I recently had the very exciting opportunity to join my local police force for a night, to observe how things are done and what crimes are happening in my area.
I tagged along with two first response officers as an observer on their 5pm-3am shift on a Saturday night in Taunton, and boy did I get lucky! We were called out to investigate a missing person’s report, assaults, anti-social behaviour, a break in and were called as backup to a couple of emergency situations. The latter part of the late shift was also spent riding around in the ‘bus’, like a police riot van, in case we were needed to help out the drunk and disorderly.
What exactly is a Police Ride Along Scheme?
Many police stations offer the opportunity for you to sit in the back of a police car for a shift so that you can observe the way the police work. All stations differ but you might be given the choice to join one of the following teams:
- First Response – responding to incidents, jobs and helping the general public
- Communication Centre/Force Control Room – observing how incoming 999 calls are dealt with
- Neighbourhood Policing – tagging along ‘on the beat’ around the community
- Training School – observe officers as they are trained to deal with different situations
It’s completely free and is open to anyone (usually over 18 years old) with a general interest in what the police do.
In the video below you see a taster of what it’s like to go out with the First Response team in Bristol. The sound cuts out where confidential details can be heard over the radio.
Why should a writer sign up?
I think one of the best parts of writing is the research, and what could be more fun than learning about how the police really work, talk, dress and move so you can add little details to your characters? Also, LOTS of other reasons:
- witness an arrest
- see how witness statements are taken
- listen to the language used over comms
- observe conversation and banter between police
- witness how the public treat police
- get an idea of the strains on an officer e.g. shifts, threats, upsetting incidents
Sounds fab! How do I apply?
The best thing to do is type in your local police and the phrase ‘ride along scheme’, ‘observation scheme’ or ‘lay observer scheme’.
If you can’t find any results near you, you can also directly contact the HR department at your local station by email or pop in and ask at the front desk. You literally fill out a form with your details and they will get back to you within 3 months.
Though not an exhaustive list, in the UK you can do the scheme with Avon & Somerset, Bedfordshire, Cheshire, Cumbria, Dorset, Essex, Gloucestershire, Gwent, Humberside, Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Northumbria, North Yorkshire, Sussex, West Mercia and Wiltshire.
What did I learn on a Police Ride Along Scheme?
Just a heads up – I’ve had to be careful not to disclose too much about what I observed, so have summarised the incidents without giving away names or locations.
Banter is the same no matter where your office is
I took the advice of a friend and made sure to take cakes in for the team, something I would recommend to anyone considering doing a Ride Along Scheme. I was immediately welcomed! The shift kicks off with the Sergeant going over open jobs, who is pairing up with who and a bit of a recon from the previous shift. Towards the end, I am pleased to watch the meeting descend into banter, light-hearted poking fun at each other and inside jokes. It is just the same as any team meeting within a friendly team.
From a writing point-of-view, this is great as to me it appears just like any other workplace – the odd slightly un-PC comment but hey this happens everywhere and it is meant in good humour. This means you don’t necessarily need insider experience of the police force to write the dialogue between detectives, for example, you can draw on jokes and conversations from your own workplace and adapt them.
Incident 1: A Missing Person’s Case or a ‘Misper’
We are called out to help find a missing child with behavioural problems which might make them vulnerable. The child has run away from home. This begins first with checking the child’s ‘usual haunts’, the local parks, using a description given by the family. When we are unable to locate them we head to the house to chat to the family and ask to see a picture of the child, when before long the child can be seen coming up the road back home.
I can’t believe how different the child looks compared to the description given by the family! This is one sassy kid who isn’t fazed at all that police have been out looking for them, and gives the PCs a bit of lip.
Police know everyone in town
The good, the bad and the ugly. While driving around town I noticed that the police, fire service and paramedics all wave to each other on the way past, in the same way bus drivers do. In fact, I hear about how the police often help out in times where there aren’t enough ambulances available; it’s a real team effort. It strikes me as rude then when at an incident where five police and four paramedics are attending, a paramedic make the comment that ‘it’s no wonder there are never any police in town, they’re all here!’ I wonder if the police force often feels that they are carrying out a thankless task; for every person who says ‘thank you,’ there are four more complaining about harassment, being ‘hounded’ and dismissing the police as a waste of resources.
Incident 2: A Possible Assault
A neighbour has reported seeing two people arguing, with one holding a weapon. We get to the house but no one is willing to talk to us. Without knowing the identity of the supposed victim, there’s nothing we can do and we head elsewhere.
This incident occurs in a part of town I try to avoid, and being there makes me feel uneasy. Seeing the conditions some people live in was a real eye opener on this scheme; perhaps I’ve lived a more sheltered life than I thought.
