How ignoring mom’s advice made me a better cop

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Now that I’m a mom, I find that I routinely dole out advice to my son. I expect—or at least, hope—that he will heed the words of hard-won wisdom garnered from years of…oh, who am I kidding? He’s going to do whatever he does. Just like I did.

During their training period, rookie officers fresh from the police academy are paired with a senior officer who guides them in learning to apply what they learned to real life situations encountered on patrol. Unlike the military, there is no Officer Candidate School, so everyone starts out as a “slick-sleeve,” hitting the streets in a patrol car.

Strong power police officer. large man in police uniform. Bodybu

My training officer was Tony, a forty-something mustachioed man of Italian descent who exuded authority. He was a respected, seasoned, intelligent officer who chose to spend his entire career in patrol. He was also a physical specimen who kept himself in excellent shape, even though his mere presence seemed to discourage fighting or running on the part of anyone he arrested.

Tony made it his mission to get me into as many dicey circumstances as possible to see if I could navigate my way out of them. He would only step in if the situation became truly desperate. I felt like a baby bird kicked out of the nest. Fifty feet up in the air. With the daddy bird critiquing my desperate flapping and floundering as I crashed to the ground. Again.

parking ticket

Slowly but surely, I began to learn tricks of the trade from him. For example, he told me his technique for writing a parking ticket. “Finish writing it while you’re still in your squad car, head to the violator’s car and put the ticket under the windshield wiper, then get the hell out of there as fast as you can.” When I raised my eyebrows, he gave me a serious nod. “Most people can handle it when you pull them over, but for some reason, they go ballistic if they catch you putting a ticket on their parked car. Trust me, it’s best not to let them see you do it.”

For the more dangerous domestic disturbance calls, Tony had this to say: “As soon as you arrive on the scene, separate them. Try to get them where they can’t even look at each other, but you can see both of them.” He jabbed a finger at me. “Most important, if you lock the husband up, watch out for the wife. She’ll jump on your back and try to claw your eyes out.”

Tony had a lot of advice, and it turned out to be spot on, but I gradually realized that my upbringing as a female left me with certain additional barriers to overcome that Tony hadn’t faced when he started out as a cop. Especially in the era when I grew up, girls weren’t encouraged to be outspoken or empowered.

That’s when I realized that the best cops did everything my mother taught me not to do. I’ve compiled a list of some of Mom’s top rules and why I learned to break them:

mom advice pic
  • Don’t go looking for trouble – All the grizzled veterans of patrol used to say, “Get out of your car.” Today it’s called community policing. To do effective police work, officers on the beat must periodically leave the squad car and interact with the community they serve. Not just when they’re on calls, but throughout the shift. This fosters better relationships and trust, which can garner investigative leads when it counts.
  • Keep your hands to yourself – I had to use my hands to perform countless pat downs and personal searches. Truly one of the worst things about arresting people. When you dug your hand into his pocket you never knew whether you’d come up with harmless pocket lint, a disgusting snotty Kleenex, or a deadly hypodermic needle. Of course, I was also treated to a stream of expletives, lewd remarks, or come-ons while I searched the crotch area. This came from both men and women. Yeesh, if only they knew what I was really thinking…
  • Don’t stay out until all hours of the night – Mom never envisioned me working steady midnights, or—the bane of my existence for five long years—rotating shifts. We changed schedules every week, and it felt like having an incessant case of the flu. It was considered part of the job, though, and we were expected to suck it up without complaint. Police work changes according to the hour, even in the same precinct. Different people come out in the wee hours. One thing my mother said, however, turned out to be applicable even on the job: “Nothing good ever happens after midnight.”
  • Don’t stick your nose in other peoples’ business – Cops have to ask impertinent questions. I’ll never forget the first domestic dispute call I responded to with Tony. We separated the spouses (Tony took the husband and I took the wife) and questioned them. At first, I found it challenging to get to the bottom of what they had been arguing about before it came to blows. Digging into their personal lives felt intrusive, but I swallowed my discomfort and got to the bottom of it. I learned that the husband smacked the wife because she didn’t caramelize any onions to go with his steak. She responded by hitting him upside the head with the skillet in which she’d cooked the onion-less steak. Seriously. I couldn’t make this stuff up.
  • Always tell the truth – All bets are off in the interrogation room. It is acceptable to mislead a suspect to convince him you know more than you do. That’s the challenge of being on the wrong end of a police interview. You never know what the cops know and what they don’t. Anything you say can reveal the lie you’re trying to weave into a coherent story. Better to confess…or better yet, don’t do the crime.
  • Don’t hang around bad people – Good cops cultivate sources in the community. This can include anyone from a local priest to the dope slinger on the corner. Often, it’s the latter that provides the most accurate information about what’s going on in the criminal world. Gaining trust with this group is difficult and takes a long time.
  • Mind your manners – At the scene of an incident, responding police are expected to take charge. When I first started out as a 22-year-old back in the Dark Ages, women who confidently strode into a situation and took command were called “pushy broads.” When I arrived at scenes with Tony, everyone naturally turned to him. He would jerk a thumb at me and say, “don’t look at me, she’s in charge.” They would turn from the seasoned pro to the obvious neophyte and shake their heads. I had to prove myself constantly for the first couple of years. Then, each time I got promoted, I had to prove myself to those working above and below me. Sometimes…this broad had to be a tad pushy.

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