Editor’s note: Information for this story was gathered during a ride-along with a Gainesville Police officer. The photograph was taken on a separate ride-along with the same officer.
Before he starts his overnight shift, Tommy Harrison gets a cup of coffee from the Kangaroo Express on Northwest 13th Street.
While he sits in his police car, he checks the loudspeaker. Then the front and back cameras. The siren. His fingers glow from the computer screen on the center console. He reviews the incident list. It’s time to work.
Harrison, 28, is a three-year veteran of the Gainesville Police Department, and he works four 10-hour shifts a week. Before that, he worked five years just south of Boston. He patrols a quadrant of the southeast part of town, section R, or Romeo.
“Typically, we don’t find college students in this area,” he said. “You see a college student cruising around here, they’re looking for something.”
He rides in one of GPD’s Ford Crown Victorias, an elegant beast of a car known for its speed and reliability. It has a shotgun rack above his head in front of the glass partition.
Harrison is originally from Massachusetts, and he has a faint Boston accent. His dad is a police officer. He played cops and robbers as a kid, and he watched the TV show religiously. He’s only ever wanted to be a cop.
“No one can deny the appeal of law enforcement,” he said.
On this night, the streets are wet, and he expects a slow shift. A car passes with high beams, and it’s go time. Harrison pulls a U-turn and speeds up. The cruiser accelerates fast and hums. He calls in the license plate and flashes his lights.
He steps out of the car fast, with one hand on his holster and the other on a flashlight. The man inside the car moves his hands a lot. Harrison cocks his head and asks if there are any drugs or weapons. The man admits the car is not his.
“There’s a lot of things not adding up,” Harrison said.
Backup arrives, and the man gets out of the car. He explains his name is Nick Savage. He’s a musician. He played with the late Bo Diddley, he said, and he’s just borrowing his friend’s car. He said he’s fallen on hard times.
Everyone relaxes, and he’s let go with a warning to dim his brights when passing cars.
Back in his own car, Harrison explains that part of being a cop is figuring out what people are doing by watching how they move and speak.
“You get lied to 99 percent of the time,” he said.
He said there are some giveaways. When people answer a question he didn’t ask, his cop radar goes off. When they immediately express innocence before he even opens his mouth, he knows something is wrong.
“One of the biggest things is a subject change,” he said. “They jump to a ‘I don’t have anything. I didn’t do anything.’”
Harrison stops at a parking lot across the street from a food mart.
“Watch this,” he said. A group of men standing around and on bikes scatter.
While he sat, a call came on the radio about a foot pursuit. Another officer, obviously out of breath but surprisingly calm, gave a description of a suspect over the radio. It was too far away for Harrison to assist.
Instead, he continued his patrol and pulled over a woman near Gardenia Garden Apartments for driving with one headlight. She didn’t let him search her car, and her passenger, a young man in shorts and flip flops with a South Carolina license, had a beer can between his legs. After it got poured out, they were let go.
While he drove away, Harrison explained why people burn out on the job. Being a police officer demands a sort of hyper-vigilance, he said, so that you have to be aware of all things at once. Even during a routine traffic stop, he said, you never know the amount of danger involved.
“Very few times I can say I’ve been 100 percent at ease,” he said. “All I do is play out scenarios in my head.”
He said that awareness can be hard to turn off. It’s why he likes to spend his free time with other cops.
“I’m most relaxed with guys who will have my back.”
Harrison has never used his weapon on a person, he said, but one time he did shoot a deer that was seriously injured to stop its suffering.
“I had to see the department shrink after that,” he said, quickly adding that he was joking.
The rest of the night saw a car colliding with a bike (resulting in minor injuries), a noise complaint at a KFC (from late-night pressure-washing) and a call about smoke coming from a house.
At stops, the officers joked and laughed while police lights reflected off their uniforms. For Harrison, there’s nothing he’d rather be doing.
“Every day is different; you hear things that you’ve never heard before or see things you’ve never seen before,” he said. “It’s the added bonus of doing what you love. At the end of the day, you’re very satisfied with what you do.”
Contact Jon Silman at email@example.com.
Gainesville Police officer Thomas Harrison drives his cruiser down University Avenue early Thursday morning.