I’ve never been on a police ride along before. In fact, the last time I saw the inside of a police cruiser was when I was a third grader at Fern Elementary School in Torrance. I was really excited that they let me try on the bite sleeve that they train the police K9’s with, but not so stoked when they told me they were going to release the German Shepherd.
I’ve had several friends who majored in criminal justice suggest that it would be a worthwhile experience, but I just never made the time. Finally, after some diligence on the part of the Public Information Officers, who secured someone to take me out on the road, and some assurances on my part that I was trying to learn, not trying to take down the Long Beach Police Department, I was able to schedule my first ride in a police car (in any capacity). I would be a civilian and a journalist, riding shotgun (next to the shotgun) in an LBPD cruiser. My job was to answer one question: What is it like to be a Long Beach Police officer?
I showed up to the West Patrol Division Station around shift change on a sweltering September Tuesday. I beat the PIO that I was supposed to meet at the station by about fifteen minutes so I was relegated to sipping my iced coffee as I paced outside the locked doors of the station, walking parallel to the mural painted outside its entrance. My officer, whom I’d yet to meet, works the swing shift. From 3PM to 1AM, we are going to be linked up, officer to writer, writer to officer—unless there’s been a directive to drop me off in the middle of a bad neighborhood due to my recent article questioning the department’s gathering of arms under the California Public Safety Procurement Program (CPSPP).
The meeting room where officers are briefed on the days’ crime trends and foci is where I’m asked to literally sign my life away. If I’m injured, maimed or killed in the line of my duty, the department is not liable. I accept, in part because I can’t get in the car without putting ink to paper, but mostly because I owe my editor this story.
Officer West—not his actual last name—greets me in the hallway after the formalities are taken care of. I’m dressed in jeans and a button-up shirt because I felt I should be presentable despite the heat. He’s not a small guy, but the 35 extra pounds of gear he wears make him appear much more stocky than he actually is. He shakes my hand and drops his first foreboding statement of the shift.
“Alright, we’ll see if the air conditioner works today,” West said.
We head out to the parking lot behind the station where the officers, fresh out of their daily briefing, are sitting in their cruisers and organizing themselves for their shifts. West carefully walks the outside of his car, checking for damage that it may have incurred previous to his shift. He double checks the trunk for supplies like road flares and the inside of the cab for the standard issued shotgun which is securely locked between the two front bucket seats.
West logs onto the in-dash computer and begins to explain the priority level of calls queued on the screen. He explains that a priority 3 call could be a car blocking your driveway. A guy getting beat in an alley with a baseball bat is a priority 1, an obvious mandatory response for officers. Our unit for the evening, One Charlie 94, is a wild unit, which means we’re not restricted to a particular beat. We are expected to go anywhere we're needed within the West Division, which stretches from the 710 Freeway to Cherry Avenue and from Downtown to just north of Wardlow.
I'm told that Rule Number One—the most important rule to follow—is that if West tells me to stay in the car, I stay in the car. Other than that, I’m to shadow him wherever he goes. He warns me to be aware of my surroundings. He instructs me that when we make traffic stops, I should pick out an object near the vehicle to hide behind in the event that someone starts shooting. He also tells me to note how he’ll remove his seat belt when we enter an alleyway. It’s a main ambush point, and if people start shooting, he wants to be able to exit the vehicle as quickly as possible.
Maybe it’s the Marine in him, maybe it’s the training, but I appreciate the heads up. I’m no Anderson Cooper, and I’m not as brave as the people embedded in war zones. I’m not trying to die for this story.
As the gas tank nears the full mark on the gauge, West, without breaking a beat in our conversation, turns to me and casually asks if I’ve ever seen a dead body. I’ve been to more funerals than I can count, but I inform him that the only corpses I’ve seen are of the variety that are painted and primped for their last public viewing. I’ve never seen one in the wild, so to speak.
“Let’s go see a dead body,” West responds.
16:30 The Dead Body
An officer must stay with a corpse until a coroner comes to relieve them of their watch. West explains that because there are only a handful of coroners serving Los Angeles County, it’s not uncommon for an officer to get stuck with a body for an entire shift. Regardless of weather, state of decomposition or if they’re on lunch break, they must stand by the corpse to ensure that the scene isn’t compromised, and in the case of the one we’re headed to, that nobody steals anything from the now-unattended home.
