Police work is often a closed book to many of us. So much goes on that can’t be described to outsiders, because it’s too brutal, or too agonizing, or too gut-wrenching. As a result of this and other factors, cops carry a terrible load of stress, resulting in much higher divorce and suicide rates than most other professions.
In an attempt to help the rest of us understand how cops think and feel about their job, Adam Plantinga wrote a book titled “400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman“.
It was very successful, so he followed it a few years later with a sequel, “Police Craft: What Cops Know About Crime, Community and Violence“.
Obviously, he has to “sugar-coat” certain aspects of the job, because they’re too raw and brutal to be shared without that precaution. I’ve worked in a law enforcement supporting role (as a prison chaplain, and a visiting chaplain to local agencies), and I’ve seen some of that rawness at first hand. Nevertheless, even being a little reticent at times, he does a great job of conveying the reality of police work.
I’m going to quote several excerpts from his first book, “400 Things Cops Know“. I hope they give you a taste of the book as a whole.
Once in a while, even with the deep-rooted cynicism that comes with the job, you’ll get a casualty so raw that you carry it with you long after you clear the assignment. Like a seven-year-old girl who is struck by stray gunfire while playing outside her house and who dies at the scene in front of her family. One minute she is skipping rope. The next, she’s gone. And you read the rest of the news headlines that day. The government is unveiling a new food pyramid, which recommends one more serving of vegetables and one fewer of grains, and the price of gas is up three cents, and Paris Hilton has a new fragrance out. And it all seems so stupid and petty. And no, the whole world doesn’t come to a grinding halt just because a little girl is murdered on some corner in some city in America. But maybe, just for a little while, it should.
* * *
You’ll get hurt on this job. It is a certainty. It is the cost of doing business. After thirteen years, I’ve been socked in the face, kicked, and head-butted; had a chunk taken out of my right palm; and been hit by a car driven by a fleeing felon while I was on foot. During melees, I’ve sprained both my wrists so badly that I couldn’t put on socks for a week and smashed up my left elbow to the point where, even years later, whenever I rest it on a hard surface, it feels like it’s on fire. I’ve been black and blue from head to foot. My right ankle still makes unnatural sounds after I rolled it going over a fence in pursuit of a suspect. But my injuries pale in comparison to those of other cops I know who have wrecked lower backs and bulging disks in their necks from traffic accidents, who have sustained broken ribs from fights with combative suspects, who are convalescing after being shot multiple times in the chest during close-range gunfights, or who have had fingers bitten clean off by plumb-crazy people. You tend to get excellent health coverage with this job. That’s good because you use it all the time.
* * *
If you respond to a holdup alarm at a bank with a suspect potentially still inside, you’ll tape everything off and cops will be covering the perimeter with shotguns, awaiting the order to go in. This will not stop citizens from driving up and asking if the bank is closed. One time I told a guy, yeah, it’s closed because of a bank robbery that could still be in progress. He then asked if he could just pop in briefly to use the ATM. “I have to get money out,” he explained, as if this ATM possessed magical money-producing properties that the dozens of other ATMs at nearby unrobbed banks did not.
* * *
As a cop, it’s easy to get discouraged about the state of today’s youth. You don’t see much of the honors student bound for Dartmouth, because he doesn’t do anything that would cause him to come into contact with you. You mostly see the teen hustler wearing a jacket with dollar signs written on it gearing up to break the Ten Commandments but good. You patrol neighborhoods where toddlers chew absently on cigarette butts from the ground and two-year-olds with matted hair and jam-smeared faces play unsupervised in the street. You see fifth graders with girls’ names tattooed on their arms. You talk to teenagers whose dad is locked up and whose mom is strung out on dope. The kid’s breakfast is a bag of chips and his lunch is a butter sandwich—which is exactly what it sounds like—and his friends are all just like him and some of them are carrying guns. Does it really come as a shock that these young people tend to fall out on the lawless end? They’re just little criminals waiting to become big criminals. The shock would be if they turned out halfway normal. You marvel at the few who make it. It’s the equivalent of muscling their way out of quicksand.
