400 Things Cops Know: Street-Smart Lessons from a Veteran Patrolman
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Most of the situations and scenarios I describe in these pages are things that I’ve experienced firsthand. But I don’t write this book to portray myself as some kind of police expert. I’m still learning every day, and the things I don’t know about the job would fill a much bigger book than this one. No, this work came together for two reasons. One, I like to write. Always have. And two, I’m fascinated by the body of knowledge that comes from police work, which is simply one of the most engrossing professions around.
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In addition, I don’t attempt to put law enforcement up on a pedestal; indeed, I take our profession to task for some of our weaknesses, biases, and oversights. But in doing so, I feel I’ve done a service to the job by portraying things as they actually are. Because sometimes cops are better than people think. Sometimes we’re worse. Sometimes we’re just different.
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If you are shot …. The fact you are alive to know you are shot is a good sign. Think of it as a very emphatic warning shot. Say to yourself: “I’ve been better, but I could be worse.” Know that a mission, a goal, can keep you going. Okay, you have been hit, so now your immediate goal is to prevent getting hit with another bullet …. Understand that your heart can be stopped by a bullet and you still can have five to seven seconds left. What are you going to do with them? —Lieutenant Dave Grossman, On Combat
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It speaks to the fact that if you don’t know what you’re doing and you rush a shot, it’s pretty easy to miss, even up close. People who haven’t handled weapons much don’t understand that. They don’t put time in at the range and tend not to practice the fundamentals of shooting such as stance, grip, sight alignment, and trigger control. Instead, they adopt a different kind of technique, one known in police circles as Spray & Pray. If the average criminal ever decided to take formal shooting lessons, this nation’s homicide rate would quintuple.
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Shootings, particularly those that are gang related, set into motion a wearying circle of retaliatory violence. The reports of shots fired keep pouring in all over the district, everyone’s out, everyone’s settling scores, and all you can do as a cop is investigate each one to the best of your ability, scramble to keep up, and pray for rain. You know that while some shooting victims are innocents caught in the cross fire, many are career criminals who get shot because of some drug- or gang-related activity they indulged in. That’s why you pat a wounded victim down for weapons, even if he’s on a ...more
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A handgun is the great equalizer in a fight. If you’re armed, you don’t need determination or training to prevail. You don’t need courage or physical strength or fortitude. All you need is a trigger finger and the ability to exert around eight pounds of pressure with it. That’s why the best cops are the ones who don’t get overly confident when taking on suspects of small stature or guys who don’t look like much. If they have a gun, they can end you no matter what your mile-and-a-half time is or how much you can bench-press.
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Shotguns are heavy, especially if you have nothing to brace them on. It’s enervating to hold them level at a target for an extended period. You want to lower the weapon mid-crisis and rest your leaden shoulders, but then you’ll feel like a wimp and a bad guy might riddle you with bullets. You just hope the situation resolves itself before your arms drop the hell off your torso.
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Real police shootings bring with them mental and physical anguish. Grief. Gore. At times, a public outcry. Maybe second-guessing and regret. Mandatory off-time involved and subsequent counseling. So why would you want to talk about all that with someone you hardly know at a social event? How would the tone of that exchange even go? (“Yeah, I put two in a suspect’s chest once after he cut his wife’s throat. One of my bullets ricocheted and hit an innocent bystander and paralyzed her from the waist down. Hey, are we all out of salsa?”)
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When the federal ban on assault weapons expired, some citizens acted as if the sky was falling. But law enforcement wasn’t particularly concerned, because this ban never had much impact. During assault weapon prohibition, gun makers just tinkered with their weapons (removed flash suppressors or changed the stock up a bit) and put them back on the shelves. The guns were just as deadly, but the minor modifications meant they weren’t considered “assault” weapons anymore in the eyes of the feds.
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All the same, assault weapons are still a nightmare. Equipped with high-volume magazines that cut down on the need to reload, assault weapons fire rounds that can go through cinder block walls and telephone poles—your standard ballistic vest offers no more protection against them than if you lashed a couple sheets of fabric softener to your chest. You hear a radio call of a man with a rifle and your body starts to tingle with equal parts anticipation and dread. But a real ban on assault weapons, a ban with some teeth to it, would restrict the magazine capacity on such firearms to just a few ...more
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The victim is often in a considerable amount of pain and doesn’t want to answer your questions. All he wants are pain meds. But ambulance crews can’t dispense painkillers, so the victim has to hang tight until he arrives at the hospital where morphine awaits.
