by Robert Lanz, LCSW
This one is for my cop friends.
Right out of grad school I worked as a probation officer and carried a badge for six years and was considered a “peace officer” in the state of California after undergoing POST-Peace Officer Standards Training. I could legally carry a gun but generally didn’t. Too much responsibility. As an ER social worker who saw the worst of the worst outcomes of violence, there were times when I missed the badge and gun, even though it probably wouldn’t have saved me. I’ve got too much empathy to be the one to draw down first and I’ve got too much confidence in my own social work skills to have to resort to drawing down at all. At least so far. It might be that empathetic quality saved lives. Women officers, I’m told, tend to use verbal skills more often than men cops – and guns less often.
There were times when I believed if I had been in situations where a legal police shooting occurred which resulted in death, I would have handled them differently. Pride, ego and guns don’t go well together — on either side of the law.
Our local police force now has social workers in some patrol cars, working a shift with officers. They wear bullet-proof vests (just in case their verbal skills don’t work). I’m proud that men and women in my profession have enough confidence in their social work skills that despite knowing any failure could be deadly, they still show up for work when they are supposed to. That’s confidence. I could do it and so could most of the other ER social workers I work with. In fact, I was once asked if I wanted to ride-along before the program even officially started, and in some ways I did want to. But I was older when approached (about fifty-five.)and while I can hold my own in a fight against most guys my age, most guys my age aren’t a problem on the streets. When I was studying Krav Maga (the efficient and brutal martial art of the Israeli army, I was about fifty-two.
Most of the guys my size (five-eleven, two-hundred pounds) were usually twenty-five years younger. Whatever sparring skills I had acquired diminished considerably thirty seconds into a sparring round, and I got my butt handed to me on a platter on a regular basis.
The thing about going on a police ride-along would be that all the cops would have firearms to protect them, and I wouldn’t: a disadvantage I wasn’t sure I could tolerate.
However, when the cops asked me to go out with them for half of a shift, I went for it. I had a lot of cop friends from my ER contacts and they all thought it was a cool idea. They knew I was a social worker but they also knew that I used to carry the badge and that I was up to the experience. Most likely, it was a guy-thing: a test of some sort and it wouldn’t look good for social work if I failed. My supervisor in the hospital thought it would be a great idea knowing that I would be in a position to teach as well as learn, so my ride-along got the green light.
We handled basic calls in the early part of the shift: kids in the park smoking pot, homeless guys aggressively panhandling in downtown, a ticket for running a stop sign – typical for the night, from what I was told. Then the radio blared: we got a hot call and rolled-up to a shooting situation. And there I was: no gun, no vest, looking for that platter my butt would soon wind-up on. Just as my “partner” was telling me to stay in the car and stay low, I heard a round whiz over the top of the black and white. My partner raced into action, his gun drawn.
I took cover, crawling under our police cruiser, trying to become as small a target as possible. It seemed like forever, but in a minute or so, it was over. Calling to me as I lay under the car, the cops gave me the all-clear. When I came out, I looked about as dirty as a crackhead in a roadside cantina. Of course the cops had a good laugh. But I passed the test: no anxiety attack, no crying, no soiling my pants.
When I got back to the ER, I was so filthy that I had to dive into the clothing bin reserved for the homeless again to find something else to wear. Luckily, I do most of the clothes shopping for the homeless bin, and I keep a set of acceptable clothes set aside for an occasion such as today’s.
My advice to law enforcement: take young social workers on a ride-along – let them experience all the adrenaline-filled “fun.” Let them learn to hope for the best, plan for the worst, and not to pee in their pants.
These days, no more ride-alongs. But I’m always happy to consult — from my office.