Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Day 359: Riding Along in the Gray

Day 359 involved quite a bit more foresight and planning than most of the other things I'd done during my 29th year. Going on a police ride along isn't something that can just happen on the fly. The Dunwoody Police Department actually requires a notarized application for anyone interested. I filled it out and mailed it in weeks ahead of time, then waited impatiently for a response.

Finally, with just a week to go, the department contacted me to join one of their officers for a police ride along on Day 359 as the thing I've never done before.

When I told people what I was up to, their responses were all of the same mocking variety, since Dunwoody isn't what I would call a "crime-ridden" area. It's actually a very nice part of town and boasts some of the nicest real estate in Atlanta.

"What kind of crime is going on in Dunwoody?"

"Why Dunwoody, Steph?"

"Why there?"

The answer is simple: I Googled, "Police Ride Along Atlanta," and it was the first thing that popped up, application and all. They made it easy, so I went for it.

The Dunwoody Police precinct is on the first floor of a building in an office park, which was typical for this white collar area.

Despite all of the jeers I'd received headed into the day, part of me completely expected and wanted to arrive to a waiting room buzzing with scanner traffic and chaos; I wanted danger in the form of drug dealers and prostitutes smoking cigarettes and yelling obscenities. This waiting room was vacant, though, and silent. The only person who was there was the woman behind the plate glass window. She was wearing plain clothes and looked like she was younger than me.

I told her my name and that I was there for a ride along. She nodded and instructed me to take a seat in the waiting room while she radioed the officer I was to ride with. I did as I was told, and watched the local news they had on a television mounted on the wall. After ten minutes, no one had come to get me and I was starting to get nervous that they forgot. Just then, the door leading to the back opened, and the front desk girl walked through with a police officer behind her.

Officer Tim looked almost exactly like how I picture police officers looking in my head. He was bald and he was stacked. Officer Tim looked like he spent hours in the gym bench pressing and grunting and throwing weights around. I was sure he drank protein powder shakes with every meal and considered the possibility that he ordered his uniform one size too small, just to ensure that his muscles would bulge when he put it on.

He politely shook my hand, but was a bit standoffish at first. Not rude, just quiet and not seemingly thrilled with having to entertain me for the next four hours. Having been in that position myself at my own job, I completely understood and opted to just tread lightly, and blanket him with my charm gradually, so as not to overwhelm him.

I climbed in the front seat of the police car, and marveled at all of the car's bells and whistles: a dash cam monitor, Walkie Talkies, a CB radio, and, to my surprise, a laptop computer, mounted in the center console. I asked about each one of them, thankful that the high tech equipment gave us something to talk about.

Officer Tim didn't tell me where we were going, but it was clear he had a plan when he pulled out of the office park into an apartment complex right across the street. He parked his police car on the side of the road, popped the trunk, and got out, returning moments later with a tire in each hand. He threw them in the back and then walked back to the landscaped area in front of the apartments and emerged with two more, also throwing them in the trunk.

Five minutes in to this experience, and I was already terribly confused.

Not for too long, though, because as Officer Tim drove back to the police precinct he explained to me that the tires came from a car that was stolen from the apartment complex. Apparently the car was good enough, the tires were not. So the thieves took what they wanted, and left behind what they didn't. While ridiculously stupid of them, I thought that made them nice thieves. Regardless, the tires were now evidence.

We returned the tires to the precinct and then made our way to the next call, a fender bender in a shopping center. While waiting at a stoplight, Officer Tim explained to me exactly how much of the Dunwoody area he covers. He used his hands to point it out, and referenced street names I'd never heard of; I nodded in understanding anyway.

We arrived on the "accident" scene, and Officer Tim turned his blue lights on, causing everyone in the vicinity to turn and look. I put accident in quotes, because from what I could tell, these cars barely scraped each other while backing up in the parking lot. Perhaps my judgment is skewed thanks to my less than stellar driving record, but this "accident," in my opinion, did not warrant police presence or insurance companies or tears. The woman driving the Nissan Altima disagreed and she put on a hysterical show telling Officer Tim, and everyone else in the city of Dunwoody, that the "DRIVER OF THE JEEP CHEROKEE," was to blame for "BACKING INTO HER." This "accident," was "NOT HER FAULT!"

Officer Tim looked like a seasoned officer, taking each aside to hear their side of the story. He returned to the police car with their licenses and insurance cards. There he ran a report on both drivers, saw that their records were clean and their insurance payments were up to date. Since the incident happened on private property, he didn't cite either driver with a traffic violation, but wrote up an accident report that they could each give to their insurance companies.

Nissan Altima was disappointed. I think she wanted Jeep Cherokee to get hauled off to jail for not paying attention while backing up.

As we drove away from the scene, we both agreed that Nissan Altima was crazy. Officer Tim began to open up to me by way of asking me a few questions.

"So, are you doing this for a class?," he asked me.

I tried not to make it obvious that I was absolutely thrilled he thought I was a student, and just said, "No, I just always wanted to see what this was about."

He raised his eyebrow at me like that answer wasn't good enough. He was right.

