual encounter,” Lay immediately told the man, explaining he did not have to talk to the RPD if he didn’t want to.
The man told Lay he had nothing to hide. But, it turned out he was wanted on a charge of second-degree robbery. After the man was cuffed, Lay asked him if he had anything sharp in his pockets.
The man admitted had three needles filled with meth.
Arrests are much more work than I realized
I thought once the man was arrested, Lay would quickly drop him off at the jail and head out on patrol again. But I was wrong.
The arrest, pat down and collection of evidence at the scene took at least 30 minutes. Once we arrived at the jail, it took about another 30 minutes for Lay to write up a detailed report of the arrest.
Finally, Lay had to return to the police station to log the evidence. At that point, Lay had only about an hour left in his shift, and he told me the paperwork would take up the remainder of the time.
While I wanted to hit the streets again and see more action, I know that properly documenting the evidence from an arrest is important. It protects the rights of the suspect as well as provides the commonwealth’s attorney with the information needed to prosecute the case.
I had thought spending an entire eight-hour shift in a police car would go slowly, but the evening passed by quickly. I would encourage anyone who wants to know more about police work to fill out the ride-along application. The forms are available at the Richmond Police Department, 1721 Lexington Road.
Finally, I would like to thank Officer Lay for putting up with all my questions. Besides the points outlined in this column, the most valuable part of the ride-along was getting to know an officer as an individual. Lay has known he wanted to be a police officer ever since he was a small child who idolized Robocop, and it’s inspiring to see him fulfill that dream by being a member of the RPD.