When I was a reporter in the San Francisco Bay Area I covered the crime beat. The large east bay territory I was responsible for was largely governed by the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Office.
Another police reporter at the paper and I struck up a really great working relationship with the sheriff and his top cronies. We were invited to fancy restaurant dinners and even private parties held at rented halls.
But we never let that influence what we reported.
However, these relationships often meant we’d get the scoop on big stories before the larger paper, The San Francisco Chronicle, which had ten times as many reporters and the budget to match.
Anyway, one of my favorite series of stories I wrote was about a special unit of the sheriff’s office called The J Team. I think it stood for Justice Team, but basically it was a group of the best of the best deputies from the department. They had free rein to do whatever they wanted. They roamed the more dangerous areas of the county and took care of whatever needed to be done. They had numerous CI’s (confidential informants) ranging from prostitutes to drug dealers. They went undercover a lot.
So I decided to ride with them for a few weeks and do a big story about the team.
I was mainly assigned to ride with a guy we’ll call Ben. He was young and hot-blooded, eager to be the best cop he could be, and a very nice guy.
Side note: During my weeks of riding along with this team, another older, married deputy told me I should ride undercover with him while he tried to bust people wanting to buy drugs. The J Team had a total piece of crap Transam (remember those?) or Firebird that had bondo all over one side that they used for undercover work.
Jack said we’d go out and try to get people to buy drugs from us and then arrest them. I was all in – Sounded fun to me.
Jack was so damn excited. I remember he thought having me in the car would be the perfect cover for him.
He said, “Black guy. White girl. Hooptie car. They are SO buying drugs from us.”
Lol. But we didn’t actually get anyone to do so. I probably was more of a red flag with the excited look on my face to be part of an undercover operation. Ha! Not Gia for sure!
Anyway, back to my main story: one night Ben was driving us around and he had to speed to the scene of a crime so he was going 80 or something on a side street. He looked over and said, “Just let me know if I’m going too fast or freaking you out.”
I said, “I’m cool. It’s good.”
Later that night we were pretty bored after visiting and chatting with a bunch of his CI’s and stopping to talk to a teenage girl who was hooked on meth and shacking up with a gross old guy for drugs in a homeless camp. (She used to be a gorgeous young woman, Ben told me before she got hooked on crank.)
Anyway, we were sort of bored when Ben spotted a guy with expired tabs and flipped on his roller bar lights.
(I’d learned over the years during ride alongs that criminals are dumb. They are the ones who most often have a tail light out or expired tabs. It was inconceivable to me that someone who might have a warrant out for their arrest, might be carrying an illegal gun, high or drunk and driving, or having stolen goods in their cars would be stupid enough to give cops an excuse to pull them over. BUT IT IS TRUE.)
So Ben lit them up and the car DID NOT STOP. Instead, the driver fled. And we chased him. He immediately got on the freeway so I suddenly found myself in a high-speed pursuit on a San Francisco Bay Area freeway. Now, the reason I emphasize Bay Area freeway is because like Los Angeles, these roads are NEVER deserted and always have traffic even late at night. So we found ourselves speeding down the freeway, racing around cars pursuing this fleeing driver. The driver kept grazing the median with his vehicle, sending chunks of loose concrete everywhere.
Ben was completely focused on the pursuit, his eyes wide and glued ahead, a death grip on the steering wheel, leaning forward, in the zone like a fucking cheetah chasing its prey. Meanwhile, the sergeant on the radio kept asking for updates and Ben – without taking his eyes off the road – would answer.
“Speed?” the sergeant asked.
“80,” Ben responded.
I looked down and saw were were actually going over a hundred.
All I was thinking was “This is going to be a dumb way for me to die. I don’t really want to die this way.”
Ben would also radio our location, naming exits that we passed.
At the foot of each exit we passed, there were three or four squad cars waiting for us. But we drove past them all.
Finally the driver took an exit and I thought with relief that our job would be over … but we blew by the squads at the bottom of the exit and left them in the dust.
Ben was in the zone now and decided it was a good fucking idea to pull up beside the fleeing driver – I guess because he could – and was going to attempt a maneuver where we nudged them and the car spun out. WITH ME IN THE CAR.
So there I was side by side – my window next to the driver’s window.
And again, I’m thinking, “Um, don’t really want to die this way.” And expected a bullet to come from that window into mine.
Then we fell back as the driver pulled into an empty mall parking lot. We were a little bit behind when we realized a passenger had been dumped in the parking lot. We, thank God, pulled over and Ben arrested that person while a squad that was behind us, continued the pursuit, causing the car to crash a little ways away.
When we finally got to the crash scene, the sergeant jumped out of the car and ran over to Ben. He looked at me horrified.
“You were in Ben’s car?” he asked me.
I nodded. He swore something fierce and then said, “Jesus. You’re not getting back into one of our cars until you’ve signed a waiver.”
I nodded again.
Then I asked, “Why did the guy not stop?’
The sergeant shrugged. “No idea. Not drunk. No drugs. No guns. No stolen goods. No warrants. Just a dumbass.”
“Can I go ask him why?”
The sergeant shrugged, “Sure.”
I walked over and opened the back of the squad car.
“Hey, I’m a reporter I was in the car that was chasing you. I just wondered why you didn’t stop?”
He spat and said, “I’m not telling you shit.”
So, there’s my story about being in a high-speed pursuit on a California freeway in the passenger seat of a cop car.
Remind me to tell you when I went for a ride along in Richmond, California, which at the time had the highest crime and murder rate in the country …. again – I’m lucky to be alive …
*Press Pass is from other reporting job – I couldn’t find the one from the Bay Area.