I’ll be honest, covering the police beat is fairly new to me, but I, like pretty much everyone else with a pulse, enjoy watching TV cop shows. To be extremely specific, ones set in the U.K., but I never turn my nose up at Dick Wolf classics; Law & Order in any of its variations is consistently watchable. But I’ve had little interaction with actual police in my life.
So, when LaDon Reynolds, Oak Park’s police chief, asked if I wanted to go on a ride-along with one of the patrol officers to get to know the department better, I immediately accepted, imagining myself in the passenger seat of a cop car, siren blaring, charging after a suspect down the Dan Ryan. We scheduled the ride-along for Oct. 25, noon to 4 p.m.
On the day of, I dressed the part. Channeling Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s laconic and tough Detective Rosa Diaz, I wore all black. I wanted to feel cool, OK? And I did, up until I walked in the station at noon for my four-hour ride-along. I immediately felt, and probably looked, like a wide-eyed nerd trying to fit in with the cool kids at a new school. Cool kids who had badges and guns.
The officer I was tagging along with wasn’t quite ready for me, so I waited a bit. Would I have someone more like Don Knotts’s character in the Andy Griffith Show or someone like Fargo’s discerning Officer Lou Solverson? If you take out the “e” in my first name and put “sergeant” before it, you get Sergeant Stacy Sheridan, Heather Locklear’s character on T.J. Hooker. (My parents didn’t know that when they named me.) Maybe I’d get a rookie female officer!
Officer Ron Foytik, who I was paired up with, didn’t turn out to be comparable to a TV trope cop. He did have giant bulging muscles that made me wonder whether the correct term should be “strong arm of the law” instead of “long arm of the law.”
After I was put in a bullet proof vest, loaned to me by Sergeant Samantha Deuchler, we were ready to roll. Bullet proof vests are very constricting, bulky and uncomfortable. I learned vests expire after five years. Foytik was working undercover earlier that day, so he got to wear normal clothes in the morning but was in his regular uniform with me.
“It’s a lot more fun,” Foytik said of being undercover. “All these surrounding western suburbs have a joint task force type thing where they send a couple officers every month or so and they’ll go to those towns.” While undercover, officers have a variety of duties pertaining to recent police activity.
“I could be in Berwyn doing a search warrant or I could be here doing some type of burglary pattern mission where we’re all undercover in plain clothes,” he told me.
He wasn’t supposed to take me on my ride-along, but an officer got sick, so duties were rearranged. It was also his first ride-along too, something he avoids. “Don’t take offence,” he told me. “I’m not mad at you.”
Foytik has been on the force since he was 24 and said he can’t imagine doing anything else. His younger brother is also an Oak Park police officer. He said he hates day shifts because “they’re really boring” and “too slow.”
While patrolling, “the primary aim is to drive around and look for stuff,” he told me. Foytik watches out for people who are just slumping around, directionless.
“They don’t have a purpose, it looks like. Those are the people you want to keep an eye on,” he said. “Sometimes they do something, sometimes that’s just the way they walk. It’s hard to watch people in a marked vehicle though. You have to be slick about it.”
Our first stop on the ride was to 7-Eleven, where Foytik got a bottled water. Foytik doesn’t drink coffee, which surprised me, but he did admit he likes 7-Eleven doughnuts. He also told me he doesn’t wear aviator sunglasses because he thinks “his head is too small” for them. Aviator sunglasses I always assumed were part of the uniform.
We drove around for a while looking for any lawbreakers but couldn’t find any. It was a slow afternoon for crime fighting. According to Foytik, it’s difficult to speed in Oak Park, so they don’t issue many speeding tickets.
“Most of our traffic violations are stop signs and right turn only,” he said. According to Foytik, Oak Park sees a lot of property crime, not violent crime. Chicago crime sometimes spills into Oak Park.
“We’ve had a rash of carjackings recently but that’s a regional thing. In the city, it’s happening all over, but people don’t really pay attention to what’s happening around them,” said Foytik.
While patrolling, Foytik told me stories. I also shined the interrogation light on him and asked a lot of questions. He doesn’t really get frightened in dangerous situations, he said.
“I don’t have time to be scared; I just react,” he said. “After the fact, I’m like, ‘Oh, damn! That could have been bad.”
He told me about one such situation in which an inebriated driver attempted to run him over. He and another officer were walking up to what appeared to be a car crashed into a tree by a house.
“The lady looked like she was slumped over,” said Foytik. “The lady saw us, woke up and just punched it toward us.”
Foytik also told me he has never had to fire a gun at anyone, though it came close in an encounter with two people, one of whom was an armed robbery suspect. Nor has Foytik ever been shot, but he has had a taser used on him, which was incredibly painful.
We made about three traffic stops, but Foytik didn’t give any citations to the drivers. He doesn’t like to give out tickets and said it’s a myth that cops have a monthly quota.
At 2:14, we stopped three middle schoolers. The radio said they were going door-to-door on Lyman Avenue, asking for money for a charity without having any paperwork. When we got there, they had taken a fake severed leg from a neighbor’s Halloween display and thrown it into the street. One of the kids lied about his name and got a bit mouthy.
“You can always tell when people are giving you a fake name,” Foytik said. To test him, I told him my middle name was Violet. It isn’t, but he bought it. Guess he can’t always tell.
Not long after, we assisted another officer in a traffic stop. I stayed in the car as the two officers patted down the driver and his passenger. Their car had a strong marijuana stench, but, after searching the car, the officers were unable to find any pot.
At 3:50, we wrapped up our ride-along. Foytik dropped me off at the station and helped me out of my bulletproof vest. Thankfully, the vest turned out to be unneeded. It was a great time. I got to play with the lights and siren, Foytik gave me a list of local restaurants to try and I learned a lot.
As I got back into my boring, non-police car, I was hit with a realization. It turns out, being with an actual police officer is way more fun than watching fake ones on TV, even if there isn’t always a mystery to solve.
Story has been edited to fix a typo.