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Citizens Police Academy: ride-along

Think that police cruiser is following you, even though the lights and siren aren’t on? You’re probably right.

On Friday night, I rode with a police officer from my local station from eight at night until almost four in the morning. It’s one of the most fascinating experiences I’ve ever had.

Probably the biggest eye-opener for me during the ride-along was that the officer ran license plates almost constantly as we drove around. The cars didn’t have to be suspicious, just close enough to read the plate. The officer was looking for outstanding warrants for the owner, stolen vehicles, or anything other reason he might need to pull the driver over.

If the officer was suspicious and needed an excuse to stop someone, he could always pull them over for having a “felony air freshener”. 😉 Anything hanging from the rearview mirror is illegal in Virginia (not actually a felony), though cops will probably only stop someone specifically for that if the item is a potentially dangerous distraction or obstruction (e.g. a CD, large fuzzy dice). We didn’t resort to this during my ride.

The first traffic stop was a lady driving without her headlights. We followed her from a shopping center, figuring she’d get a clue and turn them on. Even after we flipped on the blue lights and shone the headlight in her rearview mirror, not only did she not figure it out, she didn’t stop for almost half a mile. After the officer ran her license and found no issues, she got a warning to stay alert.

The second stop was a man who kept crossing over the lane line. He was on the phone, and he too did not stop with the blue lights for almost a half mile. We had to give a quick siren burst before he pulled over to the shoulder. We were immediately joined by another officer who had been going the other way.

It’s common for officers to back each other up when they can.

On this stop–and all subseqent stops–I got out to listen and watch. The backup cop smelled something funny, so he got the man out of the car and talked to him while my officer searched the car for marijuana. Ultimately the car came up clean and the man got a ticket for “failure to pay full time attention”.

The third stop was a 16-year old kid driving home from some kind of sports practice. He was going 70 in a 35-mph zone! We were behind him for about half-a-mile (in light traffic) and he didn’t notice us until the blue lights came on. This stop was interesting because the offense was pretty bad. The kid could have received a ticket for reckless driving that includes a penalty of up to $1000 and the loss of his license until he was 21!

What saved the teen? It was the first-time he’d ever been pulled over (cops enter warnings into the database so you don’t get warned over and over with them thinking it’s your first offense). He was respectful to the officer. He appeared to be sober and lucid.

The cop didn’t want to ruin this kid’s life for the next five years, so he lectured him, gave him a ticket for “failure to observe a highway sign” (in this case, the speed limit sign), explained to him how bad the punishment could be, told him to tell his parents what happened (and that he’d check up), and let him know he’d be passing his name on to the school resource officer for the in-school cop to follow up with him and keep an eye on him.

Our first call of the night was for a trash can fire at a strip mall. Upon arrival there were two groups of teens (about 25 overall) hanging around at the direction of the firefighters who’d responded first.

Immediately, one 19-year-old kid (we’ll call him J) approached the officer and got in his face about why he was being detained and how he hadn’t done anything. He was practically in tears, and wouldn’t shut up while the officer tried to talk to the firefighters about what happened. The cop told J to sit down and asked for his ID. He sat and provided his VDL, but he started grousing about being on probation and just coming down to Chipotle to get a burrito.

J interrupted again saying basically “either arrest me or let me go”. He said he wasn’t involved with the fire and hadn’t done anything wrong. Well, he’d been drinking, but that’s it. About six shots of…something. It’s hard to explain what an idiot J was being, but when another police cruiser showed up, J got his wish: handcuffs and a seat in the back of our cruiser.

In addition to the fire, a girl got her purse stolen during the commotion. If I explained what an airhead this girl who was hanging out at eleven o’clock at night in a strip mall was, I’d never finish this blog. Needless to say, I wasn’t impressed. Especially when she asked me if I was J’s mom.

Girl, if I were J’s mom I wouldn’t have been standing by with my mouth shut. I’d have been telling him to shut his (while planning his year of punishment).

Another police officer showed up and they divvied up the three overlapping cases (fire, purse, drunk idiot). Then we took J to jail! He spent the entire drive alternating between friendly banter with the officer—whom he knew from previous incidents—and crying. The saddest part is that he knew he'd screwed up, but he couldn’t seem to stop acting like a jackass.

Every time he remembered he was going to jail, he started crying again. He’d been there before, and in his sobbing words, “Oh my God, jail sucks.”

Upon arrival at the adult detention center (ADC), we were buzzed into a “sally port” at the back of the building. Then we got J out and were buzzed into an airlock-type setup where the door closes behind you before the next one opens.

Let me tell you, the resounding clang of the metal door as it closes is pretty horrible. It was so loud I jumped, even on the way back out.

Inside, J had to stand at a line on the floor and let the sheriff’s deputies search him again (the sheriff's department runs the jails here). Then we went before the magistrate where the officer explained why he’d detained J: drunk in public (basically a way to get him off the streets so he wouldn’t get hurt or hurt anyone else).

The magistrate approved the arrest and we led J to in-processing. Once his information was entered into the database, we left him handcuffed to a chair in the waiting area.

The dumbest part was that if he’d just stayed cool at the fire scene and stayed out of the cop’s face, he probably wouldn’t have been arrested. He literally asked for it.

The next few hours we drove around running plates and following people who drifted over the line or made some other move that might mean they were driving intoxicated.

We responded to a call where a guy was thrown from a mechanical bull at a bar and broke his wrist. The injury was just a skin-break shy of being a compound fracture and was pretty nasty to look at. There was no commotion, so after the ambulance arrived, we left.

