Monday, April 30, 2012

Ride-Along Round-Up

I just finished another ride-along with APD and thought I'd present some stats.  Bear in mind I ride in Charlie Sector, which encompasses some of the traditionally roughest parts of Austin.   A couple of them (arrests, lights-and-sirens, and donuts, for example) may surprise you:

  • Total # of ride-alongs: Six
  • Total # of lights-and-sirens moments: Seven
  • Total # of arrests: One
  • Total # of cars pulled over for traffic offenses: One
  • Total # of times my officer has drawn his weapon: Zero
  • Total # of mother-child disputes refereed: Four
  • Total # of  dogs shot in my presence: Zero
  • Total # of puppies rescued: One
  • Total # of  people who've flipped us the bird as we drive past: One
  • Officer with the coolest name:  Steven Constable
  • Funniest moment: an officer (who shall remain nameless) who's slender and about five foot six reviewing the information of a man we were looking for: six foot four and 280lbs.  "What am I gonna do, bite his ankles?"
  • Total # of donuts consumed by me or in my presence: Zero

So yes, according to my miniscule and selective sample, in Austin, Texas, you are more likely to have your puppy rescued than be arrested, and donut shops clearly don't discount their products to law enforcement enough.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Why story-telling matters

I came across this excerpt while reading a longer article and I think it's one of the most eloquently expressed explanations of why reading fiction is important. Sure, I know a lot of people don't like fiction because it's not history, it's not real, and they won't learn any new facts. But, as it turns out, that's the point:

Reading fiction is important. It is a vital means of imagining a life other than our own, which in turn makes us more empathetic beings. Following complex story lines stretches our brains beyond the 140 characters of sound-bite thinking, and staying within the world of a novel gives us the ability to be quiet and alone, two skills that are disappearing faster than the polar icecaps.

These wise words come from a fiction author, of course, Ann Pratchett, writing in the NYT. But they are, in my opinion, wise words indeed.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Puppies and hugs

My outing with the police last week was, thankfully, much less eventful than the previous week.  But I'm glad to be able to announce two significant achievements.  First, know that my officer this week was the appropriately-named Officer Constable.  Yes, for real.

We begin with the rescue of a puppy.  Okay, not rescue exactly. . . so a neighbor called 311 because this puppy was chained to a tree (not legal, yo!).  The chain was attached to a rope that was attached to a tiny pet carrier that, we assumed, was supposed to act as a kennel/shelter.  I'm not even sure the little tyke would have fit in there, but as it was he was just leaping about barking because he and the kennel were all twisted up. 

And no food or water to hand, either.  I mean, come on, people, seriously?

We untangled him and I filled his water dish from a garden hose.  We gave him some love, too, which he seemed to appreciate.

Puppy rescuers!

Next on the agenda was something a little more serious.  A young lady who'd had a bad couple of days, first at the hands of her boyfriend (classy guy, I can tell you) and then she felt she wasn't being treated right by the authorities. 

We were on scene at a disturbance call, but when we got there she wasn't really disturbing much, just upset.  She had no place to go and no way to get there if she did.  Officer Constable (I love saying that) stepped up and volunteered to drive her to a shelter.  We talked to her on the way there and she calmed right down.  It struck me that this was the first time in probably 48 hours that someone had been nice, treated her well.  When we were taking our leave, Officer Constable went to shake her hand.  She took it, then said, starting to cry all over again, "Can I give you a hug?"

Shoulda seen his face.

On the way out, he looked a little shell-shocked.
"Maybe she's not used to cops being so nice to her?" I suggested.
"I'm not used to being hugged by the public," he said.  "I think that's the first time that's happened."

Puppies and hugs, all in a night's work.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

One week ago tonight

It's been a week since my last ride-along and someone asked me this morning if I'm more nervous after what happened last Thursday night (this shooting, and also this one).

I'm not.

But I did want to share this article, written yesterday on the day Officer Padron was laid to rest.  My wife and kids were part of the throng on the side of the road, there to recognize and honor Jaime.  I am glad, and so were they. 

