(By: Justin Freeman, Former Patrol Officer, on Quora.com)
For a patrol officer, that’s both the beauty and the horror of law enforcement – there is no such thing.
To be fair, the activities that bookend your shift are usually fairly standardized. I would get to the station about an hour early and start the process of dressing out. First I checked the polish on my boots to make sure they’d pass sergeant’s inspection, which occurred unannounced every couple of weeks. I then dressed out and went to the briefing room.
In the briefing room, there was usually a daily digest of what had gone on in the last 24 hours regarding critical incidents, notifications from surrounding agencies, missing person reports, and added patrol requests. Our lieutenant (or sergeant acting as lieutenant) would then come in and conduct briefing, which typically consisted of a fleshed-out version of the digest plus additional information that had come to light since the digests had been printed. He or she would then distribute subpoenas for squad members and dismiss us to load our vehicles out.
The first part of loadout was a vehicle inspection – checking oil and fluids, ensuring radio and emergency equipment (lights and sirens) were functional, and ensuring there was no contraband in the prisoner transport area. (This contraband search was an important step in the process, and also needed to be conducted after every arrest you made. That way, if you find drugs in the seat after you take somebody to jail, you can confidently testify that they were indeed in the arrestee’s possession, as you had searched the area in question before transport.) You then loaded your gear bags (holding everything from PPE gear to flashlights to extra forms to traffic vests to legal manuals) and your long arm (shotgun or rifle) before heading out on patrol.
This is where the randomness begins. Depending on the part of town and time of day, you might be sent anywhere to address anything. They may tone out an active shooting in progress as soon as you enter service. There might be eleven priority calls holding. There may be a couple of ticky-tack calls holding in your beat. You may enter service and find a “clean board” (no calls pending).
The shift progresses with the same randomness. There were nights when I went to one or two minor calls, and stopped multiple cars without finding any warrants or drugs. Then there were nights when I was slammed, working call after call back to back to back. One night I worked four accidents in a row, two of which featured a driver who left the scene; I spent the first five hours of my shift investigating accident scenes and the second five doing nothing but paperwork (we worked four 10-hour shifts per week). Then there is every kind of night in between.
You have to strike a balance in the midst of the chaos somewhere, though. There will often be calls coming out all night, but at some point you have to stop and work on reports. This kills you, because your brothers and sisters in arms are getting in fights and scaring up foot pursuits, but the cat and mouse side of things is only half of the battle. If you get your guy but write a craptastic report, there’s a chance he’ll slide in court, which defeats the purpose and isn’t fair to anybody. Sometimes you find yourself five and six reports behind, so you’d better have taken awesome notes – because as memorable as that first call seemed to be at the time, five calls later you’ll have trouble remembering what the basic complaint was, much less names, addresses, relationships, statements, elements of the crime, and so on.
You’ll see many, many things during the course of a shift. Some of them are awesome – a little girl giving you a flower and a hug, a domestic violence victim defiantly pointing at her attacker in court, paramedics, firefighters, doctors and nurses spinning into action in their respective duties alongside you. At these things, you rejoice inside, and take a small measure of comfort from them as you go.
Many of them, though, are awful – a man decapitated by a train; the blue-gray body of a college student who hung himself in his garage; a teenage girl, in clinical shock, blindly groping at her lifeless boyfriend after being hit by a drunk driver (as the drunk driver tries to crawl away from the scene); a baby girl breathing her last after being drugged with codeine because her crying was disturbing Daddy’s very important video game session. At these things, you seldom know how to respond inside. Horror? Anger? Despondency? It doesn’t really matter – not there, anyway, at the tracks, the garage, the scene, the hospital, because stoicism is all you can exhibit. You’re in charge. If you’re horrified, everyone around you will descend into delirium; if you’re angry, people will feel license to vent their rage; if you’re despondent, you won’t be objective enough to investigate the incident.
