"Well, we're not going back yet," says Officer Alan Van't Land, as he pushes the little red button above the windshield. The lights and sirens go on, and we pull an illegal U-turn, blow through a red light and charge down the 35 mph street at around 65.
We wind up in a nice-enough-looking neighborhood, full of big houses with large yards. Van't Land parks a few houses down from the one in question and tells me to stay in the car. I watch him deliberately walk down the street, flashlight in one hand and pistol pointed to the ground in the other. He carefully climbs up a steep yard and enters through the front door.
In the cruiser, a metal laptop suspended from the dashboard flashes updates on our current call. One of the last lines to come up on the screen: "Neighbor may have gun."
Waiting for action
It's Saturday night in early March, and I'm participating in the Colorado Springs Police Department's Ride Along program, an experience available to any non-felon Springs citizen who's 18 or older. A simple phone call, a few signatures and a criminal background check were all it took to get me riding shotgun with one of the Springs' finest.
Having made an appointment three days prior, I showed up at the Sand Creek Area Command Center just off the corner of Fountain and Academy boulevards around dinnertime. In a drab grey waiting room, I met one other rider, a woman who was, like the vast majority of participants in the program, a criminal justice student doing the ride along for class credit.
Though the police department's promotes the program on the Web, it's something of an unknown quantity. Asked when it started, Lt. David Whitlock says only that it's been going for the 28 years he's been here. He adds that while the department sees at least one rider a week, it doesn't keep track of a total number.
After nearly an hour of waiting, I finally met my partner. Despite having been a Marine and sporting a buzzed haircut, Van't Land — tall and skinny, but not scrawny, with a kind smile — wasn't the hard-ass cop I imagined.
Following a brief introduction, we headed out to a sleek new Dodge Charger, whose interior was notable only for its console laptop, which Van't Land used alternately to receive calls from the command center and to Google-map the locations to which we'd be called. He handed me a walkie-talkie so I could listen in on the communications that he received directly to an earpiece.
We buckled in and were off ... to issue a warning to driver with an open van door. And then to follow up on a minor traffic accident.
According to Van't Land, who's been with the force two-plus years, the experiences of a Ride Along rider vary to the same degree as the calls to which an officer responds on any given night. Could be hours of routine traffic stops, or something as bad as responding to three separate DUI fatalities, which he had done a few weeks before our ride.
We were almost two hours in, and I started doubting my chances for a shootout, a bank robbery in progress ... something colorful.
The great steak caper
And then we heard about an attempted shoplifting at a Safeway. Modest action! I began to imagine the scene: Brave supermarket security officers in a standoff with a mad gang of shoplifting food bandits, automatic weapons in one hand, armfuls of deli meat in the other.
The scenario proved markedly different, and at first, fairly tame. Van't Land spoke to some store employees, establishing that the older man and woman whom security had detained had tried stealing about $60 worth of steaks. After writing them tickets with court dates, we were about ready to head out when a guard mentioned that he might know the male suspect by another name.
Van't Land led the shoplifter out to the car, and I hopped back in the front seat to check out what he was doing. He searched the first and last name the guy gave him on the laptop. The database yielded no match. Then he searched the name the security guard had given him.
My heart started racing. I began to wonder if maybe we'd nabbed a true fugitive ... a serial killer perhaps, or a famous gangster, caught red-handed in the act of grand theft sirloin. Soon, a picture of the man in the back seat popped up, along with two outstanding warrants for parole violation and burglary.
"What's your name?" Van't Land asked the man.
He repeated the one he had given inside the store.
"I'm going to ask you one more time, and if you lie to me again, I'm going to charge you with a felony."
This time, with a sigh, the suspect offered the same name that appeared on the screen. After more interviews with store employees, we returned to the command station, where I got a first-hand look at the tedious, paperwork-filled process of making an arrest. After we dropped the suspect off in a holding cell, I sat and waited behind the reception desk while Van't Land dictated his report to one of the dispatch officers. I helped myself to a donut from a box on the counter.
"Great," he said. "The one day we get someone in here writing a story is the one day we have donuts."
Staying in the car
Once the initial paperwork was done, which took about an hour, we picked up our suspect and headed to the Criminal Justice Center on East Las Vegas Street for another half-an-hour's worth of booking and processing. By the time we finished, it was nearly 11, an hour beyond the four hours a ride along usually lasts. Although Van't Land graciously offered to keep me on until his shift ended at 3 a.m., I was tired, and we agreed on one last call.
It came in the form of a pretty run-of-the-mill noise complaint — an angry neighbor upset over loud music. After having asked the residents to turn their music down, we neared the station ... and then that call for the domestic disturbance came through.
Which brings us back to where we started, with me watching Van't Land creep toward that house.
Fortunately, there's no gun. And after 10 minutes, Van't Land emerges to invite me in. Here's my Cops experience, complete with a vicious-looking barking dog, a mostly toothless man and a pair of roommates screaming about some ambiguous offense.
Issue eventually resolved, we return to the station just shy of midnight. Van't Land says if I stay a little later, things will really pick up when the drunks start leaving the bars, getting into fights, driving drunk and the like.
Tempting ... but I've already witnessed an arrest and blown through a few red lights with blaring sirens. Call me easily impressed, but I'd say that's a pretty fulfilling Saturday night.