This is from an answer I posted on Quora in May 2016.
In no particular order:
- 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.
- Most cops never shoot anyone. I don’t know of any research on this, but my casual estimate is that maybe 20% of cops (EDIT: alert Quoran @ says it’s 12%–see his comment below) 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 (and, to be sure, there are some of these in law enforcement). 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 (probably several somebodys) who is reckless, immature, racist, 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
- 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.
I was interviewed today by Lauren Silverman from KERA-FM, a NPR station in Dallas.
I lost some friends tonight. They didn’t die, but I think I’m as good as dead to them.
This was a married couple I knew. I met the husband at a police training course I attended over 30 years ago. He was an instructor at the conference, and I was one of several hundred cops in attendance. But we both had a habit of snacking before we went to bed, and we kept meeting in the hotel coffee shop late in the evening, and got to know one another. A month after I returned home, I was involved in a critical incident where I could have easily died. Some of the things I learned at that course helped me get through it unharmed, and I wrote to my new friend and told him as much. We stayed in touch after that. Although I would see him only once or twice a year when our paths would cross at other police conferences, I thought of him—and after he married, his wife—as friends.
This couple is well-known in the police community, nationally and even internationally. These days, most of my contact with them is through Facebook, and it’s through Facebook we have had our falling out. My friend put up a post tonight to the effect that the election of any Democratic candidate would be a disaster for the United States, and that anyone who felt different would be shunned by him. His wife made a similar post a short time afterward.
I replied that I wasn’t thrilled with any of the Democratic candidates, but that the Republican candidates frightened me more. His reply as, in essence, “Goodbye.” His other Facebook friends, who tend to be of a similar conservative political persuasion, joined him in gleefully kicking me to the curb.
I’ll survive not counting this couple among my friends, but it occurred to me at the same time that I have never known political differences to be as divisive as they are now. I have always been a political moderate. I’ve voted both sides of the ticket, and seldom along party lines.
- I’m pro-choice, but believe we should not tolerate or grant amnesty to illegal immigration.
- I’m for expanded background checks, and I think people should have to demonstrate competency with a gun before they can have one. But qualified people should still be able to own and carry guns, if they like.
- I think English should be our official language, but that public education also include instruction in a foreign language.
- Public education ought to be free of religious influence. If you insist your child have a religious education, do it yourself, get it in church, or send them to parochial school.
- Although I have problems with some of the things he did and the positions he has taken, I believe Barack Obama has been a good president. My biggest problem with the Affordable Care Act is that it didn’t go far enough.
Providing that others base their arguments on facts, rather than memes and stories from Fox News, I’m always open to a different point of view. I don’t believe that liberals have the exclusive market on good ideas, or that conservatives are all of inferior intelligence and morality.
Most of my conservative friends do not share my tolerance. They take the position that anyone who does not accept the full conservative agenda is a “libtard,” to use their term of art. Further, any position advanced by a non-conservative must also be faulty, presumably because conservatives are the only people imbued with good judgment. You can guess how the conservatives feel about global warming, no matter how much science might be behind it. If Al Gore believes it, it must be wrong.
A friend of mine describes this behavior as “political purity.” The conservative must be completely conservative, and not allow any of the poison that is liberal ideology contaminate their thinking. There can be no middle ground. Allowing even the hint of broad-minded thought is the nose of the camel, intruding into the tent’s interior. It will open the floodgates of hippie thought and permanently corrupt one’s mind.
Those same conservatives label President Obama as the most divisive chief executive in our history. I believe they ignore their own divisiveness, stemming from the outright rejection of any idea their role models didn’t endorse. I mostly discounted this trend as one of those that comes and goes with the years. I never thought it could destroy a 30-year friendship.