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Bullets rarely maintain a straight path. They loop and spin and sometimes follow the curve of the body. A shot into the arm can be “through and through,” or it can ricochet off the elbow bone and explode the heart. A bullet entering the lower torso can rip through the intestines and cause lifelong complications or end up lodged in soft tissue without any lasting damage. Many gunshot victims in the latter category are released from the hospital the same day they entered, as it is often medically safer to leave the bullet right where it is. A shot in the buttocks can be a painful but ultimately ...more
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If you shoot someone at point-blank range, you will be sprayed with their blood and tissue. It will go in your eyes and nose and in your mouth. You will, in effect, be wearing them. You will then undergo a battery of tests to see if you have contracted hepatitis or HIV or any number of diseases communicable through human blood. You will wait months for the final results, a drawn-out period of fear, frustration, and anger. During that time, you will wonder if the police job, if any job, is worth this.
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You say “I’ve seen people hurt a lot worse than you” even if you haven’t, even if it looks like they’re living on borrowed time. You act this way because it’s professional to do so, and you say these things because they are the decent things to say in the situation. But you also know that surviving physical trauma has a lot to do with keeping up the right attitude and maintaining a fighting spirit. If you let the victim see the shock playing out on your face, they may to start to panic themselves. And panic kills.
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Pre-Columbine, the police response to an active shooter (i.e., a gunman who is in the process of killing people) was to hold the perimeter and wait for the Tactical squad to enter with their long guns and ballistic shields. Active street cops resented these regulations, because they wanted to get in there and do their job. There was no time to wait for Tactical. Columbine showed they were right.
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Getting a face full of pepper spray is like having barbed wire wrapped around your corneas, like a small army of demons burrowing under your skin and cackling at your misfortune. After the initial exposure, you have a second or two of “Hey, what was that?” Then you tilt forward, head in hands, and moan. You hack like a forty-year smoker. You sweat. You burn. If you have contact lenses on at the time, kiss those suckers good-bye. And soon all the mucus in your body, all the snot of your past, present, and future, streams down the front of your shirt in long, glistening strands. Water provides ...more
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While media coverage of police brutality is commonplace, you rarely watch a news story about how officers took a violent suspect into custody using the minimum amount of force necessary, even though it happens every day, because, after all, what’s interesting about that?
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In many careers, crucial decisions are deliberated in meetings with white boards and breakout sessions. Options are weighed. Exploratory committees are formed. Ideas are mulled over and then discarded. Gourmet coffee is consumed. Perhaps finger sandwiches are brought in from the catering joint down the street. The whole process can take hours, days, weeks.   One of the most crucial decisions you make as a cop is Shoot or Don’t Shoot. Given how quickly situations can go all sorts of wrong, you will probably have about a second and a half to deliberate before you make this call. Critics then ...more
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In the old karate movies, they talk about never taking your opponent lightly. That’s good advice. A skinny, untrained teenager can shatter the orbital bone of a man twice his size with a single punch. A victim who has been shoved can land wrong and break his neck on a street curb or suffer a hematoma when his skull strikes concrete. Street fights have no padding and no regulations and are typically fought over surfaces with little give, like the sidewalk. The results are bloody and unpredictable.
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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 ...more
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Cops love coffee, but you have to be prepared to dump your whole cup out the window if you get a high-priority call. There are no cup holders in the squad car, so if you speed off with lights and siren and you don’t dump it, it will invariably end up in a scalding pool on your groin.
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Three hundred feet is the minimum safe distance when dealing with a potential explosive. That’s a football field, or twelve houses. We weren’t three hundred feet away. We were zero feet away. The lesson we came away with is to leave the hazmat situations to the fire department. It wouldn’t kill the firefighters to take an occasional break from surfing Match.com at the station house or primping for next year’s calendar to get out there and work for a living.
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Some cops don’t wear their wedding rings at work for that same reason; the ring could get hooked on a fence and tear off part of their finger. Others don’t wear their rings for, well, other reasons. “I like to fornicate,” a married cop once told me cheerfully.
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There is nothing that lets you know your relatively lowly place in the law enforcement universe more than working with the Secret Service. They are polite and professional, and will be continue to be polite and professional when they tell you that as a line cop, you are utterly expendable. They will shoot right through you in order to neutralize a threat to the POTUS. So if an assassin presents himself, forget any thoughts you may entertain of taking him down and earning a medal of valor. It isn’t going to happen. You’re not going to protect the president—the Secret Service is going to protect ...more
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Some of the most polite criminals are the most lethal. They’ll Yes Sir and No Sir you ad nauseam, trying to lull you into complacency, while at the same time probing you for weaknesses as they contemplate Fight or Flight. Never let your guard down. Keep in mind the old law enforcement adage that sounds like a country song: The Only Person I Trust Is My Mother and I Ain’t Even Too Sure About Her.
