It's quiet ... too quiet

Recently I shared the following story about my early days in law enforcement with some readers:

When I joined the police department as a rookie police officer, I spent the requisite amount of time learning the ropes with my field training officer. When he thought I was ready to launch on my own, he told the captain.

So one night, while working the midnight shift, I walked in wearing my shiny new badge and uniform and the captain handed me the car keys and told me he was cutting me loose. That meant that not only was I on my own, but I had my own zone.

At that time, the city was divided into patrol zones. Each uniform officer on the duty platoon had his own zone to patrol. If there was an extra body, which was highly unusual, a senior officer was allowed to rove, which meant he did back-up all over the city and wasn’t limited to his own zone. As a rule, we only left our zones when backing up another officer, passing through on the way to the station, covering for an officer who was out of his zone or when crossing over zone boundaries to make a traffic stop.

As every patrol officer knows, it can be boring to drive around one small section of town over and over and over. Busy shifts were good ones from our perspective because they made the time go by faster. Long nights where nothing happened were tedious and seemed like they would never end. There were times when we’d key the mike just to make sure the radio was on because it was so quiet. And that is what did me in on my first night on my own.

I had a zone mostly composed of middle-class residential streets. There were a few schools and businesses, but nothing more exciting than a pizza parlor. Because it was such an uneventful, middle of the week shift, and nothing was happening, I spent the wee hours of the morning driving through the back streets of the subdivisions in that zone.

The area was an asphalt maze and it took forever to learn the geography, so I figured that since the radio was so quiet, I’d cruise around and memorize the streets. It took me several hours, during which time I heard not so much as a peep from the radio.

After spending most of the night sorting through street names in the back of the subdivision, another patrol car pulled up next to me and asked if I had not heard everyone calling me. "No," I said, "I hadn’t." When I checked, I found out that I had managed to somehow turn off my radio.

That’s why it was so quiet. While I was busy memorizing the streets in my zone, my captain and the rest of my platoon were going crazy trying to figure out where their rookie was and how they were going to tell the chief they’d managed to lose me on my first night alone. All things considered, I was probably the most dangerous thing on the city’s streets that night.

Modern technology means that something like this couldn’t happen today. With cars outfitted with GPS, computer and sophisticated communications gear, it’s almost impossible to duplicate my dumb newbie feat, and that’s a good thing. Chiefs tend to frown upon misplaced rookies.

But what interested me most was the reaction I’ve had to this story: Many have mentioned how much they appreciate an officer who doesn’t mind admitting to a mistake – and can laugh at herself.

I think there’s a valuable take-away here: No one expects police to be perfect; and having a sense of humor makes us seem both more human and accessible.

And to my way of thinking, that’s not such a bad thing.