Over the last several weeks, I've been doing something new: I've been getting to know the Oakland Police Department.
No, I haven't been arrested. Although I did spend the other afternoon riding around in a police cruiser. In East Oakland.
I subscribe to a local Yahoo! newsgroup on crime in the neighborhood. (After all, I live in the 4th most dangerous city in the United States.) Through the Yahoo! group, I learned that the OPD regularly offers a free "Citizens' Academy" - a 14 week program, available to any Oakland resident who's willing to show up every Saturday from 9 to noon. (They do run background checks. I doubt they'd let you attend if you had outstanding warrants.) You get presentations on every department (traffic, patrol, vice and narcotics, crime lab, K-9, etc.), given by people with experience in the department. I'm enjoying the class thoroughly; I've been reading detective stories for 50 years or so, and at last I'm finding out how a real police department functions, as opposed to the ones in the books.
So how did I end up riding around in a cruiser? Part of the Academy is a "ride-along" - each student picks a date and a shift, and you show up at the beginning of the shift and are assigned to an officer for the duration, usually 6 hours (although the officer's shifts are 12 hours). You ride around with him (I was assigned to a guy, although OPD has female officers) and see what he does. I went in with him on several low-risk interviews (a parked car bashed by a hit-and-run; a stolen vehicle; a school administrator trying to get a restraining order for a problem parent; a woman whose neighbor complained that her pets were waking him up). I sat in the car for some edgier stuff: a bunch of middle-school kids, fighting; a traffic stop of a rolling boom box. We answered a call for support on the school fight; the officer said that we "weren't going especially fast," and he didn't use the lights or siren, but we were going a whole lot faster than I'd ever drive through that kind of traffic!
I can't discuss one call very much, since I hope it goes to court, but there was an assault and robbery; the officer took the report, and realized that the suspects might still be in the area; he called for support, and with his colleagues' help, got them into the station in handcuffs, with solid evidence. (Well, it looked solid to me.) Let's just say they were very mean, but they weren't very bright.
So what does a police officer do all day? Think a minute and you'll realize: he does paperwork. He fills out endless reports. He listens to people and writes down what they tell him, by hand, then takes it back to the station and files it. The officer I accompanied was tirelessly patient and courteous, I never heard him raise his voice. I saw him put his hand on his gun once, but he never drew it. He was also very nice about explaining to me what he was doing and why.
The class isn't my only interaction with OPD. I'm also active in the local Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council, which does liaison between police and the neighborhood; and I'm volunteering as a citizen interviewer on the oral review boards which are part of the OPD's hiring process. So one way and another, I'm meeting a lot of cops these days.
Frankly, my opinion of the OPD has changed because of this. (Not that I ever fully bought the '60's rants about "the pigs.") The officers I've met are sharp, dedicated professionals, and they love their jobs. Some of them even love (incredibly) being cops in Oakland. Some of them are Oakland natives, born and raised. Obviously there's some selection in the people who present to the class; still, the message is very consistent, and it doesn't correlate with unquestioning support of the OPD management. But the ordinary cops on the street? They're class acts. I just wish there were more of them; Oakland has half the national average of police officers for a city of 400,000; and more than twice the crime. This can't be a coincidence.