The Ride-along

The Ride-along

By Chief Joel F. Shults, Ed.D

I enjoy visiting with other police agencies and have had the privilege to do so throughout my career. Usually, I make connections well ahead of my travels, either through fellow chaplains, friends I have made at trainings, or simply by contacting precinct commanders or public relations officers. Most agencies accommodate civilian ride-alongs but depending on which card I play to get in the door I think I get special consideration. I’m a retired officer, police writer, municipal judge, law enforcement trainer, first responder chaplain, and criminal justice college instructor.

The reason I want my hosts to know a bit of my background is so that they are confident in having me along. Most disallow me to carry a weapon, but I’ve also been loaned one for the ride. Most rules say that riders must stay in the car and those host officers cannot engage in pursuits or answer known dangerous calls. I always have the understanding that if my host officer stops and tells me to get out, I will do it without complaint knowing that I’m not welcome at a hot call as a guest. My background usually trumps those rules and I often ask to work with an officer in the busiest or worst district on a weekend when the chance of interesting things happening is a bit higher.

Although I ask if not told, I’m usually briefed on the radio call signal of my host unit and how to access any weapons available if the officer would happen to need emergency backup that I might be able to provide. I also always ask if I should remain in the car or if I can accompany the officer when they are out on a contact. Most officers have been fine with me accompanying them. I don’t try to dress like or look like a police officer, but since I am often in a sports coat and tie I sometimes get mistaken for a detective and get approached even before the uniformed officer. I keep quiet and point to the real officer!

On occasion, I have been assigned to a two-officer unit and had to ride in the back seat. That’s never been in a squad car that had a protective screen and I’m grateful for that as a slight claustrophobic. (That did happen once in my own department when a bar fight call came in at shift change and I piled into the back seat of one of the units while two other officers rushed to the scene, getting out and forgetting to open the back door for me!) Watching the interaction between two officers in a partner car is an added element of interest.

The professional courtesy I have experienced in each of these agencies has been tremendously respectful and deferential. I always leave the experience with a sense of pride in the profession. One thing I was surprised to learn over the years is that police work is police work wherever you go. I’ve ridden with the biggest police departments as well as small and medium city and county agencies. Every agency has its own culture and demographics. Some have an amazing array of equipment and specialty units, some have to rely on other agencies for special response teams, major investigation assistance, air support, or bomb technicians. Even so, I’ve never seen a situation in any agency that I visited that I hadn’t experienced in one form or another in my work even in relatively small jurisdictions.

People are people wherever you go, and police officers, in my experience, are professional and dedicated wherever you go.

I started my interest in law enforcement with a ride-along as a high school student many years ago. I was so fascinated that I gave up my previous career plans and opted, to the surprise of many, to wear the badge for a lifetime to protect and to serve. As a public relations officer, college intern supervisor, and head of our police reserve unit, I often hosted civilian riders with the opportunity to answer their questions and give them a glimpse of the world from the inside of a patrol car.

Not only would I encourage police officers to ride with other agencies just to get some perspective on how they operate, I’d highly recommend that any citizen interested in that perspective contact a police agency in their area that allows civilian riders to spend a few hours learning more about the police profession. The rules of a particular agency for the ride will be explained and may include restrictions for the civilian’s protection, but it may be an unforgettable experience.