It is 1:05 a.m. on a Saturday morning, and I’m riding shotgun in a police car with Santa Cruz Police Officer Alexander Ganzel. Before joining the police force, Ganzel served in the Marines for four years, and I had no difficulty imagining the lean, crew-cut haired man next to me in army fatigues.
“You should have been here last night. I had a guy run from me,” he said with a smile.
The “Ride-Along” program allows curious citizens to sit in on two hours of a police officer’s shift, provided they stay within the proximity of the car. Originally, I arrived at the police station at 11:45 p.m. — but because of a possible stabbing, they didn’t manage to get to me until 12:40 a.m. Then my “Ride-Along” began.
Friends asked me how it was. I told them it’s cheaper and more informative than a movie, and certainly a more sober Friday night than you may be used to.
“It’s definitely a good way to get a firsthand look of what we go through. We want people to know how we operate. We want to create trust, and you know a lot of the officers live here,” Ganzel said.
I silently thanked God that I had decided not to drink at my friend’s 22nd birthday party just before the “Ride-Along,” and waited to see if the program would measure up to Ganzel’s high estimation. I wasn’t anti- or pro-police, just extremely curious about knowing how things run.
Early on, we drove laps around downtown, sampling the alcohol-soaked night life. As we passed by Benicio’s, Ganzel slowed the car and rolled down his window to get a better look at a group loitering under the liquor store’s neon sign. The loiterers’ conversation withered, and two or three of them turned to openly stare.
I was disoriented and unsure who to identify with. Like Gregor Samsa in “The Metamorphosis,” I had woken up and found myself in an unrecognizable position. Only I wasn’t a giant cockroach; I was making small talk with a completely likeable police officer, patrolling the streets that my friends and I usually made a habit of being delinquents on.
The night progressed in ill-formed episodes that did not necessarily follow the rules of beginning, middle, and end. At one point, a man and his dog ran up to the car, shouting at us about a girl “choking the shit out of another girl down by the Jamba Juice.” Ganzel passed on the call to another officer, and we sped off to continue patrolling the night.
At one point, I was sandwiched with Ganzel on my left and another police officer on my right. I got the nagging impression that I was an obstacle interrupting the natural flow of their police buddy-talk. The other officer was gently impersonating a woman he had just dealt with, and Ganzel would occasionally send glances in my direction, as if to point out my notebook and hovering pen.
We pulled past a bar and saw a large, balding man sitting by the curb with his head between his knees. Ganzel focused a spotlight on him, and the man jumped to his feet like an actor who had forgotten his cue. “We’re behaving, we’re behaving,” the man shouted, throwing a somewhat sloppy arm around the friend standing next to him.
“When you first start working, everyone’s looking at you. You’re looking for a small percentage of people, but everyone thinks that you’re out to get them,” Ganzel said.
I sympathized, but thought it would be hard not to feel like someone was out to get you when you were blinking at the opposite end of their spotlight.
My moral queasiness continued when a subject suspected of drunk driving was pulled over after hitting a girl’s car in a fast food drive-through. His door was open, and a police officer already stood over him, asking questions. It was strange being where I was, between the computer screen and glowing keyboard and the barred backseat. I had a close-up, but somehow still boxed-in view of the law. I saw the officers a few feet away, gesturing to the subject, but I couldn’t make out a word they were saying
This absurd sensation of being behind enemy lines continued throughout the night. I had entered the “Twilight Zone,” and was watching all the parties I might have been at on a normal night getting busted up. Disgruntled college kids drifted out of the house, down the sidewalk. I saw a friend walking his bike, and was unsure whether to wave or hide my face. I decided to hide my face. I couldn’t figure out whether it would one day be a humorous anecdote or simply a betrayal to possibly be in the same car with him should he get arrested.
For many of us, our defining interactions with the police have occurred as we sift out of busted parties trying to hide our drunkennness, or at a protest, eyeing them on the opposite side. Maybe the anxious small talk involved in a traffic violation was the most you ever got to speak with a cop. Others, like a housemate of mine, have had more opportunities to get to know the police. He was arrested for protesting at the Republican National Convention, and, after several harrowing days, found himself released from jail without his shoes. But, even if it doesn’t give you sympathy, at the very least, the “Ride-Along” program allows you to hone your criticism.
In the spirit of the open communication that the “Ride-Along” promotes, I would suggest a reverse program that allows off-duty police officers to shadow an activist at a march or protest. Perhaps a “Riot-Along” could be a gesture of reciprocal transparency.