Police Smart, Civilians Dumb

I recently had the opportunity to do one of the more gratifying things any person can do to help keep our streets safe: getting a drunk driver off the road. While driving on my local highway I noticed an old pickup truck swerving in and out of lanes and on occasion, driving off the road and onto a dirt embankment. Having seen and followed many drunk drivers while on duty, I immediately became suspicious of the driver and followed him at a safe distance for a few more miles to further observe his condition before dialing 911. It didn't take too much longer to confirm that this was one of the worst cases of drunk driving that I had ever seen and if he was not stopped soon, he was going to crash and very possibly hurt or kill some innocent people.

I dialed 911 and reported what I was observing to the highway patrol operator, gave our location, direction of travel, vehicle description, etc., all the standard information needed to call out a BOLO and hopefully get an officer en route. When I finished providing the basic information, I told the operator I would stay on the line with her, maintaining a safe distance from the DUI suspect, until an officer could arrive and take over. The operator replied, "Sir, there is no need for you to stay behind the vehicle any longer, we have the vehicle description and direction of travel, we'll pass it on to our officers..."

Having been a radioman for four years in the Coast Guard many, many years ago, I can appreciate what it's like to be on the other end of a radio or telephone call, taking information from a "citizen" about some type of incident that requires a public safety response, without actually being there to see what they're seeing and reporting. And while I understand the typical protocol is to not have the public get involved in something like this, what about the hundreds of other cars that have passed by me during the five minutes that I've been talking to the dispatcher? Aren't they potentially in harm's way, considering the suspected DUI driver has swerved in and out of lanes over ten times since talking to her, in several instances coming extremely close to hitting one of them? At least in my case, I know the guys is drunk and I have no intention of trying to pass him. Further, I'm keeping a safe distance behind him, should he jam on the brakes or collide with another vehicle.

I lost a close friend to a DUI driver years ago and have seen the end result of what they can do dozens of times while on patrol over the years. Considering how extremely bad this guy was, I had no intention of just letting him drive off into the sunset with the highway patrol having no real idea of where he was, considering the dozens of potential exits and alternate highways he could transition onto.

I politely explained to the dispatcher that I understood her concern, and if she needed to hang up, that's fine. However, considering the extreme threat this person posed to the public, I would continue to follow him until an officer made contact or perhaps more likely, he TCs, at which time I would call her back to let her know where to send the ambulance and/or the coroner.

I think she finally realized it would probably be better to work with me rather than hang up, which turned out to be a great decision. Shortly after our talk, the DUI suspect exited the freeway, blew two lights, swerved across all three lanes of the street several times and just barely missed a row of parked cars. As luck would have it for the good guys, the city he entered has a number of officers on the streets and we were able to guide them right up to the rear bumper of his pick up to initiate a traffic stop. I waited back a safe distance in my car so the officers could do their thing without worrying about me. Once the suspect was hooked up, they came over to get my information and statement. The first words out of the officer's mouth were, "Thanks for calling this in, this guy is so drunk he can hardly talk." In return I thanked the officer for his prompt and professional response, wished him a good day, shook hands and headed back home.

Time for a reality check

While driving home it occurred to me this was the first time that I can remember that I've called in a drunk driver while not on patrol in a marked unit--just simply as an average everyday citizen. That's exactly what I was at the time, not being a sworn officer, but a veteran auxiliary officer volunteer. What I found was very interesting, and it opened my eyes as to how we in law enforcement perceive, or can be lead into perceiving, what role the public can or should take to assist us in fighting crime. I completed a reserve academy, basically a shortened version of a full time academy, and unless I was sleeping at the time, I don't recall ever being taught how to follow a drunk driver. Identify the signs of a potential drunk driver, yes; how to initiate a traffic stop as a sworn officer, yes; how to safely follow one, no. With that thought in mind, it occurred to me how the general public must feel when they are told by a dispatcher, "thank you for the information however we don't want you to follow the DUI suspect any longer, we'll take it from here," which at least in major metro areas such as Los Angeles, often results in never finding the suspect. The size of the cities and number of possible routes via interconnecting roadways provides too many possibilities.

You get what you ask for

Most sworn officers, in a similar situation as I experienced, would have probably identified themselves to the dispatcher as an off duty officer following a DUI suspect. In doing so, they would immediately be treated as a fellow officer and would probably never be asked to not follow the suspect. However in my situation, I found it very interesting to see how the average citizen is treated, knowing full well I have no special training that would assist me in following the DUI suspect. Other than that, whatever risk there is in following a very drunk driver, I was exposed to it the same as everyone, law enforcement experience or not.

The question becomes, when law enforcement asks why citizens don't get involved or "volunteer" to step forward and help with suspect information, being a witness, etc., shouldn't we be asking ourselves, "what could we be doing better or different to embrace the public so they feel they are part of our team?" Instead of "us versus them," citizens and police versus the criminals?

Asking a citizen not to follow a stolen vehicle or a vehicle just used in a crime, where the suspect could be armed, is certainly understandable. However as we know, not every crime in progress being reported is as dangerous, and there are times when citizens who are willing to volunteer to assist us can be a good partner. They should be embraced instead of being shunned aside. With violent crime on the increase again in many cities, and the possible solution of putting more police on the streets being years away, it only makes sense to find ways to better partner with citizens who are willing to volunteer their assistance. Taking a step back and reassessing how 911 calls are being treated and responded to by your dispatchers and PSAP operators is a good first step to opening up a potentially vast and untapped market of willing and able "on demand citizen volunteers" who want to help law enforcement by being part of the solution and not the problem.