I smiled. "Well, and I'm turning 30 next week and I started this blog where I set out to do new things everyday for one year, so this is one of the things that I'm going to write about," I rambled on the familiar sentence I'd reused over and over during the past year.

"Oh great, you're a journalist," he said. I could tell that any rapport we may have established since we met has begun disintegrating rapidly.

"Well, no . . .I mean, yes, I am . . . but I'm not doing this as a journalist . . . my blog is just for fun," I stammered out, but it was too late. I could tell he had started to put his guard up.

"I promise I won't make you look bad," I told him, with a twinkle in my eye. He half-smiled, like he wanted to believe me, but had been burned many times by the media in the past. I tried to change the subject, asking about the students he's taken around on ride alongs. Many of them are budding defense attorneys, or Criminal Justice majors, looking for careers in law enforcement.

After we talked about that, the car fell silent for a while. I looked out the window and then at a laminated sheet I found in the center console that listed all of the numbered police codes and signals for the different scenarios officers may encounter.

28 - Person Drunk

86 - Domestic Dispute

Sure enough, "10-4," means, "Ok. Understood."

I was studying the list, not noticing that Officer Tim was taking a right to get onto I-285. Once we were on the interstate, I laughed watching cars slow down when they saw us coming. One car, a Lexus SUV didn't slow down, though. The driver was flying down the highway, darting in and out of lanes to move past cars going the speed limit. Officer Tim clocked him at 82 miles per hour in a 65 miles per hour zone. He turned on his lights and went after the Lexus, making me feel like we were in a police chase! It didn't last very long, since the Lexus pulled over almost immediately, but I thought it was exciting, and I couldn't help but smile.

Officer Tim turned up the audio on the dash cam monitor before he got out of the car and I listened as he asked to see the driver's license and registration. I couldn't hear what the Lexus driver was saying, but I heard Officer Tim tell him how fast he was going.

The two spoke for a few minutes. As Officer Tim walked back to the car, I saw the Lexus begin to merge into traffic ahead of me. Part of me thought he was driving off and we were going to get to go on a real deal police chase. But Lexus didn't squeal off, he took his time to get back on the interstate. I was confused, as I was fully expecting Officer Tim to come back and haul this guy off for driving under the influence or reckless driving. At the very least, Lexus deserved a speeding ticket.

I gave Officer Tim a look that said, "What the hell was that?"

He shook his head and smiled, in a "you kids these days," kind of way.

"He's in a rush to meet his girlfriend for dinner. He got off late from work, and she's mad, so he's rushing to meet her."

Yeah, I thought. So what?

"Well, he was honest with me. When I pull someone over . . .for anything, speeding, running a red light, DUI . . .I just want them to be honest. He was honest with me, so I told him to slow down, and I let him go. He was a nice guy."

That's it? No ticket? I wanted to haul Lexus off to the slammer for going 82 in a 65 and you're going to let him go? Booooooo.

I decided right then that Officer Tim is exactly the policeman I want to meet the next time I get pulled over, but as far as police ride alongs go, I wish I had someone that fit the "asshole cop," stereotype.

Still, I smiled as we got off the interstate, feeling like I had some insider knowledge on how to deal with police officers like Officer Tim. "Just be honest." So simple.

Officer Tim took a right down a busy winding road that seemed to connect a residential part of Dunwoody to the commercial shopping area. It was heavily trafficked, at least during this time during the evening. At a curve in the road, we could see a car on the opposite side of the road pulled over onto the shoulder with its hazards blinking. Pacing beside the car was an attractive, but extremely weary-looking young woman talking on a cell phone.

Officer Tim immediately turned around, turned his blue lights on, and pulled up right behind her car. Without hesitation, he got out of his car and walked towards the woman, who upon seeing him approach, hung up her cell phone.

I assumed, as Officer Tim did, that the woman was having car trouble, and was likely on the phone with a towing company.
But with cars whizzing by, it was difficult for me to hear what they were talking about on the dash cam monitor. I could see that they were looking at something on the ground, so I got out of the car and walked over to them.

The girl looked up at me, understandably confused (who is this girl and why is she riding around in a police car?). I smiled at her and then looked at what they were looking at.

Lying the grass, was a goose.

An injured goose.

Suddenly it became clear what was going on here. This woman wasn't having car trouble. She hit a goose on her way home from work. While I don't have particularly strong feelings about geese, I felt really bad for this girl. She was really upset.

Officer Tim instructed the girl to sit in her car while he and I went back to the police car. There, he filled me in on some of the details. She hit the goose, but her husband was a veterinarian and was on his way to the scene to see if there was anything he could do.

"Oh, ok," I said, as if this all made complete sense. Only it made absolutely no sense.

Veterinarian or not, what was her husband going to do with the goose right there on the side of the road? Give it CPR? Shocks of life?

Officer Tim told me that the woman, an animal lover, wanted her veterinarian husband to put the goose in the back of their car, transport it back to their house and nurse it back to health. The whole idea was sweet, and made sense, if it wasn't completely ridiculous.

Officer Tim said he'd been on animal calls before, but none of this nature. I pulled out the laminated codes list to see if, "goose down" (get it?!) was anywhere on the list. Sure enough, it was not.

