Police Departments will sometimes develop programs that allow them to connect with the public and allow the public to learn more about policing. That’s the idea behind the Greeley Police Department’s “ride-along” program. A ride-along is an opportunity for a civilian to ride alongside an officer during the course of their on-duty shift. Of course, there are some prior requirements, like providing some miniscule personal information and passing a background check. But the important point is that people have the opportunity to see first-hand what it’s like to be a police officer in Greeley.
I recently took advantage of this opportunity and was set up on a ride-along with Officer Gus Birdsall. It was a Tuesday night, his shift started at 5 pm and he was there to pick me up at the station lobby just a couple minutes after. He stuck his head in the door, seemingly hurried and impatient, motioning for me to come along. He was in a hurry and eager to get to work. There was an excitement in his demeanor—he seemed like a soldier ready for battle.
We climbed into the SUV patrol unit Officer Birdsall would be using this night and he began to explain the first call we would be going to. He pointed out that there were four calls in the area of patrol that he and only one other officer were sharing at the time. Three would have to wait as we were heading to the call Officer Birdsall designated as the most serious and needing most immediate attention of the four.
When we arrived at the house of the suspected victim, Officer Birdsall quickly went over procedures with me. He explained I was there just to watch, that I was not to speak to anyone and that he would explain to everyone who I was and what I was doing there. As Officer Birdsall stepped inside, seven people waiting in the living room were silent, awaiting the officer’s commands. He gave everyone directions and took the suspected victim into a side room for questioning. What I thought would be a few quick questions turned more thorough and investigative. Officer Birdsall was acting as an arbitrator, deciphering exactly what had happened. He was making sure he knew everything as this particular case might later involve using his own discretion on whether or not to take someone to jail.
After speaking with a witness who was also there in the home, Officer Birdsall stepped out into the living room where he made an impassioned speech to everyone in the home. He defined aspects of the law, briefed everyone on their responsibility in the matter and warned of consequences for continued behavior. We left the house and climbed back into his squad car where he proceeded to make a phone call that would further assist him in his investigation. Then he had to make one more phone call before taking off to the home of the person alleged to have committed the crime.
Due to the nature of the crime, Officer Birdsall had to wait for backup to arrive before approaching the house. Once another officer arrived on the scene, we all began to walk up the sidewalk to the home in question. What unfolded turned out to be a rather emotional scene. It was tough on Officer Birdsall (it was tough on me, too), but he was able to maintain his composure and stay neutral. A master’s degree in psychology was coming in handy, as the officer was now playing the role of counselor.
That role would remain in addition to the role of caretaker now being taken on as well. After all, there’s the question of how much concern should be given to a suspected criminal’s condition while in custody. In the case of Officer Birdsall, I watched as he made repeated efforts to assure the person being detained was comfortable and continuously checked-in with the suspect. Part of Officer Birdsall’s job is to act as a caregiver to people whom he may have strong feelings toward on account of the crime they’re suspected of committing.
When we arrived at the jail, Officer Birdsall informed me that there were a few procedures he would have to take care of before heading inside with the suspect. He proceeded to fill out a report and then make three separate phone calls. Finally, we headed inside to hand over the suspect. After filling out some more paperwork, all Officer Birdsall could do was acknowledge the suspect one last time before heading out the door to the next matter at hand. Right then, I could see some of the emotional impact this case had placed on Officer Birdsall. He didn’t see this suspect as a statistic or as someone on the fringes of society; he saw a human being who he was leaving in a situation the officer had no control over. Officer Birdsall was placing this case in the hands of others, and it seemed as though he hoped things would work out for everyone involved.
We walked out into the parking lot and climbed back into Officer Birdsall’s cruiser. We were headed back to the police station where Officer Birdsall would have to scan in pieces of evidence related to this case. I watched as the officer did this without any administrative assistants. Using what could not at all be considered state-of-the-art technology, Officer Birdsall entered in a description, scanned in photographs of the evidence, printed a tag-indicator to place on the evidence and then placed it all in the proper place in storage. It was 8:30 p.m. Finally, Officer Birdsall had completed his first call of the night.
I went home and slept deeply that night. I was tired the next morning and couldn’t “move on” emotionally. I thought a lot about the people involved the next day and then I thought about Birdsall, how he had to wake up and do it all over again the next day with this weighing on his mind, and how he does that each and every day.