Q. Joe is a character from where I work. Wait, he’s not a character, he’s a real person. Sorry Joe! Joe, will you tell us a bit about your part time work with the police?
A. I work as a Reserve Officer for a local municipality of about 35,000 people. Reserve Officers in my city are not the same as what most people think of as ʻpolice officersʼ. We donʼt do traffic stops or arrest people. Weʼre civilian volunteers who patrol with another Reserve Officer about one shift a week, work at special events in the community, are called out in times of emergency, and occasionally partner up with Regular police officers for a shift. We drive marked police cruisers and have uniforms similar to the Regular officers, and many of the same items on our duty belts, but we donʼt carry side arms. Youʼll often see us directing traffic at a car crash. If you lock your keys in your car, weʼll come open it up for you. If you break down on the side of the road, weʼll sit behind you until you get going again after you fix your tire or the tow truck picks you up, or what ever your situation is.
I started in early 2001 and Iʼve been the Operations Sergeant for the Unit since 2011. I originally signed on to get my foot in the door and gain experience to eventually become a police officer and attended the Police Academy (which is not required to be in this Unit) in 2006. I eventually decided to take a different route in life, but enjoy the work so Iʼve stayed on, and likely will continue for quite some time. As a side note, my wife (who at the time was my fiance) joined the Unit about a year after me and is a Reserve Officer as well.
Q. Since a conversation I had with you, I’ve always made a point to slow my speed by at least 25% whenever approaching an emergency vehicle on the side of the road. As drivers it seems obvious we’ll be able to pass safely, but you’ve made me more sensitive to the perspective of someone out on the road working with cars whizzing past. Tell us a bit about what that’s like.
A. As I said, Iʼve been doing this a long time. I donʼt remember a time when playing in the street seemed unnatural, which is a double edged sword, I guess. On the one hand, when my boots are on asphalt, I have a naturally heightened awareness of whatʼs going on around me. On the other hand, I sometimes worry that Iʼm too comfortable with the idea of cars driving that close to me at regular speeds. A few years ago, an officer at a neighboring department was struck on the highway while removing debris from the roadway. A short time later, another officer at a nearby village was struck while directing traffic. Both officers died as a result, and thatʼs a thing I remain cognizant of every time I step into the street. Iʼve lost count of how many cruisers in my department have been destroyed from being stuck while on the side of the road, overhead lights on, just since I started.
Q. I was a wild youth; I used to speed by, sometimes, ten miles over the limit. Back when I was a speeder, I used to refer to police officers trying to ruin my fun as “cops.” Now I’m reformed and I’m grateful police officers are out and about, and I shy away from calling them “cops.” Do you find “cops” a derogatory term?
A. Not at all. There are several theories as to where it comes from. One says the term originated from slang referencing the badges of local city watchmen in the 18th or 19th century, which were made of copper. Another says itʼs an acronym for “Constable On Patrol”. I know there are more but those are the ones I always remember because theyʼre the ones I find the most plausible. Either way, thereʼs so many slang terms for police officers, ranging from “The Fuzz” to “pigs”, but “cops” is the one that we use the most to refer to ourselves. Itʼs an element of the heritage of the job, and I donʼt know of any cops who are offended by it.
Q. I’d like to share two cop stories and you let me know what you think. Go! Oh, wait, the stories. The first time I got pulled over for speeding, the cop lectured me, condescendingly, for a solid five minutes and I let him because I thought a warning was coming, then he went to his car and came back and handed me a ticket. Another time I got pulled over for an illegal U-turn (totally did it) and I was a mouthy jerk to the police officer. He basically ignored me. He said, “You made an illegal U-turn. And I’ve been watching you jumping lane to lane for the last mile (also did that) so you weren’t driving all that well before then, either.” Ticket and he left. Now, older and wiser, I think the second police officer was reasonable and even showed exceptional patience. The first one, I still think was kind of a jerk. But what do you think?