In fact, in the car on the way to school this morning, my littlest one (five years old) sighed and said, "I'm sad for that man."  We all are, but the thing about cops, they're out there still.  They've been out there every night since Officer Padron was killed, more anxious perhaps, but there nonetheless.

And so tonight, even more than before, I will feel privileged to ride out with them.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A bad night, a sad day, a glimmer of hope

A difficult night last night.

I was on scene at the officer-involved shooting in the early evening, I was riding with the officer who was perhaps fourth or fifth to the scene.  It was, on a professional level, fascinating to hang back and watch as the Austin Police Department took control and went to work.  I was hugely impressed with their organization and professionalism, I really was.  Those in charge gave quick, clear orders and the officers went straight to work, putting up tape, setting up the perimeter, doing what they needed to do.

And they have a  lot to deal with in situations like that, they sure did last night.  As the news reports will tell you, there were a lot of very angry people in the neighborhood so while working to investigate and collect evidence related to the shooting itself, officers had to worry about their personal safety and other side matters like the huge in-rush of media.

On a personal level, it was unsettling because we were to the scene so fast.  I got to see some things that I normally only see in photos or written in reports.

And then I wake up this morning to hear that an Austin officer was shot dead as he was responding to a call, a drunk and disorderly in a Wal-Mart for heavens sake.  The officer had no chance, apparently.  I couldn't help but think that it's the kind of call that, on a ride-along, I probably wouldn't hang back much.  In fact, we had one similar, I blogged about it, which turned out to be an amusing interlude.  But it makes me realize, once again, how dangerous it can be to wear a police uniform, how a quiet night can go to hell in seconds.  I know the officer involved in the first incident last night will be deeply affected by what happened, and I know that there are two daughters who just lost their father.  We can take some heart from the individuals who tackled the suspect, their decency and bravery, but a tragic night for the Austin Police Department.

But I did want to end on a positive note.  There's reference in the news stories to the angry crowd and one woman who fainted.  From what I could see and after talking to people it seems like tension was very high (I saw the rocks they threw, the police car's broken window) when the woman passed out.  At that time, the officers were lined up in riot gear.  But as soon as she went down, the firemen on scene walked through the line and administered help to her.  I talked to them afterwards and they were clearly worried about  their safety but they went out there anyway.  Isn't that the definition of bravery, to be afraid but act anyway?  And if the news reports are right, certainly I didn't see anything to contradict this, that act of kindness and caring diffused much of the tension in the crowd.

And after a night like that, it does no harm to hang onto moments of goodness, decency, and bravery.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

In defense of cops

I saw a post on my Facebook feed today from someone I consider highly intelligent and always rational. He starts by saying: "Police are evil. Don't talk to them ever. Really. Ever."

There followed a rash of comments agreeing, saying they all lie, all the time, and should never be trusted. My first reaction was intense disappointment and now I feel compelled to respond. Let me start with a few facts:

There are bad cops out there.
Some cops lie.
Some cops drink too much and beat their wives.

What puzzles me is a willingness of intelligent people like my friend to tag an entire population of human beings as evil on account of one interaction or, possibly, one YouTube video. (It's an irony, I think, that the chap lambasting cops is an attorney practicing civil law.) Anecdotal accounts of individuals acting badly are appealing in an argument but when you think about the thousands of men and women out there dealing with the public every day, under intense scrutiny, is it surprising one or two are shown up? Ten or twenty, even?

I have known cops a long time. In England I was the police reporter. A couple of them were pecker-heads, absolutely, but then I also had a lot of haircuts in England and several barbers were racist, homophobic, narrow-minded and egotistical. You'd laugh at me if I judged from that sample that all barbers (all English barbers?!) are bad human beings.

Here in the US I've worked with cops as a prosecutor and a reporter. You know what I've found? That cops are like any other professionals: some are bad, most are good. Guess which ones make it onto YouTube?

Well, you might be surprised.

