Want to directly hold your local police department accountable- right now? Request a ride-along; bring a clipboard.

    Jul 1, 2020


Black Lives Matter — Century City Protest — June 6, 2020. (photo: Brett Morrison)

Community Policing the Police


If you are one of those people deeply offended by the cancellation of “Cops”- America’s first and erstwhile longest-running reality television program- there is a solution, but you might not like it much.

If, on the other hand, you are one of those people deeply furious at the cops- and absolutely thrilled at the cancellation of reality television “Cops” and at the prospect of the real-life cancelation of actual cops- there is a simple solution for you, too. And you’re going to love it.

You can see real-life “Cops” in action, in your own community, anytime you want; all you have to do is ask. Most local police departments have what is called a “Police Ride-Along” program.

Under this policy, concerned citizens over 18 with a valid ID and no outstanding warrants for their arrest can request and participate in a community-member ride-along. A ride-along involves accompanying a police officer or officers over the course of their usual patrol duties.

Though the express purpose of these programs is to allow “community members to personally observe patrol operations and enhance transparency between police and members of the community,” very few people actually take advantage of this open-ended offer for a behind-the-scenes look at policing in America.

The Upside

What is your local police department really up to?

What are their departmental standards on body-cams, choke-holds, no-knock warrants, and other controversial practices? What is your local police department’s record on excessive force complaints? What typically is the punishment for excessive force cases and what happens to officers repeatedly involved in such?

How much surplus military equipment has been acquired by your local PD in the past 10-years? There is one excellent way to find out: Ask them yourself.

Of course, most cops detest the community-member ride-along.

Can you imagine anything worse? Imagine someone showing up at your job tomorrow to observe you during your shift. Not a member of the company, mind you; just a concerned outsider who heard you might be doing a terrible job and volunteered to find out more- just to make sure you’re giving those you purport to serve a good value for their money.

The worse your performance at your job, the more you might resent and dread such an interference. Which is all to the good. This means good cops won’t mind the ride-along brigade so much: Bad cops will hate it with the fire of a million suns.

Think of the Concerned Citizens Ride-Along Brigade as a sort of community watch program. With enough concerned citizens from your community on a series of ride-alongs, night after night, your local law enforcement agency will have a new, upper-management level of unpaid supervisors whose only purpose is advocating for and informing the public.

The number one accountability mechanism for any public office or public works agency isn’t another, higher government agency or office: It’s us.

It is we the people.

We pay a significant sum in taxes for policing, among other services. We have a right and a responsibility to demand accountability and transparency. We also have a clear motivation to do so.

Supervisory or government accountability agencies and managers might not. They might have other motivations.

The Downside

This isn’t a small ask. It is a volunteer position. And some are more suited to this particular form of advocacy than others.

There is the potential risk for bodily harm. Though the risk isn’t great, it isn’t zero. Policing can be dangerous work.

U.S. police departments have hundreds of millions of interactions with the public every year. Out of those, 48 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty in 2019. An almost equal number lost their lives in accidents- mostly car accidents- during the same period.

The chances of witnessing a killing like George Floyd’s in Minneapolis over a month ago are slim. But they aren’t zero, either. People on ride-alongs have been subjected to scenes of horrific violence.

Across the country, police departments respond to around 240 million 911 calls every year. The total number of contacts between the police and members of the public is far higher, though not as straightforward.

Out of those interactions, police killed 1,099 people in 2019; they kill around 1,000 people every year. Some of those killed by police officers have been armed; others have not.

Some of these statistics are looking a good deal shakier in light of recent events. A high-profile case in Baltimore from 2018 is still wending its way through the criminal justice system. But a group of Baltimore’s finest were implicated in an evidence tampering scheme involving a bag of fake weapons officers allegedly planted on unarmed suspects killed or injured “resisting arrest.”

Some of the officers involved have denied the charges; others have pled guilty and have been sentenced or are awaiting trial.

Still, you’ll have to be polite.

Or, at least, being polite and courteous, as well as following all instructions carefully, is highly recommended.

Of course, for many police departments- especially those in larger urban areas like Chicago- there is more diversity among the younger, less-experienced officers. Since officers with less seniority get stuck with tasks no one else wants- like escorting community members on ride-alongs- even the most outspoken progressive activist on a ride-along might find it far more difficult than they thought to be anything but courteous.

There may be another pitfall, as well.

Many in civic service participate in these programs, especially during the years they spend in training and education. Community leaders, teachers, politicians, journalists, social workers, clinical psychologists- regardless of their progressive bona fides, many find their assumptions about police, police work, public service, and policing in America deeply shaken.

Anyone interested in criminal justice reform in America, in reforming policing, in preventing police brutality; anyone advocating on the internet or marching in a protest has an opportunity to be a part of this solution.

Get organized; get in touch with your local PD. And form your own Concerned Citizens Ride-Along Brigade chapter today.

(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)