After what seemed like hours of tense waiting, Officer Chris Marzullo comes out of the burgled house, waving me over. He explains that we’ll wait for me to go in until officers en route have a chance to go over the scene for evidence. Frankly, I’m surprised they would let me into a crime scene at all. I wait outside near the family, awkwardly, not sure what to say to them. In the end, I choose to say nothing, smiling in what I hope is a friendly but not too enthusiastic way. Sure enough, the father has the butt end of a pistol sticking of of his suitcoat pocket. After interviewing the gentleman, the officers seem less concerned about that particular firearm.
The victim mentions to Chris that he has a round chambered, and wishes to unload his sidearm now that the danger has clearly passed. Officer Marzullo asks if he might do it, as a safety precaution. The man agrees, and Chris removes the clip from the butt of the pistol. He crouches down, holding the gun close to the ground and pointed at the grass. He ejects the unspent round, collects it, then hands clip, firearm, and shell back to the homeowner.
Chris hands me a pair of blue nitrile gloves, suggesting I tag along with the primary officer, whom I’m introduced to a bit later as Tanner; Tanner handles the initial interview of the victims, covering basic questions that would sound familiar to any fan of TV cop shows. Chris comes back to tell me that a K-9 unit is being called in to try to track the perpetrator(s) movements. While we wait, a flock of turkeys crosses back and forth across the street down the block. I’ve never been this close to wild turkeys before; they seem quite a bit bigger than I expected at this distance.
There’s a break in the action; Chris introduces me to Tanner, telling him that I’ll be following him around for a bit during the investigation. When the investigating officer arrives, Chris suggests I follow him for a bit too, to see the things he photographs and what he looks for. He moves to the the door where the break-in occurred, occasionally setting out a measuring stick for scale to capture particular details. As we wait while the photographing moves slowly inside the house, I hear barking; the K-9 unit is moving in. The dog dashes about the yard, on a very long leash and accompanied by his handler. Since I too am now part of the crime scene, the dog must get my scent in order to rule me out as a “scent of interest”. The dog comes charging up to the area where I am, all business, and despite liking dogs quite a lot, I can’t help feel very intimidated by this animal, who is not greeting me as a potential friend, but acting more like I’m an abstract threat. The dog sniffs as it passes me by, but never makes contact, nor even stops long enough to really make me nervous. Tanner follows the investigating officer to answer questions as the primary officer, and I follow Tanner. As we are cleared to move into various parts of the house, I don my gloves, and Tanner and I talk about evidence, and how shows like CSI are tainting juries. For one thing, people think that fingerprints can be found everywhere; in fact, usable fingerprints are generally only found on metal or glass surfaces. Obviously there are exceptions, but for the purposes of our discussion, they seem pretty damned few. DNA evidence can take weeks or even months to process under normal circumstances. With current backlog levels at the state crime lab, only high priority cases have the clout to jump part of the long wait for processing.
As I look around the house, drawers pulled out, their contents dumped on the floor, I feel terribly intrusive. I’m a total stranger looking around their house in what must be one of the family’s most vulnerable moments ever. I’m moved to ask Officer Tanner if being a police officer is a depressing job; after all, they tend to see the worst side of people pretty often. He thinks for a moment, replying that there are definitely good days and bad days. The job can get you down, he explains, but there are plenty of good moments too, ones that make the job worthwhile, bad days included. He also mentions that the department has a great support network for officers who are troubled by their experiences; not just fellow officers, but mental health professionals who can advise, counsel, and even console an officer coming to grips with a difficult situation.
We also talk about how people’s vision of a secure home is generally delusional. If someone wants to break into a house, they can do it, given enough time, skill, and the right tools. There is a safe in this house, and the safe has been worked over thoroughly. The metal skin has been pulled back, revealing powdery, fibrous material underneath, through which a large hole has been cut. I learn that most household safes aren’t really all that safe when pitted against a determined burglar with time and the right tools. Officer Tanner tells me that most burglaries take less than 20 minutes from break-in to departure.
