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The City Journals

Underneath the Uniform

May 05, 2016 12:04PM ● By Bryan Scott

By Cassandra Goff | [email protected]

Cottonwood heights  - “So you want to do a ride-along?” the police chief asked as he sat down next to me. I was shocked and it must have been apparent on my face. 

The chief was confused by my blank stare. “Rachel? She’s your editor. Right? She mentioned that you wanted to go for a ride-along.”

I never liked cops. I hated seeing red and blue lights. I hated seeing cops parked on the side of a street and having to drive on my best behavior. In elementary school, kids are taught that cops are friends, that they are here to protect. How are they protecting when six of them swarm my car at 17 years old? How are they my friends when they stop me on a late-night walk? I’d never had an instance where they acted as a protective friend — more like an overly strict parent. 

Then again, I guess a ride-along would be interesting. I had never had an opportunity to do one before. I’d heard through the grapevine that they could be exciting and fun. Why not?

“Sure,” I said, trying to sound sure myself.

“Good!”  he said excitedly, “Call me and I’ll set up a time for you. I’ll put you with my best guys. Nothing will happen, don’t worry. You’ll have a great time.” 

I pulled up to the police station around 6:30 on a Saturday night in February. I parked next to a bright blue sedan and pulled out my phone to call someone named Gary. The police chief had told me that Gary would be the sergeant that night and I should call him when I had arrived. 

“I’m here,” I said, trying to sound cheery when he answered. 

“I’ll have someone pick you up shortly,” he said, all business.

 I got out of my car and walked to the door. I noticed a security panel on the side of the doorframe, and decided it would just be better to wait outside. It was a cold night and the air seeped through my jacket. I paced, waiting for a police car to show up, past parking spots designated for police. After I had significantly chilled from the air, a police truck pulled up. Gary backed around to park, the bright red tail lights stunning my eyes. The door of the truck swung open as a massive man swung out and sauntered toward me. 

“Are you here for me?” I asked, suddenly feeling very small. He nodded as he went around to his passenger seat to clean out some clutter. I was nervous. I was talking to a police officer. This time, I wouldn’t be walking away with a ticket, but the anxious feeling wouldn’t subside, no matter how much I told it to. 

Gary turned around to face me. “We need to go inside and have you fill out a form, just in case you die.”

I started to laugh nervously until I realized that he wasn’t joking. I could die tonight. I didn’t know if I would, or how I might die, but it remained a possibility. I was going to sign over my name so that if I died tonight, it would be all right.

I followed Gary inside and down a long, narrow, white hallway, my eyes on his back, his blue uniform a stark contrast with the color of the walls. His balding head nearly touched the ceiling and his broad shoulders seemed to span the width of the corridor. His belt sagged, full of the typical police hardware — flashlight, handcuffs and of course, his gun. He was a giant. He moved like a giant and his voice was deep. But I couldn’t imagine this enormous man running. Don’t police need to run? I wondered.

He opened the door to the police department and I walked in. There was a bulletin board littered with flyers; many desks, some messy, some neater; chairs and scattered paper. He searched through the scatterings within an area where two cubicles had been pushed together, unsuccessfully, for the form I needed to sign. He thumbed through a handful of files, his giant fingers giving him trouble as he searched through the sheets of paper. “I just saw it, I knew you were coming,” he said, almost apologetically. 

“Here,” he pulled a paper from a shelf. “Read it and sign at the bottom,” he instructed, handing the form to me. The paper instructed me to listen to the police officers, dress in a presentable manner, act like an adult and stay in the car unless instructed otherwise. The paper had no mention of death, so that was a good sign. I wrote out my name and the date, then signed my night away. 

 Gary looked over the paper form as I stood up to follow him. “So what do you know about police officers?” he asked.

How was I supposed to answer that question? I’d seen police before, both in person and on screen, but admittedly some of my information was probably not so accurate. 

“You guys have to do a lot of paperwork,” I said, immediately flinching at my own answer. Gary laughed at my attempt and followed up with, “Have you been arrested or given a ticket?” 

