Having civilians accompany police officers on patrol sounds like a recipe for disaster. But amazingly, ride-along programs are a very effective tool for law enforcement public relations. Established many decades ago, ride-along programs have been in operation all across the country, and the departments that offer these programs are uniformly positive about the benefits.
A ride-along is when a person from outside the police department—citizen, community leader, student, recruit, etc.—accompanies a patrol officer during a portion of his or her shift. The idea is that the rider accompanies the officer wherever he or she officer goes, within certain limits. Departments promote their programs to raise awareness, but at the same time they have to make sure that only the right people sign up. After all, you don’t want to give convicted criminals an inside look at how things operate.
“We encourage people to come and do a ride-along with the department,” says Crime Prevention Sgt. Bill Hickey, Lancaster City (Penn.) PD. “We screen people so we make sure they aren’t criminals. Most times, the request is granted. We often get neighbors, friends, coworkers, extended family, and it usually lasts a few hours or longer. It gives people an idea of what happens on a patrol day, what calls they respond to, and what their workload is like.”
Lancaster PD works with the sociology department at Millersville University, where students often do ride-alongs. Officers also work with law enforcement program students at the local community colleges.
In addition, the agency orchestrates ride-alongs with community outreach, local churches, and community leaders. Hickey says, “We get to meet a lot of different people and give them insight into what a police officer’s life is like. Watching television programs is so different from sitting in a patrol car and being dispatched. [The call] could be something minor or something serious. People get to see what we do and it helps support the idea that we are working throughout the shift, going from call to call.”
Some departments do a ton of ride-alongs, and this is directly related to the amount of community relations and promotion they do. Officer Rich Denig, ride-along coordinator of the Boulder Police Department, says his agency averages about 150 such occurrences a year. “Having a major university in town contributes largely to our rider base. We also get requests from individuals interested in a law enforcement career, and in recent years we have encouraged our police officer applicants to participate, which provides us with another measuring tool to gauge their fit with our agency.
In Boulder, most riders are scheduled for a five-hour time period, however that can be extended if the officer and their supervisor approve. The rider is required to submit an application, after which a criminal background check is performed. Furthermore, the policy has guidelines for prior misdemeanor arrests (none in the prior three years), and felony arrests (cannot have any). Riders are not allowed to conduct any audio or videotaping during their ride, without explicit permission from the officer. They also enforce a dress code. "We want our riders to have an acceptable appearance for the public," says Denig. "Riders are allowed to exit the vehicle and accompany the officer throughout a call for service. However there are constraints for safety reasons, or for a sensitive crime scene.”
Such programs do a number of things very well. First, they give civilians a real taste for what policing is all about, something they can never get otherwise...no matter how many episodes of “NYPD Blue” they watch; they put a human face on policing; and finally, putting a community member into the seat of a patrol car opens up the lines of communication and, more often than not, creates an advocate for the police department.
“The ride-along program was in place longer than I have been here, and I started in 1997,” Lancaster’s Hickey says. “There are times when I suggest the program to people and they don’t even know we do it. There are so many people who are armchair quarterbacks, who want to tell the police how to do their jobs better. Come ride with us and understand what it’s like.
“As a patrol supervisor, if we have a student or a regular ride-along, we look at who is on and assign it to the best possible officer,” he says. “A police officer doesn’t have a choice, but we want to highlight the go-getters. When you are going out and being proactive, rather than being dispatched to it, there is something different about discovering a crime rather than being dispatched to it. There is something very rewarding about this, and you want to highlight the officers that do a lot of good work.”
These programs provide the public a glimpse into the police world. “It gives credibility to our policy of transparency, and it is also a potential recruitment tool. It is part of citizens’ police academy," says Lieutenant Brian Paul, Field Services Bureau, Rockville (Md.) Police.
Departments encourage interaction between the rider and the officers, with the goal being open communication about a wide range of topics, policing strategy and policy included. The advantage from the community perspective is to expose riders to what patrol officers do on a daily basis. "It tends to humanize the officers to the public that participates, because they get to talk to the officers about their work and get their questions answered,” Boulder PD’s Denig says. “Our policy allows for one ride-along per year, however given the schedule and other demands on patrol, we have allowed riders to ride more often. In one particular case we allowed a graduate student to do ten rides on various shifts to aid her in a formal school paper she was writing. Those are very infrequent—most tend to ride once.
“Most officers are very open to having a rider,” adds Denig. “We do have a fairly high demand during certain times of the year, and it can be taxing on the patrol shifts to accommodate all of them. We generally do not schedule more than one rider per day per patrol shift in order not to overburden them. We also schedule with our department’s master calendar in mind, so we might avoid periods when staffing levels are lower due to training, etc., or special events.”
Boulder schedules ride-alongs over its three patrol shifts and the Traffic Unit, though most riders opt for a standard patrol shift. “Our patrol shifts maintain a rider log so participants are rotated among the officers,” Denig says. “Of course we do have specific officers requested and we do attempt to accommodate those, provided the officer’s schedule will allow. We also allow family members and friends of officers to do ride-alongs. Our Animal Control Unit also allows riders to accompany their officers.”
The potential disadvantages
No one interviewed for this story had ever had a problem during a ride-along, an incredible record given the uncertain nature of service calls.
Lancaster PD’s Hickey highly recommends establishing a ride-along program to any department. “I don’t see any downsides,” he says. “As long as we know who is riding with us...because it strengthens the bond between the community and us. It helps break down barriers and strengthen relationships.
“If an officer answers a dangerous call, they will tell the rider to stay in the car or the officer will take a secondary role during the call,” he continues. “Often, the ride-along will shadow the officer, going into a house with the officer on a burglary call, but there are times when the situation is dangerous and we brief them at the start that if they are ordered to stay in the car, they have to stay in the car. We have to make sure they are safe because we are responsible. They sign a waiver. We often put them in a ballistic vest to make sure they are safe.”
Set the program up formally, with specific guidelines and steps for the community, and with one designated person to head it up. Having a formal program in place lets community members see firsthand the good work police officers do every day. Boulder PD’s Denig says, “It can generate support for the department in the community because of the educational aspect. It certainly helps to devise a formal policy to outline how the program will operate. Designating a ride-along coordinator is also beneficial so all of the riders are funneled through one person.”
Know that your department will be laid bare, with all its warts on display, if you feel your department is ready. “Be open and transparent,” says Paul. “Embrace the community you serve, keep good records and conduct background checks on all applicants.”
Ride-alongs can go a long way to helping your community understand how policing really works, and seeing firsthand the tough job that police officers do is a real eye-opening experience for the riders.
Keith W. Strandberg is an American freelance writer and award-winning screenwriter/producer of feature films living in Switzerland. He was a former contributing editor for LET more than a decade ago and is happy to be back writing for the magazine.