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If you’re in a restaurant on duty and have to use the bathroom, don’t leave your food or drink unattended. The odds of someone spitting in them or slipping you a mickey are slight but not worth the risk. Don’t wear shirts bearing your department name outside work; you don’t want strangers knowing you’re a cop. Never have a police bumper sticker on your car unless you don’t mind having all your windows broken out, perhaps by some antiestablishment types or a frustrated driver who just got his third DUI. Bumper stickers are for firefighters. Everyone loves firefighters. Not everyone loves cops. ...more
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It’s reminiscent of something a boxer once said about growing old: First you lose your reflexes, then you lose your job, then you lose your friends.
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In the movies, even the slightest cop knocks down a door in one kick. Real life is different. Once it took me twenty-seven tries. I know this because there was a sergeant next to me counting out loud encouragingly. In terms of technique, striking the middle of the door doesn’t do much; instead you want to aim just underneath the knob. And the most effective means of entry isn’t the manly snap kick where you face the door with your shoulders squared, but rather the mule kick, where your back is to the door and you lash out with your foot like Eeyore. Don’t bother running into the door with your ...more
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Once in a while, you will encounter a door you just can’t get through. Maybe it’s solid metal, or it opens out instead of in. Then you have to call the fire department. They have all sorts of tools and mechanical spreaders to gain entry. But it’s always a bit of a letdown to admit failure and call firefighters for this purpose. They find it to be a letdown as well, because you just interrupted their three-on-three basketball tournament at the station to come out for this.
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Don’t try to unwind at work. You can relax once you get home. Complacency is the enemy. When asked how he was able to kill four cops at a Newhall, California, gas station, convicted murderer Bobby Augusta Davis said, “They got careless, so I wasted them.”
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If the public screams at you, don’t scream back. Because if they piss you off, they own you.
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Once in a while, you’ll encounter an undocumented immigrant who has no ID and claims not to know his exact date of birth, which may be true, as some immigrants hail from remote places where certified birth certificates are few and far between. If you arrest such a person, you run their prints and see if anything comes up. If nothing does, you have to put something down on the paperwork for a date of birth. So you just assign them one. The time I did this, I made it in July. The suspect seemed okay with that. July is a good month for birthdays, with the favorable weather and all. When I was ...more
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Most of these people call because they think their neighbors are jerks, but it’s not against the law to be a jerk. The police are not part of a Miss Manners strike force, responding with corrective action and colorful pamphlets when people are rude. You can’t make someone be a good neighbor. Maybe cops should be thankful for these folks. They’re certainly job security for law enforcement because they never stop calling. But when an armed robbery in progress comes over the radio and you’re forty blocks away trying to referee an intricate dog poop dispute, you tend to get a little cranky.
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But most people who hate the police are criminals. And they hate you because you arrest them. Because you tell them they can’t have their way. They in turn teach their children to hate you and so it goes through the generations. Others blame you for not doing enough to prevent crime, although they never seem to hold the fire department culpable for not doing enough to prevent fires.
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The irony, of course, is that the people who live in the kinds of neighborhoods that need you the most also hate you the most. You try to mend fences with these types when possible, because citizen-police cooperation is essential. When you lose sight of the felony suspect, the bystander can either point you in the right direction or purposely point you in the wrong, depending on how their last interaction with the cops went. But some fences don’t mend, and sometimes you don’t even try. When people tell you they hate the police, you may respond that you aren’t too wild about them either.
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The cavernous depths of mental illness you encounter in this business will leave you in awe. You’ll talk to a man who collects his own feces in jars because he thinks they’re valuable, like money. You’ll try to help a woman who is in pain, she insists, because her dead adult son is living inside her. You’ll arrest a bipolar diabetic, his feet scaly and oozing pus, who speaks in a nonstop stream of consciousness with his invisible friend Peter and insists that you watch out for the mustard gas. You’ll be sent to an assignment where a woman is in such a frenzy to end her own life that she ...more
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Be careful not to talk down to suspects, especially in front of their loved ones. Maybe some guy has just been laid off from work and he’s trying to figure out how he and his family are going to make it. That man is clinging to the only thing he has left—his self-respect—and now you’re trying to take it from him by belittling him in his own house in front of his wife and kids. That’s not right. Show some respect; maybe you’ll get some in return.
