It was a Monday evening when I pulled into the Milpitas Police Department parking lot.
The sky above was bright and clear, shining with the last remnants of Summer.
I got outside and walked into the front lobby. Some random citizen was speaking to a police officer about a call he’d gotten; apparently they’d found his car, which had been stolen days before. Needless to say, the guy was relieved. He wondered aloud about the car’s current condition, but the officer wasn’t sure.
When my turn came, I approached the glass.
I told the officer I had a ride-along scheduled with Lieutenant John Torrez.
Within minutes, a door to my right swung open. Lieutenant Torrez stepped out to greet me, exuding warmth while extending his hand.
It was time: In a moment, we’d venture out on my first-ever ride-along.
Upon taking a seat next to the Lieutenant in his police cruiser, I was met with the sounds of dispatchers’ voices, coming from the radio. The voices sounded calm and concise, yet also foreign and faraway, not grounded in any kind of recognizable reality.
The Lieutenant began to drive away, talking about how our evening would go, as the dispatch voices dipped in and out. When he spoke, I had to use every ounce of concentration I had to really hear him and process his words, while attempting to tune out the other sounds. The Lieutenant, on the other hand, didn’t seem fazed at all by the undue burden on his eardrums. He was already a proven multitasker: able to concentrate on me while listening to the dispatchers’ voices. And let’s not forget, he was also driving a car, as well as paying attention to his computer/mobile data terminal (MDT).
Barely a minute into our ride-along, a dispatcher issued two alarming words (at least to me): “structure fire.” Before I knew it, the patrol car had its lights and sirens on, and we were blazing toward a business on Gibraltar.
When we got there, a few dozen employees were gathered outside of an office building. Firetrucks were already on the scene. We parked out front and waited for a bit. The Lieutenant explained to me that the Fire Department had their own version of a shift supervisor, equivalent to his own function at the Police Department. Sometimes, he’d have to coordinate with the FD’s supervisor to find out what resources they might need from the PD. In this case, however, the FD had everything under control, and we were able to pull away within 10 minutes.
The sun began to slowly dip toward the horizon. We drove on through the streets of Milpitas: me asking questions, Lieutenant Torrez answering, drawing from his vast pool of law enforcement knowledge.
An Officer for the Milpitas Police Department since 1995, Lieutenant Torrez has spent time working in a variety of areas. In strict truth, he started a few years before ’95, as a records intern, before spending a couple of years in Dispatch.
After coming onboard as an Officer, Torrez put 15 years into the K9 unit, working with two different police dogs within that span of time. He also served as a Field Training Officer, a Field Evidence Technician, and even a First Aid Instructor, after which he got promoted to Sergeant. About three years later, he was promoted to Lieutenant, a role that just recently hit its two-year mark. As a supervisor for the swing shift patrol, Torrez monitors all that’s happening to ensure that services are provided in a timely manner.
“It’s kind of like doing quality control, making sure we’re taking care of everything and helping out as needed,” Torrez explained. “The goal is that supervisors don’t get too deeply involved in calls for service, or it makes it difficult to supervise a shift. But there are times when we have to go out to help with something…”
For example, with the structure fire that had just happened, Torrez shared that everyone else was tied up with other things. So going out and filling in as needed comes with the territory of his job. He enjoys such chances to get out of the office and interact with other people. Indeed, the ride-along itself was made possible by Torrez’s default obligation to be back at the office; he was able to take me out and talk with me since his presence in the field isn’t always essential.
“I love to go out, whether it’s on a call for service, talking to someone, or running into people at Starbucks…more so talking to people in more informal settings. Yes, I’m the police, but I’m not there because of x, y, and z; we just happen to be two people who ran into each other and started a conversation about dogs or cars,” said Torrez.
After a pause, he added, “I also like more serious conversations where I have to explain what the police department does. That’s a big thing. Everyone talks about transparency. And I think we’ve been doing that for awhile. Just take a couple minutes to explain something to someone about why you did something — and usually that suffices. All those conversations help build community trust.”
Judging by the way Lieutenant Torrez speaks, community trust is something that the Milpitas Police Department has accumulated in spades. He feels that the PD has a strong relationship with the community, and makes every effort to keep that bond intact.
Toward that end, even as Milpitas has begun a rapid expansion, the amount of services the Police Department provides has not decreased. In some other cities, if your car gets broken into, oftentimes police officers won’t even come out, instead asking that you fill out all the pertinent info online.
