The back seat of a police SUV is hard, cold and uncomfortable. As, I suppose, it should be — although most alleged offenders probably don’t spend eight straight hours there.
There is a surprising amount of leg room, but not much heat makes it through the grate that separates the officers in the front from the person in the back.
About two weeks ago, I experienced my first ride-along with the Toledo Police Department (TPD) — and not via the “old-fashioned way,” no matter what my friends may like to think.
Anyone can actually request a ride-along, but mine was arranged through Leadership Toledo. I could have requested a one-person unit so I could sit in the front, but I preferred to get the full experience.
Before we could leave, the officers had to check my record. “She’s a speeder,” one announced when he came back with my license and printout of my rap sheet. Guilty as charged, I admitted sheepishly — but a reformed speeder, I quickly added. I’m almost two years clean, if memory serves. Hurdle cleared.
The two officers I rode with were relatively new to the force with one and three years experience. One’s father had recently retired from a 30-year career with TPD. Both grew up in Toledo and said the best part of the job was helping people.
I learned that the city is broken into eight sectors. One unit covers half of each — although on busy nights, they said, they might take calls in almost every sector. My team was assigned to a sector covering parts of Downtown, North Toledo and the Old West End.
Many calls are mundane, the officers said: leaves or snow blown onto a neighbor’s property, cars parked illegally.
Other calls are more serious; domestic violence calls are common.
“It’s unbelievable the reasons people will kill each other out here,” he said.
I had signed a waiver stating I wouldn’t take photos or get in the way of police business by interacting with anyone on a scene unless given permission. Officers use their judgment on whether a location is safe before allowing ride-along passengers out of the vehicle. I was able to follow along on each call.
One involved a dispute between neighbors over a parked car. Another call came from a mom whose teenage son had knocked over a lamp and yelled at her before leaving the house. They told her to call back if he returned. Another stop concerned a car parked in the middle of the street. Its hazard lights were flashing but no one was around. The officers were about to call for a tow when the owner came back with a gas can. Later, we responded to the Cherry Street Mission, where the officers asked a man to leave for being disorderly. Another call was from TARTA. A passenger had missed his stop and ended up at the bus garage. The officers gave him a ride home.
One interesting stop was Erie Street Market, where an officer with the K-9 unit was running Damon, a bomb-sniffing dog, through his paces. The officer had hidden a package that smelled like explosive material and it was Damon’s job to find it. The true test came after the dog located the spot. The officer instructed him to check elsewhere, but Damon ignored him, staying with the “bomb” and earning a tennis ball reward.
The officers I rode with kept apologizing for what an unusually slow Saturday night it was. Although to them it was probably routine, I thought the most interesting part of the night was a traffic stop where heroin and needles were found in the car. One person was arrested. Because he was put in the back seat where I had been riding, I caught a lift back to the station in another police vehicle. The sergeant I rode with said he loved the job because of the variety. That’s the same thing I love about journalism. After reconnecting with my two officers back at the station, I was able to follow the suspect through the rest of his journey — into a holding cell while a report was written and then on to the jail where he was booked.
TPD (@ToledoPolice) recently live-tweeted its first ride-along (#TPDLive) and said they plan to do more. I thought about doing that, but signing that waiver made me second-guess what I was allowed to say. And, honestly, I just got busy talking. It was fun, as a journalist, to have two officers at your side for eight straight hours. Anything that came to mind, I asked.
One of them was at the scene of the Jan. 26 fire in North Toledo that killed two firefighters. Neither patrolman knew James Dickman or Stephen Machcinski, but said their deaths were a reminder that tragedy can strike on even the most routine of calls.
As a member of this year’s Leadership Toledo class, I’ve been interacting with and learning from 40 of the brightest and most positive people around. The slogan “You Will Do Better In Toledo” falls regularly and unsarcastically from the lips of many of us. Part of the experience is being exposed to new viewpoints that challenge your way of thinking. Sometimes a dose of another reality is eye-opening.
Through the eyes of two TPD patrolmen who encounter the underbelly of the city on a daily basis, I saw how negativity and cynicism can creep in. Although they interacted professionally with everyone we encountered, they both admitted it’s easy to get down on the city as they visit the same addresses and see the same names.
They are most disillusioned by the kids. The younger ones are undisciplined, the older ones “loose cannons.”
“The biggest problem in Toledo is the lack of parenting,” one said. “Kids today are out of control. They don’t listen to their parents and they don’t listen to us.”
They regularly see 5- to 10-year-olds running around outside long after dark.
“We tell them to go home, but they just come back. And we can’t tell their parents because their parents are nowhere to be found. That’s just what happens. It’s not unusual.”
They aren’t sure what the answer is. But they are frustrated by it. And they are worried for the future.
I wished they could spend a day with the teens of Youth Leadership Toledo. That program as well as its adult counterpart aims to play a role in changing the future. The goal, as associate executive director Cory Dippold puts it, is to inspire people to stop waiting for someone else to fix what’s broken. The adult program, which you can read more about in this issue, is currently accepting applications for next year’s classes.
To our police and firefighters: Thank you for your service. And thanks for the ride.
Sarah Ottney is managing editor of Toledo Free Press. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.