Chris comes in to get me; we’re leaving the scene. The scene is secure, the investigation is underway, and is in good hands. I thank Officer Tanner, and we get back in the car. We head back to the South District station to check in, take a much-needed break, and we have just enough time afterwards for Chris to get me back to my car. As we drive, I ask Chris the same question I asked Tanner; He responds immediately: “No.” He then goes on to describe an incident where he responded to a call of a woman passed out in her car. As it turned out, the woman was dead of a drug overdose, and had been so for several hours. Her young children were in the car with her, and had watched their mother die, though it was unclear how much they truly understood. Chris took charge of the kids, buying them some food out of his own pocket at a nearby McDonald’s and reading to them. At one point, the younger child fell asleep in his arms. Chris was contacted a few days later by the Department’s mental health professionals, asking if he was okay; Chris is has a real soft spot for children, so there was concern the situation might have affected him adversely. He answered, ‘yeah, I’m good,’ he tells me. He goes on to say that the best part of his job is taking a bad — even tragic situation — and bringing out something positive. It isn’t always easy, but it makes a difference in the world.
As we approach, a call comes in; a van has been parked for some time at a strip mall, which is technically private property. The driver has been sitting in the van for the entire time. Mall security has called asking for police assistance in removing the individual, who is awake and alert but refusing to respond. By the time we get to the station — just across the street from the mall in question — the call is cancelled. Mall security no longer wishes to press charges; apparently, the driver has left the scene.
Chris pulls me into a conference room; we’re going to try again to contact a man from out of state who called about his elderly father. The man had concerns that something may be wrong, and has not been able to reach his father for more than a day. We attempt to call the man to get more information, but are unable to reach him directly. Officer Marzullo is able to leave a message on the man’s answering machine. We got this call earlier, and Chris tried to reach the man on a department-issued cell phone while we were parked, but no luck then either.
As we finish up that business, Officer Marzullo gets another call; a mentally ill woman and the driver of the van — a regular known to the police in the area — is at the front door of the station wishing to file a complaint against the mall security officer. Chris responds, going to the front door to talk to the woman. After explaining a sad litany of personal health issues, the individual explains that the mall’s security officer pounded on her window quite hard, and that she was parked, and not doing anything wrong. Chris is very patient; he takes the time to explain that, though there is a public library in the mall, the mall itself is private property, and that the security officer was well within rights to ask her to leave. Had she gone into the library for a while, he suggests, there might not have been as much of an issue. She has a difficult time understanding this concept. Additionally, we learn that she has her two children with her in the van. She is homeless, and uses the library bathroom to clean up herself and her children as needed. As we are listening to her, one of the officers from the burglary scene has returned, and comes out to the front office. She stands back, not getting involved in the conversation, but is ready in case she is needed to help. The woman is not considered a serious threat, but if she happens to be ill or injured, another pair of hands could make all the difference.
The individual still doesn’t understand that she was technically loitering and trespassing; she explains again — and several times more as the conversation continues — that she is homeless and has some health problems, and that she was parked and not doing anything wrong. She refuses help from mental health services, which limits the amount and types of assistance she can get. Officer Mazullo, still patient, explains again what the issue is. He listens, but gently makes it clear that the conversation is over. He encourages the woman to be careful, asks again if she would like to talk to a mental health professional (she refuses), tells her to stay safe and wishes her good luck.
As we drive back to the West District station, I thank Officer Marzullo for his time. He encourages me to apply for the ride-along program again if I have more questions. I nearly drive away with the keyless entry device, but Chris flags me down before I’ve pulled out of my parking spot, and I sheepishly retrieve it from the pocket where we’d both almost forgotten it.
I learned a great deal about police procedures during my four-hour ride, and of course a dozen more questions came to mind on the drive home. While I hope to have the experience again, given the waiting list for the program, I think I’ll wait a year or two before reapplying.