* * *
One of the reasons you have your hands so full with wayward youth is that people who arguably shouldn’t be reproducing are having two, six, nine kids and counting with a slew of different partners. I ran into a guy named Milton once, a foul-mouthed con on parole for homicide who proudly boasted that he has sired thirteen kids, none of whom he could support, but most of whom were named after him. He was going to have even more kids, Milton told me. He was going to create an army of little Miltons.
Or take twenty-one-year-old bipolar street hooker Veronica, who sports a tattoo on her left shoulder that says “Bitch” and has a small bandage on her arm from a recent gonorrhea shot. Veronica has given birth to two children, one a four-month-old boy and the other a one-year-old girl, and the Bureau of Child Welfare is a regular visitor to her house regarding allegations of child abuse and neglect. Veronica is having problems with one of the children’s fathers, a man named Andre. Veronica has a domestic abuse injunction against Andre, and Andre has a similar injunction against Veronica, legal orders that both of them routinely violate. Ask Veronica how it’s going with Andre and she’ll tell you matter of factly that she “bit his ****” during their last encounter because he tried to rape her.
These parents make one think of a passage from The Closing of the American Mind: “But they have nothing to give their children in the way of a vision of the world, of high models of action or profound sense of connection with others.”
What they have instead is the ability to create generations of family units that are at best tangled and at worst hopelessly broken. Some of these kids may claw their way out of their situation through a combination of determination and luck, but the deck is stacked. This influx of maladjusted, physically and mentally unhealthy kids is at the core of many of our societal problems, especially when they grow up into maladjusted, unhealthy adults who commit a boatload of crimes.
* * *
In winter, some families who can’t afford rent still string a hundred dollars’ worth of Christmas lights down their front porch, and suspects flee from the police on foot and often shed their jacket or hooded sweatshirt to avoid detection. In rough weather, this doesn’t always help them, because if you respond to the pursuit and see someone badly underdressed for the climate, you know something is up. Guys don’t walk around in just a T-shirt when it’s 15 degrees out, unless they’re fleeing from the police or they’ve just lost a bet. If you don’t find the suspect but do find his jacket abandoned in the bushes, you set up containment on the block and wait him out. If you’re tooth-chatteringly cold in your heavy winter cop jacket and long johns, you know he’s hurting without a coat at all. After about five minutes, suspects have been known to walk out from their hiding spot and turn themselves in, electing for jail over dying of exposure. If the suspect doesn’t emerge, you pack up shop and leave. Maybe he’s frozen in mid-stride, in which case he’ll turn up come spring thaw.
* * *
Sometimes you’ll find dope on a suspect and then later, when you’re back at the station typing up your report, you may struggle to remember where exactly the stash was on that guy. Was it in the left side of the coat? The front of the hoodie? The back of the shorts? Right rear pocket? Left rear? Front lower right? Perhaps for this reason, an inordinately high number of police reports indicate that the narcotics were recovered from the suspect’s right front pants pocket. This particular pocket has been known to serve as a universal fallback when memory falters. Although once in a while, this can lead to complications. I’ve heard a story, perhaps apocryphal, about a street officer who indicated in his incident report that he recovered drugs from that very pocket.
“That seems a strange place for this man to put drugs,” the reviewing sergeant said.
“Why?” the arresting officer asked.
“Because,” the sergeant pointed out, “he’s got no ****ing right arm.”
* * *
Longtime officers and detectives from Sensitive Crimes often look physically and spiritually weary, as most people would if they were exposed to a steady diet of crimes against children. If you talk with them for a spell, they’ll describe the unique nature of pedophiles to you. You could take Halle Berry, they’ll say, and parade her around naked in front of these offenders and they won’t care. They’ll push past Halle to get to that seven-year-old boy or ten-year-old girl. You see, they’ll continue, most crimes are a means to an end. A guy robs a store because he wants money, not because he necessarily likes robbing places. If he had another way to get money, he probably wouldn’t rob the store. But for a pedophile, the means—sexual contact with a child—is the end. He has no other way to get what he wants.