A. A close friend of mine who passed away in the Line of Duty a couple years ago once told me that he cited everyone he stopped that was under 18 years of age (the option between a warning or a traffic citation, in most cases, is at the officerʼs discretion). He said that whatever the behavior that caused him to initiate a traffic stop on them, the basis was an error in judgement on their part, likely from the arrogance and feeling of indestructibility of youth, and that if he gave them the strictest possible civil repercussion (a traffic ticket) now, his hope was that it would prevent them from doing that again, and hopefully save then from the strictest of real world repercussions, such as crashing, and losing their life or taking someone elseʼs. You indicated earlier that you drove “more aggressively” in your youth, which is, I assume, when your first story occurred. That cop probably gave a similar speech and ticket to dozens, if not hundreds, of youths over his career, and it may not have worked on you, but it probably saved a life or two along the way. The second guy sounds like the picture of professionalism.
Q. Joe, thanks for sharing that story. That’s a wonderful legacy your friend left.
Do people ever stare at your gun and ask you questions about it, and if so how does that make you feel? How do you respond?
A. I donʼt carry a side arm, as I stated above, but I do have a long gun in the cruiser, so if I have it out for them to see, the conversation doesnʼt usually involve a lot of questions on their part, and it definitely has their attention. The less tongue-in-cheek answer is, it depends. Sometimes I do get upright citizeny folks who, from natural curiosity, look for a gun on my belt, and sometimes they ask why I donʼt have one. I either explain about what a Reserve Officer is, or depending on my sense of the person (obvious sense of humor, or a kid) occasionally may open with an explanation about how a firearm is unnecessary in light of my ninja skills. If theyʼre a dirtbaggy kind of folk, it gets my hackles up and makes me more cautious than usual.
Q. For me personally, two facebook posts about the shooting in Newtown struck me powerfully. One was the picture of the police officers hugging outside the school. Obviously those police officers would be the first to say that those children and their families suffered far worse that day, but those officers will spend the rest of their lives dealing with witnessing something so horrific. There’s no training for that, but is there some preemptive training for witnessing tragedy? Is the possibility of witnessing a tragic event something you prepare for consciously? And the other post that struck me was yours where you posted that police officers were meeting with children for a charity shopping trip, and you wrote “Police officers and grade-schoolers together but not for any tragic reason.” I thought it was bold to post something so positive, while referencing the shooting, and I found it immensely helpful in coping with that event. Any comment on that?
A. Thereʼs a lot of question marks there, but Iʼm going to treat it like two questions. The first, is there training and how do we prepare for extremely tragic circumstances? When I was in the Academy, during the child abuse course, our instructor, who specialized in that field of investigation for an unimaginable 15 years (most get burned out after a couple years and change assignments), told us a story that I rarely repeat, and included pictures that even now, I canʼt un-see. I wonʼt get into the details, but a mother killed her child in a manner that would breech your ability to suspend your disbelief if you saw it in a horror movie. The point is, how do you mentally prepare for something that is unfathomable to you, as a well balanced, civilized human being? You canʼt. But you build up callouses with each instance, and you hope thatʼs enough to get you through the next escalation of insanity. And thereʼs a reason the majority of cops have one or more failed marriages. You canʼt bring that home to your spouse, your best friend and most private confidant. “How was your day, Dear?” “Not great, letʼs leave it at that.” Itʼs a load to carry. Itʼs helpful knowing that itʼs a shared experience, and that thereʼs someone else you can talk to about it. Most cops develop a healthy (Unhealthy? I donʼt know, ask a psychologist.) sense of “gallows humor” as a coping mechanism, but even that has a line that canʼt be crossed. I hope I never have to see anything close to what those officers saw that day in Connecticut.
Man, that got dark. Letʼs bring it up a bit in the answer to the second question, which I loosely interpret to be how do you maintain a positive sense in light of tragedy? I assume youʼre alluding to my post about Shop With A Cop, which this year was the weekend after the Newtown, CT Shooting youʼre referring to. The Shop With A Cop program is paid for by donations. Police officers and underprivileged kids, as a group, have breakfast together, then travel in a procession of police cars, lights and sirens the whole way, to a nearby retailer, where the kids are given money to shop for Christmas gifts for themselves and/or family members. Each cop is assigned one or two kids. After shopping, they return to have lunch with the officers. In the days after a disaster, the news media will harp on it as much as they can. It might have been a bold post on my part, but people, including me, needed to be reminded that cops are not only associated with catastrophe. Red and blue lights in the rearview mirror donʼt always mean trouble.