“Yes,” I said nervously, hoping he wouldn’t ask a follow-up question. 

“Did the police officers treat you with respect?” I thought about past events with police officers for a moment. “Yes, they had,” I said. 

We made our way back to his truck. “Climb into the passenger seat,” he instructed as we approached the driver’s side. I walked around the back of the truck and up to the enormous door. I reached for the door handle, pulled it open and opened the door, with some effort. I stared, aghast, at the mountain I had to climb to get into the passenger seat. Not only was Gary an enormous human being, but his truck was made for people bigger than me, too. I managed to grab the handle inside and hoist myself awkwardly into the truck. I nearly sat on Gary’s laptop in the passenger seat as I finally made it inside the cab.

I assessed my surroundings. The laptop was small and inexpensive but the truck itself was pretty fancy: colored headlights, a touch screen for temperature control and a radio. And it was clean, which was not what I was expecting after seeing many man-owned trucks in my life.

“Nothing bad is going to happen to you tonight.”  Gary said, easing behind the steering wheel. 

“Oh, good,” I sighed with relief. Gary turned the ignition and the truck’s massive engine rumbled to life. He started to talk, eyes looking straight ahead, but occasionally looking over at me to make sure I was listening. 

“There is never a good situation with a cop. If there is a police officer involved, it’s probably a bad situation,” he explained.

He told me about how when his wife gets pulled over, she calls him to complain. His answer is always pretty much the same: “Sweetheart, your husband is a police officer.” 

“No one wants to be a cop these days,” he said in a half sigh, explaining how the repeatedly bad situations lead to people not wanting to be involved with the job. As we talked, my own unease began to fade away. Maybe that was his intention all along. 

I laughed at his jokes and began to notice his facial features instead of his uniform. His eyes were bright and blue, his moustache seemed to dance on his lip as he talked and his laugh lines dug deep. He flipped open the small laptop and showed me what I would be seeing throughout the night. He turned the wheel, pulling away from the curb. 

“Days are usually pretty boring, but maybe we’ll see something exciting tonight,” he said as I looked at the screen. 

As we were pulling out of the parking lot, a female voice filtered on the radio, notifying the officers about an incoming call. Gary’s voice became sprinkled with excitement. The details of the call appeared on the screen in front of me. “Teenage male dressed in all black and scream mask jumping fences,” it read. 

“Have you seen the movie?” Gary asked. 

“No,” I said. He explained the movie and described the mask, and though I knew what it looked like, I didn’t interrupt him.

“Do you get that a lot?” I asked “People in scream masks?”

 “No,” his answer surprised me, “I mean, around Halloween it’s common but that’s about it.” We drove over to the area where the call was reported from. Voices from other police officers responding to the same call crackled over the radio. We drove around the dark streets, keeping our eyes peeled.

 “Why did you become a police officer?” I asked.

He told me how his grandfather, father, and brother were all police officers, so his career path was never a question. “I’ve been on the force since ’88,” he said. He had been through many departments, including SWAT. But Gary also seemed born for the job; he was the happiest police officer I had ever encountered. 

As we drove around the quiet neighborhood, another police car passed us. The sun had just set behind the mountains, casting darkness over the Cottonwood Heights homes. I gazed out my window, watching the neighbors as they were getting things from their car, taking out trash, doing everyday tasks. A few looked up at us momentarily as we drove by, but most continued on with their task. Cottonwood Heights police are frequently seen scattered throughout the city, which explained the lack of interest from the neighbors. I knew what they were seeing from the outside, the familiar “Cottonwood Heights Police” lettering colored with blue and gray, surrounding a blue stripe that curved up toward the hood with a flare. A white background peeking through the letters that covered the doors and the black paint that covered the hood and trunk. 