We stopped two 15-year-old boys jaywalking across a major road at midnight. The cop asked them where they were coming from/going to and their ages. They didn’t seem drunk or particularly nervous, and they were respectful. The officer admonished that it wasn’t safe to cross there, especially wearing dark clothing and told them to use the crosswalk next time and be safe.

The mom in me wondered why they were out that late by themselves.

The last big event of the night was a property hit and run. The driver of a car crashed through a fence and went over a hundred yards driving between the fence and row of trees before crashing out the end of the fence and coming to a stop. Along the way he hit several small pine trees, caved in his windshield, and sent fence posts flying.

Cruisers and a police helicopter searched the area to see if the driver was heading home on foot, but they didn’t find him. They weren’t so much trying to “catch” him as trying to make sure he hadn’t passed out somewhere while bleeding to death.

We figured out who the car’s owner was, and the cop actually recognized the name as the mother of a young man he’d dealt with before. After talking to the property owner (huge mansion/horse property) at two-thirty in the morning and getting the car towed to impound, we drove to the mother’s house to see if the driver was there.

By now it was about 3:15 am. She came to the door in pajamas, but didn’t seem scared or incredibly surprised. Turns out, she’d done this many times, and her son had called earlier to tell her about the accident. He had minor injuries and would probably go to the ER. His girlfriend had been driving behind him and picked him up from the accident scene.

Most likely the driver had been drinking and ran so he wouldn't get hit with a DUI. Unfortunately, after so much time had passed, and without catching him at the scene, there'd be no way to prove it even if we found him that night. The cop told the mom to have her son (age 22) call the station before the weekend was out or this would turn into more than just making sure the property owner got paid for the damages.

The poor woman had been planning to turn the car over to her son so it would be his responsibility, but as of the accident it was still in her name and under her insurance. And not only that, but it was probably totaled.

Takeaways and Tidbits

  • Your attitude when pulled over or questioned by a police officer has a huge effect on the outcome. Be respectful and you won’t get slammed.
  • Cops won’t assume you’re running if you don’t pull over right away, but if you’re looking for a safe place to stop, consider using your hazard lights to acknowledge that you’ve seen the cruiser.
  • When arresting someone, cops don’t have to read Miranda rights unless they plan to question him. Also, if not Mirandized and the person talks without prompting, all of that is admissible in court.
  • If you get in trouble often enough, you’ll get to know quite a few of the cops who patrol the area you live/get in trouble in. They often respond to a call in pairs or trios, and on any given shift, there are only seven or eight cops working that station’s district.
  • After the bars have last call (0130 in VA), everyone goes to IHOP. I'd hate to be a server on that shift.
  • If a cruiser pulls up next to you, but about half a car back, he’s probably running your tag.

The ride-along was a blast. If you get a chance to do one, I highly recommend it. Check with your local station. Sometimes all you have to do is ask.

Tell your friends!


  1. Reply

    Love reading this post. I got to ride along with my husband for a few hours (Raleigh Police Department), but he got an OD call right out of the gate (luckily, they got to the boy in time) and stayed on that the whole time. We plan another ride along this fall. Hopefully, I get to see a little more of his average day to day duties. Great post!

    • Reply

      Thanks, Andris! This is probably my longest post ever, but I didn’t want to break it up. I’m glad you got to the OD in time. Hopefully your next ride will have a bit more variety!

  2. KM Fawcett


    Wow. So interesting, Gwen. Thanks for the post. Were you the only civilian in the ride-along or was someone else with you? Curious how they split the class up and if others went out the same night in other cars or if they had to schedule each person for different days.

    • Reply

      Kathy: Thanks! It was just me. We didn’t do this part as a class, and it was completely optional. I filled out an application which was forwarded to our local station. Once I was “cleared” the Sergeant called me to schedule it.

      My understanding is that you don’t have to be part of the CPA to do a ride-along.

  3. Rylee


    Very cool stuff. A friend of my mom’s is (was) a game warden when I was in college. I got to go on a ride along in the spring of 1994. He wrote three books about being a game warden – not just him, but about his mentor and other keen game warden adventures.

    • Reply

      Hey, Rylee! The game warden ride-along sounds really interesting. I’m sure that’s a whole different set of “wild” adventures. 😉

  4. Reply

    It took me a bit to read this post as it’s a bit lengthy but WOW is this interesting!! It’s so cool to know what an officer is thinking before and after they pull you over or when they’re responding to a call.

    I have no reason to need one but this post makes me want to go on a ride-along! If I had the time to do it, I’d really look into it. Very cool.

    Can’t wait to read more of your adventure.

    • Reply

      Sorry this was so long, Aaron. I debated about splitting it up, but I still have to write about last week’s class too.

      For writing or not, I highly recommend the CPA to everyone. I think the police are less scary now that I’ve met so many of them, and understand more about where they’re coming from.

      Overwhelmingly, they are interested in keeping us safe, either from someone else, or ourselves. Thanks for pushing through to the end! 🙂

  5. Reply

    They go to Ihop? I thought they eat donuts?
    lol joking, I am glad you had a blast! and thanks for the tips, I will use them next time I’ll get in trouble lol lol

  6. Pingback: My trip to jail « The Edited Life

  7. Amanda White


    Hi Gwen,
    I was interested in going on a ride along with a police officer. I live in Fairfax County. Do we have to be in some sort of police program to go on it? I applied for the police academy, but was put on the wait list.

    Thank you,
    Amanda White

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