Riding shotgun with an Austin Police Department officer is a thrilling way to spend a night.
Story and photos by Niki Jones
The idea of sitting in the passenger seat as you ride along with a police officer for a shift is exciting enough. When that officer is a three-time American Ninja Warrior competitor, Army veteran and all-around badass, it’s exponentially more of an adventure, and I couldn’t wait to experience it for myself.
Ride-alongs (also referred to as “ride-outs”), in which citizens ride with officers while they are on patrol, are common in many police departments throughout the country. For my ride, I was paired up with Officer Katrina “Kat” Ratcliff, who has been with the Austin Police Department for three and a half years. With her infectious laugh and charismatic smile, Officer Ratcliff exuded calm and a confident demeanor from the moment we met at the East Austin substation to begin our ride.
After I filled out paperwork and an officer ran a background check on me, Officer Ratcliff loaded gear into the SUV, completing the first task of the evening. Then came a thorough safety check, which included testing lights, sirens, the public-address system, her Taser and the shotgun and rifle that were secured between the two front seats.
Before we rolled off to start the 4 p.m. to 2 a.m. shift, Officer Ratcliff consulted her CAD, or computer-aided dispatch system, to see what calls were outstanding from the previous shift. When 911 calls come in, they’re prioritized by numbers 0 to 3 and listed accordingly on the screen. This day, there was no shortage of calls waiting for attention, and we set off to respond to them immediately.
The shift’s start was slow because the infamous Austin rush hour was beginning, so as our vehicle crawled along, Officer Ratcliff brought me up to speed on her history with APD, how the night would go and what and where our sector was. She was assigned to the Henry sector (one of nine ranging alphabetically from Adam to Ida), which spans Lady Bird Lake’s southern edge to Ben White Boulevard and South Congress Avenue to the Del Valle neighborhood.
The first three calls included a suspicious person, a victim’s notification of release and a traffic stop for expired temporary tags (Officer Ratcliff let that driver go with a warning). It wasn’t until the sun had set fully and the dark felt ominously dangerous that we received our first unnerving call. A violent offender had escaped a secured facility and was on the run. On the radio, the officer responding to the call reported “in custody,” and the dispatcher questioned “without incident?” only to be met with silence. “Hold the air,” the dispatcher instructed everyone, meaning no one was to say a word until the officer responded. Immediately, Officer Ratcliff turned on her car’s flashing lights and sirens, and we “ran code” as fast as we could to the other officer’s location, which was likely what every other available unit in Henry sector was also doing. (Running code refers to responding to a call with sirens and lights and, often, high speeds. Priority 0 calls, also known as “hot shots,” are incidents that are in progress and need immediate attention and warrant running code. With Priority 1 calls, running code is at the officer’s discretion.) A few tense minutes later, as we continued to speed toward the incident’s location, the officer finally responded on the radio that all was fine. Relieved, we headed to the next call.
The night went on with a roller coaster of danger and excitement: Shots fired! (That turned out to be just fireworks.) A man unconscious on the sidewalk with his head dangerously close to the street! (That turned out to be a transient man looking for a ride to the hospital.) A few calls involved visits to people’s homes, accompanied by fire and emergency medical services teams.
One thing I was struck by was how calm and comforting the presence of this shift’s officers was. Every single incident I witnessed was deescalated and solved in the best and most respectful way possible by Officer Ratcliff and her fellow officers. They even calmed down a man who had taken too much of the synthetic street drug K2 since he had been released from prison a few days prior. By the time the APD and EMS left, the subject was behaving almost rationally.
“Honesty, compassion, empathy, patience and the ability to communicate are some of the most important [character traits in a police officer],” Officer Ratcliff says. “We regularly encounter dynamic and evolving calls that require us to consider multiple perspectives in a short amount of time. … We need to be great listeners, trained observers, skilled thinkers and problem solvers for victims, witnesses and suspects. This is done all while keeping everyone safe.”
Ride-alongs with the Austin Police Department are available to the general public.
“The benefits to riding out with an APD officer are that it allows community members to see how officers are addressing problems that concern them personally. It provides perspective to the rider about the many different hats that officers must wear in the wide variety of day-to-day calls,” Officer Ratcliff says. “We encourage anyone that is interested to ride out or sign up for the Citizen Police Academy so they can learn about all the different aspects of the Austin Police Department.”
For more information about the Austin Police Department’s ride-along program, visit austintexas.gov/service/ride-along-program.