“I’ve had it where I get out of squad meeting, before I’m even done gassing up, I get a call and respond to it,” West said. “I’m supposed to be out of here at one in the morning, I end up on overtime being there until 5 or 6 in the morning. One call. But that’s usually a murder or fatal traffic accident.”
There’s already a unit on scene, but because they’re stuck there, it’s a courtesy that officers in the area periodically check in to see if they’re okay or if they need anything. There’s a small group of neighbors and friends gathered on the raised porch of the dilapidated house as we walk up to the residence. It’s a particularly steamy day and I’m fearful that I’m not going to make it to the one-hour mark of this ride along without vomiting at a crime scene.
West leads the way into the home of the deceased. He lived alone, if you don’t count the clutter of cats that the man looked after. West and the other officer walk ahead, navigating the narrow path that marks the only way in and out of the home. To the left and right of us are countless stacks of the man’s belongings, forming a valley that led to the room where he breathed his last breath.
If it wasn’t obvious that he was a hoarder, the closet door laid across his bathtub to create more storage space was a dead giveaway. As we made our way to the back of the home I became increasingly grateful that the pungent combination of cat urine and must would prove a worthy adversary to any decomposing body. The man, who was a veteran and was discovered by his friend, was lying naked on his bedroom floor. His massive body was turned face up, hands on either side of his face and his fingers slightly curled. West estimated that by the amount of blood settled to the bottom of his body—giving the illusion that he was one-quarter purple—and the state of rigor mortis, he’d been there for about 10-12 hours. Everyone was in agreement that the coroner was going to have a hell of a time getting him out.
“This one will be the second one this week,” West said of the body. “You might go two months without one, you might have three in a week. There’s not a really a method to this job. You just never know.”
We get back into the cruiser, which is always left running in the event that we need to make a quick exit from a scene, and I press him about how he’s able to brush death off so easily. He explains that his 12 years on the force and time in the military have exposed him to death more times than he can remember, but it hasn’t hardened him completely. Natural death is easier to swallow because its unavoidable, but certain cases he just can’t push to the back of his mind.
“I’m even to the point now that the only type of call that really still troubles me is anything involving children,” West said. “I’m a father myself, so, if somebody dies naturally, it’s not too hard to deal with. It’s sad when someone is taken within moments of their life, like traffic accidents.”
There are over 130 radio codes that an officer must know in order to be able to correctly respond to a call. They range from the 929-D (dead body) that we left his fellow officer with earlier in the day, to a 211 (robbery) all the way to the obscure 903 (aircraft crash) and 402-B (abandoned refrigerator). West said there’s a simple tactic employed during the academy to get recruits to commit these codes to memory.
“You learn real quickly, unless you want to get strong,” West said, referring to the pushups that would inevitably follow a mixing-up of codes while in the academy.
In his time on the force, he’s only responded to one 402-B (again, abandoned refrigerator) call. He was proud that when it came over the radio he actually knew what 402-B was referring to. However, as we respond to a potential domestic violence call, he couldn’t recall the code number. His stoic response to my request he do pushups I’ll attribute to his military background and not to the comedic value of my otherwise well-executed joke.
We’re Code-3, which means lights and sirens. West skillfully navigates his way down Atlantic Avenue, passing cars, frozen by the sound of his siren, on the left hand side because DMV regulations require that drivers pull to the right. My body tenses up a little more with every intersection we drive though. It’s an unnatural feeling driving through a red light, especially when you’re uncertain if the cross traffic is going to yield to sounds of the siren. West says that while he’s been a passenger in a black and white when its collided with a civilian vehicle, he’s never caused an accident.
West stops the cruiser a few houses away from where the firetruck and ambulance are already waiting outside. It’s a tactical move to not allow the potential perpetrators know that the police are now on the scene. There was a domestic disturbance that resulted in one man being struck in the head with a piece of a bicycle. Upon questioning the victim and another woman who lived at the apartment complex, West learns that the alleged suspect shares a room in the apartment with the victim and is several months behind on rent. They also inform West that he’s a methamphetamine user, which sends me into search mode for the closest object to retreat behind.
The man refuses to press charges against the person who assaulted him, but he and the other occupants do request the officer evict him, or at the very least request the man get a smaller mattress. West explains to them that he isn’t a landlord and that if they’re not pressing charges there’s nothing he can really do. He cancels the firefighters and ambulance, as the man also refused medical treatment, and we walk back to the car.
