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Tuesday, May 10, 2011

10 Tips for Ride-Alongs

Taken from PoliceLink Website

Training Articles

Written by Dr. Richard Weinblett

Popular among law enforcers, aspiring officers, spouses of officers, dispatchers, community activists, journalists, and scholars, ride-alongs with on-duty police officers and deputy sheriffs have long been a fun-filled way to get a view from the other side of the windshield.

Whether you are exploring the idea of a career in law enforcement, wanting a closer look at your local constabulary, or seeking quality time with your fellow law enforcer or significant others, ride-alongs can be a positive learning experience that strengthens bonds - but they can also be fraught with pitfalls.

Not all law enforcement agencies have ride-along programs; those that do view it as a powerful bridge to the community. Those that don't usually believe the liability issues in having civilians present in dangerous situations are too high. Some agencies do permit the practice, but may restrict who is eligible.

Examples of the people that may be allowed to participate include dispatchers, police officer job applicants, enrolled police academy cadets, criminal justice college students, college interns, or spouses of officers.

While riding along with a law enforcement agency can be fun, make no mistake about it. Ride-alongs are a dangerous activity. There have been instances of ride-alongs being present when officers are attacked and they witness other harsh realities of policing in America. This is not the sanitized TV version of COPS.

By the way, sworn officers sometimes participate in ride-along programs. They want to ride with a friend in another agency in order to bond further or they may be interested in learning different police practices and operations. It is important that officers follow the department and host agency's policies as far as carrying weaponry and taking action to assist the on-duty officer. There are jurisdictional differences in laws and protocols that greatly affect how the guest officer conducts him or herself on the ride-along. Make sure you know your boundaries.

Having managed ride-along programs, had ride-alongs with me as a full-timer, and ridden along with officers in other agencies in the United States and overseas, I have picked up a few tips to help make your ride-along a more productive and enjoyable experience.

1) Do Paperwork

Ride-alongs in almost every agency involve the filling out of at least some paperwork. That paperwork usually encompasses a liability waiver that needs to be signed. Some agencies do allow minors to ride-along, but a parent's signature is usually required. You may also have to read and sign a department policy on ride-along rules. Other paperwork includes information and permission to run name, driver's license operator number, social security number, and date of birth information through law enforcement databases. Make sure that all of the information provided is true and correct. This paperwork facilitates conducting of an at least cursory background check. Law enforcement folks certainly don't want convicted or wanted criminals riding next to their officers.

2) Clear Up Warrant

And speaking of background checks, make sure that any warrants you may have are cleared up prior to applying for a ride-along. The police are not fond of wanted criminals riding with them, so they do check.

You laugh at the thought that someone would do this with an active warrant in the system, but I've seen it happen. One young man called in to do a ride-along with my department some time ago. Well, you probably guessed that his background check came up with a warrant for failure to appear (for court). I called him up and told him to come to the building, as his ride-along was ready. So, being a service-minded public servant, he got his ride-along as he wished--except it was in the back seat, not in the front. And it was only to the county jail. He even got first hand experience with handcuffs.

3) Wear Appropriate Clothing in Layers

As a ride-along in a marked police car, many folks will assume that you are some kind of detective or otherwise affiliated with the agency. You want to dress professionally, but still geared for a dynamic environment. I suggest business casual with comfortable shoes in the off chance you need to run out of the area. No shorts or jeans with holes or T-shirts (especially with questionable graphics or wording on it). Do not wear clothing articles with law enforcement logos or graphics. A collared polo shirt or button down shirt with khaki pants is appropriate.

Because officers wear bullet resistant vests, they tend to run hot, so they crank up the air-conditioning. As a result, the front of the car can get quite cold. The use of layered clothing allows you to regulate your comfort without infringing on the officer. There can also be quite a temperature difference from being inside the car to being outside the vehicle. The use of layered clothing enables you to manage that issue.

4) Don't Touch!

Most officers will give you a tour of the car when you start the shift. They'll show you the radio that is their lifeline to communications. As the officers and tele-communicators in PoliceLink-land know, the dispatcher is an important person to the responding law enforcer. If they are in trouble, the radio is the conduit for getting help.

Don't play with the radio or change the frequency channel. Officers are very protective of the controls in their "cockpit." If they do instruct you to call for help, or you have to do so when they can't, press the button on the side of the microphone for a moment to allow the repeater to kick in. Then talk clearly and succinctly. Let go of the button to allow the dispatcher and other units to talk. Be sure to know which is the radio microphone and which is the public address (P.A.) mike.

