A New Respect for Police Officers

Officer Hailie Meyers, a two-year veteran of the Yakima Police Department, drives along Nob Hill Boulevard Thursday, December 15th, 2016.

Lights and sirens were on as Officer Hailie Meyers and I sped down Nob Hill Boulevard on our way to a call. A caller had claimed there was a man with a gun in the backyard. Officer Meyers, along with other officers from the Yakima Police Department, were on their way to investigate and I had a front-row seat.

My mind was racing with possible outcomes. A standoff. The person could go running down the road. A high-speed car chase.

Anything could happen.

Officer Meyers’ words were fresh in my head from an hour ago: “You never know what’s going to happen on a call. 911 only has so much information that they can give us.”

When we got to the scene, however, the person reporting the incident had changed the story and had simply thought that there had been the noise of someone cocking a gun in the caller’s backyard.

Further investigation found that the caller had a history of mental illness and had been paranoid all week.

While the result wasn’t as adrenaline-pumping as it could’ve been, the fact stands that anything could’ve happened and Meyers and her colleagues had to be ready for it.

This is the daily experience for more than 900,000 police officers around the United States. They have to be ready to jump into any situation when the time comes.

Meyers, 32, has been working with the Yakima Police Department for two years. Before becoming an officer, she worked various receptionist and restaurant jobs before getting her degree in criminal justice from the University of Nevada-Reno in 2005. She works five days in a row (with five days off) that involve shifts usually lasting 11 hours. I accompanied Meyers for eight of these 11 hours on Dec. 15, and along the way I gained a new appreciation for the work that she and others like her do.

My eight-hour experience started in downtown Yakima at the Yakima Police Station. Meyers loaded up the police cruiser with her gear and we were off.

The day started off slow. Meyers had pulled over her first person of the day at 4:54 p.m. at the corner of First Street and Yakima Avenue. It was a routine stop for a burnt-out light. The officer gave the person a warning and we were back on the road in no time.

Later, she pulled over a person driving with a suspended license. The driver’s spouse and children were in the car. Under Washington state law, the person could have been arrested. But Meyers didn’t want to arrest the driver in front of family. Instead, she issued a citation for a lesser, non-felony charge.

“I feel horrible giving tickets,” Meyers said as she printed the person’s ticket.

This comment may seem odd to a lot of people. For many, the word “police” conjures up images of some stone-cold person looking to track down the slightest traffic offense and nail the perpetrator with a $350 fine. But Meyers is quick to refute this image.

“Some people just assume that we’re out to get them, and that’s not true,” she said. “I work with a lot of really fair people who are doing a really good job.”

For example, Meyers pulled over another person for a broken headlight and found that this person, too, was driving with a suspended license. Instead of arresting the driver or leaving the person with no way to drive, Meyers gave the person a ride across Yakima to work, an action that doesn’t exactly line up with many people’s perceptions of a police officer.

Misconceptions

Meyers and I talked a lot. It was eye-opening to interact with a police officer this closely for eight hours. I have always seen police officers as people, but they always seemed to me to be these far-off, unrelatable people who I didn’t really connect with.

But as I spoke with Meyers through the course of the night, I found we had unexpected things in common. For example, I found out we both like Eminem. Never in a thousand years would I have guessed that.

At one point during the night, I had a chance to speak with Officer Chris Taylor, a 10-year veteran of YPD and a member of Meyers’ unit.

“People have this misconception that cops aren’t normal people,” Taylor said. “People forget that cops have wives and kids. We have family members. We’re part of the community, too. Everyone sees us as this big symbol of authority, but they don’t realize that we’re the same people taking our kids to little league or going to school plays.”

He also commented on the anti-police movement that has swept across the nation in response to several officer-related shootings. Taylor said police hatred is nothing new and it’s something law officers have been dealing with for years.

A few hours later, Taylor and I were sitting together in the station’s break room eating cookies and talking about his family and career. Our conversation drifted onto the subject of the various police-related shootings that have taken place across the United States in the past year. He says a lot of the hate officers get comes from misunderstanding.

“When people look at a scene, they don’t look at the whole situation. Sometimes they just look at race or religion. We get scared, too. We have concerns and families. If people put themselves in our boots, they would have a different perspective.”

Reflection

During my eight-hour experience, I realized those boots aren’t easy to put on. The long hours, the mental stress and the danger of the job are all enough to ward off most people.

Particularly the danger. According to a report by the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, more than 137 officers died in the United States while on duty during 2016. This number is up 21 percent from 2015.

One only needs to look at the death of 45-year-old Tacoma police officer Reginald Jacob Gutierrez, who was shot while investigating a domestic dispute Nov. 30, 2016, to be reminded that this danger isn’t one that’s far from home.

“We’ve all been in dangerous situations and some of us don’t even realize the danger until it’s all over,” Meyers said.

As I was driving home after the ride-along, I had so many thoughts running through my head. But one was more predominant than anything else: Police officers get more hate than they deserve.

During my ride-along, I saw women and men who cared. I saw people who cared about their community and wanted to make it better, not people who were out to write a quick ticket and get on with their shift.

Is police brutality an issue? Yes. Are unjustified police shootings a problem? For sure. Is it a problem that needs to be addressed? Without a doubt. According to statistics from The Washington Post, at least 963 people in the U.S. were shot and killed by police in 2016.

But these incidents don’t mean every police officer should be seen in a negative light, just like a person of color shouldn’t be seen as a bad person because of the actions of a few people. Police officers are human — just like everyone else. And, in 99.999 percent of the situations, they’re just trying to do the right thing.