Opinions were divided recently in my home town where arrests were made at a park where a group of youths refused to co-operate with police, swearing at officers and even at one point attacking them. This sparked a huge debate on social media as to whether the police were using excessive force; my personal opinion on this is that a lot of young people today lack some damn respect for the emergency services and think they are invincible… perhaps this is the only way they’ll learn they are not above the law!
As we drive it also seems every street we pass the PCs spot a person they know either as a witness, fellow off duty police or someone they have arrested before. The police really know almost everyone in their community!
Incident 3: Assistance
Blues on! (One of the best moments of my life!) We are called to assist colleagues at a house where there is a medical emergency taking place and paramedics are already on the scene. The circumstances behind how the situation occurred are unclear so we are there as backup. The PCs talk to a family member at the scene to better understand the relationships within the house and find out more about their medical background.
It’s a little upsetting being at a scene where someone is having to receive emergency medical attention like this and the PCs check to make sure I’m ok. Incident logs or ‘niches’ are flagged if they could potentially be traumatic for the PCs attending, and an email will be sent later on to see if they’d like to take an assessment. The stigma of admitting you might need support is no longer a problem in the force.
There is ALOT to remember
I immediately forgot details after we’d finished up at an incident, even though I was furiously scribbling notes so I could write this article later on. And this is an issue for the police too. The PCs carry a notepad at all times in their protective gilet so they can remember the important details of the incident to log later.
After an incident is completed we head back to the station, but you never know if you’ll get a call out and get redirected somewhere else; it could be hours before you get back and can write up your notes. The PCs must link profiles of all locations and people involved to the ‘niche’, the incident log, and double check their info is correct. The dispatchers have already logged the radio comms made between themselves and the responding PCs so luckily a lot of the info is recorded.
Incident 4: Anti-Social Behaviour and an Arrest
We are called to a person thought to be exposing themselves, though they explain they were just getting dressed. This person is homeless and gives the PCs a hard time about constantly being hounded by the police. A check of the name reveals that a warrant is out for their arrest so we have to take them to central booking. He is read his rights and put in the back of the van.
What struck me is how long it takes to do this. The custody hub for the county is in Bridgwater, so arrests made in surrounding towns all have to brought here to be processed. The usual personal details are noted, as well as questions about drug dependency and mental health needs. It’s a polite exchange which I find a bit jarring since during questioning another PC is disposing of uncapped needles found in the arrestee’s belongings.
I get to see the jail cell they will spend the weekend in, it is literally a loo and a low shelf with a plastic mat on it. It makes me feel quite sad on the drive back.
‘Join the force, get a divorce’
I heard this phrase before taking part in the scheme. It seems to be ‘known’ that the strains of being in the force divide marriages, and is a theme we read all the time in our favourite crime novels; divorced detectives, especially those who turn to the drink to phase out their woes.
In the UK divorce rates are more than double the national average for police officers; in fact, some law enforcement agencies in the USA ask candidates to sign a form to show they understand there is a higher risk of divorce. This is understandable too when you consider that my shift, known as ‘the late shift’ runs from 5pm to 3am with a one hour break, but later the next wave starts up ‘the late, late shift’ of 10pm until 7am. And it runs like this for a few weeks before swapping to ‘earlies’. You would need to have a pretty understanding partner.
No one I work with on the shift has this problem though, most are happily married and explain that they get through the strain of odd shift patterns by making their time at home really count. And I guess you get used to it after a while. This might be why lots of police officers end up dating within the force.
Incident 5: A Break In
Whilst patrolling town in the early hours of the morning we get reports of a break in after hours at an establishment in central town. Youths have found a way in to the basement and begun stockpiling goods, when, feeling greedy they decide to look for money in tills too. They are caught by staff, who we then go about getting witness statements from as the thieves are arrested and taken away.
This is a really long process because details recorded now have to be exact; after all this is when the witness is going to remember the most about the incident. We are also shown the key locations around the establishment so the PC can get a good idea of what went down. This process definitely highlights to me the issues with witnesses, for example they are asked exactly what was said, to whom and when. The witnesses in this case do a good job but it must be very easy to ad lib conversations or fill in the blanks.
And finally, a few tips if you are going on a Ride Along Scheme!
- Tweak your sleeping pattern the night before if you are on a late shift so you aren’t struggling in the early hours
- Take your toilet breaks when you can, you could be on the road for hours
- Bring water and snacks to keep your energy up
- Wear comfy shoes and layer up – a shift could start as a sunny day but you won’t want to be in just a t-shirt at 3am
- Pack your notepad and pen, obviously!
- Take money for that late night kebab with the team
- Bring cake!
Over to you
I’d love to hear your experiences if you’ve been on the scheme too! Please post any questions in the comments!