And while we're at it, don't touch the radio to change the station or CD. Depending on departmental regulations, some officers with take home cars are able to install satellite radio, CDs, and other audio devices. The same goes for the in-car computer. This is their mobile office and they spend eight, ten, twelve plus hour shifts in this environment. They have preferences on how things are arranged and will not appreciate a visitor altering things without being requested to do so.

5) Eating Etiquette

Officers work hard and rely on each other in sometimes life-threatening situations. Eating on meal breaks is an important part of the culture of policing. Sitting at the table will give you a personal and in-depth understanding of their world and their perspective.

Let the officers pick the eatery. You should eat prior to going on duty since you may have a high call volume shift and be unable to stop. If you and your host officer are able to take a break, the picked establishment may not be the type of food you would normally eat. Pick food off the menu wisely, so that you don't end up needing the officer to make a high speed run to a bathroom.

While many agencies have policies that prevent officers from accepting free or discounted food, it is not your place to discuss it at that point in public. If a discount is not extended to you as a civilian guest, you certainly should not pound your fist and demand that your bill be adjusted. On the contrary, if you are able to, I suggest you pick up the tab for the officers present in appreciation for them including you in their world. If the restaurant management insists on cutting the bill, you should leave a tip on the table that equals or exceeds the full-price check.

6) Less Talk, More Listen

Many folks engaged in their first ride-along get quite excited. That leads to the motor mouth syndrome. Officers tend to be reserved when they first meet their ride-along. They are unsure of the person's motivations or perspective at first. It is better to go slow and allow the officer to get to know you. In an adaption of the old adage, it is better to be quiet and listen than to speak and be thought of as a fool. It should go without saying that profanity and other unprofessional speech has no place. These guidelines are particularly true if you are an aspiring officer applying to the agency, as they often serve as another layer of unofficial screening for the department.

7) Confidentiality

Law enforcement officers see quite a bit of interesting stuff in their line of work. Even Hollywood can't make up what officers see in real-life. As a participant in a ride-along, you may see neighbors and other people from your community at their worst moment. Specifics and identifiers from the call are not for public consumption unless otherwise agreed upon. Some agencies may allow you to attend the pre-shift briefings. Again, information being discussed is not public in nature and you need to use discretion in discussing what you have seen and heard.

Notable exceptions pertain to the presence of credentialed media and news journalists who are approved for the ride-along with the full knowledge of their objective. Famous examples include the TV show "COPS."

On the local level, having a news crew onboard is a win-win situation. The department gets to showcase officers engaged in good policing and reach out to the community via the viewing audience. The TV station, in turn, gets captivating programming.

As a police chief, I approved local network affiliates' news cameras to ride-along with patrol personnel in marked Ford Crown Victorias. We thoroughly discussed the rules and boundaries beforehand and each time it proved to be a rewarding experience for everyone involved. These are folks who will reveal information publicly and have been approved to do so in advance by the nature of their mission.

8) Shotgun Release

Much like the radio, the officer may show you how to use the shotgun release in case events break bad and help from you is needed. Don't be like a certain ride-along that kept playing with the shotgun release during a call. Pushing the button and moving the shotgun repeatedly will make for a very nervous officer. It's best to trip the release only when the two of you really need you to do so.

9) No Weapons, No Handcuffs

Unless you are a sworn officer from another agency who is allowed to have your police firearm and equipment with you, don't bring a gun, handcuffs, or any other police gear on the ride-along. Most agencies have rules that prohibit such items even if you have a carry concealed weapon permit or license (CCW).

The only exception to the police equipment guidance offered is to wear a bullet resistant or ballistic vest. As a patrol division deputy sheriff, I had a spare vest in the trunk of my marked Chevrolet Caprice that I would have ride-alongs wear. If you have your own, you may want to wear it hidden under your outer shirt.

10) Follow Instructions

The most important of the ten tips in this PoliceLink column is to follow the instructions of both the department and the host officer or deputy sheriff. This is a major liability and responsibility for the agency and the officer; it's important to respect that.

Be aware that not all officers may be happy with your presence. Some police officers view their world as being closed to non-sworn folks, while others will welcome you with open arms. You have to be prepared for most mindsets.

Whether the officer volunteered or was volunteered by their supervisors certainly makes a difference in the quality of the ride-along experience. Even more crucial, though, is whether you listen to what you are supposed to do. Following instructions will go a long way towards creating goodwill.

For example, many agencies require that the ride-along stay in the car during calls for police service. If that is the case, do so unless the officer has you move for safety or other reasons.

Ask questions to clarify your limitations and instructions before you begin the adventure. If you fully understand your boundaries and follow instructions, your ride-along experience will be a terrific two-way bridge of understanding for you as a member of the community and for the law enforcer serving the community.

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