As a division executive officer, I saw many distraught cops come into my office to discuss mistakes they or their subordinates had made. Before deciding how to proceed I'd ask the same question: "Was it a mistake of the head, the heart, or the hormones?"

Mistakes of the hormones happen when a cop, reacting to some sudden stimulus, does something totally out of character with his or her well-established pattern of performance and behavior. Usually, cops who commit mistakes of the hormones will kick their own butts harder than you ever could. If you must punish these, do so very carefully, because you've got a good cop here and you want to make sure the right message gets across. That message will be largely redundant—he's already got it.

An example of a mistake of the hormones happened one day in my division. I saw a day-watch patrol cop wander in, pale and shaken, looking for his sergeant or lieutenant, and not finding them. I called him into my office and saw the kid was white-knuckled and flushed. I sat him down, and as soon as he breathed, "Boss, I screwed up big-time," I snapped the blinds shut and leaned in for the story.

All I really knew about the kid was that he was very well regarded, very positive, not a disciplinary problem at all, and had just returned from taking emergency leave following his mother's death from cancer. I also knew he had been carefully dealing with a problem with a local doctor, one that had already resulted in two unfounded, malicious complaints, and the kid keeping a "CYA file" on the matter.

This cop worked an ambulance unit and made frequent runs to the hospital where the doctor was on staff. One day he stopped a Porsche for speeding and failure-to-yield nearly resulting in an accident. The driver turned out to be the doc, who first tried the old "emergency" gambit. But when the young cop offered to escort him-and confirm the emergency-things got nasty. The kid had the exchange on tape, which the doc didn't know, and which made it a real pleasure to kill the complaints the doctor made afterwards.

Thwarted, the doctor began a campaign of verbal insult and harassment every time he saw that officer. It came to a head that day, the day after the cop returned from emergency leave.

"I slapped him," the kid said. "I mean, I think I did, but I'm sure I did, you know?" He stared at his own hand in disbelief. "And I don't even know what happened. I just don't know. Geez, I'm all messed up. He was just mouthing off, like usual, and...this is gonna be my badge, right? Maybe jail?" He was trembling visibly.

It took some time, but I felt I finally got down to the critical mass of it, the flash point. I called the hospital and got the doc on the line. Triumphant, he crowed that he had already left a message with a lawyer, and was at that moment writing a formal letter of complaint to the PD. I told him I'd pick it up in person, and I smoked the freeway there. He was waiting, grinning like a fool.

He didn't care for my technique much, but I treat serious complaints just like rape or homicide scenes. Lay out the general picture, get all the terrain-and-situation details, and then go over it step by step, word by word, including, to the doc's discomfort, all of his profanity and insults, quoting where I could, paraphrasing where I had to. He undoubtedly felt he had been on tape again, so he stuck to the truth, I think. He still felt on top. We got to the instant before the alleged physical contact.

"So it was at this point," I said, "that you suggested the manner in which he should engage in sexual intercourse with his mother, right?" He flared, but I cut him off.

"And you were unaware that he had just buried his mother on Tuesday, right?"

We talked. For a long time. About childish behavior, and mistakes of the hormones. About criminal investigations, and civil lawsuits, and a whole lot about recorded testimony, and freedom of access to court records. And about how you can destroy someone else-and choke to death on the debris. When I left, his card was in my pocket, and his complaint was in the trash.

John Mackenzie is the pseudonym of a veteran division executive officer.