“I think the biggest thing that can help you as an officer is life experience,” West said. “Knowing how to talk to people, knowing how to deal with certain situations and just having lived life a little so that you can try and use that experience to try and diffuse a situation and talk to people.”
He added, if they’re not willing to press charges, the situation is out of his hands.
“No victim, no crime,” West said.
18:40 Medical Transport of a Prisoner
Like guarding a corpse, one of the least desirable tasks of a police officer is the transportation of a sick prisoner, and subsequently waiting for them to be discharged from a hospital. Depending on what they’re jailed for, the officer, after gaining approval, has the option to leave them free to go after being released from medical care. However, if the person is in custody for serious charges, West said that officers have been known to stand watch over sick prisoners for days or even weeks on end. Like the Changing of the Guard minus the ceremony, one officer will relieve another as their shift ends.
West was hopeful the male prisoner being loaded into the back of the ambulance was in former of the two situations.
I was somewhat hopeful that the prisoner transfer would be more dramatic. I knew we weren’t transporting Hannibal Lector, but I also wasn’t expecting a subdued and barely-coherent man who had just suffered an epileptic seizure. Officer West and I flanked the prisoner, whom West had handcuffed to the hospital bed, as nurses prodded and searched for a vein from which to draw blood. It became clear—being that test results would take a few hours, and due to the number of warrants out for the man in hospital gown—that we were most likely in for the long haul.
West phoned the Commander on duty that night and explained he was with a journalist, and we were staring down a lengthy wait at the hospital. I was his get out of jail free card in his quest to give me a comprehensive ride along experience. As we waited for less senior officer to relieve West, I pointed out our current situation was proof that not all journalists are bad news. He liked that joke a lot better but still offered me up as a Tasers target for the female officer that had to replace us.
21:50 “Things get kind of different when the sun goes down.”
The comment that West made as we watched the sun sink into the horizon of the 710 and the Port of Long Beach skyline could not have been anymore telling of the events that would transpire the rest of the night. West said that night time sparks a rise in robberies, domestic violence and driving under the influence. As he was trying to debunk the myth that all cops love donuts (my counter-argument being that everyone loves donuts), the call comes over the radio for assistance on a potential attempted suicide. We’re en route.
“Someone who’s willing to take their own life, might decide they want to take yours,” West said as we pulled up to a seedy motel on Long Beach Boulevard (or just "the Boulevard" in police jargon).
The otherwise dimly-lit lodging was illuminated by the red, blues and yellows of squad cars and fire engines. We climbed the stairs up to the second story of the motel where a man was found unresponsive with a cord wrapped around his neck. As we approach the unit where paramedics are removing the man from the motel room, West dodges a woman who catcalls him.
The man is under the influence, but of what substance, nobody is sure. He appears like he’ll survive the incident but the medics are having trouble walking him down the stairs. His arms, which are stiff and held out in front of him like Frankenstein’s monster, and his incomprehensible groans make him appear like a zombie. The medics, whom we’ve now seen on several different calls this evening, are clearly irritated and respond harshly to officers’ overtures to hand over the man’s wallet, which was left upstairs,so they could identify him.
Things certainly do change when the sun goes down.
Officer West and I head back to the car as I contemplate the fragility of life. Unless we’re faced with death in our personal lives, the only time we encounter it is in the media. Neither the man’s body I saw earlier today or this man’s attempt to end his own life will make the news. But it still happened. Covering the city of Long Beach has opened my eyes to so many things that I used to pass by without batting an eye. Now I have mental markers of people I’ve interviewed, events I’ve attended and upcoming meetings I have. But because I’m not a crime reporter, my dealings are typically with the living, not the dead.
Officer West has a similar list, but his is more tragic. He drops mental-pins on intersections recalling severed heads, homicides and mangled bodies. He has outlets like his Harley Davidson motorcycle and video games to play as a catharsis to the things he sees in the line of duty. And he tries to live his life by one simple mantra.
“Don’t take work home,” West said. “Don’t bring home to work.”
But he admitted it’s hard when you see things that most humans shouldn’t have to see. Then, it’s hard to abide by his own rule.
“Dead babies, children that were ripped apart or abused,” West said. “It’s hard to leave that at work, you know?”
At that moment a call goes out to all units. 245, assault with a deadly weapon.
22:15 The Pursuit
Code-3, lights and sirens to PCH, the scene of what’s been described as two women stabbing each other. We arrive on the scene and one woman is clearly bleeding out onto the pavement, and in the frantic atmosphere of the situation, the people trying to help the woman on the ground point in opposite directions when West yells to them, asking where the other woman was headed.