Sure, there are more of bad cops but what would you expect? You think there are lots of videos of great refereeing decisions? Oh, I know what you're thinking: a bad cop can do more harm than a nasty barber or a bad referee. Yes, but my point isn't that broad: it's that we shouldn't judge an entire profession by a limited few. One might even think of that as prejudice.

I sat alongside an officer two weeks ago in my ride-along. We were called to a grocery store where a man was causing problems, the management didn't want him there. The officer located this man, in his sixties and probably drunk, and spent 20 minutes just talking to him, calming him down, let him vent. He'd smoked weed with Willie Nelson and played guitar with REO Speedwagon, had a million beautiful babes throw themselves at him, he told us. This officer not once made fun, belittled, harassed or abused this old fellow, instead asking questions about his music, his travels. When the diatribe was over, he gently steered him off the property and towards his home, explaining that he wasn't allowed back on the property. Not threatening, explaining. And that was that.

This cop, by the way, is a former marine and a member of the SWAT team, just the kind of cop people love to hate. But he used patience and kindness that night, and not just because they were his best weapons but because they were a part of his human decency, a decency I've seen not just in him but in many cops. My own brother, for example.

I don't suppose I'll change a lot of minds by writing this, even my evidentiary use of YouTube is just one more anecdote in the swirl of tales but I'm not really writing this to change the minds of people who've decided to hate cops. As much as anything, I write this in the hope that some who are mistrustful will rethink their positions, just a little, and in the hope that a police officer will stumble across it and know that there are many of us out there who trust them to do the right thing, the right way. Make no mistake, I'm at the front of the line when a cop goes bad, but I don't start from a place where I assume that from the get-go.

After all, if things suddenly get dangerous, when your world goes to hell in a hand-basket and someone's trying to do you harm, who do you call? Your minister? Your grocer? Your barber? No, you call the same people I'd call, the people willing to put themselves in harm's way to protect you.

And in my experience, 99 percent of cops will do so, 100 percent of the time.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

I've loved you for a thousand years...

... no, nothing, it's just I can't get that song out of my head. Hopefully if I put it in yours, I'll be free. If you don't know the song, well, I dare you to click here.

So I had my second ride-along last week, and had some pretty funny moments I thought I'd share.

The first was when my officer was talking earnestly to a couple of people by the side of the road. Just for giggles I thought I'd freak him out a little, so while his back was turned I put the car in reverse and then eased away from him, about 30 yards. When he saw where his car was he did a triple take and came sprinting over, all arms and legs.  But he looked mighty relieved when his donut was still atop his in-car computer and he even managed to smile a little. But he did tell me to take the hand-brake off next time I move his car.

Which I did about an hour later. He was talking to a drunk fellow who kept staggering away from the police car so I did the opposite of the first: I drove it up real close behind him and then hit the button for the siren. You should have seen the pair of them jump!  Hilarious.

And back at the office, a couple of developments.  One initiative coming out of juvie court relates to bullying and inappropriate behavior between kids.  One day a week for the fall semester, all kids in Austin schools will dress as the opposite gender.  Boys will have to wear skirts or dresses, girls will have to wear "masculine" trousers and shirts.  Even shoes.   At recess, boys will play organized hop-scotch and the girls flag football.   The idea is to have each gender get a better understanding of what it's like to be on the 'other' side.

The best news is that there's a surplus in the county budget so in order to use it up (something about needing to use it up or the federal govt won't give us certain grants again) they're telling us prosecutors we can leave our cars at home and the county will send taxis to take us to work every morning.  pretty cool, eh?  And good for the environment because they're using a fleet of electric cars.  I wonder if we have to tip the drivers every morning?  That could get expensive.

Finally, and back to schools, what do you get when you mix education and electricity? Yes, tasers in schools!  Apparently it's part motivational but once a month at Austin schools, certain kids not deemed to be trying hard enough academically will be given the opportunity to volunteer to be tased in front of their class mates.  In exchange, their grades are all moved up one letter.  Sounded weird to me at first, but I can see how other kids might be motivated by it.  And it's kind of a second chance for the kid being tased - he gets his grades restored a little.

And, in case it got by you, happy April Fool's Day.