15 things police officers wish the public knew about policing. Unfortunately, most of what most people know about cops is from watching television.

1. USE OF FORCE ISN’T PRETTY.
People have been conditioned by TV to believe that a properly trained police officer of any size can take down a person of superior size and strength, quickly, almost effortlessly, without the use of weapons, and without any injury to either party. This is not true. Few cops are expert martial artists. The defensive tactics training they receive is fairly perfunctory. Struggles often result in injured joints, lacerations, concussions and other injuries to both parties. There is lots of cursing and screaming involved. The cops usually win, but only because they can get enough cops on the scene to overwhelm the adversary.

2. MOST COPS NEVER SHOOT ANYONE.
Very few cops will fire their sidearms outside of the pistol range at some time in their career (more if the cop works in a rural area where having to “dispatch” wounded animals is common). Some might go months without taking the gun out of the holster.

3. COPS WILL GO TO EXTREMES TO AVOID SHOOTING PEOPLE.
My personal experience is that, about once a month, I would encounter a situation where I would have been legally justified in shooting someone. I did that only once, so all the other times, I found some other way of resolving the situation. Casual research tells me my experience is not unique. Most cops have ample opportunities to shoot people, but they choose not to do so.

4. THE PEOPLE AT THE TOP OFTEN DON’T HAVE A LOT OF PRACTICAL EXPERIENCE.
There are exceptions, but most cops who become chiefs, sheriffs, or other high-ranking officers spend most of their career paving the path to promotion. They spend a brief time as working cops, then transfer to a non-enforcement job, where they stay until they get their first promotion. They never truly understand the job, and the cops they oversee don’t identify with the brass, or the brass with the cops.

5. PTSD IS REAL AND COMMONPLACE.
A cop may have a bad time after he’s involved in a shooting, but the traumatic incident could just as well be a nasty car crash, a fight, or a rescue that didn’t end well. Anyone who can say truthfully that they are never bothered by such things is probably a sociopath. Cops who seek mental health treatment are often viewed suspiciously by their superiors. Those guys didn’t spend enough time on the street to experience anything that bothered them, and they believe that anyone who is bothered is probably unstable.

6. THERE IS LOTS OF STRESS, BUT NOT THE KIND YOU MIGHT THINK.
Most of the stress comes from the police station, not the street. Law enforcement agencies are extremely political. Who likes you or who you’re friends or relatives with has a lot more to do with the progress of your career than how good you are at your job. “Management by intimidation” is a common technique. From a human resources perspective, law enforcement agencies are horrible places to work.

7. THERE AREN’T ALL THAT MANY BIGOTS.
There are some, of course – in a cohort of close to a million people, some of them will be biased. You can get fired for expressing those feelings, so they tend not to last long. Most cops don’t especially care what color you are, what religion you practice, what country your ancestors came from, how much money you have, or what your sexual orientation is. Cops see every kind of person, often at the worst moments of their lives. They know there are good and bad people in every category. They do have a strong bias against jerks, so don’t be one of those.

8. SOME OF OUR BROTHER (AND SISTER) OFFICERS EMBARRASS US.
With the possible exception of field training officers, cops don’t have a lot of input to who gets hired and who is retained on their agency. Everyone knows somebody who is reckless, immature, lazy, dishonest, or just dumb. When these people are allowed to keep being cops, it’s usually because they are politically connected, and reporting them for a transgression will almost always backfire on you.

9. YOUR “MY FAVORITE POLICE ENCOUNTER” STORY IS NOT UNIQUE.
On learning someone is a police officer, most people will immediately relate their most memorable contact with the police. It’s usually a traffic stop, as that’s how most people encounter the police. Your new friend will smile and nod politely, but he’s silently waiting for it to be over. It’s nothing he hasn’t heard before.

10. THERE ARE FEW UNIVERSAL RULES OR POLICIES.
I have lost count of how many questions I have seen on Quora along the lines of, “How much over the speed limit can I go before I’ll get stopped?” and, “What do I say to get out of getting a ticket?” People want to believe there is some industry-wide practice they can exploit to aid them in violating the law. There are over 800,000 law enforcement officers in the United States, and each one of them is a unique person. Their employers seldom impose a formal policy of allowing drivers to exceed the limit by X miles per hour. This is most often left up to the individual.

