Coffee With A Stranger Cup 106: Roger Rangel — Austin Police Officer, dad, huge-hearted guy!

The Place: Austin Police Dept. substation, Starbucks, but primarily the driver and passenger seats of an APD patrol car.

The Cup: Starbucks was our first stop where we got the necessary fuel to power our exciting day.

The Background: Roger showed up to work, with no knowledge that on this particular day, he’d have a companion on his 10-hour shift patrolling the streets of Central and South Austin. Surprise! Although he tried to make me feel like it was his choice — I knew better. I’d already heard that having a rider isn’t exactly something officers get excited about. Roger is the youngest officer on shift (he’s 30) and he’s the most junior (been there 3 years), so he drew the short straw. We had a great time talking and responding to calls, so hopefully he felt differently at the end of the shift.

This coffee with a stranger is just a little bit different from the rest. In several ways. First, I spent 10 hours with this particular stranger — whereas my average coffee lasts 90 minutes. We did not cover a specific list of questions, as most coffees do, and instead just talked about life, love, loss and purpose. Big stuff — but no list to follow. Finally, this conversation began with shotgun training. Which was definitely a first for me!

Why Am I Here?

Last fall, shortly after having just returned from the peaceful nation of Costa Rica, news broke about the Ferguson shooting and riots. Normally not a huge fan of the news (not just the content, but the sensationalism that tends to go with it), I would have liked to have steered away from the coverage. But at the time, Dave and I were living with his dad and his dad’s wife, who kindly and generously had opened their home to us. Fox News is often on in the Senior Lombard household, so I had little choice but to hear the coverage. And not just coverage, but Fox News’ coverage, which I’d really only ever heard lore of by witty people like John Stewart. I have to say, if you want to turn a God-fearing, Christ loving, Bible following person like Dave’s dad into someone filled with angst and anger, turn on Fox News — where there is always something to be pissed off about.

I do not blame my father-in-law for his anger. It was hard not to get angry. But the sad fact was, the subject of anger couldn’t have been more in opposition. Depending on which channel you had on, you were either angry that an unarmed, innocent black man had been killed unnecessarily by the police, or you were angry that a white police officer, just doing his job, was being accused of murdering a young, black punk with a nasty past, who was obviously up to no good.

I wasn’t there. I didn’t know who to be angry at. But I found myself getting angry nonetheless. Angry that people were angry. Angry that we lived in a world where headlines like this one were becoming a regular occurrence. Angry because I was scared. Scared because I realized how little I understood either perspective.

Around the same time, I saw a notice of a 14-week program called Austin Citizen Police Academy. I knew this was the perfect channel for all my emotion. What better way to begin to understand the duty, challenges, obligations and obstacles for law enforcement, than to sign up for this class. I submitted my application that week.

More Than I Expected

February 10 was my first session. I can tell you, with 100% certainty, that this course is changing the way people view the Austin Police Department. I have 40 classmates, from all walks of life, all ages, all demographics, and we are all there to learn, understand and ultimately support the men and women who are protecting our city. I could spend 3000 words JUST on the experience alone. But the 3 biggest take-aways are:

  1. 80/20 Rule — This applies everywhere. In every profession, there are good people and bad people. Every person I have heard from is unbelievably passionate about what they do. They live and breathe service. And they care deeply about their community. But it’s the rotten apples that make headlines.
  2. Fight or Flight — Flight isn’t an option for police officers. I never really gave that any thought until I did a simulation where I had a modified gun in a holster on my belt and walked into a situation where I had to decide the appropriate level of use of force. To be honest, my first reaction wasn’t “should I shoot, or not?” It was, “How do I get out of here?” I wanted to turn and run! That’s not a choice for the officers responding to the call. This is important, because we’re so quick to judge when we see a video clip and it’s so easy to make a statement about what you would have done in the situation, but to be in the moment is a whole different experience. And before they make the choice about how to respond, they have made the choice to stay. And that’s worth being mindful of.
  3. Thankless — The job is hard. Really hard. Like many of the most important jobs in our society — it doesn’t pay as well as it should. And for the most part, it’s without much thanks. I’m not saying mistrust of law enforcement isn’t substantiated, in some cases, but the level of mistrust, in my opinion, isn’t warranted. I also admit that as a white woman, my life experience is much different than it is for other people. But in my experience, police officers deserve more respect and gratitude than they are given.

Part of the requirement for completing the 14 week course and becoming an official Austin Citizen Police Academy graduate/alumni, is a 10 hour ride-along. I have to admit, I was hesitant and wasn’t really looking forward to the shift. I worried about things like: what if we have nothing to talk about, what if we don’t get any calls and I’m bored all day, what if I can’t have coffee in the car, where will I pee?

My fears were all for naught. Roger and I talked, non-stop. When we weren’t responding to a call, that is. Which we spent most of the 10 hours doing. Well, that and paperwork. LOTS of paperwork! I was never bored! First stop was Starbucks AND I got to have it in the car. And of course Roger is a human being too, so bio-breaks were adequate.

Armed

The biggest surprise of the day happened before we were even out of the parking lot. Roger pulled up to his truck to get his supplies and to get the police vehicle all set up. He had to load his rifle, check his taser, and when I asked about the shotgun strapped in next to me, he said, “Oh, yeah. Let me show you how to release that in case you need it.” “What? No! You’re kidding,” I thought. Nope. I assumed it must be loaded with Nerf bullets or something. So I asked, “What’s in it?” DUH! “Shotgun shells,” he said, as he unloaded the shotgun to count the shells (as part of his inventory check) and then reloaded them. “Geez!” I thought, “I better tell him I have no clue how to fire that thing.” Roger showed me how straightforward it was, pretending to fire and reload, and that concluded my firearm training.