In the worst of circumstances, he said, he could shoot the goose, just to put it out of its misery, but that seemed a little over the top and he knew he would suffer the ridicule of his officer colleagues who would likely accuse him of showing off for his "ride along," who just happened to be a young female.

By then, the veterinarian had arrived on the scene to talk to his wife and to assess the goose. Officer Tim and I watched as they talked. There were some raised hands and shaking of heads, indicating the conversation was not going well. Officer Tim got out of the police car and went to talk to the husband. Vet husband admitted to his wife, and to us, that he didn't know what the goose's injuries were, or if he had the proper tools to save it. And if he did save the goose, he told Officer Tim, what then? He and his wife's house was not equipped to raise a pet goose.

After a lot of conversation, a lot of staring at the still breathing, but clearly suffering goose, Officer Tim took veterinarian husband aside to have a private conversation. I could tell that a decision had been made about what to do with the goose. The vet husband had a brief conversation with his wife and then he hugged her. Then I saw the wife, who still visibly shaken, get into her car and drive away.

There was so much drama, so much emotion, and back and forth, as if we had just made the decision to pull the plug on our sick grandmother. If it weren't for the fact that a goose had been injured, I would've laughed at the hilarity of it all.

Officer Tim radioed in to dispatch to let them know what was about to happen, so if they received calls about gunshots, that it was likely him, dealing with this unfortunate set of circumstances. He got out of the car and pulled his gun out of its holster.

And then he shot the goose, killing it instantly.

Of all the things I thought I might encounter on a police ride along in the streets of Dunwoody, watching a police officer shoot a goose is the last thing I expected.

The vet, also upset about what happened, shook Officer Tim's hand, thanked him for doing the dirty work, and then got into his car to go home and tend to his sad wife. We climbed back into the police car and drove away too, leaving the dead goose on the side of the road.

Almost immediately, as if on cue, the responses from his fellow officers on duty starting pouring in, on his laptop, on the radio, and on the phone.

"Heeeeeyyyyyy, tough guy!"

"Wow, you really showed that goose!"

"I'll bet you really impressed your ride along, pal. Nice job."

We laughed all the way to Starbucks, where we treated ourselves to coffee and a scone.

After the goose, the rest of the stops and calls were rather tame. Several speeding stops, a homeless man making neighbors feel uneasy, teenagers playing their music too loudly after dark.

We drove past a man who was sitting in his car outside of a hotel, with his laptop opened. We assumed he was doing something sinister and downright creepy, but when Officer Tim questioned him, he said he'd had a fight with his wife and needed to get out of their apartment. So he brought his laptop to the hotel to get free wireless internet so he could catch up on his fantasy baseball team. It was so pathetic and sad, we had no choice but to believe him.

We pulled over one man whose tags had expired. Having been pulled over for the same thing after first moving here, I thought this would be fairly straight forward ticket for Officer Tim to write. Only when the driver explained that he was on his way to a construction job, his first in months after having been out of work, and therefore unable to fix his car so that it would pass an emissions test (required to get plates here), Officer Tim wasn't so sure.

The ticket would've made him late to work, which could've possibly jeopardized his employment and any hopes of ever having money to fix the car and get the tags updated. Writing him a ticket for what was a clear violation just didn't seem so clear anymore. There are times, Officer Tim explained, when the law, and what side is wrong and what side is right, is very much black and white. And there are others, in this case, when it's more gray.

I certainly didn't expect to have any sort of epiphany while handing out traffic tickets with a police officer in Dunwoody, but when I could see that Officer Tim was struggling with what to do about this driver, I thought about my own struggle to accept the "gray" in my life.

Growing up, I always thought people, and experiences, were one way or the other. Good or bad. Right or Wrong. Positive or negative. Worthwhile or a waste of time.

Only with age and experience have I been able to understand and accept that things are not always what they seem. Thank God I am not a creature who exists within the lines or boundaries of what makes sense; I'm far more layered and complicated. I'm crass, self-deprecating and a ball-buster, but I'm also insanely sensitive and emotional. I'm fiercely independent, but want to be with a man who will open doors for me. I'm bubbly and silly, but am easy depressed and have slipped into ruts so deep I thought I'd never get out. If I can wear stilettos and go to Phish concerts, I can only assume that everyone else's personalities are also a little bit country and a little bit rock and roll like mine.

After all, sometimes my friends who can be the most difficult can also be the most loyal, and some of the more irresponsible things I've done have always made for the best life lessons and the best stories. The gray is where life really gets interesting.

I'm a good person, I'd like to think, but I've made some bad decisions and I've said and done things I regret. I'll probably never be the smartest or richest person in the room, but I know what I don't know, and I know I already have more than I'll ever need. I'm not as good or as bad as my best and worst critics think I am. I'm somewhere in the middle, somewhere in the gray.

The challenge for me then, and for Officer Tim, is knowing when to stand my ground and when to let things go. When to write someone a ticket or cut them some slack.

And most importantly, when to shoot the goose, and when to call your veterinarian husband to see if he can save it.

The gray. It's tricky.

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