January 9th is National Law Enforcement Appreciation Day. This is an excellent opportunity to remind ourselves of the men and women who risk their lives, their safety, and even their mental health to keep us safe. A big part of appreciation is understanding. There are more than 900,000 police officers in the United States. Police Officers represent many different backgrounds. There is a wide variety of racial and ethnic background, education level, even socio-economic status level. They have different interests as well (from the star athlete to the Star Trek nerd (of which I am one, by the way)). I’m sure you all know at least one person who works in law enforcement at some level as they are a many and varied bunch. There are some commonalities, however, and most people have little insight into the daily work and lives of these brave souls. Hollywood has done a great deal to perpetuate myths and misunderstanding about police officers as most people get their information from television dramas and movies. I thought this would be a great time to provide some insight, straight from the horse’s mouth, about the law enforcement community. Here are a few things that the police wish you knew.
Before I get started, here is the disclaimer: I’m speaking from my experience and I’m sure there is at least one police officer out there who will disagree with me (it’s a many and varied bunch in terms of opinions, too).
Police Officers are constantly aware of their surroundings. They learn to pay close attention to people’s movements because the most unlikely people can become a threat at any moment. Young kids, elderly people, small women, you name it. Because of this, they follow policies procedures and training designed to ensure their safety and yours. It doesn’t matter how attractive you are, how rich you are, how funny you are, or how cooperative you seem to be; they will follow those procedures — officers who don’t are the first ones to get injured. Don’t take it personally; it doesn’t mean that you are suspected of being a “bad guy,” it is just better not to try and guess.
I’m from the government, and I’m here to help
If you ask someone why they joined law enforcement as their profession, the overwhelming answer is that they want to make a difference in their community and they want to help people in a real and tangible way. People who join without the “calling” will generally not last more than a year because the job really does take its toll on one’s life. Think about the working conditions for a moment. We already talked about the constant threat of danger, and that is undoubtedly stressful, but there are also less obvious sources of stress. Police officers work holidays, weekends, late nights, and all night. Of course, there are vacations and days off, but those days aren’t always the typical days that families get together. When I worked the graveyard shift, I stayed on the overnight schedule on my days off. My family would be asleep while I was barbequing hamburgers for my lunch at 3 am. While everyone was up and having fun, I was asleep. Think about how your life would be different if your sleep/wake schedule were the opposite of your family and friends.
Police Officers also experience all the worst things that happen and are usually among the first people to arrive in a chaotic and tragic situation. They are the target of anger and frustration on the part of victims, suspects, witnesses, and the general public. They take blame for the terrible things that happen to people (which they do not deserve, by the way). They have each other for support, but otherwise, they are basically on their own to solve any problem that comes up. Their hands are tied by law in many frustrating situations, and the news media almost always second-guess them, and sometimes their own leadership as well, even though they had to make very rapid decisions without all the information.
With all this stress going on, you might wonder why anyone would be willing to do the job. Maybe they’re in it for the money. In Colorado, Police Officers make pretty good money, but they are not going to get rich. In other areas of the country, the pay for Police Officers is quite low, and sometimes not enough to live on.
Not a robot, don’t have a crystal ball
A police officer’s day can go from fluffy golden retriever puppies to a Steven King thriller in the blink of an eye. Believe it or not, those tragic things that happen have an emotional effect on the officer. They won’t show you that, they won’t tell you that, they may not tell anyone that, but it is true none the less. During work, they cannot display sadness or fear. They must keep their anger under control and be invariably professional. As a result, you see a lot of “gallows humor” that may seem calloused and mean. That humor, though, is the way that they are able to get through their work without becoming emotionally compromised. The “inappropriate humor” is used by ER doctors and nurses, firefighters, and paramedics as well. Protecting oneself from emotional turmoil so that one can do very difficult things is of the utmost importance.
By the way, law enforcement officers are not all-knowing, all-seeing, and all-powerful deities. They cannot predict who is a danger to them (as mentioned above); they never know when the proverbial poo will hit the fan; they cannot prepare for the insane things they see and deal with; and, most importantly, they don’t know who stole your TV or when the power will come back on. There are investigative techniques that can be used successfully to find criminals, and the more evidence the more likely the police will catch someone, but if you don’t know the serial number on your TV, they will never find it.
You are the one with the information
You know, I’ve talked a lot about police, but they aren’t the only law enforcement professionals out there. What about telecommunicators (you may know them as dispatchers or 9-1-1 operators)? Well, they have a tough and stressful job as well! Just like Police Officers, dispatchers do not have a crystal ball. Of utmost importance to a law enforcement telecommunicator is information, and they will ask you lots of questions if you call. The questions may seem odd or unnecessary, but they have to get that information, or the police get mad at them (yup, they get it from both sides). Something you should consider in case you ever have to call 9-1-1 (and you can call them, they never close) is that you need to be able to provide information. The absolute most important piece of information is your location. Don’t be fooled by the miraculous things you see TV law enforcement doing. Very few (and maybe not any) dispatch centers can quickly and easily locate you by your cell phone alone. Uber does a much better job than 9-1-1 in that regard, but notice that Uber also has an app that you install on your phone which asks you for permission to use your location information. 9-1-1 doesn’t do that. So, here is a tip: If you call 9-1-1, and you can only get one piece of information out, it must be your location! You should know your location at all times. I know this sounds obvious, but you would be surprised by the number of people who call 9-1-1 and have no idea where they are. They followed their Google Map and paid no attention to the street they turned on or the address they were going to. Hey, I’m not going to tell you not to use the map; I always use mine. Please, though, don’t let your cell phone do all of your thinking for you; know your location, know your phone number, know the phone numbers of the people you might need to contact. Only you can provide that information.
If you don’t remember anything else from this article, just remember that Police Officers are people. They have mothers and fathers, siblings and children, and they put their pants on one leg at a time, just the way you do. They just happen to be in a very dangerous and traumatic job.
To your wellbeing,
Christina L. Wilson, Ph.D.
Christina L. Wilson, Ph.D. was a police officer for eight years in the Denver Metropolitan Area. She earned her doctoral degree in industrial and organizational psychology and is an expert in employee training and development and workplace safety and health. She serves as an adjunct faculty member at the University of Colorado Denver, in both the Psychology Department and the Business School. Dr. Wilson also facilitates corporate training and works as a consultant for the Federal government as well as MINES and Associates.
 J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (attributed to Alastor Mad-Eye Moody)