As part of a class I’m taking on policing strategies, I went on a ride-along with the gang and tactical teams of a Chicago police district on Friday night. This is the marquee event of this class, and I was excited to ride in the back on an unmarked car, seeing what goes on in that part of the city on a Friday night. I put on a loose sweatshirt (so a bulletproof vest could fit underneath,) jeans (to fit in with the casual dress of the tactical units,) sneakers (in case of running,) and mascara (please don’t ask me why I felt compelled to put on makeup for the trip with the policemen, because I have no explanation for this embarassing instinct.)

When I got to the police station, they seemed entirely surprised to see me, and there were some fun, tense minutes during which the tac and gang units engaged in a kind of police officer waltz, trying to force someone else to take the stupid law student with them so they could actually just do their jobs like normal. It’s nice to be loved. Finally, a tac unit lost the dance, and I climbed into the backseat of their beat up Ford to hit the streets.

Apparently, a lot of being a tactical officer involves driving around in circles in a very very small portion of your very very large district, the very very small portion of interest being, coincidentally, the area where the public housing units are located. I get it, crime happens most there, particularly the kind of violent crime that tac units are designed to address, but it was still sort of amazing how small a radius we covered given the enormity of the district.

The other thing that being a tactical officer apparently entails is the unprovoked stopping, frisking, and questioning of young minority men. During my three hours of ridealong, I watched the officers search fourteen young men of color, all of whom were politely told they could go on their way. None of them had anything illegal in their possession. None of them was DOING anything illegal that mandated a stop and search. But what was worst, to me, was that not a one of them looked even a little bit surprised or upset at being stopped and searched. Several of them even laughed and joked and seemed to enjoy kind of an easy rapport with the cops who were patting down their groins and reaching into the armpits of their coats to check for illegal substances or weapons.

Maybe the officers were doing their best to show the law student ridealong some action on an otherwise slow Friday night. Maybe these kids were known gang members and part of keeping gang violence under control is to let them know you’re watching. Maybe I should be impressed that the cops manage to create rapport with the very kids whose civil rights they are violating in conducting these warrantless searches. Who knows. All I know is that last year, when my car got searched by some East St. Louis cops who claimed “a drug dog smelled something” so they had to paw through my suitcases and check under the cusions of my car’s seats, I felt violated for DAYS. All I could talk about with my friends Mason and Carolina, who had been with me on our epic road trip to pre-hurricane New Orleans and who were in the car with me, was my sneaking suspicion that there had been no drug sniffing dog and we had just been the target of a random, warrantless search. It happened almost a year ago and we still sometimes bring it up at parties as an example of how crazy the police can act.

I cannot fathom what it would be like to have the police stop and search me as part of my normal, day-to-day routine. That three hour ridealong gave me more of an insight into the way we police our cities than I think anyone intended.

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