Wednesday, November 07, 2007

My ride-along: Down and out in A-Town

My Ride-Along, Part One

John Doe, red-eyed and without shoe laces, has clarity about his future. In the claustrophobic intake area of the Buncombe County Detention Center, you tend to get that clarity when the jailer tells you to shut the fuck up.

"I know before this night's over that my ass will be beat and Tased," John Doe declares to the ceiling and to anyone willing to listen. "The American people are being beat down. This is what I get for exercising my rights as an American. Protesting is a legal right in this country."

One more word, son, the jailer threatens. John Doe knows when enough is enough.

But that realization comes too late for John Doe, and for the rest in jail on Saturday night. I'm here because I'm doing what I do - observing. I've been riding patrol with Asheville Police Department Officer Doug Sheehan for about four hours, and the November Friday night's just heating up.

How'd I get here? Don't worry. I'll tell you. Let me just process this all. Let me just say that I'm glad my shoes have laces and that I've never had to toe the red line or meet the "happy chair." Let me just say that.


I signed up for the ride-along because the APD has an "open car door" policy that allows pretty much anyone without a felony conviction to hang with the cops and see firsthand what they deal with. As a reporter, I have a pretty good idea. They're dealing with the down-and-out, folks who have nowhere else to turn. People stressed out, tripping out. Maybe you think you know, too. But have you ever embraced it like the police, day in and day out?

By "embraced it," I mean to ask if you've ever had to risk mortal personal injury day in and day out while disciplining malcontents? All for a starting salary of under $30,000 a year. Have you?

Officer Doug Sheehan embraced it because God told him to. He believes he's serving God and the community by working the streets of APD's west district on a nightly basis. I believe Doug because he works two other security jobs to pay the bills for his three kids and his wife, who works a church day care job and a sideline medical billing gig, all just to pay the bills.


After a few turns off of Haywood Road, Doug points his cruiser toward Pisgah View Apartments. The public housing project has the highest crime rate of any area in all of Western North Carolina, he tells me, after showing me what to do if ever during the night he ends up in "a world of hurt." He points out a red button on a console in the car. "Hit that and the cavalry will come."

In the projects, he tells me "seatbelts off." That's Doug's rule, because you never know what you're going to encounter. Now he's making me nervous.

We drive through the mostly deserted housing complex - it's Friday night and everybody's at high school football - and Doug points out one or two buildings that are the known problem areas for drug dealing.

After the tour, we head out and Doug pulls out a poem his father sent him. It's supposedly written by a meth addict and it details the grim effects of the drug in poorly written verse. All cops latch on to this sort of thing, and I have yet to really understand why, except that when you're putting your life on the line every night in an endless war, you have to have something to latch on to.


Just after 7 p.m., Doug rolls up on a man stumbling down Louisana Avenue at the point right between Bi-Lo and Kmart. The dude in the white T-shirt and blue LL Bean backpack is weaving through traffic, knocking on windows. Doug's laptop computer between us shows a report of panhandling.

Blue lights on, Doug pulls up and talks to the drunkard. Doug checks his I.D. Doug pats him down. Then Doug gets the sob story.

"I gotta get to Myrtle Beach, man. My momma died four days ago. My momma died," the dude sobs.

Hearing that he's got a dollar and either two or 22 cents in his pocket, Doug decides to take the dude to the Waffle House at the Biltmore Square Mall exit off I-26. "You can get a cup of coffee and rest up, and if you need to lay down, there's some woods right there," Doug explains over and over.

On the ride down, the stench of alcohol emanating from the dude's pores fills the squad car. Thankfully, Doug has his window rolled down. "My momma died four days ago and I didn't get the message at A-Hope," cries the bum. "I'm a bad son."

Doug asks the guy if he's gonna hurt himself. No, just tell me where Myrtle Beach is. Doug points the way.

I want to give the guy money. I want to wish him luck. I want to ask him about his mother. But in the end, I know he won't remember a single kindness. I figure he'll be lucky to find his way out of the parking lot.


To be continued...
Cross-posted from Ashvegas.

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