Gavlick practicing a pistol, a one-legged squat, in Zion National Park. (Courtesy of Officer Lilah Gavlick)

Ride Along 3 … Kevin Hart and Ice Cube Weren’t Available

November 6, 2017

I picked up the phone just outside of the police station in San Rafael, California, and told the woman on the other line that I was there to see Officer Lilah Gavlick. A couple moments later, a young woman with a high ponytail and the typical aviator sunglasses on top of her head. She stands at around five feet, dressed in a bulletproof vest and jeans.

Courtesy of Officer Lilah Gavlick
Gavlick, dressed in her typical uniform, looking out over the smoke from the North Bay fires.

She walks me around, showing me the offices, break room, conference room, and holding cells. We then sit down in an office with a small window near the ceiling, that gives you a small glance of grass outside. It’s around 6:45 pm on a Thursday night. While fires roar in the North Bay, things are quiet at the police station. It’s surprisingly peaceful – nothing like CSI Miami, NCIS, or Hawaii Five-O.

Gavlick grew up in San Juan Bautista, an area near Santa Cruz, California. In her third year at the University of California at Davis, she thought she wanted to be involved in animal science and was on the veterinary path. Yet, during her internship, she realized that it was not her true passion. Her ex-boyfriend’s father was a sergeant Salinas Police Department, and he offered to set her up with a ride-along with one of the officers. It was a quiet night, which Gavlick estimates to the “curse of the ride-along,” where the night always seems to be dead when an officer has a ride-along joining them. It was on that night that Gavlick realized this was her true passion. 

Gavlick attended Santa Rosa Junior College Safety Academy. Five months of the training focused on the “basics,” which consisted of “physical testing where you jump over the 6-foot walls, and you do the obstacle courses, and then you have your written tests where you learn about different laws, and penal codes and your authority to arrest people and you learn how to do your report writing and how to interview, and just basically how to handle common cases or common calls.” Additionally, Gavlick learned defensive tactics and how to operate a firearm.

Courtesy of Officer Lilah Gavlick
Gavlick maintains her physical state by working out at a local CrossFit gym.

Gavlick’s class at the academy class started off with “about forty people and there were five women,” only three of whom graduated. She said that everyone has been very open and welcoming, despite her gender being in the minority of police officers. That said, the San Rafael Police Department has a “female chief, and [they] have a lot of females that are in high positions, which is great.” Additionally, Gavlick says the limited number of female officers “definitely brings you closer to the females that you do work with, and you just get a different sense of community.”

She is currently assigned to the “street crimes unit,” which means that her main focus is around gangs, human trafficking, and narcotics, “so our day basically consists of whatever we decide we want it to be.” She can focus on gang enforcement Downtown or in the Canal District, “do operations for attempting to locate human trafficking victims typically victims of sex trafficking, some of them they have found have “been juveniles that have been trafficked around the Bay Area.”

About a week after my first meeting with Gavlick, I join her on a ride-along. She shows me her usual route in eastern Marin – an area commonly known as the Canal Area – and explains more about human trafficking and gangs. She shows me different tags on walls of buildings and points out common rendezvous locations for human trafficking victims and their clients. Gavlick always refers to them as victims, and she explains to me why they are such. Many women who get caught in the life of selling their bodies for a profit grow up in less-than-perfect circumstances. Whether it’s abuse, a lack of a male role model or father figure, or neglect, these women are raised without the same care that many of the students at Marin Academy are provided, and definitely not as many school resources. Many of the women fall in love with the human trafficker and are brainwashed to follow directions given to them – one of them is to not inform the authorities of the identity of their trafficker which makes Gavlick’s job even harder.

A photoshopped image of myself and Gavlick.

Gavlick truly sees these women as victims. Even though they are committing crimes, she explains that many of them do not have a choice. While driving through the streets of the Canal District at 8:30 on a Friday night in late October, Gavlick pulls over to the left side of the road. Halloween decorations provide minimal orange light – a stark contrast against the bright white light of the police van. Gavlick roles down the window and asks a woman how her night is going. The woman puts up a wall, responding quickly that it’s fine. Gavlick, beginning to step out of the car, informs the woman that she is not here to get her in trouble – she just wants to make sure the woman is safe and okay. As I watch from inside of the vehicle, I see the woman relax a bit… not much, but Gavlick’s firm yet calm tone informs the woman that she is okay and that she can be trusted. The woman ends up denying what Gavlick knows about her occupation, and Gavlick returns to the vehicle to search for others that she might be able to help.

Gavlick is disappointed by the amount of trust many in the United States have for law enforcement. She says that, while someone might have had a negative run-in with another officer before, she is not the same person as whoever that was. She adds more, saying: “we are here to help,” which summarizes the night better than anything.

Whether it is looking for stolen cars, trying to have a conversation with a victim of human trafficking, or looking for signs of gang violence, Gavlick’s true goal is to help others. At the heart of it, that’s why she is a police officer. “I’ve always been the person that people turn to for advice, so I’ve always been a problem solver… and that’s what a lot of this job is, problem-solving.”

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