Just as the public doesn’t like you, you will not much like the public. Cops do not see humanity at its best. The young woman hiking her skirt up at traffic stops. Couples screaming obscenities at each other on domestic-violence calls. “Why don’t you catch real criminals?” The lies. The excuses. The lame attempts at manipulation. The threats (“I know the mayor.”)
As a real cop on real streets, you learn never to smile, to maintain an implied aggressiveness. When riding with a reporter, you will joke and tell stories. With the public, you will learn to be wooden-faced and authoritarian. You can’t lose your dominance or you are useless.
A few months on the streets will take the bloom off your dewy rose of morn.
[Gruesome stories elided.]
As a reporter, I saw all of these things. Not similar things, but exactly these. They are not imaginary. They will change your attitude toward humanity. It won’t make you better company.
And nobody but another cop, or someone in the street trades — police, fire, ambulance–will understand. Your wife won’t, and this won’t improve the marriage. Divorce rates are high among cops.
With time, your views on police brutality will become ambivalent, or not ambivalent. You will see the pretty blonde rape victim, fifteen, about due for her first prom, screaming and screaming and screaming, sobbing and choking, while the med tech tries to get a sedative into her arm. And you will hear the cop next to you, hand clenching hard on his night stick, say in cold fury, “I hope the sonofabitch resists arrest.” Yeah, you may find yourself thinking, yeah. Social theories are nice. The streets are not theoretical.
And you will find that the perps are almost always black. If you are a good liberal, you won’t like this, but after three months on the street you will not have the faintest doubt. If you are a suburban conservative out of Reader’s Digest, you will be surprised at the starkness of the racial delineation.
All cops know this. They know better than to say it. This can be tricky for black cops, especially if former military who believe in law and order.
You will find that there are white cops who knock blacks around, who humiliate them. You will think it wrong, and so will many of your fellows, but you will decide not to turn them in. You have twenty more years on the streets with them. You will discover that black cops exist who also mistreat blacks, and this will confuse you.
You will find yourself contributing to bad race relations by enforcing laws you think stupid, pointless and unwise — hassling blacks for drinking a beer on the sidewalk with friends, rolling dice for quarters on the hood of a car, or smoking a joint. Never mind that a black city government made the laws.
Depending on your background when you, the reader, suddenly became a cop, you may or may not have some grasp of how guns work in the city. To begin with (if you think about it at all) you will realize that cops are not very competent with guns. In an entire career most will never fire their weapons on duty. To be good with a pistol requires hours and hours on the range and thousands of rounds. These cost money. Departments have higher priorities. Competent tactical shooting requires much more training. You won’t get it.
As a fresh cop, you will notice that the standard editorial notion, that cops are heavily armed brutes amid a helpless unarmed populations, isn’t quite accurate. When you are on the sidewalks of a bad neighborhood, where you know you are disliked by all and hated by many, you will become aware of your vulnerability. You have to pass close to people. Any of them could blow your head off from behind, stick an ice pick in your back, or brain you with a piece of rebar.
The second thing to know about the police and guns (though it sounds unrelated) is something you will hear often from your new colleagues: “I’m going home tonight.” This does not mean, “I’m going home instead of to the bar with buddies.” It means, “If some dirtball threatens my life, or credibly seems to be doing so, I will blow his sorry ass away before I’ll let my wife have to explain to the kids why Daddy is never coming home again.”
Ah, but how do you know when your life is in danger? Therein lies the rub. In a good department, you will get shoot-no-shoot training. It will surprise you. You stand in front of a very large screen, your weapon holstered. On the screen (for example) appears in video exactly what you would see responding to an armed-robbery call at a small store. A woman, the proprietor’s wife, frantically accosts you. “He robbed us! He has a gun! He went into the alley.” Gun in hand, you run down the alley, scared and breathing hard. A man with a gun turns the corner, gun in shooting position. You fire. You just killed the proprietor who also was chasing the perp with his own gun.
Back on the real street. A 250-pound guy crazy on PCP charges you with the clear intention of doing you harm. How much harm? He could kill you. It isn’t part of your job description to find out. You don’t have time in three seconds to try pepper-spray (which doesn’t work well on PCP heads anyway) or send for a Taser, or shout, “Halt in the name of the law, oh evil emissary of the forces of chaos!”
Bang. Maybe he was just going to give you a hug and a kiss.
It’s an old piece, not written in response to recent events.