15 things cops wish the public knew about policing
Unfortunately, most of what most people know about cops is from watching television
A question posted on Quora asked, “What do police officers wish the general public knew?” Retired officer and Police1 Columnist Tim Dees gave his opinion on the topic below. Add your thoughts in the box below.
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?
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.
What do you wish the public knew about policing? Add your suggestions in the box below.
Police1 readers respond
Cops don't put their uniforms on, look in the mirror and say, "I'm going to shoot someone for the hell of it today!"
- Cops are bound to enforce the laws as they are written, and not specifically to suit the complainant's particular issue. If you do not like how laws are written and enforced, contact your legislator to get them changed.
- That great cops are made not born. Few if any people, particularly police, know about the Police Corps, Adam Walansky's attempt to remake U.S. policing back in the 90s. It was a federal program that intensely vetted candidates and emphasized communication skills. Officers were peacekeepers and street-corner politicians first, law enforcers next. The program was catching on, but to expand, it needed more tax $$$. Both political parties acknowledged the Corps' success but ultimately declined to sustain the program.
- School cops are real cops. We can, and do have the power and ability to arrest and or detain you, not only at school.
- Police aren’t trolling the streets looking for anyone they can arrest and lock up. If you’re arrested and incarcerated it’s because 1) you broke the law and 2) you got caught. Own your actions.
- The political pressure, from within and without. Some of the bosses do not know what they doing, They never really have been on the street. God help you if you screw up. Most people don't like cops, because we give them tickets, or arrest their kids for being kids. I am not paid to get hurt, so if I have to hurt you to protect myself, so be it. I don't want to remember how many times I had to call home from the hospital, or worse yet have a supervisor call my wife, and start the call with, "He's ok, but..." A street fight with a perp is dangerous. I don't like people who tell me they pay my salary, that they are taxpayers, they know so and so... My professional license demands I keep my continuing education current, often with courses I pay for on my own time. I made master peace officer certification on my own time and my own dime. I don't like being shot at or a target for bottles full of God knows what. I even had a skyrocket shot at me. But would I have chosen another career? I would not. I am proud to have been a police officer and wouldn't have traded my experience for the world.
Listen: Law enforcement needs great people. Learn the nine steps on how to become a police officer on the Policing Matters podcast.
This article, originally posted on 5/18/2016, has been updated.
What do you wish the public knew about policing?