11. IT’S SELDOM PERSONAL.
Few cops start their day looking for a particular person, or even a particular class of people to stop. Cops see violations of the law and suspicious circumstances, and they are encouraged by their employers to intervene. If you got a ticket or got arrested, it’s probably because you broke the law, not because the cop didn’t like you or you are a member of some targeted group. If this happens to you a lot, you might want to stop blaming the variables and consider the constant instead.

12. BECOMING A COP IS HARDER THAN YOU THINK.
Some agencies have to collect over 100 applications to get one viable hire. Some of those hires won’t make it through the police academy. Some who do won’t complete field training. About half of new hires leave law enforcement within five years. Mainly because of anti-police sentiment, it’s more difficult to recruit new cops than ever before. You might want to think that people become cops because they’re too stupid or lazy for real jobs, but you’re fooling yourself. Chances are, you couldn’t make the grade.

13. TELEVISION DOES NOT REPRESENT LAW ENFORCEMENT ACCURATELY.
Most of what most people know about cops is from watching television. This is why people believe that every arrest must be immediately followed by a Miranda warning, that there is a team of FBI agents who fly to crime scenes in an executive jet and solve the case within days, that detectives in one major PD can move to another, distant major PD and instantly resume being detectives, that crime scene investigators collect evidence, identify the suspects, interrogate the suspects, and make the arrests (no one seems to care what the detectives are doing), and that cops who are involved in shootings are back at work the next day.

14. WE WISH YOU WOULD STOP TELLING YOUR CHILDREN WE WILL ARREST THEM IF THEY AREN’T GOOD.
The day may come, God forbid, that your child is separated from you and doesn’t know where to turn. You’ll probably call the police if this happens. Do you want your child to look for a police officer to help him, or hide from the police because he is afraid he will go to jail?

LL, standing next to seized narcotics (7-12-2000)

15. YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND POLICE WORK.
This applies even if your father, mother, sibling, or next-door-neighbor was a cop. Until you have actually done the job for a few years, you will never understand what it’s actually like.

28 COMMENTS

  1. Cops have one of the toughest jobs on the planet. The media loves showing them in a negative light, but that’s no surprise, they do that to anyone who actually serves the common good.

    God bless the police!

    • Yes, but television GLORIFIES gun violence and the actors who are anti-gun and anti-police like Liam Neeson are the most strident critics.

  2. A lot of good points here. I know a few cops, both active and retired. Most would agree with the points you made. The PTSD is quite real. Some years back I was acquainted with the officer who ended a shooting rampage with a well placed shot at a shopping mall. He was never the same afterward.

    • I’d shot and killed people before, so that part of it never bothered me. You can call me a sociopath if you will. And I always rather enjoyed it when people decided to fight. But it was a different age then and measured and legal aggression was appreciated by the honest people. I had two people grab for my badge over the six years I was at APD (before I was hired by the District Attorney). In each case, I grabbed their hand, rotated their wrist and broke their arm at the elbow. The lesson was, “never grab a police officer’s badge”. I can only imagine what would happen if I did that today. But then, there was a general agreement among the public, the department and whoever that I acted appropriately.

      Many stories. In one case, I took a friend (a feather merchant) on a ride-along and had THREE people point guns at me. Three gun take-aways on one shift (the only three I did in my career). He went home with a different understanding. Aggression in the face of aggression is almost ALWAYS the better course.

  3. I’ve always thought a lot of the stress of being LE must come from the weird way a lot of people treat you off-duty. I’ve seen it from the outside, and cops don’t deserve to have their long-time friends and relatives treat them like their radioactive, because they got a new job. I suppose the people always wanting “favors” is no fun, either.

    I applied to be a policeman decades ago, and the winnowing of the applicants was enormous. I wasn’t a good enough swimmer to make the grade, and I’m sure there would have been plenty more opportunities for me to wash out if I’d made it to the academy.

    The Left would say all the police are biased against criminals… but I like it that way.
    -Kle.

      • At least it’s not Ebonics, Kle.

        When I moved from the Navy to apply the Anaheim (CA) Police Dept. They gave out 1,500 numbered applications. I arrived at 2 am to stand in line and there were 300+ people in front of me. By 8 am the line was over 1,500 long. At the end of the selection process, the police academy and training, I was the only one left of those 1,500 applications. Anaheim paid well, superb benefits (good tax base with Disneyland, Convention Center, hotels, Stadium, and a large industrial area) and it was an excellent department, but the winnowing process was wicked. My best thing was swimming, but they didn’t test that at APD. But I aced the rest.

