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45 Things Police Officers Want You to Know

We spoke with police officers around the country, and their answers offer a glimpse into the great highs and debilitating lows they experience as they try to serve our communities. Their jobs have been put under a spotlight in recent years––here's what they want you to know.

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The news can be misleading

If you get information about policing only from watching the news, the impression you are left with is that all police-civilian interactions are going badly. That’s not the case. —Sue Rahr, former sheriff, now executive director of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission. These are the craziest things 911 dispatchers have heard on the job.

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We appreciate being appreciated

Officers tell me people are stopping them daily, thanking them, buying them lunch or a cup of coffee. Reasonable people know that police are under extreme scrutiny right now. They’re coming up and thanking us for the job we do. —Lt. Bob Kroll, president of the Police Officers Federation of Minneapolis

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The world has made us cynical

The best part of the job? Waving to a kid and getting a wave in return and not a middle finger. We were much more idealistic 15, 20 years ago. We were going to change the world. Unfortunately, the world changed us. We’re more cynical, more guarded, less trusting. —Chicago police officers who blog anonymously at secondcitycop.blogspot.com

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We know people are afraid, and that bothers us

I pulled over a female the other day, and it took her a block or two to stop. When she finally did, I asked why, and she said she didn’t want to stop where there wasn’t any light, because she didn’t know what I was going to do to her. I thought, Wow, we’re the bad guys now. —Jay Stalien, a police officer in Florida who also served in Baltimore

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We get a shocking number of threats

We live in a society that has become more hostile toward the government and its officials. We receive many more threats than we used to. —An Iowa state trooper

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Race impacts how people see us

As an African American myself, I’m viewed as some kind of traitor. —Jay Stalien

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We get nervous, too

That anxiety you feel when you encounter us? We feel it too. —Nakia Jones, a police officer in Warrensville Heights, Ohio

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Weapons have become a major concern

Before, when we stopped a car, we just walked up, said “You’re speeding,” and asked for license and registration. Now the first thing we ask is if they have a weapon in the vehicle. —An Iowa state trooper

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Fewer people want to become cops

With all the scrutiny and the anti-police climate right now, it’s becoming a challenge to recruit good and qualified people. There has been a big drop in interest. —Lt. Bob Kroll

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We act out of self-defense

People seem to think that we should take the time to discern whether a gun is real, whether a person is willing to use it, and if they will shoot. We can’t wait for a person to shoot first. That could mean not going home at the end of your shift. —An Iowa state trooper

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Our use of force is judged by our colleagues

The Supreme Court says whether an officer’s use of force is justified or not should be judged not with the benefit of hindsight, but by whether other officers with similar amounts of training and the same facts before them find that same amount of force to be reasonable. —Jim Bueermann, a former police chief and president of the Washington-based Police Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to improving law enforcement

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Listening to us is the simplest way to avoid conflicts

I don’t agree with the actions the officers took in all the recent shootings, but with few exceptions, if the person just did what the officer asked, nobody would be dead. —Jay Stalien

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There’s a right way to respond when we pull you over

If you’re pulled over, turn on the dome light if it’s dark, roll down the window, and wait with your hands in sight on the wheel. If the officer asks to see your license, insurance, and registration, tell him or her where those things are before reaching for them. That’s because most wallets are where a criminal would carry a gun (pocket, purse, glove box). Then move slowly, without any sudden jerks. —Chicago police officers who blog anonymously

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Doing what we ask helps everyone

If you don’t comply with a police officer’s orders, you’re putting yourself and the officer at risk, because now the situation is getting escalated. —An Iowa state trooper

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Stories about shootings can get blown out of proportion

There were a lot of false narratives at play in some of the police shootings. We now know that Jamar Clark was not handcuffed and then shot. And people quote Michael Brown with his hands up saying, “Don’t shoot.” But he never said that. —Lt. Bob Kroll (Editor’s note: Jamar Clark, 24, from Minneapolis was killed during a struggle with police. Charges were not brought against the officers involved. Michael Brown, 18, was shot and killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Charges were not brought against the officer involved.)