I knew the familiar “Solve the Problem” logo that appeared across the back of the cars. I knew the view from outside. As I sat in the passenger seat, it was hard to comprehend that the paint I could instantly recognize was just on the other side of my door. I could only see the interior of the vehicle. I could only look out the window to view familiarity. It was odd to be inside the police car, instead of being the outside neighbor. I felt out of place. The neighbors didn’t know I was in the passenger seat, on the inside. All they saw were symbols and colors correlating with police; all they knew was that there was a police officer inside this vehicle. What would they have thought to see me, a 21-year-old girl, without a uniform, sitting in that car, underneath the red and blue lights? 

Gary kept talking, “editorializing,” as he called it, and I was glad. I had all sorts of questions and he was answering some of them without even knowing it. 

“Police officers have to be especially careful in every situation,” he continued, recounting the story of Officer Barney, a Holladay officer who had been killed while on duty. Barney had pulled over a car for a traffic violation that has since been lost in insignificance. He parked after the suspect had stopped, climbed out of his seat and walked toward the car, expecting another grumbled conversation with an inconvenienced driver. Just another normal traffic stop. When Barney approached the driver, the driver pulled out a gun and pulled the trigger. The driver fled from the scene, obviously engaged in something much more illegal than a traffic violation.

“We try to prepare for that,” Gary said. “We never know if someone is going to pull a gun or try to hurt us.” For that reason, Gary will “light up cars,” turning on his flashing red and blue lights, bright headlights, some other supporting lights and sometimes a spotlight.

 “We want to keep control of the situation and see as much as we can,” he said. Police officers get a bit nervous when drivers begin searching in their glove box for their license and registration during a normal traffic stop. Gary will usually ask to see their hands when he approaches.

“Do drivers get upset or irritated?” I asked. 

“I’d rather have a bad encounter than for someone to pull a gun from that glove box,” he explained. Every stop can be a matter of life or death for police officers so they proceed with caution. 

As we were talking, we saw two teenage boys walking on the sidewalk. Gary pulled over and waited for the boys to walk into the beam of his headlights. As they did, I noticed one of them dressed in all black while the other wore a purple, black and white patterned sweatshirt with some tan pants; this boy had his hands in his sweatshirt pockets. “What do you think?” Gary asked, keeping his eye on the two boys. They walked by our truck and unlocked a jeep parked on the street.

I didn’t see a scream mask but one was dressed in all black. “We’ll talk to them,” Gary said, and turned his truck to park behind the jeep. He flipped his red and blue lights on. The combination of flashing lights and additional truck lights made the jeep extremely visible.

I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the teenagers. I’d been in this position before, being pulled over at night. Those lights are blinding in the rearview mirror and, like Gary said, it’s never a good situation when an officer is involved. 

I watched as Gary walked out from the safety of the truck, toward the driver’s side of the jeep, while I stayed in the passenger seat, as I had been told to stay in the vehicle unless instructed otherwise. His left hand swung by his hip. The other hand, cocked by his right ear, held a flashlight. He talked to the driver, looking inside of the vehicle with the little beam of light. Another police officer pulled up behind me and one more pulled in front of the parked jeep. I watched as one officer joined Gary and the third went around the passenger side with the same type of flashlight, looking (I assumed) for a weapon. I watched as their lips began to move, talking with the teenagers. I could not hear anything that was said beyond the truck doors. I could only pretend to read lips that were not directly facing me. After a few unsuccessful attempts to figure out what they were saying, I tried to identify the passenger from my seat. I could see the silhouettes of both teenagers, sitting nervously in their seats. They seemed stiff and rigid, movement undetectable within their shadows. As their conversation lingered, I looked around the car, once again. I looked behind my seat, curious to what Gary liked to drive around with. After discovering nothing of interest, I settled back in my seat, resting my head against the door, and looked out the window. I noticed the flashing lights reflecting off the fallen snow. The lights made a lawn of snow reflect entirely red, and then entirely blue, over and over again. Each change of color caught different gleams of light from fallen snowflakes. Small sparkles jumped every few seconds, dying when the color illuminating them suddenly disappeared. It was quite beautiful, something I never imagined to observe from police lights. I wondered if the officers ever stopped somewhere abandoned to watch their lights bounce of walls or landscape. 