People will misinterpret this, of course. They’ll think you distant at best, an unfeeling mechanical bastard at worst. That’s painful, but unavoidable, because keeping yourself above the fray is what allows you to keep yourself above the ground. So you’ll run into a lot of people who don’t really know how to regard you. The crooks, pimps, mopes and dopes are a known quantity – many of them would spit in a cop’s face after he pulled their children from a burning building. What’s bothersome is the fact that the only time you tend to have contact with law-abiding people is during traffic stops, which tends to not curry a whole lot of favor with them. Cops are like umpires – you don’t root for them, and you tend to only notice them when you feel they’ve made a grave error. You really tend to tolerate them as a necessary evil so things don’t get completely shot to hell.
Maybe most draining of all, though, is the sheer stupidity:
You arrive on scene to a “domestic disturbance.” You find a male and female and ask what’s going on. She says, “He took my keys.” You stare for a moment, then ask for clarification. She says, “I was going to leave, and then he took my keys.” You ask where the keys are now. “Well, he gave them back.” You ask why she called 911 to report this. “Well…because he had my keys and wouldn’t give them back.” You tell her 911 is for emergencies. You leave. You go to your patrol car and slam your head against the steering wheel, knowing you have to write a complete police report on this nonsense, because Missouri law mandates that “domestic incidents,” even lacking any semblance of violence, must be documented.
You arrive on scene to a shoplifting call. A teenage female stole a bracelet. Value: $1.65. The store declares that they are pressing charges. You begin by asking the suspect how old she is. She says she is seventeen, which means she can be cited criminally. You read her Miranda warning to her and begin asking identifying questions. She gives you her date of birth. It puts her at sixteen years of age. You mention the discrepancy and ask how old she is. She says seventeen. You ask her date of birth again. She gives you a different one. You ask for parents’ information, only to be told that her mother is dead and her father left her to her own devices when he went to Reno, Nevada for an unknown length of time. He cannot be contacted. Smoke screens continue for the next three hours until a lieutenant researches your reporting system to find that the suspect is a juvenile who is a habitual runaway with a mother who, far from being dead, lives on the north side of town. You take suspect home. Mother is pissed to have been fake killed. You end up spending well over $100.00 in department resources investigating the $1.65 heist.
You respond, for the third time, to the scene of Black Friday midnight at Toys-R-Us. Fifteen hundred people are in the parking lot. A line originally formed to the west, wrapping around the building to the north. On this visit you find that somebody, an unknown genius, decided they didn’t want to go to the back of the existing line, and proceeded to begin a second line. This line expanded in seconds, and began stretching to the southwest. People at the front of the original line looked up and suddenly saw latecomers were poised to beat them into the store, and started raising holy hell to the point of approaching a riot. Store employees mill about inside, fear visible on their faces. A woman walks up to you and asks, “What is the store’s strategy for when they open the doors?” You dryly respond, “To not die.”
It’s all a mix. There’s the boredom of a slow shift spent checking back lots, the adrenaline of a foot pursuit and subsequent street fight, the fear of knowing there are three suspects beating a victim and your backup is blocks away, the headache-afflicted righteous fatigue of processing a DWI. After doing all of that, then writing about it in a manner that somehow perfectly describes obscene things in a non-obscene way, you return to the station to your second bookend: refueling the car, unloading it into your POV (personally owned vehicle), and digesting your shift with your squad mates, who shared in some of your exploits and had plenty of their own.
Before you go home, your sergeant tells you that there was an accident / a traffic stop gone bad / a critical incident in another agency in which an officer was killed. He had a wife and two kids – he always does. You drive home with a heavy heart, mourning someone you never knew because he does what you do. They’ll have a nice ceremony for him, gloved hands squeezing off a few blanks at the funeral as a new widow gets her crisply folded flag. For what that’s worth.
You arrive home. After stripping off your matted, sweat streaked clothes, you slide into bed with your wife, trying to keep from disturbing an already fitful sleep she resigned herself to in your absence. She rouses anyway, but just enough to acknowledge your presence before she goes back under. You edge closer, reassured by her warmth, knowing you could as easily have been on a stretcher. Or a slab.
You try to keep the horrors in your mind at bay long enough to go to sleep yourself. You’ve got a subpoena to testify in a jury trial in three and a half hours – if they don’t call to cancel when you’re halfway there. But that’s there and then. This is here and now. You’re content to cherish what you’ve got in this place:
Prayers of thanks that your shift was typically atypical.