Column: Hitting the streets with Bloomington police

As my classmates enjoyed a slice of cake in the waning minutes of our 10-week saga, I still had five hours of work ahead of me.

For most of my classmates enrolled in this fall’s academy, their work was done at the conclusion of our Nov. 15 class, the 10th and final weekly installment of the Bloomington Police Department’s annual Citizens’ Academy. I, however, had one last field exercise to complete: the ride along.

The police department offers the 10-week class as a way to educate Bloomington residents and employees about how the department operates, from its screening and training processes to the technical and highly skilled aspects of running a police department that maintains a bomb squad, SWAT team and crime lab.

The curriculum includes a ride along with an officer, a five-hour experience that begins with an hour in the city’s dispatch center.

In the past, the ride along didn’t include an hour with the dispatchers, but that changed this year, and it’s a valuable addition to the experience. During my hour observing a trio of dispatchers working in concert to field 911 calls and relay information to officers on the streets, I learned the basics of how the system works. Receiving and relaying information, verbally and through the police department’s computer system, is nothing short of a fine art.

My hour in the dispatch center was early on a Friday evening, and the call volume was a bit light, but there were enough calls over the course of an hour for me to get an idea of how the system works under less-than-stressful conditions.

Seeing the dispatch center in operation gave me a greater sense of what was going on inside the police department’s new Ford Explorer, in which I spent nearly four hours that night with Officer John Garibay.

Throughout the evening Garibay and the dispatch center communicated back and forth, sometimes by radio, sometimes through the computer inside the department’s squad cars. Notes that the dispatched center typed into the computer system were available for Garibay to access, including information that wasn’t transmitted by radio. I had basic exposure to the department’s tools in use, but it was enough to understand how sophisticated the tools are these days.

During a traffic stop, for example, Garibay can check records of both the driver and the vehicle involved, using several law enforcement computer programs. “The resources we have are phenomenal,” he said.

The old days of officers waiting for the dispatch center to pull up and relay the information are long gone. If you’re going to get a speeding ticket, at least the process is more efficient than it use to be.

My four-hour tour of Bloomington, primarily in the north-central area, didn’t include any arrests, citations or high-speed chases, but we did respond to a couple of unusual calls.

The McDonald’s at Southtown called about 10:30 p.m. to report a disruptive male inside the restaurant. The 52-year-old man inside the restaurant – a regular customer, Garibay was told – was angry that he paid for two hamburgers but only received one. His anger didn’t subside even after it was pointed out that his receipt showed that he had paid for just one hamburger. Reluctantly the man left McDonald’s on foot, heading north on Penn Avenue for his Richfield residence, having been advised to wait until another day before returning to the restaurant, Garibay explained.

The drawback to a ride along is that you get to observe everything from the passenger’s seat of the vehicle. I didn’t get to go inside McDonald’s with Garibay, despite the fact there were customers eating inside the restaurant. As a safety precaution I stay inside the car at all times.

My safety wouldn’t have been jeopardized had I stood outside the vehicle while Garibay conducted field-sobriety tests of a young woman stopped for speeding, (she passed,) but as I learned repeatedly during the academy, cops expect the unexpected. For that reason, ride along guests get to observe everything from inside the squad car.