"Be careful tonight."

My lovely wife said those words to me in the morning and they were suddenly rattling around in my head as I drove to the Van Alstyne Police Department on Saturday night.

Don’t worry, dear reader, I’m not in any legal trouble. Actually, I was doing something I have talked about doing for awhile now — a police ride-along. I had approached VAPD Chief Tim Barnes awhile back about doing it and he was all for it. To those who don’t know, the public can ride along with a police officer and get a real-world view of what goes down on the mean streets. Sorry for that last part…I indulged in a marathon session of NYPD Blue in anticipation of my ride out.

I had been looking forward to the ride out for awhile but for some reason it dawned on me driving to the station that there could be an element of danger involved. Don’t get me wrong, I wasn’t expecting to bust down doors or partake in high-speed pursuits or anything like that, but the very real possibility of something going wrong smacked me in the face like a wet fish. And then another thought popped into my noggin: this must be something what it feels like every time a real police officer leaves to go to work. Yes, I know, it’s routine for those guys to some extent and they are trained professionals, but they are also well aware that anything can go wrong at any time. The simplest traffic stop could turn into a life-and-death situation with very little notice.

For my ride out I was in the hands of a true pro, Sgt. Chuck Milner. The evening started off with me signing authorization forms with the department and being issued a department weapon…okay, I made up that last part. There was no handling of guns at any point on my part. There was, however, a briefing given by Milner on what to do in certain situations. He gave me the rundown of the basic functions of the electronics in the car and what I should look for. As it turns out, VAPD officers are equipped with voice-recording microphones on their person to document each and every traffic stop and response. Inside the vehicle there is a video monitor that I could use to listen in on all of Milner’s dealings with the public. I really feltl like I was outside with the officer even though I was sitting safely in the squad car.

As luck would have it, this was a pretty sedate evening in Van Alstyne. There were a few traffic stops — one involving a car doing 95 mph on the highway — and a call regarding a suspicious vehicle roaming a neighborhood.

I learned something on those traffic stops: people have the worst excuses for speeding. Going to a wedding won’t get you any slack. Nor will ignorance of the speed limit. The best one, however, is when the driver tells one story and the passenger accidentally refutes it. Oops.

What struck me most about the evening was how the normal moments could be so interspersed with tension. One minute you’re sharing a story and the next minute you’re looking for suspicious individuals roaming a neighborhood, not knowing, literally, what could be around the next corner. I covered the cop beat in McKinney and I know first-hand that the most routine of stops were sometimes the worst. One never knows what lurks in the heart of men — but pull one over and find out. It isn’t always pretty. Being an officer means constantly being at the ready. Even though I wasn’t directly involved in the action, I could feel my skin prick up when a call came in. I can only imagine what it’s like for the guys and gals with guns on their hips protecting the streets.

A big thanks to Sgt. Milner and Chief Barnes for allowing me a different view of one of the communities I cover every day. Stay safe, guys.