“I have two warrants to issue before noon and we’re already late.”
That was how my day riding along with a code enforcement officer started. It was a blur.
My team visited Development Services last week. We learned about their broad mission and the challenges they’re facing making sure residents follow the rules and keep their properties up to code. We also heard about all the things people need permits for on their property: fences, garages, even ceiling fans.
After meeting with some higher-ups for an overview of the process, we each split off to ride along with an officer for an in-field experience. I ended up going out with a dangerous premises team.
I had no idea what this meant or what I’d be doing, but as soon as our meeting broke, I met Tony, the officer I’d be accompanying. He was cool, but in a hurry.
I hopped in his vehicle. In front of me sat a slightly older Dell laptop that he used to enter reports. The system he used is called Ecco. It reminded me of my first experience of a computer: black background, blocks of green text. It was hard to decipher.
He showed me how he had to enter the report: one line at a time, then a special command to get a new line to enter text. Ecco is 15-years-old and hasn’t been updated much.
On our drive, I learned about Tony’s military background. I’ve heard that from a lot of people here. San Antonio is a big military town.
We arrived at our location: a lot with two dilapidated houses. In front of the house was a junk truck and three men. It was time to go.
“These guys are my contractors” Tony told me, “They’ll be helping board up the property.” I was relieved. For some reason I thought they lived in the house and knew we were coming.
As we were getting out of the car, his partner pulled up and I introduced myself. I soon realized it’s really hard to explain Code for America quickly and in a tense situation, like right before issuing a warrant. “So they paying you a lot of money?” he asked. “Not really,” I replied. He laughed.
We stepped up to the porch of the house and Tony’s partner knocked on the door: “Police!”
No answer. Tony stapled the warrant to the front door. Finally someone answered and it was clear they didn’t want us there at all. Eventually, they opened the door and Tony’s partner stepped inside. Tony asked me if I wanted to come in. I hesitated and thought it would be better to hang out outside.
A few moments later, I heard a lot of shouting: “I’m gonna slap you!” a voice echoed. I turned to the contractor and we were both shocked. He told me he never heard it that bad and that usually people get scared of them and let the officers do what they need to do. Tony came over to me. “You do not want to go in there.”
A few minutes later, Tony said it was okay, and the aggressive people were all handcuffed and invited me to go in once again. This time I went and stepped inside. There were four people in the living room, one or two handcuffed.
I saw sinking ceilings, sinking floors, graffiti on the walls, mattresses on the floor, crack pipes. The stovetop was on full blast as the only source of heat on a day with below freezing temperatures. We inspected the condition of the house and took pictures, lots of them, so they could be used in court.
We walked to the back of the house and I realized that neither of us knew what was behind each door. Tony kicked down a door, all clear. We turned a corner and I saw him scared for the first time. “You don’t want to go in that room,” he said. I looked in a hole in the door to see a pit bull tied on a bed with a TV cable.
We took more pictures outside. The house was sinking because the poor foundation and had a stench as there was no connection to the sewer.
As I went out, I heard some laughter, an older guy living in the house told the cop he needed to use the bathroom and ran off through the backdoor. The officers respected his needs, and they shared a laugh. It was clear they cared about the people, but had to do a job.
Before issuing the warrant another woman walked right up to the house and the cop knew her, “How are you doing? You were almost dead the last time I saw you! … When I was getting shot at!”
Tony’s contractors were boarding up the windows and clearing junk out of the lot. We continued inspecting the property. As we were finishing, I was outside and looking for Tony.
He called me and grabbed my hand as he jumped out of a window. In that moment, I felt like Robin to his Batman. And it was awesome. On the way back, we were running late so Tony let me enter the whole report into Ecco while he was driving.
The ride along really brought back to home how important people are. It also highlighted how important technology can be to getting a job done — even if it doesn’t seem that way from the outside.
I felt the experience was a metaphor for good design and good technology: All I wanted to do was to get out of the way and let the officers do their job … and maybe, just maybe, lend a quick hand when they needed to jump out of a window.
Questions? Comments? Hit up @codeforamerica.