Dispatch relays information that the woman on the move is wearing a white tank top and floral printed pants, possibly carrying a large black hunting knife. West guns the throttle of the Crown Victoria through residential streets, stopping at every alley to shine his light, looking for the suspect. At this point I feel like I’m part of the team. I’m sure somewhere in that paper work I signed, there was a clause that says if I help apprehend a suspect the LBPD owes me nothing, but I can’t help myself. Gas, brake, West looks left, I look right. Nothing.
This goes on for a heart pounding ten minutes before another unit radios that he has a visual on the woman. As West turns left toward the location of the other unit, we see the woman running down the street with an officer on foot not far behind. Our unit is the second behind the chase, and as the woman dips into an apartment complex, slamming the gate behind her, West brings the car to a dramatic stop. Before exiting the vehicle, he barks Rule Number One.
“Don’t get out of the car,” West said.
Usually when you’re a prisoner in a police unit you’re in the back seat. When West exited the vehicle and told me to stay, I was disappointed because I was caught up in the excitement of the chase and wanted to see how it was going to end. But I’m not one to breach a contract.
I sat patiently in the front seat, which, if you’ve never been in a police cruiser, I’ll inform you that they do not recline. Not even a little bit. Around hour two of my confinement I started to wish I was in custody in the back seat. At least then I could stretch my slightly-over-six-foot frame out across the hard plastic seats. But mostly because I had to urinate, and I’d feel less guilty soiling a surface that’s easily washable, unlike the cloth seat I was currently tethered to.
As the battery life on my phone started to wane, so too did my ability to stay awake. It seemed like every time I drifted off to sleep another officer would rap on the window with a flashlight to check on my well being. For the record, I was great, until you woke me up. Three-and-a-half hours after West entered the structure, he returned to the car for a water break. He was the point-man, steadily aiming a gun that fires non-lethal rounds at the door of apartment the suspect had holed up in.
“It’s kind of like a giant Nerf ball,” West said, cracking open the barrel and handing me the round.
I like officer West. But this is the same guy that’s been trying to convince me all night that letting him tase me would be a good substitute for the coffee I’ve been craving. So with that being said, I’m going to call some major B.S. on the Nerf ball comparison. The good news is I’d been released from my glass and steel prison and was free to walk around and access my phone charger and water bottle, both of which had been held captive in the trunk.
We were to stay here until the S.W.A.T. Team relieved the regular officers from the scene. The soft flicker of the squad car lights bounced off the crowds of people gathering on either side of the blocked off streets. A canine unit in a police vest trotted by my window giving me a momentary reprieve from the monotony of empty streets and the passenger seat of One Charlie 94.
Around 1:30AM, S.W.A.T. finally arrived, clad in kevlar helmets and tactical gear. In the black of night, their bulky-silhouettes were reminiscent of a Ninja Turtle. Slowly but surely, they began the arduous process of clearing the two-story apartment complex unit by unit. They slowly led weary residents, most of whom were still in pajamas and clutching what must’ve been hastily-packed bags, to the street and steered them toward exit routes for either their vehicles or special Long Beach Transit Vehicles assigned to relocate them for the night.
West returned to the car shortly after 3AM. He was on overtime. I was on overtime. But the pot of gold at the end of this standoff was the Rehab Truck, commanded by the volunteer crew at Long Beach Search and Rescue. As we approached the retrofitted food truck, there stood Richard Boone, my 77-year-old savior. When I interviewed Boone earlier this year, I had no idea he’d some day be providing me with relief in the form of cheeseburgers and coffee at the scene of a crime.
Writing had brought me full circle, and it’s never tasted so delicious.
While the S.W.A.T. team will remain on scene for several more hours, our job is done. We walk back to One Charlie 94 and head back to the station where my lonely Honda is sitting in the vacant lot outside the West Division Station. Officer West doesn’t live in the city, but he’s connected to it. It’s impossible not to develop an intimacy with it when you’ve been here for over a decade, working the same beat, seeing the same people and in some cases, watching the same crimes happen over and over again.
The satisfaction of quelling crime trends and making the community safer is what keeps him suiting up day after day.
“When you’ve been here a long time, you put a lot of work in,” West said. “It’s kind of rewarding when you see a certain area that had a certain problem and that you and everybody else worked on it and now it does not have that problem any longer.”