It Gets a Little Gory

Back in the day, before I had a blog, I used to send massive missives to my family & friends via e-mail.  Some people begged to be taken off the list.  Others, I’m sure, just deleted them quietly.   

Today I dug out one of my old e-mails to help me write a short reflection paper for my “Church in the Age of Migration” class.  This story isn’t exactly about “migration” in a strict sense, but the intersection of class, ethnicity, legal status, and crime.  


November 2005  

Hello, friends and family 🙂  

As a warning, this e-mail is already book-length.  I could write SO much more about the experience, but I won’t subject you to that.  

*Hint: Even if you get bored in the first part of the e-mail, keep reading!!  

Last night I spent four hours in a police cruiser – not because (as I’m sure you’re all thinking) I had done anything wrong, but as a requirement for my leadership class.  I never would have thought of doing this on my own!  

The Andy Griffith Show

(Don Knotts was from the greatest state in the Union)


I had no idea what to expect during the ride-along.  My interactions with the police have always been as DARE officers and traffic cops.  I don’t even ever watch cop shows on TV (the closest I’ve come to that is Andy Griffith).  The most exciting thing that the Vienna Police seemed to do was catch people speeding on Rosemar Road.  The Lewisburg Police have even more fun: directing traffic during the State Fair.  

So with this background, I was excited to see what goes down in the big city of Richmond!  

I was fortunate (if you can call it that) to be assigned to the Second Precinct on the Southside of Richmond, one of the more infamous crime and low-poverty areas in Richmond.  At some point during my first five minutes in the patrol car, one of the police officers in my unit said, “Remember these words:  you have no business in South Richmond.”  Earlier, when I had told them that the title of my leadership class was Justice and Civil Society, the immediate response was, “There is nothing civil about this society.”  

The officers in my unit were J. and K.  In Southside, all of the police officers work in pairs so that they can better deal with multiple offenders in any given situation.  J & K had been working together since mid-September, and they really enjoyed it.  You could tell that they loved coming to work every day.  K had studied counseling in college, but she joined the force when she realized that she didn’t really want a desk job.  She said (in answer to my question) that being a woman on the police force was not really an issue; most people on the street respect the fact that she’s tough, and the other police officers treat her “just like everyone else.”  I did note, however, that her uniform said “Policeman.”  

The only restriction that ride-alongs have is that we’re not allowed to get into a foot pursuit.  If that had happened, then I would have had to stay in the car.  Other than that, I was pretty much clear to see/do everything.  (Technically, there were also no car pursuits allowed with me in the car, but if necessary they would have been able to “follow closely behind”).  

At first, however, it seemed like nothing too exciting was going to happen.  Riding around Richmond was surprisingly quiet.  We told people to vacate the local parks after dark.  We had a couple of false alarms in which a home or business’s alarm system notified the police that there was movement inside the building; in both cases it turned out that it was probably just a rodent or some other animal setting off the alarm.  We ticketed a couple of cars for not having license plates or up-to-date tags, after checking to see if they were stolen (they weren’t, to my disappointment).  

J & K showed me all of the “drug corners” and the areas that have to watch the most carefully.  I found myself thinking suspiciously about anyone walking around outside – and that after only being in the car for three minutes!  It would be easy to become suspicious of everyone and everything if this were your job day in and day out.  

I was impressed with the way that J & K knew everyone’s names in their sector.  And if they didn’t know the names of the people we were passing, then they at least knew what they looked like, who they hung out with, their family, and their drug of choice.  Only 10% of the population interacts with the police on a regular basis, but those who do get to know each other pretty well.  

 The officers are somewhat limited as to what they can do about drug trafficking.  For example, they know that certain people are getting drugs, and they even know that when person X is sitting on this particular street corner that she is waiting to buy drugs.  But they can’t just arrest everyone that they suspect is waiting to buy drugs.  And the police can’t just sit there all day watching one corner when there are so many other streets full of drug dealers.  

All of this was interesting, but after two hours of driving around, I had just started to yawn a little bit.  

Photograph of a 35 mph speed limit signSuddenly, we got a call saying that there had been gunfire in the precinct.  That was enough to get my adrenaline rushing.  Then the report changed to say that a man had been killed.  By this time, our sirens were already blaring.  We got up to 100mph in a 35 mph zone.  (Maybe at this point I should mention that J & K never wore their seatbelts — although I made sure I was very securely buckled in!).  

[J & K had some choice words to say about drivers who don’t get over as soon as they hear the siren — please, if that’s you, then be sure to get over quickly next time!]  

We were one of the first units on the scene, a crowded trailer park.  It was hard at first to find the exact location because none of the streets in the trailer park were marked, but once we found it, we jumped out and ran towards the crime scene.  To be honest, I actually sat in the car for about ten seconds before I decided that my curiosity was greater than my fear of death.  By the time I sprinted after J & K, the police were already getting the police tape up and herding the crowd of onlookers away.  Later, they set up a second police line, to prevent people from seeing too clearly what was going on.  I was allowed to stand in between the two lines, and listened to everything that was going on.  The residents gathered behind the second line, many of them sitting down to watch what was happening.  I certainly can’t fault them for this (because that’s what I was doing!), but it did disturb me greatly that so many of the parents just let their kids run around, sneaking up to get a closer look at the body.  I wanted to take the kids home with me, read them Dr. Seuss books, and tell them that this is not normal… no one should have to grow up in an environment like that.  

The residents of the trailer park are predominantly Hispanic and low-income.  Most get paid on Friday evenings, and as they don’t have bank accounts, they carry around all of the money they earn.  This makes them an easy target for thieves.  The man who died was probably killed by two African-American men who had robbed several people in the trailer park recently.  Many people in the Hispanic community are reticent with the police because they are afraid of getting deported (an understandable fear, whether they are legal or not), but I did hear several witnesses talking to one of the police officers about what they saw.  Eavesdropping in Spanish was the only “fun” part of the crime scene.  

I’ve thought a lot about the students that I teach each week in my ESL (English as a Second Language) class.  I’m sure that many of them live in neighborhoods like these.  It’s hard to believe.  I realize how incredibly lucky I am to have grown up in a safe place… so many people don’t have even a pretense of security.  

I only saw the body briefly, but it was enough.  The space where his head should have been was just a big, bloody mass.  K told me later that the guy’s brains were lying next to his feet — evidently they fell out when he was first shot and then he fell backwards.  The skull was completely cracked in two.  I could tell you more, but it gets a little gory.  

Worse than seeing the body (which seemed unreal to me), was K’s pronouncement that it was only a matter of time before the onlookers would decide to arm themselves for protection.  It seems there is no end to the violence.  

The worst part of the evening was listening to children on the other side of the trailer screaming and sobbing.  I later found out that they were the victim’s kids.  The Richmond Police Force has a group called the Second Responders that comes whenever there are immediate counseling services required, and I was glad that the counselors came and took care of the kids right away, but I still wonder — what will happen to these kids in the long-term?  

Well, that was my weekend.  I hope that yours was relatively quiet!  If you are bored with your usual Saturday night routine, I would highly recommend that you contact your local police department and ask to ride-along.  And whether or not you do that, be sure to pray for everyone affected by violence, for drug addicts, for recent immigrants, and for all of our police officers and people in the justice system.  Thank you!  



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