After 24 years in the field on two different agencies, the most important thing I learned was to listen to old cops. “Old” is relative. It might mean 28 years old, having been on three more years than I was at the time, but these officers still knew more “stuff” than I did.
The big secret is to listen to these veteran cops, believe most of it, and put it into action in your own life. What I learned from older cops covered the gamut from on-duty techniques to off-duty survival (both in family life and real life), and it saved my life on several occasions I know of and probably many more times I never even realized.
What follows is a compendium of “stuff” I learned from my own experiences and from cops who were smarter than me. We all have this list buried somewhere inside, but we rarely make it a formal one, something we can point to, hand a trainee, or simply look at once in a while and say, “Yup, that’s all true.”
I was recently asked by a young man who was about to be hired by a police agency to give him “some advice,” as he said, “so I don’t get killed or anything.” I wasn’t sure about the “or anything” part, but the “get killed” part I could help with. So I made up this list. I take little credit for most of it and gladly give due to those hundreds of street- and battle-weary cohorts who I’ve worked around. Their collective experience amounts to thousands of “street years.”
Combat Vs. Police Work
I used to bump into lots of military types in police training who would say, “I was an infantryman” or “I was a military policeman,” etc., who thought they knew what being a cop entailed. They never did. Combat is very different from police work.
If you’re a former military policeman or one of our returning vets who saw action in Iraq or Afghanistan in another capacity, my hat’s off to you. And you can use what you learned, but it has virtually no bearing on 99.8 percent of what you’ll be doing as a street cop back here in the good old US of A. That’s not a bad thing, and it’s not a good thing. It just is.
Don’t Believe Them
Probably the single most important thing I recall from all my years is that people lie. Grandmas, that “nice kid down the block,” wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, neighbors, store owners, delivery men, waitresses, garbage men, doctors, lawyers (of course), witnesses, and even suspects, they all lie. Not all the time, not even most of the time, but just about the time you want to believe somebody, you’ll find out they’re lying and be very disappointed.
And the worst thing about it is often the lie isn’t intentional. People often feel a need to give you answers and will simply make them up or “fill in the blanks” in their memory in order to be helpful. If only we could make them understand it’s so much easier and so much better for us and for them to simply say, “I don’t know” or “I can’t recall” and let us fill in the blanks.
Crooks always lie. Always. And they’ll look you right in the eye when they do it, and smile, and be all serious and such, and you’ll be tempted to believe them. Don’t believe them. Ever.
Watch Their Hands
If they’re going to kill you, they’ll do it with their hands. Handcuff anyone you feel hinky about, even if they get upset about it. You can always say, “Sorry, Sarge, it seemed like the right thing to do at the time.” I had to apologize for this once, but the guy was still sore about it and I figured he’d call in a complaint. Oh well, I lived, and besides, a day “on the beach” isn’t always a bad thing. Search anyone you get close to in a field contact if things get even semi-serious or if you have the least suspicion about anything.
When in doubt, handcuff. It’s cheap insurance.
Search anyone you put into your car; even the nice fellow you’re giving a ride to.
And watch their hands constantly.
Do a little test and watch a “regular” person’s hands for a few minutes. You’ll see how they move them, where they put them, and what they do with them. Now, the next time you are around a suspect, watch his or her hands. You’ll see differences.
Suspects hold their hands more still or more active than regular people. They keep their palms open or close their fists. Or they keep their fingers stiff. Take note, and file it away. These observations aren’t always things you can write down and say, “They do this with their hands,” but you’ll see the difference quickly.
Search and Search Again
If you take someone from another officer and you watch that officer search the suspect, search him again yourself before putting your own cuffs on and taking over his custody.
I once watched a fairly senior fellow officer search a drunk driver I was going to transport. He searched the suspect thoroughly. But I searched him again and found a Browning .25 auto in his right sock. Loaded. The senior cop was embarrassed. I was just happy I had searched him again.
The most dangerous cop: a trainee about to be unleashed on the streets.
Search everybody again prior to booking them into jail or before putting them into a station holding cell. Search the seat of your patrol car prior to placing a suspect inside and after you take them out. That’s when you’ll find the dope, weapons, notes, evidence, or whatever.
If you’re talking to a subject, and he looks one way, then the other way, then back at you, then does it again, he’s probably looking for a place to run to. Cuff him before he gets the idea planted more firmly in his skull.
Weapons and Tools
Carry a backup gun where you can get to it. If your agency doesn’t allow backup guns, make a stink and get your union involved. Then make a bigger stink. Change agencies if they still say no. I’ve personally known about eight officers who have used backup guns to save their own lives or the lives of other officers. You probably know some, too. We carry fire extinguishers, why not backup guns?
Carry a backup gun. Period.
Carry a folding knife where you can get to it. Carry a sturdy pair of pliers and both kinds of screwdrivers in your kit bag. Carry a small crowbar, too. Carry some leather work gloves and use them.
Which brings me to a very important piece of advice: protect your hands. They will save your life, so guard them zealously. Don’t risk them by reaching into places and doing things you should be using tools for.
Don’t put your hand into a suspect’s pockets. You’ll get stuck by needles. Buy a small metal detector and use it. Buy puncture-resistant gloves and use them. If you have to, cut the suspect’s pocket open first. So you may have to buy another pair of pants for some creep. So what.