"There’s a conception out there that policemen walk around shooting wantonly. In my experience and training, that’s hardly the truth"
As told to Chaya Inselburg
As America convulses with anti-police sentiment and the public debate centers around the question of defunding police departments, we reached out to a beat officer in a typical American city to hear his take.
Our interviewee, who’s been prohibited by his supervisor from sharing his name or any identifying details, is a police sergeant with over a decade’s experience within the uniform patrol division of the department of a midsized city. This division is what most people would call the “beat officers,” or those who work the street 24/7. Here are the things he wishes you knew.
1. Weapons are the last resort
There’s a conception out there that policemen walk around shooting wantonly. In my experience and training, that’s hardly the truth. During my six months of training at the academy and the three months of on-the-job training that followed, we internalized a system where weapons are the last resort.
At the academy, we learned a mix of police methodology, such as how to de-escalate a situation; and skills, like the use of restraints and weapons. We use restraints and weapons only in cases where a suspect is being non-compliant when we try to take him into custody.
In the police department, we have something called the “use of force continuum,” which is a system that mandates different levels of force according to different circumstances. The first level is officer present with soft, empty hands, which means that hopefully just having an officer on the scene would make somebody comply, and it just rises from there. If soft hands don’t ensure cooperation, we move on to hard hands, which is using more of a fist. Then we move to the non-lethal weapons, and then there’s the deadly force situation which is when we’re authorized to use our weapon.
Not only do we have to memorize the continuum in training, but the most important thing is knowing when to use a certain force in a given situation.
Most of the time, when I go out on a call, the first two levels are going to be enough. Based upon the number of interactions that my division has had, I can say that incidents of force are few and far between. Most of the time the situations can be handled just by the officer being there.
2. I know how it feels to be tased
I carry a 9mm Glock 17 — that’s the main service weapon. Although I don’t carry a secondary weapon, there are officers who do. All of us have to qualify every year with our duty weapon. This means we have to do what’s called a “course of fire,” or exercises with live ammunition to make sure we’re proficient. And I’ve learned to always assume that my gun is loaded. The implications: You have to be very careful with it, you never want to point it at anyone, and you always want to make sure you’re handling your weapon with the upmost respect because it’s something that could be used to take somebody’s life — including your own.
I also carry a Taser, which I’ve had to use a couple of times on duty. Before getting certified to carry it or to use pepper spray, we actually had to be tased and sprayed so that we could understand the effect those actions might have on somebody, should we decide to implement them.
Getting tased was very painful, but I understand the rationale. Until you know how painful it is, you’re not going to know what it’s going to do to somebody else. Knowing how much it hurts helped me be more sympathetic to the people I had to tase.
3. Policemen mediate more than they punish
Daily life on the beat can be very stressful. I work among a diverse population, but the area of the city that I’m in is predominantly minority. Right now I’m in charge of ten officers who work on the street, and my job is to assist them in responding to calls for service. When people dial 911, and they need an officer to come, my officers are the ones who respond.
The most common calls I receive are traffic accidents and disturbance calls between non-family members. We get a lot of calls for domestic violence between family members, and of course we get some of the more violent calls — armed robberies, shootings, and aggravated assaults. Sometimes we respond to death investigations.
Most people think that all the police do is punish people. But the majority of what police officers do is wear these different hats and act as mediators of the situations, helping people solve their problems. Yes, sometimes they have to arrest people, and sometimes they have to act more like enforcers, but in general, police officers are there to help people. Sometimes there’s psychology, there’s family therapy, there’s being a surrogate parent, helping parents when they’re having issues with their own children, so we definitely wear different hats.
For example, I once went on a call where the couple was having an argument about child custody. At the time, I had just gone through my own divorce, so I was able to share my experiences with the couple. I was able to tell them that it might be difficult right now, but as long as you keep your priorities straight and put your children first, things will work out. Because I shared my experiences, they could relate to me and trust me, and that calmed things down.
