The differences between police patrols in the US and the UK are many and varied, and last year I got an opportunity to explore them while on vacation in Sacramento. For a crime writer working as an analyst for Kent Police in the South East of England, ridealongs don’t happen very often. For a start, everything we do works on a strictly need-to-know basis – and if I don’t have a legitimate business reason for wanting to go out with a patrol, there’s no point asking. Curiosity about the way the system works, or looking for plot ideas for my latest story, don’t count. SacPD, however, do ridealongs regularly. It seems this is a very effective way of showing members of the public first-hand how crime affects their neighbourhoods, and how their law enforcement teams go about tackling it. In the UK, we achieve the same aim by deploying mobile police stations to troubled communities to encourage communication between the force and the public.
While my husband and son got the chance to meet the K9 units (they have their own collectible cards!) I went out with a patrol sergeant who began reassuringly by talking me through the weapons at her disposal. UK police don’t routinely carry firearms. Some of them have TASERs – which require a full written report every time they are drawn, and pretty much an inquiry if they are ever deployed. Most UK patrols are only armed with an extendable metal rod and a witty riposte. The hope for both forces, of course, is that they won’t need to use anything more forceful than their voice of authority to calm a situation.
(While it might seem alarming to the US visitor to think that the police don’t carry firearms, you should also bear in mind that our strict gun control laws mean the offenders generally speaking for the majority of crimes don’t have guns, either.)
I learned about how to spot a dodgy neighborhood as the immaculate front lawns gave way to chain link fences – in the UK, you might notice pound shops, betting shops, boarded up properties, discarded furniture on the front yard, cars up on bricks.
Over the course of the day, we went to a suspected burglary, a domestic argument in which an apartment had been trashed, an incident on the riverbank that was momentarily a little scary. Most of the time I stood beside her while she dealt with things, but on this occasion she suggested I might like to wait in the car.
“If anything happens, you can get in the driver’s seat and drive away, okay?” my sergeant told me.
“Anything happens? Such as?”
“Well, you know. If something happens to me.”
As she stepped out to deal with the incident, I looked at the driver’s seat in the patrol car with the stick shift mounted on the steering column – we don’t have those in the UK – and prayed for a peaceful resolution. Thankfully we were on our way again shortly afterwards.
There are a lot of similarities, of course. Patrols get yelled at, sworn at, threatened and assaulted regularly, both in the UK and the US. Patrols know their areas so well that when a crime with an unusual MO happens, they usually know which of their offenders will have done it – and where to look for them. For those that get away with it, despite the best efforts of the investigators, there is always the promise that a good criminal will always come back for more – and next time they won’t be lucky. The other point that struck me as being the same on both sides of the Atlantic is how genuinely nice the patrols are: how much they care about the people they serve in their communities, and how badly they are trying to make things better. These are kind people, guys you would want to have on your side when things go wrong.
As the shift drew to a close, we were called to a drive-by shooting. I sat in the patrol car while my sergeant organised her team of patrols to direct the traffic away from the scene, looking out at the blazing sunshine and the good people of Sacramento who were being delayed on their journeys home because of a random act of violence, and reflected on another very important difference: in the South East of England, it would undoubtedly have been pouring with rain.
Elizabeth Haynes grew up in Seaford, Sussex and studied English, German and Art History at Leicester University. She is a police intelligence analyst. She started writing fiction in 2006 with the annual challenge of National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo) and the encouragement of the creative writing courses at West Dean College.
She lives in a village near Maidstone, Kent, with her husband and son. Into the Darkest Corneris her first novel; it was named Amazon UK’s Best Book of the Year 2011, film rights have been sold to Revolution Films, and rights have been sold in twelve countries and counting.
The U.S. edition, published by HarperCollins is a Amazon.com Best Book of June and an Indie Next Pick for July 2012. Haynes lives in a small village in Kent with her husband and son. For more on Elizabeth Haynes visit her Facebook page.
VISIT Elizabeth’s website.