Perhaps the other reason they seem weary is that their work involves conducting investigations into child pornography, especially those cases where the suspect has documented his or her own sexual contact with children. And you understand this. Because as a patrol cop, you never forget the first time you have to see it, especially if you have young children yourself. It is representative of a broken world, and there is such a disconnect between those vile images and the way things should be that your mind recoils at what goes on in the dark corners. You may think, even with everything you experience as a street cop, that there is still more good than evil in the world. When child pornography is in front of you, you question this assumption. You question it deeply. And you realize that if a suspect is in custody for such an offense, he may not be safe from you. You contemplate, just for a moment, how it would be well worth it to go into the cell and get your hands on him, worth it to lose your job and be charged criminally just for the chance to spend a few minutes physically punishing him for his unthinkable crime, as if this violence would somehow restore the balance of things. But you don’t do that. You lock it away. When you get home that night and watch your own sleeping children, you may weep. And if those same children ask you at some point if there are really such things as monsters in the world, you wonder if you may truthfully answer no.
* * *
Police psychologists have testified that the typical police officer will see more human tragedy in the first three years of their career than the average person will see in a lifetime. You wonder if this is the aftermath you have to look forward to. You retire, bitter and iconoclastic and fifty pounds heavier than when you began, and get in four to twelve golden years of retirement, fighting heart disease and gout now instead of crime. And then you die. I heard a veteran sergeant once talking about his retired cop neighbor, a neighbor who spent most of his post-career days looking vacantly out on his lawn, a man whose sole focus was to mow immediately after the sergeant did so his grass would be more freshly cut than the sergeant’s. “You lose your mind after a while on this job,” the sergeant mused.
What’s more, recent FBI statistics show that police officers are six times more likely to kill themselves than the general public, a figure that more than triples after retirement. I know five people who have committed suicide. All of them were cops.
All of this is enough to make you vow to treat yourself better. Eat more raw vegetables. Listen to classical music. Maybe buy a smoothie machine. You gotta do something.
You also have to find a way to get meaningful sleep. Because as a working cop, you will battle the kind of sleep deprivation that any doctor or firefighter will understand. Whether it’s from working unanticipated overtime because your district station is awash in gangland shootings, or having morning court after a long night’s shift, fatigue sets in and has its way with you. You’re typing a police report that could put a dangerous felon away for life and you’re so tired you can’t remember what day it is. You get up from the desk to walk into another room to get something and you stop still because you can’t remember what you came in for. The defense is grilling you on the witness stand and your head feels like it’s stuffed with cotton. The instructions on your bottle of caffeine pills say just to take one but you pop three. It’s no way to live, and your job performance suffers for it.
* * *
The job will change you. It changes everyone, for better and worse. You will become far more alert to your surroundings. You will keep your gun hand free even when off duty. You will become hyperaware when taking money out of ATMs, day or night. You’ll look inside convenience stores and banks before you enter to make sure you aren’t walking in on a holdup in progress.
If you didn’t curse before you became a cop, you probably will once you have six months in on this campaign. You will curse like a dockworker. You will also become angrier. More disillusioned. Far more skeptical about the inherent goodness of humankind. The constant exposure to toxic social conditions and dealing with people at their hopeless worst solders an extra layer onto your skin. You see too much darkness, and it becomes part of you in ways you may not fully understand. Some describe this condition as compassion fatigue, the main symptom being a vague sense of loathing for human frailty and for one’s self. Maybe this extra layer is good. It keeps you from being emotionally invested and affords you the detachment you need to be an objective investigator. It acts like a suit of armor against the elements. But part of you may want to be, well, illusioned again. Part of you wishes that guy you used to be, the one in the police academy with the fresh haircut and the extra-shiny shoes, wasn’t such a stranger to you now. You know that for the most part, it’s good that guy is gone. He meant well, but he wasn’t an effective street cop. He was too hesitant, too trusting. He’s been replaced, and you don’t expect him back.
But once in a while, you sort of miss him.
When you get frustrated about cops and law enforcement, it helps to think about what they go through every day. It’s a different world behind the badge, one that many of us can’t even begin to imagine.