RIGA - It was about 9 p.m. when I approached the imposing state police van parked in Doma Laukums 's the main square of Riga's Old Town. I knocked on the door and heard a police officer rummage around for a few seconds before the door clicked open.
He didn't look particularly friendly, but after I explained that I was a journalist looking to find out a little bit more about police work in the city, he motioned for me to come in.
The van rocked back and forth when I stepped in. It had a stark interior with bare white walls and blue lock boxes. The two holding cells in the back of the van looked small and uncomfortable. Two bored looking officers sat at the other end of the van.
Before coming to spend an evening with the police, I had heard a variety of rumors about the police van that sits in Doma. Some said it was only there to provide information to tourists, while others insisted that they had seen the officers issue tickets and detain troublemakers on the square.
I decided to spend an evening with the van crew and see for myself what it was all about. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from the experience. Images from the TV show "Cops" were scrolling through my mind 's tense situations with drunken rabble-rousers trying to flee the scene. I came ready for anything. I thought that with Riga's streets full of prostitutes and drunken partiers on a Friday night, I was bound to see some action.
Instead of reliving scenes from "Cops," however, it was more like spending a night with the sleepy, small-town police from Hot Fuzz (but without, I assume, an insane cult on a murderous rampage).
Shortly after I arrived, a confused tourist stumbled in to ask for directions. After helping him on his way, the police settled back into their chairs and resumed postures that made them seem like immovable parts of the van itself.
As it turns out, that was the most action that I would see throughout the evening.
The two officers didn't even talk to each other very much, aside from a little bit of chit-chatting about fast new cars. By 10:30 p.m., the officers had resigned themselves to reading the newspaper, playing Internet games and stifling yawns.
Sandis Gorodeckis, the more outgoing of the two officers on duty, told me that it was normal for nothing to happen, even on a Friday night.
"We spend most of our time playing cards or reading," he said.
He explained that the purpose of the van was to act as a coordination center for the police activities throughout the Old Town. As a coordination center, however, the "station" seemed to be something of a lame duck. It did not communicate with the city police, who patrol the streets in their green vans every few minutes and end up doing most of the ground work. Moreover, the van didn't even have a working police radio. Those inside had to rely on their cell phones instead.
Gorodeckis said that throughout most of the summer there was another van parked in the square, run by the city police, whose sole purpose was to provide information to tourists. He said that the large green information sign that the city police had used to advertise their services drew a relatively large number of people looking for help.
Tourists occasionally come to the van to ask for basic information now that the information center is gone, but they do not come very often. While neither of the officers on duty spoke very much English, Gorodeckis said that they were always willing to help out tourists and pointed out that there is a sign on the side of the truck that helpfully reads, in Latvian, that if people need help they can call the police hotline.
The two officers agreed that the most exciting time that the van sees is during concerts in the square. "During the concerts, we see a lot of the same problems that arise during such events in other cities, such as Tallinn or Prague. For example there are lots of people with ecstasy," he said.
On non-concert nights, it seems that the van's main duties are picking up drunks and breaking up the occasional fight. The officers keep the people they detain in the van for three hours and then send them on to the main police station. Gorodeckis said that while people may sometimes be obnoxious or get a little pushy, no one has ever tried to run away.
While the job may seem like a boring one, Gorodeckis said that was a good thing. "It is good that it is quiet," he said, "that means there are no problems around the city." Despite his reassurances, I could not help but think that there are always problems somewhere, and that it would have been nice to see some action.
It is said that the life of a soldier is characterized by "long periods of extreme boredom followed by short bursts of extreme intensity."
This phrase would certainly seem to ring true for the police of Riga's Old Town. Little did I know as I walked away from the station that 's after sitting for hours on end in the cramped van 's the officers were about to receive a call that would possibly provide them with the most excitement that they would see all month.
As I found out later, much to my frustration, shortly after I left a large group of drunken Irish football fans started a large fight in nearby Livu Laukums. The so called "riot" took place ahead of Saturday's highly anticipated football match between Northern Ireland and Latvia.
Reports indicate that there were as many as 500 people involved in the scuffle, which resulted in the arrest of six people 's five Irish nationals and a Latvian.
There were chairs thrown and plates smashed at one of the restaurants in the square. As the police tried to split the rioters into two groups they came under a barrage of rocks as some in the crowd went on the attack. A brick smashed through the window of a nearby police car.
Despite my frustration with waiting so long only to barely miss a relatively big event, I am still comforted by the thought that while everyone else is out enjoying a Friday night in Riga, the police are sitting nearby languidly waiting for those rare moments of "extreme intensity."