        When you become a police officer, the stress isn’t so much what you do as it is horrible management. I forget which number it is, but that’s it. If you’re a good police officer, you’re hard on bad guys. So they promote you and you treat “your own” that way.

  4. As you might remember from the past, my son in law is an officer here in Vegas.

    I just showed him this and he says you nail every point, especially #6,12 and 15

    Well said

  5. Spent a while as a prison guard, and I’ve seen a number of the same things there – especially #4.
    At times, working with inmates was preferable to working with the administration.

    Side note – while there, I ran into a secretary downtown, during a day off, and got a blank look followed by “Frank, I didn’t recognize you with your clothes on!” She’d only seen me in uniform. SOOO glad the missus wasn’t with me at the time 🙂

    • Hahaha. Yes, that would be embarrassing.

      I was in a shopping mall immediately after work one day. At the time I was supervising/managing a mixed agency task force and a female FBI Special Agent named “Gina” was in the mall with several other female FBI agents. Gina really hated me, and there is a back story as there usually is.

      I was walking with MRSLL (we’d been married twenty years/four kids by then), who is a looker, holding her hand. Gina said loudly, “I’m going to call MRSLL and tell her what you’re up to.” I told her, “Meet MRSLL.”

  6. #15 is a universal rule, there are a lot of things that you will never really understand unless you are part of it.
    That’s still a hard thing to remember in day to day life…

    • It’s not just police work. There are MANY jobs like that. Police work tends to be more high profile because you are making people do what they’d rather not do or you’re catching them doing the wrong thing. And they think that you’re stupid or you wouldn’t do the job. I was very well paid. I made more as a street cop at Anaheim than I did as a lieutenant in the US Navy with dive/jump pay. And I’d already been shot once in the Navy and they kept throwing me into meat grinders.

  7. Jesse Stone: “You shoot, you always shoot to kill. It’s not like in the movies. You’ve got about a half a second to figure out what needs to be done.”

    This is lost on 90% of the general public.

    A much needed perspective, really great “from the trenches” insight. In fact, send it to every news outlet in America, the “safe inside their bubble” types obviously have no clue what it takes or means to be a police officer (or don’t care, which is probably more the case).

    Oh, and include the opening photo…although likely the soy types would call that “excessive force” with zero information on the situational context.

    • Double tap to the chest and one to the head (failure drill – where you assume that the chest shots weren’t enough). That was the training philosophy. Today, who knows. I’ve been gone for a while, doing other things.

      • According to Biden the leg is the only allowable spot, otherwise it’s a murder charge. (Their backdoor way of reducing police forces, who’d want to be under that cloud?)

        The stuff that comes out of those who are not police is unreal.

        • If you blast the femoral artery apart, there’s nothing that you can do to save them. Ask MRSCAMPERFIXER, the Doc. Of course, the same would be true of the heart…

          Biden is a senile old dumbshit, but he was just a regular dumbshit for the first eighty years, so almost no difference.

          • Yes…problem is The Left, and many Lib’s, think the same as Ol’ Joe…suppose that makes them all dumbshit’s (I’m good with that.)

  8. LL,
    You hit it on the head. Everyday I thank God I’m retired now. I retired in 2017 after 39 years at the largest police department in my state. So much has changed.
    When I started there were about 3000 applicants (civil service test was given for two days) for 28 openings in recruit school. The 28 included 19 officers from other departments aiming for better pay/benefits. We graduated 21 and 16 were still there after five years.
    Now, unless you are mentally defective or have a felony record, you are almost guaranteed a seat in recruit school.
    The old use of force standard was “when he stops fighting its over, but if he wants to fight make sure he never wants to fight a cop again!”
    Now there is a force continuum and hundreds of hours of force training over a career only to worry you’ll be second guessed by people who weren’t there.
    I worry for our nation !

  9. I was an MP in the Army and a reserve Deputy Sheriff and I can attest to every single point. It is almost the same being a nurse. I have to ask, how many arrests did you make in that shirt? Talk about a neon sign…

    • Quite a few. That shirt and shirts like it. I favored silk Tommy Bahama shirts in that timeframe. Now I wear ripstop cotton almost every day because I work around the mine or I’m doing something active. Sometimes it is important NOT to look like The Man.

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