Riding shotgun with city's finest

CITY DIARY: Toby Gordon

August 28, 2002|By Toby Gordon

CLAD IN a bulletproof vest, I had the privilege of riding shotgun with an eight-year veteran Baltimore City police officer on a recent hot and humid Saturday evening.

While I don't watch cop shows or read crime-based bestsellers, I devoured David Simon's Baltimore-based Homicide and The Corner TV series and had been looking forward to my front-seat view of a day in the life of the city's finest.

Cruising through streets and alleys, sometimes with lights flashing, I eventually got used to the all-eyes-on-you feeling you get in public places when clad in a police uniform or, as I was, in navy blue street clothing.

Riding around in Northwest Baltimore, happily mistaken at times for a detective or maybe an FBI agent, was admittedly fun. But one shift commander mistook me for a "hump," or lazy officer, for not getting out of the car at one stop. (Following procedure, I stayed.)

I got the opportunity to go on the police "ride-along" as a member of the Greater Baltimore Committee Leadership Class of 2002. I learned some police lingo and, hopefully, the etiquette of a ride-along. More importantly, I got a glimpse, in relative safety, of what it's like for a uniformed officer to be in harm's way on every eight-hour shift.

My shift started at the 4 p.m.-to-midnight roll call. After sizing me up, the sergeant assigned me to an affable officer who was willing to take a civilian on his tour. Because officers can return ride-alongs to the station if they are too nervous or distracting, I was gratified that I kept my seat to the end of the shift.

We loaded the patrol car with a briefcase of documents, bottled water, a laptop; lights, horn and siren were in working order.

The eight hours flew by. I knew the sector I rode in well from my childhood, areas once vibrant that are struggling today. The library, movie theaters, shops and restaurants have been replaced by carry-outs, liquor stores and bail bondsmen, trash and boarded-up houses. Abandoned sofas and mattresses were strewn in alleys, purposely, to make patrol car navigation more difficult. Young children were out riding bikes and playing in the streets well past midnight.

By my officer's account, it was a slow night -- several arrest back-ups, a domestic dispute and a field interview, maybe 15 calls. Mostly, we just patrolled. The officer had extensive knowledge of his beat, including the identities of the drug dealers. It was not uncommon to hear, "There's so-and-so. I locked him up last week."

Known dealers set up shop on what seemed like every corner, parked on lawn chairs outside abandoned houses. When we saw them, they were advised to move along. I wondered why they weren't arrested and found that without witnessing a drug trade, little could be done.

As a senior executive at the Johns Hopkins Hospital, I am all too aware of our city's illegal-drug-use statistics and the trauma and sickness that accompany them. But there is no substitute for a first-hand view of the source of so much misery.

The undercover drug unit was very busy the night I rode, and its work impressed me. Whether the buyers were city dwellers or suburbanites driving in to find a dealer, officers were diligent, sensitive and brave.

An interview with a man from Carroll County spotted walking in an alley drug market area revealed that he had come into town to buy heroin. He had no ID, money or drugs on him. His pregnant girlfriend was parked several blocks away; they were sent home. My shift ended, I shed the vest at the police station, wondering if that couple would show up again, hoping they would not.

The professionalism, community knowledge and dedication of the officer to whom I was assigned, and his willingness to participate in my education, are marks of the Police Department's recognition of its key role in improving our city and its need for widespread community support based on greater citizen participation. It's a model we can all respect.

Today's writer

Toby Gordon is vice president for planning and marketing for the Johns Hopkins Health System and is on the faculty of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, School of Public Health and School of Professional Studies in Business and Education. She lives in Roland Park with her husband and two sons.

City Diary provides a forum for examining issues and events in Baltimore's neighborhoods and welcomes contributions from readers.

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