This is Part I of a three-part blog post about my ride along with the Harrisburg Police Department on the night of October 30, 2008. Part I is an overview of the program, my goals for participating and is the timeline up until roll call.
Part II will feature the events of the night. I scribbled fastidiously in my best shorthand each call we were dispatched to and page after page of questions I had for the officer I was riding with. His answers were brutally honest, eye-opening and sometimes shocking- but he was absolutely forthcoming and eager to talk with a member of the proverbial fourth estate about the work the HPD does on a daily and nightly basis.
And the final part will be my conclusion. The events and content of the eight hour program couldn’t possibly be summed up in one quick post (and I know how short all of our attention spans are).
Having lived in the city for just about five years now, I’ve been the victim of a handgun crime, have had my home vandalized, my car was innocently hit-and-ran and I know more than a bakers-dozen of people (first-hand) who have been mugged, beaten or burglarized within the confines of this Capitol city.
I’ve participated in countless conversations and debates with plenty of fellow citizens about the how’s and why’s of local crime. And I’ve read the coverage (or lack thereof) in the local newspaper of some of the more heinous crimes which happen nightly within our city limits.
And after all of the talk and debate, message board chatter and barroom banter about the ills and dangers of living and surviving in the City of Harrisburg, I decided that I wanted to see first-hand what it’s really like on a typical shift of a Harrisburg Police Officer.
I contacted City Councilwoman Patty Kim and inquired about who I would need to speak with to arrange a ride along. (Councilwoman Kim participated in one about two years ago while she was Public Safety Chair).
After making the necessary phone calls, clearing my outstanding ticket and signing my life away waiver, I told the officer in charge of arranging the ride alongs that I wanted to go out on the most dangerous, busiest and bloodiest shift that he’d allow- and it was Thursday night- 11P-7A patrolling Allison Hill. (Friday and Saturday nights are the busiest and bloodiest, apparently, but safety concerns prohibit ridealongs on weekends)
I arrived at the station shortly before eleven- large coffee in hand- and just in time for roll call. For the few minutes I was early, I was privy to hearing the next shift of officers bust each others chops and poke fun at their acknowledged shortcomings. It was mostly the veterans joshing the new guys- not unlike a football locker room.
It was comical, actually- and this jostling was my first glance into the reality of the Harrisburg Police- and that reality is simple- these guys are human beings- good people with good families and modest homes; and the common uniting factor amongst the HPD is the desire- the want, the need to protect the citizens of this community. To say their job is “difficult” would not do justice- “Difficult” is parallel parking. “Difficult” is negotiating a mall parking lot during the holidays or making it to work on time after a three day weekend.
The Harrisburg Police exist in a precarious place- the proverbial rope in a tug-of-war between the Mayor and City Council- with jobs and salaries and good, qualified and honest officers being bargained or whittled away by poor city accounting and mismanagement of available funds.
Prior to roll call, I was chatting with one of the officers- “About ten years ago, we were just over two hundred [officers] strong; now, we’re at about one fifty”.
(Twenty five percent of the Harrisburg police department has been eliminated in some form over the past ten years because of budget restraints, retiring officers and difficulty in hiring new recruits due to the Mayor’s residency rule. City of Harrisburg Police officers are now required to reside in the city.)
Roll call began and the Captain briefed the team of ten on the goings-on of the night.
“Alright guys, we’ve got the league minimum tonight” (An officer explained to me earlier that they try to have fifteen patrols at any given time- but the minimum that they can begin a shift with is ten officers on duty)
“We had our first shooting of the night, guys” he began; and proceeded to explain that a male was shot in the leg and was en-route to Hershey Medical Center with minimal injuries.
“On a positive note, there were forty three burglaries in October.”
Forty three burglaries!? And that’s positive? I thought to myself. Later in the night, the Captain would explain that crime in the city is actually down in numbers. Although smaller crimes- muggings and break-and-entries are still prevalent and will become more so- as we approach “Robbery Season”, which normally begins mid-November – as the holidays approach. But the season started early this year.
Patrol assignments were issued after updating the team that the officer’s involved in the Ryan Westover brutality case were, in fact, cleared of all wrongdoing after the investigation revealed that Westover attempted to choke an officer with his radio cord prior to his injury.
He seemed relieved that he was cleared- but also acknowledged that the newspaper most likely wouldn’t report on the charges being dismissed. (WHTM reported tonight; PennLive still has only the initial story)
“You ready, dude?” My partner for the night asked-
“You bet, man. Let’s go!”
“Alright…did they give you your armor?”
I chuckled “Yeah… got it man…”- (He wasn’t joking)..”Oh…you…you’re serious?”
“Dude, it’s like Beirut out there. We gotta get you a vest.”
So, for the first time in my life, I strapped on a Kevlar bullet proof vest, stepped outside for a smoke and waited patiently for my ride-along to begin….
[EDIT: 5:09PM 11/7/08: In the spirit of full-disclosure, the above reference to PennLive not updating the status of the Westover story, the online news site did report on the clearance of the officers in the case- at 11:43 this morning. Nearly twelve full hours after this post was published and plugged on the Harrisburg Forum of PennLive.]