In the summer (fall?) of 2009 I went on a ride-along with the Chula Vista Police Department. I was about half finished with THE EDGE OF NIGHT. I think it took several weeks to make the arrangements. I had to put in a formal request and they probably did a background check on me. Despite my youthful indiscretions, I was cleared!
On a side note, I also toured the San Ysidro Port of Entry on the US/Mexico border in 2010. The process for that visit was much more stringent and the officers were very formal. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures and many of my questions were dodged. Homeland Security is serious!!
Anyway, I mention that because I had a very different experience at the CVPD. Everyone went out of their way to be helpful and there were no dismissive attitudes about my work or the romance genre. Perhaps because I visited on a slow night, the officers had time to indulge my questions.
Shifts for the Gang Suppression Unit/Street Team begin in the afternoon, so I was instructed to arrive before 3 p.m. on Saturday. Chula Vista is about an hour from Fallbrook, where I live, and I don’t have cause to visit this area very often. I’d taken my daughters to the Chula Vista Nature Center a few weeks before. I drove around a bit and saw the nicer neighborhoods on the east side.
When I arrived at the station I waited outside these doors until a uniformed officer let me in and took me up to meet the gang unit! It was very exciting. I spoke with Sergeant Powers, the head of that unit, for over an hour. He answered every question I could think of. We spoke about everything from what kind of guns the officers carry and day-to-day operations to local gangs and special investigations. No question was too big or too little.
Then it was time for the ride along! Powers introduced me to Officer Isabel Chavez, a member of the Street Team. Although THE EDGE OF NIGHT features a male police officer, I was delighted to have the opportunity to pick the brain of a lady officer. She was very personable and professional. I admire her bravery because this is a job that few people, male or female, have the guts to do. Solving crimes appeals to me and I love forensic science but I could never be a beat cop. The stress would kill me.
Speaking of stress, I’d been in the squad car with Officer Chavez for a few minutes, asking questions about technology and whatnot, when she gave me safety instructions. If she pulled anyone over, I was to get out and stand behind the open passenger door where I would be less of a target. In the event that shots were fired, she showed me an emergency button or something like that. I can’t remember because I was getting nervous, imagining worst-case scenarios. My husband hadn’t wanted me to do this ride along! And I’d reassured him that everything would be fine.
Okay, so about five seconds later, Officer Chavez flips on her lights and pulls over three young men in a car, one Hispanic and two African-American. I have no idea what’s going on and she doesn’t tell me. As she gets out and approaches the driver’s side, her hand hovering near her service weapon, I try to remember what I’m supposed to do. Press buttons? Stay inside? Run away? Panic!
I get out of the squad car and stand behind the open door, my heart racing. She does her thing, checking the interior of the car and asking questions. The minutes tick by. Soon the black men are sitting on the curb a few feet away from me. I feel like I’m being rude by not making polite conversation, but I’m not sure what to say. “Excuse me, are you under arrest?”
This is taking a long time and I’m getting hungry. I decide it’s safe to sit in the passenger side of the squad car. I eat a slice of cold pizza I brought from home. The driver, a Hispanic teenager, is handcuffed and put in the backseat. Again, I feel awkward. I’m dying to ask him what he did. Officer Chavez is still outside, talking to the other guys and searching the vehicle or whatever.
Finally I finish my pizza and sneak a glance at the boy. He’s painfully thin and looks so nervous it breaks my heart. Getting arrested is awful and I feel sorry for him. I ask him what his name is. “Eric,” he replies. Now, I’ve already created my character so this is just a coincidence. This boy isn’t my Eric. He doesn’t look tough, he has no tattoos (that I recall) and he couldn’t beat up a cat. There are similarities, though. I think he was 20. He was polite and quiet.
Turns out that he was arrested for drug possession. I don’t know how much to reveal about the arrest because of legal issues (I might have already said too much in using a first name) but marijuana was involved. Unfortunately, the boy also had a tiny amount of another substance (half a pill). That little bit was enough for a felony arrest.
Can you imagine? A felony arrest for half a pill. And I think he’d been pulled over, two blocks from the station, because one of his friends wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.
Processing this arrest took a few hours. Officer Chavez did some sort of chemical testing on the substances and showed me how they process evidence. It was very interesting.
The amount of paperwork required was less interesting. I sat in the holding area for a long time, scribbling in my notebook. Nothing else of note happened that night. Officer Chavez and I spoke at length about a broad range of topics, including my travels in Mexico. She was friendly and I liked her. Near the end of the shift she took me around to the graffiti hotspots so I could take pictures.
For some reason I can’t find most of those shots. There were no artistic masterpieces a la Eric Hernandez from THE EDGE OF NIGHT. It occurs to me now that many of the fictional liberties I took with Chula Vista were positive. I might have exaggerated the rough neighborhoods, but I romanticized other details.
Thanks for stopping by! Hope you’ve enjoyed this glimpse behind the scenes.