Over the last two weeks I have spent time interviewing and riding along with several officers from the Kyle Police Department (KPD). I will publish Our Kyle: Episode 4 in the next few days. In the meantime, below are seven things I learned about the KPD during my time with the unit.
1. SUVs are not excessive — they are absolutely necessary
On more than one occasion I have watched the KPD cruise around in their “fancy” Chevy Tahoes and murmured under my breath. “What a waste of taxpayer dollars,” I thought. “They must have a superiority complex. Officers can get by just fine using a Ford Taurus.” After a few ride-a-longs, however, I realized very quickly that looks can be deceiving.
For starters, the KPD Tahoes are loaded down with equipment. This equipment is heavy, oblong, and needs to be accessible in a moment’s notice. The Tahoe’s design is far superior to a sedan because it can comfortably house computers, special weapons, tactical gear, first aid equipment, sensors, cameras, and a host of other things, all while giving officers and passengers the ability to enter and exit their vehicle quickly.
Furthermore, KPD vehicles traverse a labyrinth of terrible roads, and are at times pushed to the brink with off-road pursuits or when it rains 16 inches in less than 12 hours. Just as their vehicles need speed to keep up with bad guys, they also need versatility to conquer Kyle’s challenging terrain.
2. Patrol officers don’t issue citations to meet a quota
I was completely misinformed about how our patrol officers actually spend their time on shift. I assumed their primary function was to issue speeding citations. I further assumed they were given quotas and were evaluated in part on whether or not they met them. But that’s not even remotely true. Per section 720.002 of the Texas Transportation Code, traffic offense quotas are explicitly prohibited in Texas.
More importantly, the patrol officers I spent time with thought more in terms of interacting with citizens than issuing citations. I for one am grateful to have learned this. Traffic quotas are a glaring conflict of interest. The function of the police should not be to generate revenue, but to serve and protect. The Kyle PD seems to understand and value this important distinction.
3. Night shift is all action, all the time
I started my night shift ride-a-long at 7:30 pm on a Friday. By 1:00 am we were completely overwhelmed. In fact, I wasn’t supposed to ride-a-long with the patrol officer for that long, but we literally had no time for him to take me back to the station. Dispatch funneled call after call. Reports came in of hearing gunshots, suspicious animals, suspicious people, suspicious vehicles, domestic disturbances – on and on it went. I learned that “cop bladder” is a real thing, as we went from one call to another with no time to stop. Kyle’s citizens give night shift officers serious business.
4. No officer is an island
The KPD works as a unit. Nearly every situation and call involves multiple officers and dispatchers. For example, if an officer pulls over a vehicle, he or she will call dispatch and run the plates. Dispatch relays information back to the officer. Every minute or two dispatch asks for a status report from the officer to make sure everything is proceeding as planned. If there is anything remotely suspicious, an officer or dispatch will call for backup. At no point does anyone act alone.
When an officer responds to a call, the collaboration escalates further. For example, in the case of a domestic disturbance call – a common thing here in Kyle – it nearly always takes two officers to properly handle the situation. The parties must be separately interviewed while under police supervision, and then the officers collaborate in an effort to learn what really happened and make the proper arrests when necessary.
5. Kyle’s roads are horrendous
This revelation is not directly related to the KPD, but certainly helped me understand the need for our officers to ride in SUVs (see point # 1). I already knew Kyle’s roads were bad, but after spending hours riding around Kyle with patrol officers, I began to see just how bad they truly are. My jaw nearly broke from all the jittering and jostling.
From potholes, to sinkholes, to utility lines cut through the street and then patched over, Kyle road conditions are absolutely dreadful.
6. Patrol officers must make 1,000 judgment calls per shift
This was perhaps my most poignant revelation. It’s no secret that, across the nation, police officers are under tremendous scrutiny, specifically on the subject of excessive force and racial profiling. The critique is that officers can exercise poor judgment and provoke citizens unnecessarily, even purposefully – leading to brutality and, in rare cases, manslaughter or even murder.
This is a terrible reality that Kyle police officers live with every day. The social-media frenzy around sensational police footage only amplifies what officers truly deal with; namely, a tremendous quantity of judgment calls made on a daily basis.
Every citizen encounter, every suspicious vehicle, every moment of their shift, officers are forced to decide how much to engage. No two situations are alike. One officer’s gnomic quip was especially insightful: “We’re given the page half-blank,” he said. “Our job is to fill in the other half as best we can.”
That’s an incredibly true statement, I discovered. Officers are tasked with discerning the truth in every situation, and errors can be life-threatening.
Here’s just one example. During our patrol we pulled up to Steeplechase Park at night. The park was obviously closed, and we noticed a few vehicles parked there. The officer got out and walked around the vehicles with his flashlight. He shined his light all around the park and inside the vehicles. He saw an assortment of things in one particular vehicle, including bags, a cellphone, and a still-lit third-party navigation display. Clearly someone was at the park, though it appeared empty.
Now came the questions. Did the party see us coming and run? If so, why? Was it drugs? Warrants? Could someone have been abducted? The active GPS and phone were suspicious. Perhaps it was a couple innocently walking down by the creek. We simply couldn’t know without searching further.
But searching further comes at a cost and includes risk. The creek is dark. If someone was hiding and the officer cornered him, a serious altercation could ensue. We needed backup to proceed, which meant pulling another officer from whatever they were doing for assistance.
The officer ran the plates and nothing suspicious came back. (He actually ran the plates the moment we arrived and I just didn’t notice because he did it so fast.) He explained to me that a vehicle parked suspiciously did not warrant enough probable cause to call for backup. Ultimately every vehicle can seem suspicious if you stare at it for a while late at night. KPD’s job was to investigate “to a point,” make notes on the event, and without further probable cause, move on.
As we drove off I saw lights on the pathway down by the creek. Two people emerged on bicycles. They had been riding through the park and appeared to have no criminal motives. I was relieved. My heart had been pumping.
Here’s the point. It takes training and discernment to know just how far to take an investigation. Officers are forced to make multiple judgments simultaneously every minute they are on shift.
7. The Kyle PD is understaffed
At any given point in time, the KPD has 3-5 officers patrolling the city. That may seem like a lot, until you consider the fact that one wreck and one domestic disturbance happening simultaneously will incapacitate our force.
For example, on Friday night, as the calls came in, we were forced to make decisions about which calls were most important. At one point two calls came in where citizens heard what they thought might have been gunshots. We were on our way to investigate when another call came in. A woman was locked in her room with her child in fear of a belligerent and intoxicated spouse. The caller expressed fear of her life, so we turned around and pursued that call instead.
The officer’s explanation of why we changed course was salient. Because the gunshot noise calls came in shortly after the new year, it was possible – probable even – that the “gunshots” heard were in reality fireworks. This type of call comes in often and, with no extra information given and no shooter or gun cited in the call, rarely leads to anything. The domestic call, on the other hand, was a real-world situation that required immediate action because the officer had probable cause to believe someone’s life was in danger.
I don’t disagree in the slightest with the officer’s line of reasoning and subsequent decision. I simply wish we had enough officers to respond to both calls. As of October, the KPD has 1.19 officers per 1,000 citizens. The city council approved new positions in October which, when hired and trained, will increase that number to 1.52. But even still we are behind the national average of cities our size (1.8).
In the end, my time with the Kyle Police Department was insightful and uplifting. I learned that training and character are the two most important factors in determining the quality of an officer. I learned that our police officers are more interested in keeping citizens safe than issuing citations. And I learned that Kyle has a police department of which we can all be proud.