My lost thoughts were broken as Gary walked halfway to the truck, pulling his walkie-talkie to his mouth. 

“They’re acting a little nervous,” he said, his voice crackled unintelligibly through the radio. 

Isn’t everyone a little nervous around officers? I thought. What constituted being a little bit more than just a little nervous? 

Eventually each of the officers stepped back from the jeep; one returned to his cruiser while Gary rejoined me in the truck. The other officer came over to Gary’s window. 

“Go to lunch,” Gary said through the window. It seemed like such a normal thing to say, which made it feel strange.

 “Any luck?” I asked Gary as we pulled away from the curb.

“No,” he said, “but I definitely think they were involved somehow.” The teenager wearing all black was extremely pale. Maybe the resident who called in had let her imagination get the better of her. We passed another police officer down the road and Gary informed me of an officer who had inspected the fence where the teenagers supposedly jumped. There was a 15-foot drop, high enough that teenagers probably wouldn’t want to jump it, and there were no footprints in the snow. Something didn’t add up. 

“Why did the other officers show up?” I asked, referring the two back-up cruisers at the scene.

“We work as a team. It’s always better to have more than one person, especially with two people in a car, in case they do have weapons or ill intentions.” 

He went on to discuss how they can’t possibly know who they are pulling over. It’s hard to see into a driver window. As we slowed at the whim of a red light, he pointed to a car we were creeping up on and asked, “Can you see the driver in the car next to us? Man or woman? Race? Age? Distinguishing features?”

I looked, but I couldn’t tell much besides a vague silhouette.

Gary nodded his head. “I can’t tell who is in another car either.” Gary pulled closer to the car, looking down at an elderly lady in the passenger seat of a small car. She looked up at him, uneasy, and I couldn’t help but laugh. 

 “What is a typical day like for you?” I asked as we drove on.

“Every day is different,” he began. “There is nothing typical about the police officer job. He comes to work, gathers his stuff and heads out. He does things that most would consider normal for a supervisor: making sure his team is doing what they are supposed to, being aware of lunch breaks, checking in on everyone to make sure they are all right. Any inkling of a “normal” day includes driving around the city, making stops and responding to calls. 

“What is the most difficult part of your job?” I asked. His immediate answer was working with children (in fact, every officer I talked to that night told me the same thing). He shared a story with me that had really “messed him up for a few days.” 

A mother was feeding her child, absentmindedly. She overfed him, with too much formula for his little body. When Gary arrived at the home, he intended to do CPR, but couldn’t get a clean airway because of all the formula causing blockage throughout the child’s throat and mouth. The child couldn’t be saved. 

He told me another story, involving a dead body in the middle of the road. When he arrived on the scene, the bystanders looked at him with the thought of “oh good, a police officer is here, so it’s okay now” clear on their faces. Gary started CPR on the dead body before paramedics arrived, working and working, but nothing would help. 

On a different occasion, Gary was doing CPR on a man who had eaten spaghetti and peas beforehand. In response to the CPR, the man vomited the spaghetti and peas, directly into Gary’s mouth. I made a grossed-out noise as he told me the story and he acknowledged, “Yeah, it was gross.” 

“What is the best part of your job?” I asked him as we parked at the station, awaiting another officer I was to ride with. His instant answer was “saving people. Any time where the story ends with saving a life instead of losing a life, I am rewarded, even if it does involve puke,” he joked.  It was obvious that Gary really enjoyed his job. He was one of the happiest, jolliest police officers I had ever met. I wondered how he was able to stay so positive, especially with the stories he was sharing. And the ones he wasn’t. 

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a police charger parking next to us. The driver door opened as a police officer got out and walked toward Gary’s window. He rolled it down and introduced me to the new officer. “She wants to be a police officer,” he joked. Gary just smiled smugly as I awkwardly maneuvered out of the truck. I tucked my bag under my arm and walked around to Gary’s side of the truck to thank him. I was sad I wouldn’t be spending any more time with him. He’d eased my tension and made me laugh — the first officer ever to do that. But I was looking forward to riding with this new officer, Damien.