Cop Stress

I’ve been engaging in a series of enlightening conversations with a currently retired, self-described “intimidating cop” I work with. We tend to be on opposing sides on issues such as gun control but are able to have mutually respectful discussions. (For the record, we’re mostly working, and we also are mostly working.) I’m not interviewing him, we’re just talking, so I’m not comfortable sharing too much, but I’m comfortable sharing this.

I told him how the other day I was walking through town with my headphones on, in my own little world, and I noticed a man in his car honking and yelling out his window at another driver. Both cars had been at a green light waiting to turn left but traffic the other way kept coming, through the yellow light and even a last car came through on red. The woman was barely into the intersection and remained stopped. Well, this guy thought she should have turned. Probably he would have turned too. He got out of his car and took a step toward hers, shaking his fist.

I said, “Especially these days with all the stories of road rage incidents, that might have been a traumatizing experience for that woman.”

He said, “I know. Well, look at how you were traumatized. You just said you were in your own little world enjoying your music, and then you saw that happen.”

That, to me, seemed very revealing of the stress police officers must experience. It hadn’t even occurred to me to think of that as something that happened to me, but he was right. I had already prepared to intervene, if the guy had taken another step toward the woman’s car. And I was still coming down from the jolt of stress that preparation had sent to my, in this case, fight instinct. (Not fight, likely, but confrontation with a hot-headed complete stranger) I told my mom the story, later that day, and I was telling him because I was still processing this event that, supposedly, hadn’t happened to me.

From some of the stories he tells, this is a man who endured enormous stress working in high crime areas. His tactic was to develop an intimidating persona. He wanted “bad guys” to be afraid of him. I don’t necessarily agree with him that that’s a good strategy, for a lot of situations, but I listen well and value his opinions because he has experience in situations I’ve never encountered, once, much less experienced on a daily basis for years.

We’re able to converge in the middle and openly discuss an important issue that’s often presented through the media and social networking as a battle between two extremes, the one summed up by “cops are assholes” and the other by “all police officers deserve to go home at the end of the day.” The first is an offensive generalization and the second is everyone’s wish but a way of skirting the issue. It’s not actually saying anything. All farmers and all garbage collectors deserve to go home at the end of the day but these are dangerous jobs, both statistically more dangerous than being a police officer.

Although being a police officer likely feels many times more dangerous to a police officer than being a farmer feels to a farmer. I would imagine police officers approach suspects highly cognizant of the reality that any next one could be armed and ready to kill. Farmers might approach animals less cognizant of the reality that any next one could kick and kill them. And that difference between statistical likelihood and subjective concern manifests itself as a tangible stress. So we take steps that address that stress. Already there are procedures and protocol in place to help police officers handle the stress of their difficult job and keep them functioning at a high level that keeps everyone safe. Why can’t we praise them and insist that be improved, at the same time? That just seems like sensible meeting in the middle. Not to present us as a model, but that’s what my work friend and I manage to do, and probably plenty of other civil discussions are taking place, face to face, among people across the country, but then we all get online and start arguing from extremes and just get further divided.

Interviewing

In Stephen King’s fantastic book on writing, On Writing, which I read in one sitting I was enjoying it so much, he said one thing that has always irked me. He said that he said in an interview that he writes every day, except Christmas, Easter, and his birthday. Then he said that was a lie. He writes every day. He made that up because if you agree to an interview you have to make sure to say something interesting.

I agree wholeheartedly that you have to make sure to say something interesting in an interview. Everyone involved is giving up their time, for you. The interviewer and anyone reading. Their time is to be respected. That goes for any time any writing is published. Whether someone is reading or not, someone might, and as a writer your job is to value that gift of time. That doesn’t mean they have to like it, that part is out of your control, but it should be the best work you can present.

I wouldn’t agree to the lying part. Readers are deserving of your time and also the truth. Stephen King has plenty of characters in plenty of books he can give interesting character quirks to. He doesn’t need to make them up to pretend to be interesting for an interview. He also said in On Writing that he doesn’t remember writing Pet Sematary, which was told to demonstrate how severe his abuse of drugs and alcohol was prior to getting sober. So maybe he exaggerated (lied) about how little of the writing of that book he recalls. Now, how do we know?

I know people are likely thinking, Talk to us when you’re Stephen King, which will be never. That’s fine. I’m not bashing him. I just think there’s a better approach. You disclose the truth. You turn off that part of your brain that worries what negative things people might think and not say or think and say about what you disclosed and get to the truth. You uncover that truth and reveal it. And hopefully it will be interesting. Whether it is or not, to readers, is out of your control. And here is a character quirk that is true. Since Robin and I completed our Q and A exchange, some weeks before the post went live, I’ve been too shy to return and read my answers. So, how did I do?

http://bostonliterarymagazine.com/sum12interview.html#metcalf.html

The interview Robin Stratton did with me can be found at the link above. Check out Robin’s website, at the link below:

http://www.robinstratton.com/

She has links to excerpts from her novels and links to resources for writers. Lots of great stuff!

Joe Interview

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.