"They like the Tahoes" he said. Chevrolets. Big steel box, slow but useful. And safe. It turns out this preference was once up in the air, or maybe just a discussion point, and then two of the department’s officers were in an accident. Their Tahoe hit a concrete wall, head-on, at 50 mph, and they walked away. When the mayor caught wind of that, it was boom, done, we are ordering more Tahoes.
Commander Rob Scholl, of the Kent Police Department, in Kent, Washington, told me all this before he let me drive his police car.
Correction: Before he let me drive his police truck.
Clarification: Before he let me drive his brand-new, liveried, fully equipped —this is the actual model name—unaccompanied in traffic. As if I were an actual police officer, not some journalist who uses the word “goofus” every other byline.
Oddly enough, this opportunity arose because of a Fiat. A while back, I tested a 2016 124 Spider near my home in Seattle. I met a city traffic cop that day and wrote about it. Scholl read those words and emailed, introducing himself, out of the blue. It was always nice, he said, to see officers portrayed as real people. We chatted a bit. Then he invited me to drive one of his cruisers, to see how traffic looks from the other side.
Kent is 30 minutes outside Seattle. I said yes, then briefly wondered why Scholl would trust me with his rolling stock. When I drove to his office a few weeks later, he allowed as how R&T gave the impression I was “probably all right.” (For the record, one of the nicest things a police officer has ever said to me, right after, “Sir, I do not need to see that.”)
We got to talking about cars. Police equipment, obviously, but also the Ducati Hypermotard in Scholl’s garage, 24 Hours of Lemons racing, and how we would each spec a new Ford Mustang GT350R. That last bit included much discussion of racing stripes and the optional air-conditioning. Scholl was friendly but reserved until we got to the A/C, at which point he livened up. If you’re going to order a 350R and you can live without air, he said, you really should, because it saves weight, and the car was built for the track, and some things in this world are just the way they need to be.
At which point I decided Scholl was, to borrow a phrase, probably all right.
The route was around 30 miles. Maybe a half hour, tops. We were ferrying the Chevy across town, on an errand for the department. Scholl led the way in a Ford Explorer. I know the mileage because I watched the odometer uncomfortably, more nervous than anyone should be while driving a Tahoe, at the speed limit, with a police escort.
The truck was in full regalia: Lightbar and logos, just no radios or computer, not yet in service. Kent fits its PPVs with added duty gear, bumping curb weight by hundreds of pounds; combine that with the Chevy’s 355-hp, 5.3-liter V8, and the result is not fast. But the truck was so new, its frame rails were clean. The quarter-inch-thick plexiglass cabin divider was scratch-free, clear as a glass of water. The one-piece, hard-plastic rear seat smelled like it had just popped out of the mold.
Surreal doesn’t begin to describe it. And yet, in a car with a spotlight and a compact computer printer and a zillion other distractions, I spent the majority of that half hour watching other people. Amazed, though not surprised, at how police cars create their own reality bubble. No one speeds in your line of sight. Turn signals are used religiously, and weeks before lane changes so slow and deliberate, they seem apologetic. Chiefly, and disturbingly, no one looks at you. Every car holds a driver sitting bolt upright, shoulders rigid, desperately avoiding eye . I never realized just how many faces you see in ordinary traffic until I was surrounded by miles of highway pretending that I didn’t exist.
After about 10 minutes of that, I felt a little numb. I flashed back to past speeding tickets—the odd, guarded manner in which every officer approached my window. Certain bits of my life, especially from college, made a shade more sense.
Everyone has a gut reaction to the police. That knee-jerk response to a cruiser in traffic—gratitude, fear, wariness, indifference—says a lot about where you’re from and how you view the world. My childhood happened in the middle-class South, where officers were generally friendly and helpful. Perhaps as a result, elementary-school Sam wanted to be a public servant: Policeman, fireman, local politician, whatever, just working for a cause greater than myself. (First choice: Flying Navy jets off aircraft carriers, but a doctor told me I didn’t have the eyes.) With time, my direction changed, and I refocused. I discovered writing and journalism. To say nothing of this country’s largely adversarial relationship with its police.
The older I get, the more that last one is food for thought. If you keep up with the news, you can’t help but marvel at the contradictions of this moment in history. An uncountable collection of achievements in science and the arts, and yet we’re still kicking around with a deep mistrust of the people who protect us from ourselves. I don’t know if it’s justified. I do know that nothing has made me think about it like driving that Tahoe, both a part of society and somehow distinctly removed from it.
I climbed into that truck with jokes on the brain. Daydreams about jumping medians on a call or sliding through intersections like Jim Rockford. After 30 miles, those notions evaporated, regardless of whether I wanted them to. Call it a dose of empathy—the sort of thing that never hurts to have rattling around in your head, and at least as important as the option sheet for a GT350R.
Sam Smith is an editor at large for R&T. Reach him at [email protected]