Along for the ride: Seeing Detroit's streets through a cop car window

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

People kept asking if I was scared to go on a ride-along with Detroit police on a hot Friday night when anything could happen and probably would.

On the contrary, I couldn't wait. After all, this was a unique assignment that was way up there on the badass barometer.

I'd once passed on the chance to do a ride-along with Ann Arbor police, figuring there wouldn't be enough action to make it worthwhile. What would we do? Catch a few college kids smoking a doobie?

When photographer Bob Chase and I arrived at the Eastern District Police Station on Gratiot, I wasn't a bit nervous. Even when I was handed a bullet-proof vest, I was more impressed by how lightweight it was than the fact that I was putting on a bullet-proof vest.

I learned the vests work by catching a bullet in a web of very strong fibers that absorb and disperse the impact energy. They are, therefore, not knife-proof. But I was still not nervous. I was still eager for the ride to begin.

But then the jovial Inspector Eric Jones got serious. Odds were great nothing would happen, he said. But if something did happen and he was injured, I should get on the radio, give our location, and say, "Officer down!"

Say those two words, he said, and the cavalry would come.

Then he told me that if he or his partners were critically injured by a firearm or other weapon at the hand of a suspect, that I should not hesitate to grab his weapon to protect myself.

OK, now I was scared.

The thought of my wimpy self grabbing for a gun to defend myself against a real live bad guy who'd just struck a police officer was sobering. I can't even hook a worm. What was I getting myself into?

Suddenly I looked more forward to having said I'd gone on a ride-along than I actually looked forward to doing it because that would mean I actually lived to tell about it.

(Author Michael Kanin once says he didn't like to write. But he loved to have written. Exactly.)

The night before, there had been five nonfatal shootings in the city of Detroit. What would happen tonight?

Two DPD field duty officers were on patrol. One was assigned to all major events downtown, including traffic and crime.

Jones' assignment was city-wide. He was to respond to homicides, shootings, critical accidents, any events involving public figures, and check cell blocks and police station lobbies.

"As things pop up, we'll try to get ahead of them," he said.

Most days, Jones works normal hours behind a desk. He goes on patrol just once every three to four months.

By the time he's been off the streets that long, he craves it.

"Leaving the streets was probably the most difficult thing I've ever had to deal with," he says. "And this brings it back. I miss being out on the street. It keeps you close to the pulse of what's going on."

Wouldn't Jones prefer a job in a safer city?

"Never," he says. "Never, never never. If you want to be the police, you really want to have a true policing experience. You encounter so many different variables of policing here. You have the violent crime, extremely violent crime, you have the ability to meet people who actually want to see the city better. If I worked in one of those idyllic, utopian places, it would be one-sided. It's not the way it is globally."

We get in the black Crown Victoria, which people clearly recognize as an unmarked police car, judging by their reluctance to get in front of it.

We drive through one of the projects. A family sits in the grass while their preschoolers play in a baby pool. Someone sees our car and turns the music down. The dumpster is overflowing.

"If we come back here at night, there will be massive rats out here," Jones says, nodding towards the heaps of trash.

A driver sees the car and fastens his seatbelt.

Not a smart move.

"You can use those types of violations to get a good stop," Jones says. "A lot of times you develop other information that will lead to an arrest."

When distant gunshots are heard, I find myself slipping lower in the seat as we head to the neighborhood.

When we get there, an elderly man discreetly points a finger down the street. We drive towards the corner. A man is walking from his backyard to his front porch, where he stands beside another man and watches the police cars cruising by his house.

Jones knows the shooter is one of the two men on the porch.

The special operations unit is aware of the situation, and had already beaten us to the scene. If they come back that night, they'll set up surveillance, listen for gunshots, arrest them.

Nobody questions the men on the porch.

"We don't want them to know we're on to them," Jones says. "It's pointless. He's going to say, 'What? I didn't hear anything.' Then he'll think, 'Oh god, I'm not bringing that back out.'" So we play like we're oblivious to it; have no clue."

