When people say that law school is boring, I always have to laugh.
For my second internship, I worked for the district attorney’s office. In Las Vegas. On the very first day, we went to an Indian reservation. After that, a couple of murder trials. A tour of the prison. Seeing the Jackson clan in court. An invitation to attend an execution, to which I responded “hell, no!” An invitation to go on a ride-along with the police, to which I responded “hell, yes!”
I chose the night shift, ostensibly so I wouldn’t miss a day in court. In reality, because I hoped there would be more action.
At 5:30 p.m., I found myself at a precinct in the northwest of the most crime-ridden city in the United States. The police officers were sitting in a room that looked like a classroom. The desks and chairs were far too small for the men, all of whom rather big and burly. They were goofing around until the lieutenant walked in. On a map on the blackboard, he marked where a bank had just been robbed, where a man had been stabbed, where a woman had been sexually assaulted, and where they planned to uncover a drug den.
Then he introduced me and my secret mission. Mike, very tall, very burly, with a black mustache, a picture-book cop, said: “He can come with me.” In Las Vegas, officers usually go on patrol alone because that way, there are more patrol cars on the street at the same time. “Taxpayers want to see something for their money,” the prosecutor had explained this strategy.
We all went to the locker room, where I didn’t get a uniform, but a bulletproof vest. Wearing it under my sweater, I already felt much bigger and stronger.
In the parking lot behind the building, the cars were checked for the night shift. Tire pressure. Lights. Siren. And the radio. It seemed to work, because it was already squawking. “Two juveniles in stolen vehicle northbound on I-95.”
I thought it was a test, but Mike called out to me: “Get in and buckle up!”
Two police cars roared off ahead of us; we were the third one. With sirens. With blue lights. With screeching tires. At over 100 km/h. In the middle of the city. In rush-hour traffic. In the US, unlike in civilized countries, drivers don’t leave a lane for vehicles with flashing blue lights; you have to somehow weave your way through.
Mike operated the steering wheel, the lights, the siren and the horn with his left hand. With his right hand, he operated the radio and a computer that was mounted in front of me on the passenger side. It provided information about the stolen vehicle. “Shit, all this effort for a Corolla.”
Mike could operate twelve things at once, except the brakes. We were approaching a major intersection, the light was red. Neither the two police cars in front of us, nor we slowed down. Mike explained that the police cars were equipped with a device that could manipulate the traffic light and turn it green. At the very last moment, it did turn green. Too late for a driver coming from the right, who rammed the second police car, which crashed into a lamppost, causing it to topple over and hit a number of other cars.
Mike kept on driving at 100 km/h, glancing in the rearview mirror only briefly and reassuring me that nothing had happened to his partner. To be on the safe side, he radioed in the accident. “By the way, if anything happens to me,” he said, “go on frequency 33 and say ‘officer down, officer down.’ And then get yourself to safety.” There was a pump-action shotgun mounted between the two seats, but apparently I wasn’t supposed to use that.
American police cars have a battering ram. That came into play when we pulled up to the stolen Toyota. The two remaining police cars took turns ramming the Corolla, whose owner was no doubt delighted. Around us, it was still rush hour traffic. (That was in 1997, when people didn’t have cell phones with cameras. Meanwhile, the police are filming themselves.)
The officers tried to force the stolen vehicle off the road, but the thieves drove into the parking lot of a supermarket instead. Our cars came to a halt with screeching tires, the two policemen jumped out with guns drawn, ran towards the car that had caused the whole mayhem, shouting loudly, and pulled out two shaking young men. I don’t know if they fell over or were pushed to the ground, but they were handcuffed immediately.
Around us, people were pushing cereal, Coke bottles and steaks in shopping carts, some of which were larger than the Corolla.
The sun was just setting. I enjoyed the last rays of warm light, grinning from ear to ear and thinking, neither for the first nor the last time that evening: “This is like a movie!”
The night went on, of course, with helicopters, a hunt in the desert, a suicide on a volcano, and lots of donuts, but for this series, I promised to keep it short. That’s what you get for complaining about the alleged lengthiness of my articles.
- Maybe it was this experience which qualified me to be part of one episode of the German crime series “Tatort”.
- Later, when I did an internship in New York, I organized ride-alongs with NYPD for all the interns and trainees of the German Diplomatic Mission. I think I was well-liked there.
- All postcards from this series.
- Supporters of this blog actually receive real postcards from my travels. Directly from the car chase.