Pilot Editorial

Monday, February 5, 2007

Behind the Badge

I mentioned to a friend tonight that I was entertaining the idea of becoming a cop because of my experiences at my internship with the Storm Lake Police Department over the past month. The idea astounded him, namely because he had never heard anyone say anything positive about Storm Lake's officers in blue. I laughed it off but then I realized he was right. I hadn't heard many good remarks either.

And I will admit, before my internship, I was one of those people. I don't recall spouting off about how much I hated the cops in this town, but I was completely guilty of thinking the whole police force was a bunch of jerks running around, pulling over and arresting people for minute reasons. But they aren't a bunch of jerks, not when they're not forced to be.

My shift started in the same routine way every day. Sometimes I would sit in on roll call for the night shift and other times I would wait for the officer I was riding with to come pick me up. Either way, I always had the delight of donning an extra-large jacket with the word OBSERVER emblazoned across the back. With the jacket hanging to my knees and making me look like I was pregnant with septuplets, it's safe to say I gathered a lot of second glances and raised eyebrows. Fine, I wasn't there to look pretty; I was there to finally put my tuition dollars to good use and learn something.

The first thing I learned: being a cop on television and being one in real life are two totally separate things, like men and women. Both are humans but they're really not the same thing at all. The second: working the day shift is completely different from working the night shift. From what I heard and what I assumed already, the difference between cold and hot weather is pretty marked as well. The third thing: not all cops eat donuts. In fact, I didn't see a single one while I was interning - lots of coffee and caffeinated beverages, but no donuts.

Patrolling the streets and traffic stops are really not the most riveting things I've ever experienced. In fact, I discovered that I really don't "see" when I drive, especially not when I'm in the passenger seat. There were numerous times when the officer I was with would whip his car around and hit his lights and I would bolt upright, whipping my head around, trying to figure out who the culprit was. I got a lot better at it which does me a whole lot of good now that my internship is done.

I would venture to say that running traffic is not the favorite pastime of most of the officers either. But I can understand why they stick with it. I saw a lot of intriguing stuff that gets the adrenaline coursing through your veins in a heartbeat: drug cases, arrests, death investigations, burglaries and assaults.

There are a lot of laughs and a lot of jokes around the police department. It takes a special type of person to do what they do. The things seen while a police officer and the things experienced, some of it makes for really great stories after the fact and some of it is bad enough to wish it could be forgotten. You really have to look for the humorous side of things or you'll just get plowed under by the bad things.

That's where I learned a lot of what I did, the stories. Spending eight hours a day in a confined space with nowhere to go, you learn a lot about a person - their family, what they believe, their personality, everything. I learned more about drugs, police work, people and life from shutting up and listening over this past month than I did in four years of college.

Those uniformed faces behind the screeching sirens and flashing lights? They're people too, just like you and me. They have hearts and souls, dreams and problems just like the rest of us. They have a job to do, one that involves elements of danger and decision-making that could haunt them the rest of their lives. When you wake up and are on your way to the job that has you shredding paper, remember that those uniformed faces are doing a job they never truly go home from. Cut them some slack next time. They actually do have a legitimate reason for pulling you over.

* Erica Beck is a senior at Buena Vista University and a part of the Pilot-Tribune sports department.