We’ve all heard the saying ‘life imitating art’ and it definitely fits some instances. I’d like to think that we’ve only scratched the surface of original fiction stories, but sometimes reality beats us to the punch.
I’m going to take you back a few years, before I wrote my first crime fiction novel Compulsion. I was right smack in the middle of the drama of a sociopathic neighbor harassing me daily, but there were some bright spots. I had written several screenplays and I wanted to get some first-hand research of police, procedures, and various crime aspects for an upcoming script. Since my next-door crime problem gave me access to the local cops, I was able to gain some insight into their jobs – real stuff, both personal and professional.
I didn’t know when I’d get the chance again to observe the local sheriff’s office so I jumped at the opportunity to observe them on many ride alongs for both patrol and criminal investigations.
First, let me be clear, anyone can sign up for a civilian police ride along (if it’s available in your area or police department) and observe what police officers do and for the most part it is routine and even a little boring. For some reason, ever since my first ride along (it was off the charts with crazy excitement), they’ve always been highly active for me.
I’ve observed many arrests, searches, K9 searches, high-speed chases, mobs, drunks, assaults, had a parolee’s girlfriend get in my face, was spit at by an arrestee (he missed), and I even sat in on an interview of a suspected serial rapist at the local jail. The amount of “real life police work” and information I’ve witnessed first-hand could fill volumes of books. You couldn’t duplicate this stuff in the same way on paper.
But… there was one ride along incident, which was the only time I was actually scared.
My host police officer was a friend and he was very capable at his job.
It was late on a Friday evening when a burglary 911 came over the radio and we were the closest to the incident. According to the caller, several people were seen inside a home where the residents were away on vacation.
You have to understand that the sheriff’s department patrols all of the unincorporated areas of a county, and sometimes that means in some very rural areas. On this particular night, the patrol officers (third watch) were stretched thin, which meant in many instances back-up was at least a half hour away.
As we got closer to the address, up a back bumpy dirt road above the property and cut the lights, we could see three people rummaging through the house. You couldn’t tell if the suspects were armed, but it was still a dicey situation for any police officer let alone a solo one.
I remained quiet and could only sit and watch as the events unfolded in front of me.
Police back up was more than a half hour away, closer to forty minutes. Every minute felt like an eternity too.
The radio went on police silence so that approaching officers could hear from the lone officer during his approach to the situation.
Our conversation inside the patrol car went like this…
He handed me the car keys and said, “If I tell you to drive away, you do it.”
“I will be talking on the radio and you’ll be able to hear everything that’s going on.”
I nodded again, not knowing what to say. My mind raced with so many scenarios that I didn’t want to think about. Reality sucker punched me and left me speechless.
“You’ll be fine.” He gave me a smile. He knew that I could handle it because of the other police situations that I had been in the middle of previously.
He double-checked his extra ammo, got out of the patrol car, quietly shut the door, pulled his Glock and flashlight, and stealthily approached the house in the darkness.
I stared at the keys in my hand and then noticed that the shotgun wasn’t locked in its position. Again, my mind went through different scenarios. Writers have an extra boost of imagination in this type of situation.
I watched the officer quietly make his way to the porch of the house, glancing in the windows.
I don’t think I took more than a few breaths during the entire incident because I was expecting the worst, and hoping for the best.
The radio that usually buzzed with police activity was silent.
Then I heard my host officer speaking in a whisper over the radio, “Three male suspects, two juveniles, one adult early twenties…”
I fidgeted in my seat and watched the house. The officer made a complete circle around the house examining his surroundings.
Then I heard, “Jen, you doing okay?”
I blinked in surprise and couldn’t help but smile. He’s asking how I’m doing as he’s about to arrest some burglars?
Time inched by…
I heard yelling and couldn’t make out the words or who was actually yelling.
I couldn’t see the police officer anymore. For a few tense moments, I waited. You don’t want to know what I was thinking or what I thought about doing.
My host officer had all three suspects on the ground with their hand behind their backs. One of the suspects had a loaded handgun, cocked and ready to fire.
I still didn’t breathe a sigh of relief until the rest of the cavalry arrived.
To say the least, I learned a lot from that experience, not only about myself but also about how dangerous a situation could be for any police officer.
When I’m writing my crime fiction novels, I try to convey that same feeling I had during that ride along incident for my readers. Now, maybe you can understand a little bit more about my heroine Emily Stone and why she does what she does…
* * *
Good research is art. During my years as police reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I spent many Saturday nights riding with patrolmen or detectives. No one ever knows what they face on a nightly basis unless they’ve been there. It gives you a whole new perspective on the job of keeping the law and keeping us safe.
It really does… my eyes were opened.
Great post, Jennifer! When I was a reporter (and since then, too, for research) I hung out at the courthouse to watch hearings and arraignments. You know how on Buffy the Vampire Slayer, there were vampires and monsters everywhere but the public was mostly blissfully unaware and looked past all the attacks and problems as if everything approximated normal? Organized and disorganized crime is incredibly like that. A friend of mine who is a policeman still marvels at all that goes on each night that most people never discover. Newspaper stories alone don’t give the full flavor. While I was reporting for newspapers, I got a lot of material for my fiction hanging out in courts. Just like Buffy, the experience ranged from tragic to comic to horror. As I write my crime novels, I always think: you know, Elmore Leonard and the Cohen brothers get it right.
Perfectly put Chazz — it’s amazing what you can observe when no one is really paying attention.
Oh my goodness! You’re so brave! (Pats you on the back)
Thanks 🙂 I have to giggle now — but I was shaking in my shoes!! LOL