When her leadership studies professor said a police ride-along would be an option for students in the Justice and Civil Society course, sophomore Meghan Dillon knew she'd do it.
The course is meant to get students into the city of Richmond through what is called “the community-learning component,” Kerstin Soderlund, Dillon’s professor and an associate dean for student and external affairs in Jepson, said.
Students must select one organization from a list of community partners to volunteer their time with over the course of the semester, Soderlund said. Then, students must choose to complete a city or campus police ride-along, or students can alternatively attend a court session, city council or school board meeting.
These community-learning components serve to complement class discussions of the justice system.
“It’s like a laboratory," Soderlund said. "It’s an opportunity to really test and grapple with and challenge these ideas we’re having in class."
For her police ride-along, Dillon chose the night shift in the first precinct, an area which encompasses the easternmost part of the city.
“If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it in the most dangerous place at the most dangerous time,” she said. “I want to get the most out of it.”
That night, the first incident occurred when Dillon's officer stopped a driver for a broken taillight. As Dillon and the officer approached the car, the driver pulled a gun, she said.
“I just had followed my officer’s lead," Dillon said. "She didn’t really tell me whether to get out of the car or not, but she informed me after that I should have stayed in the car because he had a criminal record.”
In the incidents that followed, Dillon said she always made sure to ask.
“There were times when the officer was like, ‘stay in,’ or ‘come out, you’ll be safe. I know what’s about to happen,’” she said.
Around 9 p.m., things began to pick up, and the pair received a call about a stabbing at one of the clubs downtown.
“Nothing else was going to happen as far as she was aware, so she told me to get out,” Dillon said.
When they arrived at the club and at each of their following dispatches, Dillon said multiple officers had already arrived at the scenes, so she felt safe and more comfortable as the night went on.
Next, they were dispatched to a shooting.
“She told me specifically: ‘Stay in the car. Get your head down. Put it as far down as you can in the front seat,’” Dillon said. “She ran out and pulled her gun, and I was not looking up for the life of me.”
The sophomore added that she heard gunshots but that her officer was unharmed.
When more members of the precinct arrived, Dillon and her officer left for their next dispatch: a stabbing threat at an apartment complex.
“The man had someone living with him who was drunk and unruly, and they got into an altercation and he pulled a knife,” Dillon said. “When I got there, there was about six or seven officers, so I’m feeling pretty safe.”
Dillon said the man's roommate had been both drunk and high, sitting on the couch with the knife still in his hand.
“He starts making comments at me, asking what I’m doing here, verbally going at me a little bit," she said. "Then he started asking what I was doing after this and being a little creepy for lack of a better word.”
When Dillon and her officer were returning to the station at the end of her shift, they received a dispatch for a murder as they were pulling into the parking lot, she said.
“They were calling all the forces in the precinct office to come and handle this murder because the shooter was still active,” Dillon said. “They needed as many people on the perimeter as they could get."
When Dillon approached an ambulance, she saw a stretcher with a tarp over it. The medics took off the tarp and Dillon said she had been fully exposed to a dead man for the first time in her life, the wound under his rib cage still fresh.
“Not knowing I was going to be seeing this and then seeing it, I was really thrown off," she said. "I got a little upset but I tried to keep it together.”
Dillon’s host officer then called an officer from another precinct to come pick her up, because she wasn’t able to leave.
“I could not fall asleep that night,” Dillon said. “I was so rattled by what had just happened."
Dillon’s mother, Holly Dillon, said she had no idea the students wouldn’t be given a protective vest or head gear. Although she felt the ride-along was a great opportunity to broaden her daughter’s perspective, she said she had been nervous throughout her daughter’s shift.
“I’m not mad, I’m just surprised,” she said. "I thought it was a great experience."
Another leadership student, Sophie Arzt, also said communication between her and her officer could have been improved.
“It was really unclear whether I was supposed to get out of the car or stay while my officer was dealing with people,” Arzt said. “I never felt unsafe, just a little out of place because I felt like I was just following my officer around without much instruction.”
Arzt said she had found her experience eye-opening.
“It’s so different to read about the inequality in Richmond than to actually experience it in the actual environment,” she said.
Another leadership student, Tilley Neuoff, said the police department had done a great job communicating with her.
“I never felt unsafe at all, even when I was out of the car looking for an active shooter,” Neuoff said.
Neuoff said her host officer had given her specific instructions and had been very knowledgeable about what to do in the situation.
“I would recommend it because I really learned a lot about the city of Richmond and the ways police act from the officer I was with,” she said. “It gave me a unique perspective that I wouldn’t have gotten through a campus ride-along or court visit.”
Police ride-alongs are not exclusive to the Jepson school. The opportunity is available to students of the journalism department as well.
“I teach Public Affairs Reporting, and I think the opportunity to see what police officers do, on the job and in the field would be a benefit to our students,” professor Tom Mullen said.
The Jepson school has not followed-up with the police department after Dillon’s intense ride.
“For the police officers, that’s routine. As sad as that is,” Soderlund said. “We do talk with students up front and we do have students who opt for another option even before embarking on a ride.”
Brenda Toomer, the ride-along coordinator with the Richmond Police Department’s Community Care Unit, said that students who felt unsafe or uncomfortable during their ride-along should have taken an initiative and spoken to their officer’s supervisor, voicing what he or she believe should’ve happened.
“I think, in the end, [students] feel as though it certainly does give them a more realistic perspective about some of the issues we’re talking about,” Soderlund said.
Contact contributor Gillian Keenaghan at firstname.lastname@example.org.