(Hammer) I am a pacifist by virtue of the police force that protects me
(Nutgraf) Want a news organization to show the nuts and bolts of local government? Probably won’t happen. Time, dear citizen, to do a ride-along.
Written by Lori Robinson
Photo by Lindsey Brand
Car picture courtesy of Douglas County Police Department
If your momma tells you she loves you, check it out.
Back in 1990 when I began my journalism studies, that was the advice a mentor imparted to me. The advice holds up well, perhaps especially these days.
I’ve had some recent conversations about the concept of news organizations as government watchdogs, during and after the week that I had completed an Oct. 14 evening shift ride-along with Patrol Officer Mark P. Smith of the Westminster Police Department.
I continue to toss this well-burnished rock around my thoughts quite a bit. I recall how, almost 30 years ago, in the journalism program at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich., I learned that, when the drafters of the U. S. Constitution wrote their historic enduring governing document, by means of the First Amendment, they provided space for citizen journalists to keep a check on the three branches of federal government. Those three branches, of course, are administrative (Congress), executive (presidential), and judicial (the federal courts and the Supreme Court). Unofficially but effectively, newspapers grew up to become the fourth estate. Throughout the decades, the governors and the governed extrapolated the same system down to local municipalities in a tradition that people in the news industry say played a significant role in defining modern democracy.
American newspaper journalism by and large grew up alongside the reconstructed United States, as witnessed by the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., first published in 1885 and still printing around 35,000 newspapers every day, even after a rampaging gunman in June 2018 burst into the newspaper office, opened fire and killed five people therein.
Like hundreds of other newspapers across the nation, the one where I made my career, The Saginaw News in Saginaw, Mich., stood at the doorstep of its 150th anniversary when it ceased daily publication in May 2009. The paper let go of the preponderance of its experienced veterans and kept on those who accepted reduced salary continuation deals, among other newspaper people who remain highly respected citizens in their communities. After a full decade of financial losses, going non-daily was a painful decision for everyone at our paper. The Washington Post recently observed that 45 percent of all American dailies closed in 2009. At our paper, I was among those who chose getting downsized. Seventy percent of our newspaper’s staff — some with no choice — left.
So, 10 years later, here we are at the FRCC Westminster Campus, each of us working on and studying for our respective interests. I received a work study grant and, in August, The Front Page hired me for a part-time writer’s position. Back on a news team for the first time in longer than you may care to know, migrating to the police beat seemed natural for me. (I covered the police beat on my first job out of college back in 1992.) Here at Front Range, for my first story, I met and interviewed our campus’ Security Dept. Supervisor, Jon R. VanZandt, who suggested I ask Westminster P. D. for a ride-along when he had to inform me FRCC Security doesn’t do ride-alongs.
Nothing to it but to do it
So on that pleasant fall Monday evening, after finishing my shift at my day job, I went home, prepared myself and my belongings for my ride-along. Water bottle, business casual attire, my cell phone, and a small satchel holding facial tissue, my debit card, a couple bucks in cash and my ID.
I hopped in my car and followed the nav to Westminster Police Department, which I found nestled inside a large imposing structure atop a grassy hill. Once in the building, I felt lucky to find the right counter on my first try, but then again, things are kind of quiet around the area after 9 p.m. I checked in with the graciously welcoming person at the window, and exchanged my ID for a visitors pass, which I got back at the end of my shift.
I waited quietly in the silent lobby for the officer assigned to me to come get me. He showed up, we exchanged smiling salutations, shook hands, and made our way to his squad SUV, a late-model Ford Explorer with many powerful modifications befitting a police officer.
With about 18 months under his belt with Westminster P.D., Officer Smith holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice and is a six-year Marine Reservist with experience training in Africa.
“That must have been amazing,” I surmised out loud when he told me of his international training experience.
“No,” Officer Smith said with a glance.
Things got real — really fast
Not five minutes after we got on the road Officer Smith was called to a felony menacing complaint generating from a bus stop on Federal near a fast-food restaurant. Suspect was said to be wielding a six-inch blade while wearing a clown mask. Smith switched on his lights and sirens and proceeded with expert and cautious speed to the scene.
We went really fast. Fast enough that I didn’t look at the speedometer. I just held on. Along the way, Officer Smith calmly informed me I could stay in the car at the scene, or I could get out with him. “Just stay behind me if you get out,” he advised.
The scene seemed to be stabilizing even as we arrived. I managed, “I’m staying in the car, Mark.”
Officer Smith’s was the fifth cruiser on scene. I came away with a good impression of these officers because they exited their respective vehicles with flashlights — not firearms — drawn. Six police vehicles responded in total.
One of the officers grilled the suspect: “If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s probably a duck,” he told the man. “I think you’re a duck.”
Did the officers soften their approach because everybody knew Officer Smith had a ride-along that night? It’s possible. But I doubt it. When a body doesn’t know what to expect next and must rely on its instincts and training, muscle memory tends to kick in. I, for one citizen journalist, think these officers are legit.
Officer Smith got the job of taking the suspect back to city jail where he completed the arduous process of booking him before he secured him in a cell.
Along the way, the officer assured the suspect he was just doing his job and had no personal vendetta against the suspect: “I’ve got no beef with you if you’ve got none with me.” I was impressed with Smith’s conciliatory approach.
A little later, Officer Smith to the suspect: “Did you incur any injuries during your arrest?”
“My wrists are sore from where the handcuffs were.”
“They’re handcuffs. They’re not supposed to feel good.”
Safe inside the bubble
Next, we headed to FRCC per my request. It was as though the campus were enveloped in a deep blue velveteen bubble of silence. We checked every driveway, each doorway and took a drive down the bike path northwest of campus. Even the crickets were quiet that night. It was a refreshing contrast to the action on Federal and the painstaking and somewhat sad booking process I had just witnessed.
Back on the road and Smith peripherally responded to a break-in reported at a pizza parlor. A shattered glass wall, comprising most of the storefront and cordoned off with yellow police tape, dominated the spotlit scene. Besides a couple officers striding across the adjoining parking lots to their parked cruisers, the place was deserted.
Dispatchers advised a look-out for a silver Jeep Liberty. Smith saw someone out in a Jeep Cherokee and initiated a quick conversation that netted no leads before we moved on.
My shift, due to end at 1:30 a.m., got a gentle half-hour reduction when Officer Smith was called to transport his felony menacing suspect to the Adams County Jail in Brighton. I declined the opportunity to make the long country trek with him and headed home.
As a citizen with a background in newspaper journalism, I found the ride-along experience heartening. It’s good to see those who govern us as fellow human beings: sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, husbands and wives. If Officer Smith exhibited understandable respect for the firepower at his disposal, he also behaved with consummate honor and professionalism every moment he had me with him.
And since the fourth estate has spent the last decade in relative disarray while being faced with competing interests that put profits first, I would encourage my fellow students, along with my instructors, young and old alike, to exercise your First Amendment rights whenever you can for the sake of the future of your democracy.
Who knows? You might even make a friend or two — wearing a badge and carrying heat — along the way.
Residents, students and business owners in Westminster interested in participating in the Westminster Police Department Ride Along Program can sign up here.