Ride-alongs Provide Insight and Understanding

By KATE CANTIN
Corporate Communications Coordinator
Timmins Police Service

Published January 30, 2014

Before joining the Timmins Police Service as Corporate Communications Coordinator a few months ago, I thought I had a general idea of what police officers do.  They nab speeders, catch impaired drivers, and arrest people for drug offenses.  After only a couple of weeks on the job, it became clear that my view of policing was only a tiny pinhole in the fabric of what it really means to be a police officer.

After going on four ride-alongs (two during the day and two at night,) it became even clearer that I had absolutely no idea, like many members of the public, about the scope of what a police officer does on a daily basis.  The first of my ride-alongs was with an officer who has been on the job more than 25 years. When I asked him if he’s always wanted to be a police officer, there was absolutely no hesitation.

“You know what, yeah. I always have. Ever since I was a little boy,” he said. “Every day is different. You’re getting ready for work in the morning, and you never know what the day’s going to be like.”

He told me about the different types of calls he’s responded to over the years.  A common theme on my ride-alongs seems to be “first calls.” Some are sad, some are shocking.  All seem to have left an impression. This officer’s first call, he recounted, was a plane crash.  Walking through the bush, he said, plane parts were scattered everywhere.  He seemed to shudder as he remembered his introduction into policing.

As we drove, the officer waved at people on the street. Some are his friends, I assume. Others are clearly people he has gotten do know through repeated dealings with police over the years.  His smile though, didn’t change from one to the other.

The next day I ride with an officer who was a little newer to the service.  Towering over me at about 6’2 (by my estimate), he definitely was not someone I would want to mess with. After the first few minutes, however, it became clear he is not someone likely to throw his size around or get aggressive. He talks fast and pretty much constantly – I can tell he really wanted me to understand just what he and his fellow officers do every day.

Like the officer the day before, he told me about the first call he went to on his first day on the job.  It was a suicide.  The big, burly police officer didn’t try and hide his feelings or act tough.  I can tell that a number of years later, this call is still etched in his memory.

We visited a school, part of a program that sees different school liaison officers assigned to local schools. The officers’ role is to (1) create and maintain positive relationships between students, staff, and police, and (2) facilitate an open and respectful environment for students and police.  When we walked into different classes in the elementary school, student surrounded the officer and asked questions.  They wanted to know what every item on his duty belt is for.  They wanted to show him their projects.  A couple of teachers even stopped what they were doing to ask questions.  The officer patiently, happily, answered all questions.  If a goal of the program is to maintain positive relationships, it appears, in this school at least, it’s working

As we head back to the station, the officer is still chatting about the job.  He says he likes it.  It’s a good job.  But there’s way more to it than meets the eye.

“When I became a cop, I did it to lock up the guy who assaults his wife, or to arrest the person exploiting kids, but there’s way more to the job than that,” he said. “That’s just how it is.

During my nighttime ride-alongs over the next couple of weeks, I realized just how true that statement is.

For the first of my nighttime ride alongs, I rode with one of our platoon Sergeants. The scene in Timmins, as any city, changes significantly at night.  We conducted a couple of traffic stops.  Around midnight, my officer (I’ve taken to calling them “my” officers when I’m out on the road with them) decided it was time to do some bar checks.  Two other officers joined us as we walked around various downtown bars.  My officer told me that this is a regular occurrence on weekends – a “pro-active” approach. One of the downtown bar owners is very happy to see us making the rounds.

The bar checks were relatively uneventful.  Everyone seemed to be behaving.

On this night, a few of the calls we received were to places that really open my eyes to some of the situations that exist in the city.  The way some people are forced to live truly shocked me.  Getting back into the car after one of these calls, I actually felt myself getting emotional.

“Doesn’t this job ever make you sad?” I asked my officer.

“You know what, you get used to it,” he replied. “With the kind of situations we see on a daily basis, we can’t let it get to us.”

Somehow, this made me feel better – safer, knowing that these officers can handle just about any situation without getting scared, upset, or lose control.  Who will go into a residence where they’ve been dispatched, not knowing exactly what they’ll find when they get there?

My final ride-along was on a snowy Saturday night.  This time, my officer was a regular patrol officer.  Although we responded to various calls on that night, a few stood out.

Our first call is a 9-1-1 hang-up.  When we went to the residence, it became clear that this is not really an emergency.  The person involved was warned against making unnecessary calls to 9-1-1. We came back to the residence three times throughout the course of the evening, each time reiterating the same message. It’s obvious there are issues here that go beyond the scope of what falls under police officers’ responsibilities.

We responded to a call where someone has fallen and was trapped on the floor of their home.  Seeing my officer pick up the man and place him back in his chair, I realized this job is about way more than catching ‘bad guys’.  The involvement with people in the community is huge.  It’s these types of calls that have nothing to do with criminal activity that leave the biggest impression on the public.  When we leave the call, the man was very grateful. He gave my officer a high five.

Over the course of the night, we recovered stolen property and returned it to its owner.  We responded to a noise complaint and reminded the occupants about the city’s 24-hour noise by-law.  We went to a local hotel for reports of graffiti.  We found no graffiti but spoke to a young man about his level of intoxication.

Everyone was cooperative.  But I know this isn’t always the case.  I know that officers are often taunted and videotaped, called names, assaulted, and even spat on.

“It’s the only time I really get worked up,” one officer told me. “Getting spit on is scary, ‘cause you never really know, right?”

Along with opening my eyes to the range and number of calls police attend, my ride-alongs also opened my eyes to the fact that I probably could never do the job.  To saw what these officers see, every day, to deal with the kinds of people they deal with, to be placed in potentially life-threatening situations – I just don’t think I could hack it.  I’m sure many would agree with me.

One officer made this comment to me: “People generally don’t like to see us coming, because the news is very rarely good when we get there. And in the situations we deal with, the outcome is often not good either.”

After my ride-alongs, I have to say that if I was in trouble, if my life or the life of someone I loved was at risk, those flashing blue and red lights and sirens would be music to my eyes and ears.  Getting to know some of the officers who are out on the road night after night coming to help, I feel even safer when I turn out the lights at night.

I’m not blind to the fact that policing has faced, and continues to face challenges, not just in Timmins, but everywhere.  After chatting with officers, both from our service and others, I’m convinced that now is a very difficult time to be a police officer.  Police officers are scrutinized more than any other profession.  I know the stereotypes are out there, and, like many other professions, may apply to a very small percentage.  Despite the challenges, these officers get out of bed and put on their uniforms day after day, not knowing what they’re about to encounter, with a pledge to keep residents of their cities safe.

After my ride-alongs, I have nothing but respect for all of the women and men who wear blue.  I can say the job is challenging in ways I don’t and never will, understand.  All of the officers I’ve met so far (including “my” officers) have been friendly, patient with my incessant questions, and polite.  These ride-alongs have given me a passion to inform and educate the public about our service and our police officers.

I can certainly say that based on what I’ve seen over the past few months, our officers are competent, well trained and committed.