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The fear of retaliation weighs heavily on the minds of crime victims and witnesses. If a citizen reports an offense where there’s a known suspect, she may get all her house windows broken out or a baseball bat to the face in an alley for her trouble. She works hard for her things and someone breaks them. Or breaks her. She has to miss work and shell out money she may not have to repair her damaged property or broken bones. Now she has to live in fear. Even if the criminals get arrested for their actions, they won’t miss work themselves because they probably don’t have jobs. The deck is stacked ...more
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This group boasts those who have literally been arrested hundreds of times, often for nuisance violations like public drinking and disorderly conduct or for petty theft. They do not fear arrest or jail. Why would they? There’s nowhere they have to be tomorrow. An arrest means a place to lay their head and regular meals, and besides, their friends are probably there. There’s no magic wand to get this group to abide by the law. It’s like dealing with a prison lifer in solitary who stabs a prison guard in a state with no death penalty. He’s already in jail for the rest of his days. You’ve got no ...more
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I once took a stabbing call in a bar where a man was flat on his back on the floor in a growing red pool. Jagged smiles had been carved into his face from cheek to forehead, and blood pumped from his wounds. He was surrounded by half a dozen gawkers, none of whom were trying to assist him. A bar employee was standing over the victim swabbing around him with a mop and looking down at him as if to say, “Hey, whenever you’re done spurting jugular blood, pal, I can make some headway with this mess.” It was such a surreal image, this barback with mop and bucket standing over a dying man, that at ...more
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Mothers, particularly single moms, will sometimes call the police because they feel their teenager is uncontrollable. When you show up, the teen does a lot of eye-rolling. She’s often one of multiple kids. The mother will tell you she bought all the kids pizza today. Why don’t they appreciate her? She could have not bought them pizza. She could in fact have given them all away, she explains. But she didn’t.   Single moms are about the bravest people on earth, and it’s nice when your mom brings you pizza, but women like this seem to be stumping for some kind of domestic medal for Not Giving ...more
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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 ...more
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For juveniles who grow up this hard, there’s no guarantee they’ll reach even their twenties. So each individual birthday is an achievement in and of itself. I asked one kid from a crime-ruined block how old he was.   “I just made fourteen,” he said proudly.
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It isn’t unusual to be called to some kind of family fracas and have an allegation of juvenile molestation or child abuse surface, an allegation that often seems to be generated out of thin air only to inject more drama into an already dramatic proceeding. And if it’s shown that these allegations are false, the accused parents often look at you triumphantly, as if ribbons and certificates are to be handed out to parents who don’t beat or molest their kids.
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The serious offenders—the young armed robbers and rapists—are taken from the district to secure juvenile detention, but everyone else is ultimately released to their parent or guardian with a future court date. So if a kid breaks all the windows in your car and yanks your stereo out of the dashboard, and the police pick him up at noon, you may very well see him back on the street before dinnertime ready to take your new stereo.   But it’s all about protecting the youth, those mischievous rascals.   I’ll tell you, if I had known any of this as a kid, I would have gotten into a lot more trouble.
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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.
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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.
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Maybe an eccentric billionaire could start a series of birth control clinics that pay people to undergo voluntary vasectomies and tubal sterilizations. It would be a program similar in philosophy to Project Prevention, the American nonprofit agency that pays drug addicts $300 to receive long-term birth control, but these clinics would offer services to nonaddicts as well. You would want to pay out enough to attract those who are not ready for the responsibilities of child rearing but not so much that it would unfairly entice those who are hard up for the money but would also make good parents. ...more
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When it’s that busy, pending calls for service in a single district can stack forty deep. If they aren’t emergencies, they are thrown on the back burner, which means that if a citizen calls about neighbors playing loud music, or someone prowling near their house, they won’t see a squad car for a long while. They’re pissed when you finally show up. You can’t blame them. You wonder how charitably you’d feel toward the police if, busy night or not, it took them five hours to tell the neighbors to turn down their death metal and two hours to show up for the strange man lurking outside the window.
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In summer, push-cart vendors hawk paletas (like Popsicles only better) and roasted corn, which they serve with red pepper, lime, and mayo. Many if not most are undocumented immigrants. They conduct a cash-only business. Few of them speak English, and fewer still have cell phones with which to call the police. For these reasons, they are regarded as soft targets by criminals and are consistently robbed and assaulted.
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