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The public should be better informed

So many incidents have turned into rioting because no one knows what happened. We need to be better at explaining police procedure and sharing the details we have so far with the public.—Jay Stalien

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We should connect more with community leaders

Compare the calm in Tulsa this past September after an officer shot an unarmed black man with the rioting that took place in Charlotte. The fact that the Tulsa police released the videos right away had an impact. But what stood out to me in Tulsa was the police department’s strong engagement with church and community leaders. It looked to me like a lot of work had been done in that city to build relationships with black leaders, and I think that helped quell the reaction. —Sue Rahr

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Cultural differences hinder us

Many officers lack experience dealing with different cultures. There was a white guy from rural Oregon in my policing class. We were policing a city that’s mostly black. He was like a fish out of water. He couldn’t communicate. People were like, “What’s he saying?”—Eric Quarles, PhD, a federal law-enforcement officer who served as a city police officer for 18 years

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We get angry when officers abuse their power

I felt like quitting the force when I watched the Alton Sterling and Philando Castile shooting videos. It broke my heart. But it made me angry too. If you’re that officer, and you have a God complex or you’re afraid of people who don’t look like you, you have no business wearing the uniform. Take it off. —Nakia Jones (Editor’s note: Alton Sterling, 37, was shot several times while held down on the ground by two Baton Rouge police officers. The shooting investigation is ongoing. Philander Castile, 32, was killed during a traffic stop in Minnesota.)

Find out the 10 secrets traffic cops aren’t telling you about avoiding a speeding ticket.

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Admittedly, it is easy to abuse our power

As a police officer, it’s hard not to have a superiority complex. You take a 21-year-old male, you give him a uniform, a gun, pepper spray, a Taser, a nightstick. On an individual basis, we have more power than the president. I can pull people over for no reason, arrest people, and change their lives forever. No banker can do that. No doctor can do it. We are giving young people so much power. Without the right training, it can easily go to their heads. —Eric Quarles, PhD

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Gender is part of the problem

This is a guy thing. Most police shootings are by male officers. When I was a police chief, we made a decision there would always be one or two women on our SWAT team. I told them, “I need a den mother. I need you to be there because you are a rational person who can help tamp down some of that testosterone.” —Jim Bueermann

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Some officers form cliques

People ask me, “Why don’t good police officers rat out bad police officers?” Well, just like in any other organization, there are cultures and subcultures. Police officers who tend to do things by the book hang out with other officers who do things by the book. Those who push the envelope hang out with other people like them. —Eric Quarles, PhD

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We wish more cops spoke up about misconduct

Why does anyone in any industry not report the misbehavior of friends and colleagues? —Jim Bueermann

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The tactics we use now should be revisited

We need to teach proper police tactics so officers have more options when someone doesn’t cooperate. In the Tamir Rice case, officers there were dispatched to a man with a gun in a park. It turned out to be a 12-year-old boy with an Airsoft-style pistol. But because the officers drove right up to him instead of staying at a distance, they didn’t have an opportunity to take cover. When they saw him with gun in hand, that left them with no other option but to fire. —Sue Rahr (Editor’s note: Tamir Rice, 12, from Cleveland was killed when police mistook his air gun for a real gun. Charges were not brought against the officers involved.)

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Improving communication could save lives

Communications training is sorely lacking in policing. Look at Eric Garner. Here’s a case that starts out as a minor infraction [selling untaxed, loose cigarettes]. The officers are trying to talk to him, and it’s not going well. In a case like that, if they had better communication skills, they may not have had to use that kind of physical force. —Jim Bueermann (Editor’s note: New Yorker Eric Garner, 43, died when he was put into an outlawed choke hold. A grand jury refused to bring charges against the officer involved, but a sergeant on the scene was brought up on departmental charges.)

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We want to get to know you

Departments that are doing it right look for ways to connect with residents when they’re not in crisis. When I was chief of Brooklyn Park, Minnesota, one of my command staff members was a fisherman, so we started a Cops ’N’ Kids Fishing Tournament. We’d take 100 kids each year and have fun. Over time, those off-line interactions add up. —Mike Davis, chief of police at Northeastern University in Boston

Find out the 5 things you should never, ever do in an emergency.

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We avoid using force, if we can help it

Tucson, Arizona, created a new unit to handle cases involving mental illness. These officers serve the department’s involuntary commitment orders, which typically involve a lot of conflict. They go in plain clothes and start building rapport with the person before serving the order. To date, they’ve served over 1,500 orders and had to use force only twice in emergency situations; that’s remarkable. —Sue Rahr

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The best officers are the best listeners

As I’ve matured in this job, I’ve learned that you become a better police officer when you listen to people. We’re trained to neutralize a threat, to make arrests. But I find that if I let off the gas a little, listen a bit more, I can resolve problems with a lot less conflict. Some of the problems we encounter, people just want to vent. —Eric Quarles, PhD

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Our work changes the way we think

We’re not automatons. We see people at their worst, and it makes us jaded. —Chicago police officers who blog anonymously

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Our jobs are emotionally draining