The shooters could have been testing a new gun. Or they could have shot at someone driving by the house, who may now return with a gun of his own. This is how innocent kids get killed riding a bike down the street.

"It's those types of senseless trivial feats where people don't have conflict resolution skills, and someone ends up shot," Jones says. "It's plain stupidity: Firing a gun in a neighborhood. Not at a range. Not on 200 acres somewhere. In a neighborhood. It's ridiculous."

People who complain, but don't get involved also anger him.

"We get paid to come into the neighborhoods and make sure the citizens are safe," he says. "But truthfully, we're all responsible for the safety of our neighborhoods."

But Jones would not initiate a conversation with the witness, who likely wanted to remain anonymous fearing that he could face retribution later.

"Some people -- like my dad -- don't care. They're like, 'No, this is where we live. And that's not going to be tolerated around here. And I'm calling the police and I don't care if you know that I called the police."

Driving down Van Dyke, we stop at a red light. A young female in a red car is trying to pull out. He leaves room for her to do so. She declines.

There are lots of drug dealers in the neighborhood, which may be why she's come to this part of town. If there's a stop, and a search of the car, she could be in trouble.

She waits until the light changes, then waits a little longer before pulling out onto Van Dyke.

Jones' oldest son, 20, wants to be a cop.

"I wanted him to do something else, but then my mother wanted me to do something else," Jones says. "I don't ever want to get a phone call about my son getting hurt out here. Funny I didn't think about that when my mother was worried about me."

The hardest part of his job is not dealing with criminals.

The hardest part is managing his subordinates in the police department.

"I can deal with anything on the street," he says. "But sometimes the backbiting or interpersonal conflicts and some of the bickering starts to become overwhelming, especially when you consider the immense mission we are tasked with ... It's dealing with colleagues. That's the hardest part, but it's also one of the best."

There are personal gripes and grudges just like in any organization, he says, adding: "But when danger calls, all is forgotten. It's as simple as that."

I'm happy to learn we'll be swinging over to Belle Isle because I've never been. As we drive over the bridge edged with graceful lightposts, I think we could just as well be in Paris.

"It's an absolutely beautiful place," says Jones, who lives in northwest Detroit.

People are running, biking, watching the boats and jet skis on the river, picnicking. A wedding party lines up for photographs.

As the sun sets on the city across the river, I realize that Belle Isle is Detroit's Central Park.

A teenager in his parents' big black SUV weaves in and out of traffic and gets in front of us. He must realize what he just did in front of a cop, because he slows down.

Jones knows how he feels. When he's off duty and a cop pulls up behind him, he makes sure he's complying with the law.

In a minute, we pull up beside him.

Smiling, Jones leans over and asks: "You in a hurry?"

"Not any more!" the kid responds.

He and his girlfriend are smiling and friendly. No attitude. Smart move.

Later, a few miles north, four young people flag down the police, and all are talking at once. It seems their cousin, 18, is on probation for carrying a concealed weapon. He's on a tether and is just about to miss his curfew. Can the police go get him and drive him home so he doesn't get in trouble?

Short answer: No.

But we all agree it was a nice try.

When people accuse police of not doing enough to stop, say, the kids who skip school only to hang out and sell drugs, Jones wants to ask them: Where's Mom? Where's Dad? Where's the pastor, the school counselor, the teacher?

"By the time we have to get involved -- although it's never too late -- you're pretty much at the last level of turning the situation around," Jones says. "By the time a child has to encounter the police, a whole line of people have failed -- a parent has failed, a teacher, pastor, counselor, relatives have failed. We accept the blame for too many of society's ills."

We keep driving. Jones makes a few more stops -- nothing serious. It's an unusually quiet night. It's nearly 2 a.m. -- almost seven hours into the shift. It's been so interesting, it seems more like two or three.

Later, I ask Jones how the rest of the shift went. Did we miss anything?

Within the hour, he said, four citizens were shot in separate incidents.

"Your departure was good timing or bad timing, depending on your perspective," he said. "Just like in police work, timing is everything."

Published: Tue, Aug 16, 2011