Opinion: Glimpse at a dead-serious job

The big sign on the back wall says it all.

The Key: Common Sense.

These were the first words to greet me last week as I sit in a meeting room at the DeKalb Police Department’s North Central Station in Tucker for officers’ 6 a.m. roll call.

Most of the dozen police officers in the room awaiting the day’s assignment do not appear to be morning people, but then neither am I. The room is relatively quiet, and even the sergeant leading the group speaks in a low almost, hushed tone. There is some quiet, light humor, followed by a prayer asking for protection of those on the streets and for the officers.

I don’t know what to expect from the 10-hour police ride-along I had signed up for as part of my membership in Leadership DeKalb’s Class of 2015. Like other city and county leadership programs around the country, Leadership DeKalb brings together leaders from different backgrounds and professions to learn about county government, schools, culture and issues that impact the quality of life for citizens. My class includes a few judges, lawyers, both the county and the schools’ chief operating officers, both the DeKalb fire and police chiefs, a communication director and leaders of non-profits and private sector companies.

This coming week, the group will participate in what is called Justice Day. The 53 class members will basically spend the day getting a birds-eye view of the justice system, including visits to county courtrooms and a tour of the county jail. We’ll hear from District Attorney Robert James, Police Chief James Conroy, as well as officials at the Rape Crisis Center, the Medical Examiner’s Office and judges in the juvenile court and child advocates. As an editor who rarely gets to go on assignments anymore, I’m always looking forward to meeting the people scheduled on our program days because they’re often people we write about in the newspaper.

Before our program on Thursday, each class member is required to spend an entire shift with either the DeKalb police or fire departments. We’ve known about the assignment since class orientation the end of last summer; but in true journalist fashion, I get as close to deadline as possible before scheduling my ride-along.

The night before my assignment, I have much regret for waiting because the weather forecasts calls for steady rain throughout the morning and afternoon.

I’m assigned to an officer covering a region that includes parts of Memorial Drive and Covington Highway and Scottsdale. Throughout the day we’ll pass neighborhoods and businesses near Cedar Park, the DeKalb Farmers Market and Hamilton Recreation Center.

My ride-along partner is an eight-year veteran of DeKalb police and a former Marine. If I ever had to call the police for something or get pulled over in a traffic stop, he’s the kind of officer I would like to encounter. His demeanor is calm, methodical, polite, firm.

Within the first hour, he gets called to an apartment complex after dispatchers receive a 911 hang-up and no answer on the return call. I’m a little tense when we arrive, thinking “what if it’s a heated domestic dispute or worse.” Clearly this is somewhat routine for him. He talks through some of what he might anticipate – something I learn that he does on almost every call. He says he typically thinks through every scenario imaginable in the short time he has between receiving a call and getting to the scene. Because he’s unsure of the true nature of the call, I remain in the car.

He returns about 10 minutes later and says it’s a technical glitch with the phone system and after a walkthrough of the apartment, he and another responding officer accept this as a plausible cause.

Soon after, we spot a car crossing several striped lines at an intersection after the motorist realized she needed to continue straight on Memorial Drive instead of turning left on a side street.

“Would you do that?” the officer asks me. “No,” I respond, “well, probably not.” He turns on his blue lights and a few streets later the motorist finally pulls into a parking lot.

She tells the officer that she was late for her first day on the job, acknowledges she illegally crossed over and begs him to give her a warning. He runs her driver’s license number, which showed no outstanding offenses and completes his paperwork. At this point I don’t know if she’s getting a citation or a warning and decide it’s best not to ask.

He then returns her license along with a slip of paper. It’s a written warning. Still, by now she’s sobbing. I can tell he sympathizes with her situation, but he has a job to do, too. “All those people saw her cross over like that, and they saw me. If I just ignore it, they’ll think they can to, or that I’m not upholding the law.” He then adds, “If it’s your first day on the job wouldn’t you leave early to make sure you’re on time or drive by the day before to make sure you know how to get there?”

“So,” I ask him, “How do you cope with dealing with other people’s issues all day.” He just shakes his head and says, “It weighs on you. It really weighs on you.”

As the morning progresses, we answer calls to a car-truck collision in a Kroger parking lot, a woman who says her boyfriend physically assaulted her and then pulled a gun on her and her mom, and a woman who says her friend stole her cellphone and threatened her with some type of weapon. The most disturbing call was from a grandmother who wanted to report a sexual assault on her 2-year-old granddaughter. After a half-hour interview, it becomes clear that her suspicions aren’t so clear-cut. There’s no physical evidence of an assault, but the child was showing some behavior changes that suggested she has at the very least been exposed to something sexual in nature.

During the call, my mind kept going back to recent stories about children and abuse and the Division of Family and Children Services’ failure to protect children and Gov. Nathan Deal’s recent call for grandparents to step up and stop blaming DFACS. Well, he would be proud of this grandmother. She had been the child’s legal guardian since infancy because, she said, both parents were drug users. Her love, devotion and attention to the child’s welfare is commendable.

By the end of our shift, I get why the ride-along is a required for Leadership DeKalb members. Sure, it would be good to experience some of the excitement you see in movies like comedian Kevin Hart’s “Ride Along,” which was filmed here in Atlanta. What the movies and TV shows don’t show you are some of the tedious tasks such as paperwork. I know we spent as much time in the car completing paperwork as during the handling of the call itself. But the insight and respect that you gain from walking in someone else’s shoes, or even alongside them, is invaluable.

Which goes back to that sign on the wall at the police headquarters. The Key: Common Sense. In protecting us and enforcing the law, our police officers have to do that every day, even when we as citizens don’t.