By Christina Hoag
The patrol officer and I were just hitting the street to start night watch when the first radio call came in: A pistol-whipping assault in a Wells Fargo bank. We hung a left toward the location. Seconds later, the incident was upgraded: Possible bank robbery. I bolted straight in my seat. A bank robbery in the genteel seaside city of Santa Monica! I had lucked out with my ride-along!
The officer hunched over the steering wheel and the Crown Victoria sliced through traffic. My adrenaline zinged as we zoomed. The radio squawked again with further incident details: A mentally ill homeless woman had caused the disturbance outside the bank. Situation handled. All clear. I think even the officer was a little bummed.
The ride-along, where I got to go out on patrol with a cop, was part of the Santa Monica Community Police Academy, a 12-week course that gives regular people a chance to peer behind the blue curtain to better understand how police work. Many law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, run these free academies. They’re a great community relations tool for an institution that captures the public’s imagination yet is often resented.
Having covered true crime as a journalist and made the stuff up as a novelist, I was keen to glean real details of police work I could use in my writing, plus I’m just into the topic of criminal justice. I signed up and learned a ton.
Every week, officers offered presentations on different aspects of policing, including active shooters and police shootings, narcotics and SWAT, DUIs and traffic accident investigation. I thought the latter would be a yawn but it wasn’t at all. Who knew that hi-tech license-plate readers can detect stolen cars as they drive by? We could ask anything about policing that we wanted. Nothing was deemed a dumb question.
We went on field trips through the police station. We visited the bulletproof-windowed communications room and saw dispatchers juggling calls coming in on several different computer screens. We toured the forensics lab and saw how painstaking and time-consuming fingerprint matching can be. We watched a suspect being booked in the jail and studied the rubber-lined cells where drunks, addicts, and generally mentally unstable types are put so they don’t harm themselves. We even went for a cool ride in the Santa Monica Harbor Patrol boat.
I learned all kinds of things that could be useful as plot devices or simply to add realistic detail in a crime novel. A person in a diabetic shock behaves like a drunk. Fleeing suspects may change their clothing, but rarely their shoes. Shoeprints, however, are hard to definitively match. Determining the direction of gunshots in a city is tricky because the sound ricochets off buildings.
Pepper spray is nicknamed “taco sauce.” Many police dogs are trained in Eastern Europe and respond to commands in languages like Czech. If you’re barricading yourself inside a room with a door that opens outward, tie a belt around the doorknob and hang on.
We also got a glimpse into how cops think, which is based on two things: they never know how a situation is going to unfold, as innocuous as it may seem at first, and they want to go home on two feet not in a wooden box at the end of their watch. We got a taste of how that plays out during a traffic stop role-playing exercise.
We were the cops, and two plainclothes officers pretended to be the guys we pulled over in an SUV. With me, they were drunk and wouldn’t obey commands. That was pretty frustrating. With others, they stuck cell phone cameras in the “officer’s” face, mouthed off, or worse, pulled out a gun (plastic), threatening to shoot themselves or us, the officers.
The point was cops don’t know how even a traffic stop is going to turn out, and they have to make decisions that carry high-stakes consequences and make them in the moment. We also got to experience how they train for that through a video-game like simulator that sets up nerve-wracking scenarios such as a backyard shootout with multiple shooters.
This course was one of the best research assignments I’ve given myself. I came away not only equipped as a better writer, but with a better understanding of police work and more empathy for the men and women who choose this career. Rule of law is essential in a democracy, but it’s a tough job.
Christina Hoag is the author of novels Girl on the Brink and Skin of Tattoos and the nonfiction Peace in the Hood: Working with Gang Members to End the Violence, used at UCLA, USC and other colleges. A former journalist for the Miami Herald and Associated Press, she reported from Latin America for Time, Business Week, Financial Times, and other media. She has taught creative writing in a maximum-security prison and to at-risk teen girls.