Thankfully, I didn’t need to put the training to the test. But it was a fun, recurring joke for the rest of the day. Traffic stop — “Should I grab my shotgun, Roger?” “No, silly!” Okay, he didn’t call me silly, but the look he gave me said as much.

Here are the calls we went on:

  • Commercial alarm: An alarm went off at a retail location. We secured the perimeter and after seeing nothing suspicious, and no signs of forced entry, we were done.
  • Stolen vehicles: Roger took me to an area in Central Austin where members of a gang known for car theft live. We ran a few plates but then got another call.
  • Crash: Got a call that a vehicle had struck two parked cars. We arrived to find a shocking amount of damage, but no injuries and everyone was in a fairly decent mood, considering the circumstances. Young guy on his way to work missed his curve because, he says, he was grabbing his jacket off the floor board. He smashed into a parked van, which then smashed into a parked SUV and the driver then smashed into a parked pickup. It was crazy!
  • Bloody, black-eye: We were en route to a report of a guy who appeared to have been assaulted and had a bloody, black eye. We got called off before we got there and Roger explained that many times, if it’s a transient, they don’t want to get the police involved and will deny anything is wrong.
  • Blow-out: First and only use of lights and siren. A car had a blow out on Mopac and the Police motorcycle unit was requesting a vehicle with a push bar on the front in order to push the car off the road. The blow-out ended up causing two other cars to crash, and the traffic was backed up for miles when we arrived, so we had to use the light and siren to get people to scoot over and let us through. The cars magically parted, like the Red Sea and we were able to get to the car.
  • Stolen commercial trailer: Apparently there has been a barrage of stolen trailers lately. So if you have a trailer, lock it up! With a BIG lock. This thief was caught on camera cutting the lock and then hitching it up to a truck and driving off. Probably less than 5 minutes, on a busy street when the sun was still up. Bold criminals!
  • Mental health call — We scarfed down some lunch and were en route to a call of a guy trying to run over a suspect accused of sexual assault when we learned it was being handled and we instead arrived at a call of a disturbed man making threats. Apparently, this man, who suffered from delusions and mental illness, had been making dozens of calls, obsessively, to a phone number for an apartment rental. When we arrived, there were already officers there, but I did get to meet the gentleman and hear about his time in Wisconsin and his cheese addiction (Who can’t relate to that? Cheese is GOOD!) But it was obvious he was not stable and it was heartbreaking to see how upset he was and to know how few services there were to really help him.
  • Shoplifter: Next stop, HEB grocery where we met a shoplifter who was caught with 7 stolen items — mostly hair products and some nail products. She was another sad case. She got a ticket and is now banned from entering that store. She will go to court — something she said she’s familiar with.
  • Rear-end: Last stop of the day was a small fender bender. We made sure no one was hurt and helped the girls get insurance information exchanged. One girl had a North Dakota driver’s license, so we got to talk a little about my home state. She was from Cuba, but had been living in ND working in the oil business. God bless her!

Deep Down

In between calls, I got to know Roger a little bit. He was nothing like I imagined a “cop” would be. He did have a tough guy veneer — tattoos, military background, a love of professional wrestling. But he also had a very soft side and more than anything, I got to know Roger, the human being. I learned he is a single dad, raising an 8 year old son. I learned he’s parenting alone, because his wife died in 2010. I discovered he wants to find someone to share his life with, but that he’s having a tough time. He told me his foray into internet dating was a disaster. He dated someone long-distance for 6 months, but ultimately it just couldn’t work.

Roger talked about his wish for a big family. At first he told me “10” when I asked how many kids he wanted. But he laughed, and said, “No, five, is good.” He talked to me about the possibility of adopting, explaining that he has considered adopting an older child and giving him a good life.

I asked Roger what the toughest calls were for him, and it’s no surprise he said, “Anything to do with a child.” He described a call that stood out for him that involved a mother being beaten and choked by her husband and their one-year-old having a huge, swollen, black eye. I can tell Roger is still shaken by the experience and doesn’t like to think or talk about those calls. I can’t blame him.

Connecting

We talked about real estate, our families, traveling, our shared love of coffee. We found we had plenty in common and no shortage of things to talk about. I can hardly think of two more different people, but the conversation flowed smoothly and we really connected. Roger was far more open than I would have expected, but if Coffee With A Stranger has taught me anything, it’s that most people are — if you allow them the space to open up. When you ask questions, people are eager to share. Our stories aren’t secrets — it just takes someone curious or interested enough to begin the conversation.

I know I share this message often — but it bears repeating. Connect with the people around you! Ask questions! Come from an authentic place of curiosity. And if there’s something you don’t understand, or that scares you, or makes you angry — take a moment, and a deep breath, maybe, and then find a way to get more information. Talk to people. Ask questions. Pay attention. Don’t rely on Fox News or John Stewart to tell you what you should be pissed about. In fact, don’t be pissed at all. Just be curious and be open to discovering the truth — for yourself.

Oh, and next time you see a police officer — consider thanking them.

If you enjoyed this interview, “Like” the Coffee With A Stranger Project Facebook page or subscribe (up in the top right corner of this page) and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming interviews with new strangers and other fun stuff. If there’s someone in Austin you think I need to have coffee with, let me know and I’ll do my best to sweet talk them into having coffee with a stranger.

If you want to know more about the Austin Citizen Police Academy, click here for more info.

And if you know a kind, wonderful, single gal who thinks Roger sounds like the perfect guy — give me a shout. I have a pretty stellar record as a match-maker! 😉

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