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My police career started with a ride-along

Ride-alongs not only improve community perceptions of law enforcement, they also serve as a key police recruitment tool

Officer leaving vehicle smile.JPG

For agencies that allow police officers from other departments to ride, the exchange of ideas can be job enhancing for both the host officer and the guest.


There was no police recruitment crisis when I began my career. There was a waiting list of applicants for every choice law enforcement job. I may never have tried to compete for a place on that list without a fortuitous opportunity to ride with a patrol officer.

I was a high school senior intent on being the first in my family to get a college education. I had my sights set on a career as a psychologist. One of my good friend’s father was mayor of our small town, so some days after school we would walk to City Hall to see his dad before I walked down to the Kroger grocery store parking lot to meet my dad at his carpool drop-off point. In the course of those city hall visits, I got to know a few of the cops there and was offered a ride-along.

That sounded interesting enough, so one night I found myself in the passenger front seat of a marked unit with Sgt. Ozment driving. Decades before virtual reality amusement, I found myself in a new and unreal world. Ozment’s calm authority, omniscience and mastery of his work were accented by the flashing lights and chattering radio. I was hooked.

Not all agencies allow civilian observers, but those who do can benefit by having citizens with a better understanding of the challenges of law enforcement, and by planting seeds of interest in potential recruits.

For agencies that allow police officers from other departments to ride, the exchange of ideas can be job enhancing for both the host officer and the guest. Here are some things to keep in mind.

What is the purpose of your rider?

I’ve been an FTO with a trainee, a mentor with a college intern, a supervisor to a reserve officer and a host for civilian riders. Each one brings a different level of expectation and need for attention.

Even if your rider isn’t interested in pursuing a police career, their experience may be shared with others who might become interested. Consider every rider to be a potential advertisement for your agency.

Regardless of your rider’s status, here are some things for the host officer to keep in mind:

Make sure they’ve signed the waiver. Whether that waiver would be effective in preventing a lawsuit is questionable, but it’s only fair that a person with no idea of the realities of the dangers of being in a marked patrol car be as fully aware as possible. One of the most comprehensive forms I’ve signed required initials after every advisement and contained some detailed requests to ensure I’d read the whole document and not just scribbled my signature as a formality.

Establish who the “car commander” is. No rider, except in extreme circumstances, should be making independent decisions about their behavior on a call, stop, or other contact. While I was an active officer doing a ride-along, I would be careful to defer to my host officer when visiting another agency unless invited to assist.

The first rule is “stay in the car.” The second rule is “stay in the car.” The third rule is “stay in the car unless I say otherwise.” One of my college interns was on our inaugural ride when I responded to a burglar alarm at a small manufacturing facility. As we arrived, the intern jumped out of the car, ran toward the fenced-in area of the plant and vaulted over the fence. Our next ride was to the station where I dropped him off. Forever.

Give an emergency briefing. Depending on the perceived level of competence of the rider, the host officer may want to instruct the rider to flee the area, radio in for assistance, dial 911, or grab the shotgun if the officer or unit comes under assault. It’s always good to be sure the rider knows the host officer’s radio number. Instructions on how to use the radio or unlock a weapon may be appropriate.

Emphasize confidentiality. A police car is like Las Vegas: what happens there stays there. With the obvious exception of being a witness to criminal behavior, riders should respect the privacy of officer to officer interactions, as well as officer to civilian interactions. Be clear that the snapshot of activity the rider sees should not lead to larger assumptions about the persons involved.

Know your policy. Some agencies do not allow rider-occupied vehicles to engage in pursuits or be the first car on any scene. If the shift is shorthanded, it might be wisest to decline having a rider.

Not every officer on patrol cares to have a guest. It can be a big inconvenience and put a damper on activity. The opportunity to make an impression on your rider is worth the inconvenience and can have a ripple effect on good community relations and recruiting.

Current officers should consider requesting a ride-along with other agencies for their own professional development. Seeing how other agencies operate and experiencing their individual department culture can be an enlightening experience. Most police departments are open to fellow professionals riding and will forego the “stay in the car rule.” I’ve ridden with dozens of agencies with consistently positive experiences and great conversations.

Joel Shults operates Street Smart Training and is the founder of the National Center for Police Advocacy. He retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.

His latest book The Badge and the Brain is available at