In Milpitas, if someone calls for an officer to come out, an officer will be there. And if for some reason they can’t make it out, they will always make the time to talk to you by phone.
Another key way the Milpitas Police Department fuels its community connection?
And it’s actually Lieutenant Torrez who’s responsible for it.
About five years back, the idea of toying with social media was just that, an idea — until Lieutenant Torrez brought it up during one of his interviews in pursuit of a promotion to Sergeant. Once entrusted with taking on the department’s social media duties, he hit the ground running. Currently, he writes and posts all MPD content for Twitter, Facebook, Next Door, and Nixle.
His favorite of the sites is Next Door, due to how it plugs him into a den of community interaction. In fact, Torrez was awarded a Next Door Hero’s Award early this past summer, for the amount of engagement he has received through his posts. This honor was only given to 35 people in the area of law enforcement across the United States.
Torrez also spoke of the Milpitas Police Department’s unique culture, one which contains a diverse array of individuals, all of whom are welcome to make their voices heard at any time.
“We’re not so big that you’re just another number and a body pushing around a black and white patrol car. Any given day of the week, the Chief’s downstairs in the briefing room, knowing everybody by first name, and interacting with people. In a large department, they might not even know who you are. Or it may take some other type of act to get face time. But our Chief has an open door policy. If you have an idea you want to bounce off someone, he’s always willing to listen.”
As we continued to roll, I started feeling acclimated to the ongoing crackle of the dispatchers’ voices. Dark streets soon surrounded us. Torrez spoke with fondness about his K9s, and also talked about speaking in police ten codes, and his perception that crime in Milpitas seems to have undergone a recent decline.
As we spoke, we just so happened to witness a car running a red light. Another cop car was in pursuit of it. The driver had stolen merchandise from the Marshall’s at the Great Mall, and was now speeding toward Montague.
As the car ran the red light, Torrez looked out his window at the officer who’d been pursuing the thief. They exchanged smiles, both of them hitting the brakes to abide by the red light. It wasn’t like a cop show on TV, where the chase continues on no matter what:
“We don’t pursue those crimes,” said Torrez, motioning toward the invisible wake of the speeding car. “It’s too much of a risk. It’s a loss for the business. If they got the license plate, they’ll do follow-up investigation down the road. It’ll take more legwork to file a criminal complaint or make an arrest, but in the long run, it’s safer. That happens from time to time.”
Minutes later, Lieutenant Torrez took me through the Milpitas Square Shopping Center parking lot on Barber Lane. He explained how they see a lot of car burglaries in that lot, partly due to the fact that the nearby high-tech businesses, like CISCO, Western Digital, and KLA-Tencor, have employees coming over from work and leaving things like laptops in their vehicles.
“You have to leave your stuff at home or take it in with you. Just don’t leave stuff in the car,” said Torrez. “We’ve put a lot of effort into getting the word out about this on social media, and have seen a bit of decline in this area. We always have a presence out here now, too.”
Torrez has also been meeting with the heads of security at area high-tech businesses, to keep them in the loop regarding crime trends and to trade information. Doing things like this keeps the Milpitas Police Department on point and ahead of the game.
The Lieutenant mentioned that 10 or 15 years ago, reaching out to security heads to share info was less conceivable.
“Industry-wide, within the police world, a lot of stuff wasn’t shared. Who knows if this ride-along would have happened, us here together, taking pictures and answering questions about law enforcement, 15 years ago?” said Lieutenant Torrez. “There was always a division between media and law enforcement, and also the public. We didn’t share the day-to-day activities and accomplishments. And it wasn’t just us, but it was the culture at the time. So it’s nice to see we’ve changed that.”
“If I wasn’t here right now, would you be in the office working?” I asked him.
“Most likely,” he answered. “But I like to be out. It keeps me sharp, and it keeps me attached.”
Before long, we were right back where we’d started. Only now we were domed in by a pitch black sky. I thanked Lieutenant Torrez for having taken the time out of his busy schedule for this story.
We shook hands. I rode home, once again in my civilian vehicle. No more dispatch. No more chatter.
But within me, the chatter still persisted, quietly. For I knew that, although I was now alone, the Milpitas Police Department was still out there, working. Protecting the citizens. Doing its thing.
On the job to keep Milpitas safe.