The Best Advice I Ever Received from Other Cops

I was sure that I could take the dude, but my T.O. reminded me to never judge a book by its cover. He'd known a good many cops and suspects who'd gone headlong into fights, thinking they had the upper hand by virtue of their age, size, or perceived martial arts skill, and they promptly got their asses handed to them.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

Over the years, I received a lot of great advice from other officers. I can't say that I always acted on it. But if I sometimes paid a price for not acting on their wisdom, all it did was underscore its validity.

1. "Don't Be a Slap-Dick."

Courtesy of my training officer the day he finally signed me off training. He said he had no doubt that I was capable of doing the job. ("But then, any idiot can," he added.) The question in his mind was: Would I? Would I go out and do the work I was paid to do, and do it well? Would I be as vigilant for the guy driving like an ass as I was for some scrawny hype? Would either even fall on my radar, or would I be sitting on my ass 24/7?

2. "If You Dance, You Dance Alone."

Even the most charismatically challenged SOB can find all manner of temptations that come with the job. Indulging such inclinations may raise moral, ethical, and even legal concerns. Should you decide to push the envelope or sample the forbidden fruit, don't involve others in your decision. An acquaintance of mine put it this way, "If you dance, you dance alone." Then another added, "You make your own decisions. Live and die by them alone." Don't pull your radio car partner or some other poor bastard down with you. And don't count on a supervisor to bail you out. If he's smart, he won't.

3. "Learn from the Best."

This meant taking the time to ask questions of those who'd developed skills in recognizing G-rides or dopers. Of course, some of these go-to guys weren't always wild about having been gone-to, and I'd skulk off to the report writing board and review copies of their reports. I made a point of not just reading the "fun" reports where the deputy and the interloper play but even non-workable burglary reports because I knew I'd be taking a lot of them and anything that could streamline the process while doing justice to it appealed to me.

And it wasn't just the "good" arrest reports I read and learned from. I also profited from those whose narratives screamed out for clarification and left themselves open for all manner of judicial vulnerabilities. One guy told me that long before they'd meet me, detectives and district attorneys would form an opinion of me based upon the kinds of investigations I'd done and the reports I'd written.

I never realized just how true that was until I became a sergeant and began reading deputies' reports.

4. "Don't Be in Such a Damned Hurry to Get Your Ass Kicked."

More advice from my training officer. I was chomping at the bit to knock some moron on his ass. I was sure that I could take the dude, but my T.O. reminded me to never judge a book by its cover. He'd known a good many cops and suspects who'd gone headlong into fights, thinking they had the upper hand by virtue of their age, size, or perceived martial arts skill, and they promptly got their asses handed to them. Such episodes tended to be memorable for all involved, even if the guy getting his ass kicked didn't learn by them.

When it comes to the prospect of proving your bravery, you shouldn't feel you have to: You put your ass on the line every time you go in the field. Second, you work in a profession where you will have more than enough opportunities to get your ass kicked without looking for them. Be happy for the peace in between.

5. "Slow Down and Do Things Right."

Unlike the ass-kicking caveat, this referred to my driving, my investigations, my approaches on traffic stops. Perhaps where I should have taken it most to heart was early in my career where, despite protestations to the contrary, I did care what others thought of me and tried to make more arrests just to keep on pace with stat-conscious others. In the process, I may have sacrificed quality for quantity. Given a choice between three revolving door misdemeanants or taking in one good-quality threat to society, give me the latter. Note: I include DUIs as threats to society.

Through the years the importance of being attentive to detail has been driven home repeatedly to me. I've seen everything from forensic missteps to clerical errors undermine cases and take their toll on all involved. Tragically, such mistakes have cost the lives of both civilians and officers.

6. "Cuffs Go On and Cuffs Come Off."

Never be shy about using your cuffs, especially if you're by yourself and particularly if you're working either end of the population spectrum: Out in some rural area all by yourself like some Aames Home Loan commercial or in a big city where most of the time you don't know who the hell you're stopping. The sooner you can justify detaining someone in cuffs and do so, the better to mitigate the chances of their assaulting you or hauling ass. In crowded situations, the sooner you can get the loudmouth secured somewhere out of earshot, the better chance you have of keeping things from boiling over.

7. "Practice."

That single-word piece of advice has meant so much to me on so many fronts. Whether it is radio coordination, baton strikes, or shooting, a cop should continually work towards perfection. You'll never achieve it, but that old "shoot for the stars" thing has some validity.

8. "Till! Till! Till!"

Bucolic Buffalo was an American Indian character in the Old West comic strip "Tumbleweeds." He had trouble with the K sound. So his battle cry was "Till! Till! Till!" And you know what he was really saying.

Actually, this wasn't what was said to me. The joke just cracks me up.

What was communicated to me was: "We don't 'shoot to stop,' we shoot to kill."

"That's the kind of sentiment that can save your ass in civil court," my friend acknowledged regarding the whole "shoot to stop" mantra. "But a fat lot of good that's gonna do if you ain't around to be sued. And if you operate like that, there's a good chance you could find your own ass shot. Ain't nothing more dangerous than a cornered and wounded animal. Make sure you put that SOB down when you have the chance."

My friend had been in more than one officer-involved shooting and had strong respect for the sanctity of human life. Moreover, he suspected that some cops didn't always do as much as they should to mitigate the need to pull the trigger of a firearm. But he also believed that once an officer's hand was forced, that the officer was obligated to do everything he or she could to make sure that the threat was effectively neutralized.

"We don't want to give the bastard another shot at killing us now," he said. "Or another cop later."

I tend to agree.

9. "Don't Bark if You Ain't Gonna Bite."

This is one that I found myself repeating through the years. It's a warning to never commit yourself to a promised action that you aren't prepared to follow through. I never said that I would arrest someone or use force unless I was prepared and justified to do so. Unfortunately, I've seen too many instances where cops would make hollow threats that would only piss people off and escalate things. Often, it was the cop who ended up looking bad.

10. "Pick and Choose Your Battles."

I should have acted more on this one. Sometimes I conducted myself like a typhoon in search of islands to destroy. Just as we shouldn't be anxious to get our asses kicked, we shouldn't be anxious to alienate those around us. With the advantage of hindsight, I would have taken principled stands only on things that really mattered, instead of getting in pissing contests with people who often simply had a different point of view.

11. "Don't Let Their Sacrifices Be In Vain."

This is a two-pronged command, at once acknowledging that the job is important enough to keep up the work that brave men and women have sacrificed their lives for and insisting that you learn by whatever lessons their deaths may have illustrated.

When you look back over your career, what pieces of advice have helped you out? What would you want to impart to others? Respond in the comments below and let's start a great discussion that can help other cops.

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