4. Many of our decisions must be made in a split second
In so many different situations, police officers have to make split-second decisions that could affect their lives and other people’s lives. There’s a huge responsibility in having to make those decisions knowing that, at the end of the day, they could be discussed and litigated for years and years. It is very stressful because it could cost an officer his life, or his future. And if an officer stops to think too much about what he would do or should do or is going to do, that could be the difference between life and death.
Thankfully, I have never fired my weapon on the force. But there are plenty of times that I’ve second-guessed a decision. There were two times in my career when I was a split second away from firing my gun in the line of duty. Those were situations where I was confronted by suspects who also had guns, and, until they put their guns down, those were very tense situations.
But in reality, on every call there is a level of uncertainty, a measure of danger and risk, because you have no idea what a person is thinking or feeling. A lot of times, when you finally figure out what they’re going to do, it’s too late.
5. We’re feeling judged
As officers, we get second-guessed on a regular basis, but now, with everything going on after the [George Floyd] situation, it’s a whole new level. Officers are thinking twice about doing anything and everything — because everything they do can result in them losing their job or being arrested or, if they don’t act fast enough, they could be killed. Basically, there’s an assumption of guilt whenever an officer does something. Right now, officers are being accused without any sort of due process. They’re being fired or being arrested in the line of duty, which is unheard of.
The latest developments have affected every department and every officer, sometimes in the same way and sometimes in different ways. We’re still in the middle of this — it’s not over yet. But there’s going to be a new seismic effect based on the current events. It’s just a matter of when.
6. We’ve seen lots of change already
Over my years in the police force, I’ve watched as policing has changed dramatically from when I started. It has become more community oriented — meaning it’s less about crime and punishment and more about interfacing with the community and building bridges within it.
In the squad where I work, we’re constantly trying to do things better. Unless it’s a very serious situation where the officer has to be spoken to right away, we usually do what’s called an “after-action review,” which means that after every call, we’ll review how things were done, what would have been the best way to do it, and what ways can we do it better. I can speak for myself and my officers to say that we’re constantly trying to do things better both for ourselves and for our citizens.
Some of the things that have been surprising on the force is the way people respond in a given situation. In general, you go into an encounter with your own idea of how an interaction is going to go, but many times it doesn’t go the way you thought. So for example, if you think that you’re doing something right by somebody but maybe the way you presented it to them didn’t satisfy what they were looking for, then the outcome is different from what you expected.
I think what I’ve learned the most is that there is a lot of diversity in this world, that there are a lot of personalities in this world, and we have to understand how other people think and how people operate, and we also have to understand how to effectively deal with other people who aren’t like us.
7.Defunding police departments will come with serious repercussions
People are now saying that funding should be taken out of police force and put into social service programs in order to reduce the crime rate. I can foresee both positive and negative repercussions from those proposals. Obviously you want to do what’s in the community’s best interest by putting money into programs that would help people, but you also have to understand that when you take away money — when you don’t pay people what the market is supposed to be paying people for the job that they’re doing — that’s when you start losing qualified candidates or good officers because they can no longer afford to live their life on their salary. And we could always use more officers. That’s my opinion.
If you’d ask me which kinds of changes I think would make a real difference, I would suggest that we recruit law-enforcement officers at a later age. When you show up on a call and a husband and wife are fighting with each other and it’s a very volatile situation and you have to be the one to calm both sides down, the officer’s age makes a real difference. Imagine what happens when the officer in question is very young, and there’s a couple in their fifties — how is he going to relate to a couple who have kids and financial problems if he doesn’t have life experience? How are they going to relate to a young person who still lives with his parents? We should hire people with more life experience because it’s easier for them to relate to the people in crisis.
8. Don’t lump the good together with the bad
I personally have not witnessed racial discrimination on the force but there’s no question that it does exist within law enforcement; it’s just a question of to what extent. If I could tell people anything about the police force, I would reiterate that the majority of police officers out there are doing their job and are doing what they do for the right reasons, and it’s unfortunate that a small minority who don’t do things the way they should are giving those who honor the badge a very bad name. There’s good and bad everywhere, and it doesn’t benefit anybody to lock good people in with the bad people.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 815)
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