Lessons Learned from a Police Ride-Along

Recently there have been a lot of news and media coverage highlighting rising tensions between our nation’s police departments and our citizens. Whether it is the incidents in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York City, or elsewhere, it feels like every time we turn on the news there is a new incident of alleged police brutality or misconduct. To gain some perspective on the subject, and to fulfill an obligation with his community volunteer program, Leadership Pinellas, attorney Dane Heptner recently took a ride-along with Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office Deputy. Below is an overview of his experience.

The ride along included a brief orientation of the Sherriff’s office, where the Deputy loaded up on citations forms and other paperwork we might need for the night. We then loaded up in his Sherriff’s Office SUV and began to patrol two neighborhoods that he described as “high crime” with a propensity towards drug distribution. I was astonished at how familiar the Deputy was with the neighborhoods he patrols. Before turning on to a given street he could list off which make, model and color car a particular driveway would ordinarily have parked in it. He could identify young men and women walking the street or leaving the convenient store by first and last name. It was evident he knew the neighborhoods as well as the residents. He identified homes and buildings well-known for selling and distributing drugs, and he explained what I already knew: obtaining enough legal-suspicion to obtain a warrant to search a home or building is a difficult task, which often inhibits law enforcement’s ability to crack down on drug-crimes.

So, he explained, the best way to do so is by initiating contact with individuals in the neighborhoods and surrounding areas to see if he can drum up some information. We patrolled the area looking for vehicles or people he did not recognize on the suspicion that they might be in the area for purposes of buying drugs. We would then pull them over for the most minor of traffic infractions: a broken license plate light; rolling over the stop line at a red light; not having a flashlight attached to their bicycle. These infractions served as a basis to initiate conversations with the individuals and see what we could learn. This is where the tension set in. The Deputy always conducted himself in a polite, respectful, and articulate manner; and for the most part, the people we pulled over did too. However, on occasion, we were met with hostility. One individual even suggested that the Deputy might shoot him simply because of his skin color.
I quickly realized that what I had always perceived as an officer being rude, pulling me over for no reason, or looking for an excuse to write tickets, was actually probably just their way of conducting an investigation for a more serious crime. That night we must have pulled over at least 20 people, all of which could have received a ticket for some infraction. The Deputy didn’t write a single ticket. Instead, he would ask his questions, take his notes, run the person’s information through the system and, if everything checked out, wish them a happy holidays and send them on their way.

Overall, it was very enlightening and fulfilling experience. I learned a tremendous amount about the practice of law and how some police officers conduct their business, but more importantly, I gained the perspective that if both parties always remain polite, respectful, and kind, it will almost always result in a peaceful parting of ways. I thank the Pinellas County Sherriff’s Office and Leadership Pinellas for the opportunity.


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