30+ Years of Lessons Learned

How you can learn lessons from the author's 30+ year police career


I started working security while attending university to become an elementary school teacher.  The accounts I worked, closed factories and such, allowed me to study while on duty.  I was following the family tradition set by my Father.  In the summer I was a security supervisor at a large outdoor concert facility.  During my tenure there I gained tremendous experience in interpersonal confrontation and encounters (I broke up a lot of fights and ejected hundreds of drunks and violent concert goers).  I worked concerts in the rain and mud, at night with thousands of persons under the influence.  The conditions were ripe for a young security officer to make mistakes and, boy did I.  My teaching career came to a screeching halt when I soon caught the LE bug.  As soon as I turned 21 years old I was commissioned as a Deputy Sheriff for my local Sheriff’s Office.  Over the years there I worked corrections, road patrol, warrant detail and directed a lot of traffic as well as working security for six more years at that same outdoor amphitheater.

In 1990 I was hired by my current agency where I’ve been assigned to: nightshift patrol, uniform street narcotics, plainclothes narcotics detective, SWAT operator as well as team leader and then training bureau instructor.  Over those years I’ve made a lot of mistakes and witnessed even more.  A wise man tries to learn from the mistakes of others – it’s a lot less painful.  Here are some of the hard lessons I’ve learned over my career.

  • Be prepared for rough weather.  I bought my first raincoat after a huge thunderstorm left me wet for the rest of the night.  I don’t get cold or wet.  I learned to be prepared.
  • I don’t go hungry or thirsty.  I have been while working in the past but it’s too easy to carry water and power bars nowadays.
  • Have more than one flashlight.  Working at night and having your light die is stupid.  I’ve controlled crowds and found armed men with guns in low or subdued lighting.  Have a good back-up flashlight.
  • Take a “pit-stop” (bathroom break) when you can.  A full bladder can impair your focus and lead to voiding (urinating in your pants) during a violent encounter.
  • Carry a back-up gun.  I’ve been an officer for too long to not believe in back-up guns for a variety of bad situations.
  • Wear your body armor.  I’ve worn it on the hottest days, in the hottest apartments and houses – beats the heck out of the heat of a bullet passing through your body.
  • Slow down – over the years about every officer I know has been involved in a traffic accident while on duty.  Don’t court disaster by driving too fast or recklessly.
  • Get enough sleep.  I’ve worked with guys who were exhausted at the beginning of the shift from working too many extra jobs or simply not taking the time to get enough zzzz’s.  When you work the nightshift, sleeping is tough to schedule with all that goes on but is important for your readiness.  I invested in a white noise machine while working nights.  The soft droning noise of a waterfall prevents various sounds from interrupting your sleep.
  • Look good in uniform.  When you walk into a home or the worst of tenement apartment’s people judge you by your appearance.  Project a positive prepared professional image it pays off in officer survival.
  • It’s better to be good than lucky.  Skills diminish over time.  Keep them fresh with regular training.
  • Keep records of emails and other meetings, conversations and events.  During one internal affairs investigation I was able to back-up my claims and versions of events.  Others who attacked me got spanked, I didn’t.
  • Learn to write – well.  During my police career the need for written communication has proven itself during all phases.  You are judged by your ability to articulate in the written form – master it.
  • Invest in good footwear.  My feet were blistered after wearing my low cut duty shoes on the first shift I ever worked in security.  A loving uncle bought me better shoes and I’ve spent a lot of money on boots, mid-length and low cut shoes and boots since.  Aching, sore or blistered feet can ruin your shift, don’t skimp on footwear.
  • Don’t take it personal.  Some mope may call you names, throw a punch or worse but don’t take it personal.  Personal feelings like anger can cloud your judgment.  It’s your job; it’s the uniform – they don’t know or care about you from Adam.
  • Learn to hit hard with everything you’ve got.  From pistol through carbine, from pepper spray to a right cross, be able to deliver fight stopping accuracy and power on target.
  • Exercise – over the years I’ve worked out and burned up a lot of stress by striking my heavy bag, pushing the iron around, jogging, and walking.  With one knee repaired last year and the other to be fixed this fall, my running days are over but I can still walk and ride a bike and it’s a great catharsis for LE stress.
  • Know the law.  In cases and trials over my career I’ve had judges, supervisors and prosecutors apologize when they misread the law or rules of evidence and I was correct.  I don’t say this to boast but knowing the law is vital to your street effectiveness.
  • Know use of force law.  Read Tennessee v. Garner and Graham v. Connor.  Know what constitutes a use of force seizure, what objective reasonableness means and what totality of the circumstances entails.  Whether it’s fists, feet, OC spray, Taser or deadly force, your use of force decisions will be so much better when you understand the law.
  • Understand the Sympathetic Nervous System (fight or flight) response to fear.  When in a stressful or fearful situation your SNS response is a cascading effect which starts with a hormone secreted in your brain and ends up with everything from shaking hands to perceptual distortions.  It is natural, read about and understand it and then control it with autogenic breathing.
  • Balance out your life.  Life as a cop can oftentimes make things out of whack.  Create balance by working on the “non-cop” stuff in your life.  Be a good significant other or spouse, Father, Mom, Aunt, Uncle, Cub Scout Leader, Little League Coach or Church member, something other than just a cop.  Further, socialize with non LE personnel.  Being a 24 hour a day / seven days a week cop can be a pretty sad life.
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