I was afraid it might be dull doing a ride-along with Santa Cruz Police on a cold Saturday night when the 49ers were playing.
No way. For the officers it might have been routine, but for an observer, it was far more riveting than the game. Most of us forget, or willingly choose to ignore, that even a small city of 59,000 isn't isolated from big city problems, dramas, criminals and craziness.
Two minutes after leaving the police department on Center Street, we got our first call. There was someone drinking in public and scaring people away from the liquor store on the corner of Pacific Avenue and Laurel Street.
We pulled up to find a man with white hair and a cap dancing in the sidewalk, not a crime. Sgt. John Bush got out of the car and asked him if he was alright and if he could take care of himself.
The man, who was listening to Tupac through his ear buds, said he was fine and advised the officer that he was a law student in Berkeley and would sue him if he was harassed.
Bush asked him if he'd been drinking and the man, like a lawyer in training, gave two answers. The first was no, but he added that he'd bought alcohol in the liquor store.
The officer asked the man to walk a straight line to the garbage pail about five feet away and the man started toward it, walking soberly, but then veered suddenly to the left. It confused me, until Bush asked him about the bag with an open beer can on top of the pail.
I had my first Homer Simpson moment. Duh. That's why he walked away from the bin. I didn't see the bag, but Bush was way out in front. The man threw out the alcohol and then the officer asked the man if he had a place to sleep and eat and could handle a night that was heading into the 30s. He said he was fine and the officer let him go, wondering if we'd see him again.
Two seconds later, as we were about to get into the patrol car, a woman came barreling through the red light on Laurel Street right in front of us, nearly clipping the dancing man who was crossing the street, and a Metro bus driver honked loudly, when it looked like she would hit the bus or another car.
However, the woman pulled herself over proactively, and stopped by the police car, admitting her crime and explaining that she was distracted. An officer who was backing up Bush talked with her and pronounced her sober and able.
We got one lap around downtown and were across the street outside the Taco Bell, where we saw a man slumped and almost passing out against the wall. Sgt. Bush started talking to him and the man said he was tired and had recent shoulder surgery.
Suddenly Bush interrupted and led me off. "Someone just stole something from the Salvation Army store."
"Did you get a call on it?"
"No, I saw it."
Sure enough, we get in the car and turn down the alleyway by the Poet & Patriot and there is a woman stashing a pair of shoes under a car.
First off, I'm amazed that Bush saw anything, since I thought we were both looking at the slumped-over guy. But he spotted the woman leaving the store with shoes in her hand but no bag, and a moment later, a store employee in a vest looking for her.
I like to think I'm observant, but I had no clue about what was going on a a few dozen feet away. I saw first hand how so much street experience can lead to a kind of alertness most of us don't have.
The woman appeared to be taking the same law courses as ear bud man. First she said she never stole anything before in her life. Then, when Bush ran her name, he saw she was on probation for stealing.
"I just do it sometimes," she said. "I don't want to, but something comes over me and I do it. I know it's bad."
Bush asked if she did drugs.
"I just smoke weed," she said. "Fuck Heroin. Fuck Meth."
But a few minutes later, she said she might have smoked meth that night and she definitely did on Thursday.
She also had a black magic marker in her pocket, she admitted, although she was also on probation for grafitti. She told us she uses the marker to rewrite books in bookstores.
Bush wrote her a citation and let her go, a time-saving option to doing the same thing at the jailhouse. She would have to answer for the crime in court and could be jailed then.
It was less than an hour into the ride and I got a taste for what I'd see the rest of the night: problems largely caused by the people social workers call the chronic homeless. People who live on the streets and don't have the desire or the means to get off of them.
They estimate these people, some 25 percent of the homeless population, eat up more than 75 percent of government services, such as police and emergency rooms.
Bush's 14-hour day ended and I was transfered to another car with an officer, Miguel Duarte, who has an amazing history. He was a former illegal immigrant who crossed the border at 17, worked in the computer industry and became a cop at age 35, only five years ago. Look for his story in Patch soon.
Duarte and I got called quickly to the Homeless Services Center, where a woman reported that her boyfriend stole her wallet and ATM card. She was driving out to look for him, but police said they would do it.
That was less troubling to me than the sight outside the center. There were about 25 people sleeping on concrete with little more than thin blankets or bad sleeping bags, as the temperture dipped to freezing.
In rain or cold the center lets them sleep around the buldings when the 300-person armory is full. If you ventured outside for even a minute that night, you know how sad it was to see that.
We had another lighter call to a UCSC student house party in a backyard where house music blasted down the block. The call was that there was a fight in front, but we saw no fight. Just barely-clad partiers who were dispersed while the renters were given citations for loud music.
Next stop was outside the Catalyst, where an African American man with purple beads sewn into his beard was laying on the ground in a puddle of urine and interfering with people trying to buy pizza.
Officer Duarte asked him if he was alright and the man greeted him: "You're a spic. Hi spic. Leave me alone."
Duarte asked him to get up and move down the sidewalk, but the man refused and kept using racial epithets, the same ones Duarte said, he used three nights ago, the last time he was arrested for being drunk in public.
When he wouldn't move, Duarte said he would have to arrest him. He asked the man for his right hand, which he placed in a handcuff, but the man refused to give him his other hand, which was hiding under a coat.
It looked like the man might have a weapon there, but even if he didn't, he was almost a foot taller than the cop and outweighed him by at least 100 pounds. He kept taunting the officer who had no backup.
But in a flash, Duarte flipped him over, got his second hand into the cuffs and had him face down on the hood of the car with no injuries.
Of course, right then, some people came out of the Catalyst with phones and started videotaping and talking about posting on YouTube. If someone just saw the second part of the scene, maybe it would have looked bad, perhaps like brutality.
But no one who saw the whole thing would have concluded that. If anything, they would have been amazed at the officer's restraint.
When he was booked into the jail, deputies learned all kinds of new and hateful racial epithets as he addressed each one.
I learned a lot on what police would have called a slow night.
I learned from the drunken arrest to make sure not to believe what I see, even if it's on video. There are always things leading up to the action that need to be seen for the full story.
I learned that everyone in this community should do a ride-along. You don't know what is here and what police do until you see it from their perspective. The department is open to bringing people out and showing them. Take advantage of it, if you are at all involved in community affairs. You can get information here.
I've seen Cops plenty of times, but I was naive enough to think that was all in Florida or Texas. I saw that it's no different here. It's just that most of us manage to live without being exposed to the grittiest parts of the community.
And we depend on these folks in uniform to do the dirty work we wouldn't want to touch.