Riding Shotgun With The Law (Part 1 of 2)

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Some time ago I applied to participate in a police ride-along with the police department of the City of Madison, Wisconsin. I was finally accepted, and took my ride in a squad car on April 26. I primarily wanted the experience as research; I’m working on a novel right now, the story for which involves the main character interacting with police repeatedly. An opportunity such as this is just too good to not take advantage of.

It was mostly what I expected. My partner for the afternoon, Officer Chris Marzullo, was waiting for me at the front desk when I arrived. He handed me a temporary visitor’s badge with my name on it to stick on my shirt. I had to sign a waiver of liability — law enforcement is dangerous work, after all — and then we were off. As I was signing in, I noticed on the paperwork that a background check had been conducted. Not that I found it surprising, but it’s always a relief to know that, whatever my many shortcomings, I’m apparently not very dangerous. He hands me a keyless entry device to the squad car we’ll be riding in, as a security precaution. I shove it in my jacket pocket, and follow him through the station.

We started with a brief tour of the West District station. Officer Marzullo informs me that he has been bumped today; we will be patrolling the South district instead of West, because South is short-staffed. As we make our way through the station to the parking area, he shows me a series of wooden cubbies, each roughly 2 feet square. Each contains a black nylon/canvas bag, shaped like a briefcase but wider. It it, he explains, are most of the gear needed on a daily basis; a wide variety of different forms to fill out, plus things like sterile gloves, possibly even a basic first aid kit. I didn’t really get a look inside one of them, and in the hustle and bustle of the day, I never did ask. The billy club however, sticking out from the side or run through the fabric handles, is obvious on each and every one.

He apologizes as we approach the squad car; because of the new computers installed in police vehicles, getting into the front passenger seat is a bit tight. Frankly, I’ve had worse, so I buckle in and we head out. As we drive, Chris points out one of Madison’s current most dangerous neighborhoods; it’s surprisingly close to the West District station.

As we pull off the Beltline Highway onto a major arterial street, Officer Marzullo suddenly turns off, remarking that he saw what looked like the tag end of a drug sale on the corner we just passed. We circled around the block, but his car had been spotted by both persons involved; one boarded a city bus as we returned to the scene, and the other had vanished from sight. Screened from view initially by a bus in front of them, Chris didn’t get enough of a look to take further action. I’ve always felt myself to be an observant person, but I totally missed the action he was referring to until he pointed it out.

We head back down that side street, patrolling an area with a higher crime rate. As we pass a school, Chris notices a car double-parked in front of the building, on a narrow street. We drive past and turn around; as we come back, the driver has returned to his car, and moves it to a newly opened parking space further down. Officer Marzullo gets out to talk with the driver; his manner is easygoing, friendly, and he jokes with the driver, who is picking up his nephew from an after-school program. When he comes back, we talk about this incident; Officer Marzullo observes that nothing is served by being a hard-ass in this situation. It’s after school, traffic on the street is negligible, and the guy is picking up his nephew; no harm done. With all that has happened to give police forces nationwide a scary reputation, a little kindness goes far in mending fences. So we all hope.

We pull over a few streets farther down to check the waiting calls. Chris explains the intricacies of the call system, and how to tell when one of the lines of text on-screen is from the district we’re patrolling. He also shows how to drill down on any given call’s entry line for more information — if there’s more to be had. He has access to several other useful programs though this machine; surprisingly, Google Maps is one that he uses often in his daily routine. While he’s showing me all this, a call comes in; someone has made a call to the 911 center, but hung up. It’s tremendously important to respond to those calls rather than assuming it’s something like a butt-dialing incident; if the person is being accosted by an armed individual, they may have been ordered to hang up. Moments later the call is cancelled; a follow-up call to the number confirms the emergency was a mistake.

Years ago I was working retail one day and accidentally hit the speed dial button for 911 without realizing it. The store phone rings, I answer, and a police operator informs me that a call has been made from this number to 911 dispatch. He asks if I’m able to talk, and if I need assistance. I apologize, explaining that I hadn’t realized I’d dialed the number. The operator informs me that it’s okay, but that officers will be arriving anyway, just to be sure. Within two minutes, officers did indeed show up, hands on their sidearms, asking if I was alright. You just never know what to expect.

Our first major stop on the tour was the field office at Meriter Hospital. Meriter is where folks who represent a danger to themselves or others, or are injured, are most often taken for initial examination by the MPD. The hospital has set aside a quiet office (with a server connection to the police computer system) near the emergency room doors so officers can catch up on paperwork, or buy a soda or a snack while they’re waiting for their charges to be either released to police custody or admitted. Meals, Officer Marzulo tells me, are often tough to come by. In the last week he’s only had the chance to eat his lunch three out of six days. Grabbing a snack on the run is better than having an empty stomach all evening, so stops like the office at Meriter Hospital are a welcome oasis.

Police officers in the Madison Metro area typically work a week of six days on duty, three days off. Officer Marzullo works second shift, so he’s usually on from 3PM to 11 PM. Today, as part of the bump I mentioned earlier, he’s actually working 2 PM to 10 PM. When I arrived at 3 PM, he’d already been at it for a little while.

Our second stop is the South District station, and here I’m given a more in-depth tour of the building. Officer Marzullo shows me the armory, and we talk a bit about how officers can customize their long arms to a certain degree. Some have flashlights attached near the barrel; some have dual clips for fast reloads. All look like they could deliver a lot of firepower in a short amount of time. I’m shown the holding cell, where people being detained await transfer to other facilities — either for booking, pick-up by a family member, or to more secure facilities in the city jail. I notice the metal rings attached at intervals to the benches; Chris demonstrates how handcuffs are attached to restrain more excitable individuals. He shows me the offices, the locker room and exercise room, and the interrogation rooms. I meet several other officers, including a sergeant, then we head back to the car for another round of patrolling.

As we make our way around the South District, a new call comes in; a citizen has reported a burglary in his home. Officer Marzullo seems interested on my behalf, saying this will be a good experience for me to observe. Not two minutes later, an update with further information: the citizen reports that he himself has a gun, and is on the scene. We both tense. In the discussion that follows, Chris leads by asking me, in effect, ‘what’s wrong with this scenario?’ I respond that a gun on the scene always seems like a bad sign, and he agrees. He mentions that there’s always the chance that the call could be an ambush. In his first few months on the force, Chris was shot while responding to a call. The neighborhood of the scene is near a slightly higher-crime area of the city.

Traffic, by this time, has started to clog Madison’s main arteries. We avoid the main east-west thoroughfare — the Beltline Highway — instead crossing a bridge over the lines of slowly moving vehicles to approach the potential crime scene by a slightly indirect route. Chris seems calm but on high alert. When he advises me to stay near the unit while he and other responding officers check out the scene and secure the area, I’m only too happy to oblige. We are second on the scene, having followed the primary officer for more than a mile. As the officers make contact with the individual and his family, a third squad car pulls up. All three officers go into the house, weapons drawn, flashlight beams sweeping back and forth visible through the front picture window. I hear them shout: “Madison Police! Come out!” several times, and wonder if this ride is going to be a lot more interesting than I had bargained for.

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End Part One.

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