Protests continue against police killing unarmed black men. Now we’re faced with the murders of police officers—two in Brooklyn and one in Tarpon Springs, Florida. We hear a lot about those killed by police. And we should. But what is it like to be a police officer? I spoke with a member of the San Francisco Police Department.
I’ll call the officer Morgan. The officer can speak more freely if anonymous. Why did Morgan become a police officer in the first place? Morgan’s life had a strong moral/ethical base, so police work seemed a good fit. There are bad people out there. This wasn’t a whim. Morgan had a good bit of life experience before joining the force, unlike young officers going into police work out of college. That was an advantage. Young people find the pay and benefits a big draw. However, Morgan says, “They soon realize that this is scary stuff and they’re not emotionally or even socially equipped to deal with the stress, deal with strangers, take command of a difficult situation.”
Morgan’s career started at the police academy. “Everything is staged and thus safe,” says Morgan. “If you make a mistake, you don’t get physically harmed. On the street, any mistake can be your last.” Sixteen weeks with three different training officers followed. There’s a huge learning curve. “The goal is to make mistakes early so that you learn from them.”
Is there a police mentality? Morgan jokes about putting on the uniform and a little switch turning on. “I become hyper-aware of my surroundings.” The most dangerous situations? Traffic stops. Depending on the time of day and location, Morgan doesn’t know who or what the driver and/or passengers might be. Morgan makes sure the vehicle stops just where Morgan wants it. Then Morgan checks the back seat. If the vehicle holds more than one person, Morgan calls for backup to maintain focus on the driver and write out the ticket. “I’ve had some difficult encounters,” says Morgan. “People refuse to sign the ticket, want to argue. By California law, if you refuse to sign you’re placed under arrest. When they sign, they’re free to go.”
Morgan has never used a weapon but has drawn a weapon countless times. “We’re trained to pull out weapons in building searches, searching for suspects and felony car stops.” Morgan has arrested many violent people. Morgan always calls for backup first. “Luckily in San Francisco, officers are seconds away.” Morgan wants to get that person in handcuffs and under control quickly. Suspects don’t always cooperate. Some “turtle up,” tucking their arms into their bodies and becoming rigid. “Some run and have to be chased down.” Morgan notes that here male officers use force more than female officers, who try to talk people into handcuffs.
Morgan occasionally runs into hostility from bystanders. Some may have a history with law enforcement. Events in Ferguson and other cities haven’t been helpful. “People don’t see the person but the uniform.” Policing can be a thankless job. “People love fire fighters but hate police, because we’re people’s conscience. We also see people at their worst.”
What roles do danger and stress play in a police officer’s life? Morgan reveals that next week.
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