We are affected by things we experience on the job. I get a lot of calls where I see children who have been abused and neglected. I’ll go into a house and there’s no running water, no electricity, feces all over, and kids there who haven’t eaten for days. Sometimes, I’ll say a prayer while I’m there. It wears on you. —An Iowa state trooper

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We don’t want to fire our guns

When we shoot somebody, even if it’s justified, you better believe it’s tearing us up inside. Some officers can’t even come back to work after that. Remember, most of us never have to take a shot during our careers.—Nakia Jones

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We care about the people we serve

Every time I teach a policing class, I ask who in the classroom has ever reached into their pocket while on duty and given someone money for food, gas, or shelter. All of the hands go up. —Rex Caldwell, of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission; retired police chief of Mukilteo, Washington

Try these 10 phrases if you want to get out of a speeding ticket.

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For every negative police story, there are more positive ones

There are thousands of stories of officers doing wonderful things to interact with their communities. For example, in Iowa, an officer bought a single mother a car after hers was totaled. —Sue Rahr

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Most people don’t hear about the good officers

There are officers of all races doing good deeds every day, things that the public doesn’t see or hear about.—Nakia Jones

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We believe that people are good

Kids wanting to get inside the squad car to run the lights and siren. A parent thanking us for bringing their kid home. A victim thanking us for writing them a report even though they’re the one getting bandaged up at a hospital. These are the things that restore our tattered faith in human nature. —Chicago police officers who blog anonymously

Check out the things that will get you a speeding ticket (besides speeding).

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The justice system is bigger than one bad department

We can’t say the American criminal justice system is broken because there’s not one system: we exist as 18,000 different departments. There are departments doing it right, and departments doing it wrong. —Mike Davis

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Don’t assume our actions are biased

When someone is caught with a small amount of marijuana, our officers can either make an arrest or issue a ticket/notice to appear. The legal criteria for giving a ticket (as opposed to an arrest) is that they have stable employment, ties to community and assurances they’ll show up in court. The reality is, if you live in a lower socioeconomic area, you are less likely to meet those criteria. So is that cops being biased or is it because the laws as written disproportionately affect those in lower socioeconomic conditions, many of whom happen to be black? —Bob Gualtieri, Sheriff of Pinellas County, Fla.

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We acknowledge that racism does exist on the force

When white people don’t comply or make threats, police officers follow through on their training and try to talk them down. With African Americans, it seems to me that my colleagues don’t always use the same tactics. They just go right in. It frustrates me when I hear officers say, “Well, he didn’t do what we said from the beginning.” Fine, but that doesn’t give you the right to plug him.—Eric Quarles, PhD

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We are not all the same

When I became a police officer, I was that person who wanted to save the world. Now, so many people hate us. It doesn’t matter if we’re black or white; they say, “You all wear blue.”—Nakia Jones

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Most cops support body cameras

Body cameras? Most good officers are like, bring it on. We want to put them on so the community can see what we go through and how hard our jobs are. —Nakia Jones

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Not everyone reacts to body cameras the same way

Cameras seem to work two ways: they calm people down who realize there is an impartial observer recording everything they say. These are usually older, more mature people. Or, conversely, they provoke the younger set to act out and perform for an audience that may or may not see the video at some future date. —Chicago police officers who blog anonymously

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Body cameras may actually hinder us

One consequence of cameras is that we might get a lot less cooperation. When we’re chasing someone, people sometimes give us a wink, a point or a nod in the right direction. We have people all the time who whisper information in our ear. With cameras, we risk all of that going out the window because people really don’t like be recorded. —A police officer in Massachusetts

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Our data on shootings is flawed

One issue is that we do not have good data on something as simple as the number of people who are killed by police officers in this country. Because we have a voluntary reporting system, agencies all over the U.S. do not report incidents to the FBI. The best data have been compiled by newspapers, and their numbers are double what the FBI shows. —Jim Bueermann

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Videos don’t tell the whole story

Videos of police shooting don’t always show everything, and releasing them can make a situation more confusing. Also, if you release a video too early, you can end up tainting some witnesses. They may watch it and then form an opinion like we all do as humans. It’s important to talk to all witnesses before any video comes out so you can get firsthand knowledge of what they saw. —Sean Gormley, a former police chief who is executive director of a police union in Minnesota

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We’re a tight-knit group

You’ll never find a group of people more dedicated to each other outside of the military, but it’s a closed shop. Outsiders can’t get in. —Chicago police officers who blog anonymously. Next, read about the secrets 911 operators won’t tell you.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest