It’s 9:45 on a Friday night, and I am just now sitting down in the roll-call room. I grab a back-row seat and look around. It’s not a full house. My ten fellow officers and I don’t even fill the last two rows of chairs. With the 11 of us patrolling one-third of the city, we are five officers below our staffing minimum. Three years ago, 18 officers would have covered the same area.
One officer, already listening to his radio, pipes up. The afternoon shift just caught a shooting. My heart sinks. My hopes weren’t high—it’s Friday, after all—but this means another busy night. We check our phones and read through the call notes on the shooting: one male, shot in the stomach near a drug corner. We speculate about the shooting and wonder if the victim will make it. The people in this room have become experts at this sort of conjecture. With five years’ experience, I am one of the most senior people in the room, but collectively, we have seen a few hundred shootings and dozens of homicides. We guess that the victim will probably survive.
After a brief roll call, we head out into the warm summer night. Friday is the one day when the city can resemble its pre-pandemic, pre-riot state. People flock to restaurants, clubs, and bars; teenagers tear around on rental scooters. It’s going to be busier than I thought.
With nearly all the afternoon shift tied up on the shooting, we start the night on priority calls. That means that we aren’t responding to a call for service unless it involves an active threat to life or safety. It also means that calls will pile up unanswered. If the night calms down, I can look forward to apologizing to a lot of tired, angry people who have waited for hours to talk to a police officer.
Not long after I get to my district, a call comes in. Someone is firing shots in an underground parking garage, and the caller claims to be watching it happen. Experience has taught me to be skeptical of the first part of any 911 call, but this sounds bad. I flip my patrol lights on and head that way without being dispatched. The destination is halfway across the precinct, so I push the car a bit. Because the brake rotors are warped, the whole car shakes under heavy braking, and the transmission shifts roughly. Our fleet people are doing all they can to keep the aging cars running. But I get there.
The caller has lost sight of the shooter, and no more shots are being fired. No one has seen any victims, but the garage opens to an apartment building and some retail spaces. This is a tactical nightmare: a huge space to clear, with terrible angles, and our radios won’t work in the garage. This task could easily occupy 30 cops, but instead we’ll have to handle it with ten. We form a plan to clear the garage, designating roles and discussing what we’ll do. Then it’s time to go in. I heft my patrol shotgun as we descend.
We slowly work through the parking garage, making the best we can of the angles and fields of fire. It’s exciting and boring all at once—an odd reality of police work. I trust my colleagues, but this is the sort of thing that we really should train for regularly. Instead, we’ll be lucky to make do with two hours on this sort of tactical scenario a year. So it’s a relief when we get help from two on-duty SERT (our equivalent of SWAT) officers. Nearly any other city our size would have a full-time tactical team. Ours has cops who pull double duty as patrol and SERT, do the work of a big-city tactical team while shagging patrol calls, and end up being run ragged.
We clear the building and find the spot where the shots were fired. The shooter is gone. A few officers stick around. Hopefully, with video and a little luck, we can hand off this case to detectives for further investigation. But that’s unlikely because the shooting that the afternoon shift caught has now been declared a homicide, and the detectives will be assigned there.
With the situation finished at the parking garage, I jump back into my car and start driving. I need to try to clear the calls that have stacked up. First stop: a report that a fight may soon erupt in a park where a large group of teenagers had gathered for a party. When I arrive with another officer, we find kids heading to cars and the party breaking up. No one knows anything about a fight, and the caller won’t answer his phone. We stick around for ten minutes, but it looks as though this problem has taken care of itself—and meantime, other calls keep coming in.
I leave, intending to pick up my next call: a woman screaming in distress in the street. Suddenly, dispatch cuts in and tells me to head back to the park—the fight, it seems, is back on.
When I get there, it’s chaos: a few dozen drunk teenagers running around, screaming, crying. In the middle of the scene, a kid lies on the ground, badly hurt. He got jumped; the suspects are gone. I rush over to see what I can do for him, but the answer is: not much. Someone has already gotten him in the recovery position, so I wait with him until an ambulance arrives.
My night doesn’t end here: an investigation for the assault, a trip to the hospital, and more drunken fights, more hurt and scared people, all follow. Still, the vision of the kid sticks with me. We could have—should have—stopped that fight. It would have taken a few cops 30 minutes or so, but we could have talked, cajoled, watched, waited, and gotten the kids on their way. We might have had to write some tickets, even make an arrest. But better that than what happened. Instead, we were stretched so thin that I waited as long as I felt I could—and left. Every minute that I stayed was a minute during which someone else’s emergency was going unanswered. I don’t think what I did was wrong, given the information I had at the time. But these things haunt me.
I became a police officer to solve problems and to help people. This was always an uphill battle, but I used to feel like I was making progress. These days, it feels like I am just putting out fires. Every day, there are more.