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A quiet night in Richmond: Riding along with the Richmond police

on July 10, 2012

“It will be a great experience,” said my fellow reporter after he suggested I go on a ridealong with a Richmond police officer. “They’ll strap you in a bulletproof vest, take you for a spin at night, and you’ll see some crazy stuff.”

For a visiting reporter from the Netherlands, this sounds promising. From what I’d heard, there was a real possibility of running into dangerous situations involving drugs, prostitution, and shootings. Since marijuana and prostitution are legal back home, and any Dutch police officer shooting his weapon is sure to make the national news—it is a small country, after all—I figure I’ll be a bit out of my element if law enforcement here is anything like it is in the movies.

But the ride turns out differently: a good night for the police and a bad night for a reporter—a night where nothing much happens.

I start off the night by waiting in the Richmond Police Department lobby for half an hour, being eyed suspiciously by several people coming to collect their police paperwork or looking for a relative who ended up in jail, but whom nobody seems to be able to locate. My spirits rise when an officer, who looks like he took the night off from a Hollywood production, walks in and introduces himself. Crushing my hand, Officer Joe Walker—a recent addition to the force, as I find out later—has a voice that makes Elvis sound like a soprano.

As I get into the car one mystery is immediately solved. I now know why American police officers usually ride solo. I have to cram myself in the little space that is left between the computer, radio and a decidedly old-school looking control panel that I desperately try not to touch, afraid of turning on the sirens. Instead, trying to assume a relaxed position, I manage hit the locks, and while trying to open the car door, I accidently roll down the window. Riding in the back might be safer, and not just because of the metal cage.

As I buckle up—unfortunately without any Kevlar strapped to my chest—Walker explains the technicalities of a ridealong, considerably raising my adrenaline level. He matter of factly says that he has a pretty easy beat—usually some domestic disturbances and the occasional stabbing. He seems seconds away from revealing how to release and operate the shotgun, the barrel of which has been uncomfortably bumping against my left shoulder, when someone knocks the window and says I’m in the wrong car.

Luckily, my new guide, Officer Matt Stonebraker, looks every bit the part as much as Walker. Stonebraker’s car doesn’t have a shotgun behind the passenger seat. Instead there is a young lady who to aspires become a correctional officer and will join us for the night.

As we pull out of the station and begin to drive down a city street, I realize that people have never before looked at me like this. Perhaps the only other way to experience this sensation is to race around naked in a hot-rod with the Star-Spangled Banner painted on its sides while waving a gun. There is just no other way that everybody—absolutely everybody—will look at you with this combination of tentative respect and definite apprehension.

After just a couple of minutes of driving around, somebody on the street loudly advices we should go do something to ourselves that is usually best kept to the bedroom. Both the aspiring correctional officer and I miss who shouted, but Stonebraker swings the car around, gets out, and confronts a man sitting on a driveway. With me pointing my camera, and onlookers filming the whole exchange from a balcony, it must be one of the better-documented conversations that night.

For a second, it seems things might escalate right then and there. Stonebraker asks the man for identification, and the man gives it to him, still yelling loudly. In the meantime more people are gathering around. But, while we in the car are starting to draw more and more curious glances, Stonebraker keeps his calm and just talks.

And all is well. Stonebraker shakes the man’s hand, and walks back to the car. “He started out yelling at me, but when I left he told me I was his best friend,” says Stonebraker as he gets back into the car. “That is all you can ask for.”

As we drive to town, it seems that Stonebraker, six years on the force and an Army veteran, knows everyone. Born and raised in Richmond, he came back after his military service to work in his hometown. “But I also like the philosophy of this department,” Stonebraker says. “We do a lot of community-oriented policing, where we actually become part of the community. That’s very different in some other departments.”

Seemingly proving his point, a lady sitting on her porch makes a rude gesture. Stonebraker waves back with a smile. “I arrested her husband,” he explains. “She says she hates me, but I don’t think she really does. “

Officers also have to stay on top of new developments. For example, the police have installed several “ShotSpotters” in the city, which allow them to respond more quickly whenever a gun is fired. Later this year, the police will also start testing a new digital fingerprint system. Even if a suspect gives a false name or carries a fraudulent ID, officers will be able to get identification within minutes if someone is in their database. “I’ll be one of the guys testing the new system,” Stonebraker says. “It means I’ll have to get a computer in my car—but it will make me cool.”

Community oriented policing requires that officers stay in close touch with the community. They attend events, try to stay on top of developments in neighborhoods or defuse situations before they get to a boiling point. And most of all, they talk to people. Throughout the evening Stonebraker has conversations with many residents. Leaning causally out of his window he will exchange a couple of words. Sometimes they are just friendly exchanges, but often he’ll spot a person that he seems to know from some previous events. These exchanges are usually brief, casual, and even familiar, but there is clearly an unspoken understanding—the police are watching.

After he asks a seemingly random person standing on the sidewalk what is going on and the man insists that, in fact, nothing is going on, Stonebraker drives on slowly muttering “Yeah, except for you selling dope.”

We round the corner, and Stonebraker, seemingly as an afterthought, asks me if I know what a gram sells for these days. I stumble and tell him it should be about $10. “What are you doing?” Stonebraker asks. “You just confessed to me you use drugs!”

As I’m still trying to explain that I’m Dutch, and that my price estimation is based on sales in the Netherlands where the stuff is frowned upon yet legal, our passenger says local prices are actually much lower. Meanwhile, Stonebraker already spotted something new: two hooded figures lingering behind an apartment complex.

He swings around the car, but passes them as the two start walking. “They are OK,” he says. “Otherwise they wouldn’t be coming toward us.”

We roam the area for another hour or so looking for trouble, pulling over some cars and chasing an alleged prostitute after a call about her comes in over the radio. By the time we arrive, she is long gone. Instead, we pull over at a Panda Express to get a quick snack. Nothing spectacular happens, except that the food isn’t too bad, prompting the future correctional officer and me to speculate that the job of police officer might be not as exciting as it seems.

A minute later, a set of incomprehensible numbers comes in over the radio and we race down the street with sirens screaming, nearly causing my companion to spill her leftovers all over the car. We park next to another police car, which clearly just pulled someone over. Stonebraker jumps out, and walks over to a colleague who’s talking to the three passengers in the car.

As we sit and attempt to clean up some of the spilled food, we watch as Stonebraker opens the trunk of the car before us and searches it. After about ten minutes, everyone is allowed on their way.

When Stonebraker hops back in the car, we ask him what it was all about. “Oh, nothing really,” he says. “But wasn’t that cool?”

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