Riding shotgun with the Seattle Police Department
It was a grey, chilly March morning and I was sitting in the reception area of the downtown precinct of the Seattle Police Department, waiting to meet the officers I would join on the day shift. I was wondering how many silly and inappropriate things I would manage to say in the eight hour stint, and still I couldn’t have been more excited.
I had just spent a couple of hours chatting with the detective in charge of criminal investigations in Lynnwood near Seattle – thanks to a very kind family connection – and I was about to spend a day on a ride-along. If you are a crime fiction writer, life doesn’t get any better than that.
My novels are set in Seattle, Washington State, and the main character, Alice Madison, is a homicide detective; to have the chance to spend some time with real police officers and watch them do real work is pretty much gold.
Seattle is a mid-size town in the Pacific Northwest surrounded by water on one side and mountains on the other. It’s a great place to set a story because I can use the urban, cosmopolitan feel of the city and yet in half an hour I am in the middle of complete wilderness.
That day in March I was lucky in many ways but maybe the biggest stroke of luck was that the officer who had drawn the short straw and would effectively be babysitting me for eight hours was a thirty-year veteran, a brilliant woman who had worked in the Vice and in the Domestic Violence units and who knew by name most of the homeless people in her precinct.
Downtown Seattle is not a residential neighborhood: it has a busy harbor with ferries to Canada and British Colombia, a vibrant shopping area crammed with restaurants and cafés, and it borders with an International District with Chinese businesses and warehouses; most importantly, it also houses at least five shelters for the homeless and most of those who use their services have mental health and addiction issues.
It was a busy day: in eight hours we were called on to deal with an assault, some shoplifting, a police officer in need of assistance, a homeless person relocation into a medical unit and a number of other matters in the local shelters, and, to top it all, some death threats.
It was an endless stream and everything required written updates on the patrol car computer and through the radio.
Mostly I tried to make myself entirely invisible as I stood by and watched. I was in fact completely invisible and no one looked at me twice because the minute the police officers arrived on the scene they were the ones in charge and people turned to them for support and direction.
The officer I was with asked me to stay in the car only once and that was because the person they were pursuing was a man known to be aggressive and even though I had signed all kinds of waivers she wanted to bring me back to the precinct in the same condition as I had left it at the beginning of the day. I remained in the car and watched them as they went after their man in the alleys behind Pioneer Square. They did not find him.
The Seattle Police Department had received some bad press in the previous months and I had been quite surprised when they had agreed to let me ride with them and even more so when they openly talked about the department’s problems. I asked each officer the same question: if there was one thing you could tell the public about what it’s like to be a police officer what would you say? Mostly they had the same answer: there are always two sides to a story and not everything is what it seems. I agree, the group of people I saw working on the street – in patrol cars, on bicycles and on horses – were dedicated, capable and compassionate; they were generous with their time and talked to me about how they became officers; they showed me the best place to grab lunch on the run (the Grand Central Bakery on 1st Avenue South) and even taught me the ultimate trick to remember the sequence of key streets in the Downtown precinct grid (Jefferson, James, Cherry, Columbia, Marion, Madison, Spring, Seneca, University, Union, Pike, and Pine)…the mnemonic is ‘Jesus Christ Made Seattle Under Protest’. Brilliant.
What I remember from the day is feeling in my bones that the reality of police work is both incredibly mundane and easily misunderstood unless you’re right next to them, on the street. I will go back for more the next time I’m in Seattle. The reality is as compelling and as mysterious as the fiction.