Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Cop Survival 101

Watch Your Back!
By Mark Young
Officer survival is hammered into every rookie from the first day of police training. The quickest way for an officer to be bounced from the program is to continually fail in this area.  Survival trumps everything else. The old adage ‘Better to be judged by a jury of twelve than carried by six’ goes to the heart of the matter. Survival begins the first day an officer pins on the badge and continues until that officer reaches the end of their career.

Writers might benefit from understanding this point. It is the driving force behind almost everything an officer does—whether physical survival on the street or organization survival. 

Common sense is one of the metallic threads strengthening this cord of survival. I watched a television program recently where the police investigator led the murder suspect into an interrogation room—the cop entered the room first, followed by the suspect, and then the cop’s partner. Allowing a potential killer to walk behind you? Come on.  Use some common sense. As crime fiction writers, we need to pay attention to details like this in order to make our story believable.

Now, if a writer knowingly violates these rules they can add immediate tension to a character’s life because it goes against everything they have been taught. People get tired and make mistakes. Writers can use these mistakes—once they understand the rules—to make their story zing.

Here are a few survival techniques:

Watch Your Back: Ever walk into a restaurant or diner and see an officer seated with his back to you. Chances are slim to none that you have never witnessed this. Or, if the officer is faced away from you, chances are another cop is sitting across from him—watching you. Once this is ingrained into an officer, they can never sit comfortably with their back to the public. To this day, I can never comfortable sit down in a restaurant unless I can have my back to a wall or an eye on whoever enters the establishment. I’d rather leave and find another place to eat.

Patrol Cars and Seatbelts: Many officers choose never to use a seatbelt unless they’re involved in a vehicle chase, particularly if they are parked somewhere or driving up to a call. They do not want to be caught strapped to a seat when someone walks up on them. They need to be able to jump out of the car at a moment’s notice. As far as I know, most officers are exempt from laws requiring the use seatbelts. There may be some officers who choose to use these belts, but I doubt they work in heavy crime areas.

Field Interviews: A field interview is where a police officer makes contact with citizens in the field and pulls out the old notebook to take down information. The officer will generally take a bladed stance, keeping their weapon turned away from the person during the interviewing and allowing some reactive space between them and the interviewee.

Driving Up To A Call: Never EVER drive up to the front of a house on a call. This is one rule that you will see violated on every cop show on television where patrol or unmarks roll up to the call—brakes screeching, sirens screaming, and lights bathing the night in red, white and blue. Again, it comes back to common sense. Why allow yourself to become a target? Trainers hammer this into their recruits—plan ahead, anticipate, and provide enough distance to react.

Shaking Hands:  This one might make some people think cops are not very friendly.  Again, common sense plays into this rule. Once a person grasps your hand, they have the advantage of leverage. They can tighten down and make you go wherever they want to take you. Now, I know this has been taken to the extreme. I knew one police officer who made it a rule never to shake anyone’s hand—even the little old lady with a cane. I thought it was going to the extreme, not to mention it almost started a few fights by those who became offended. Like everything in police work, one must make judgment calls based on all the facts.

Prisoners are painfully aware of the dangers of shaking hands. A friendly smile and a welcome handshake can easily turn into a grasping, shiv-stabbing fight to the death. The first time I shook hands with a convict, I thought the guy was a little light in the wrist but I learned his actions were intentional. A weak handshake does not offend, but can be pulled back at a moment’s notice at the sign of danger.

As writers, your main characters—police officers—must have these things running through their brain as they go about their duties. If you want to create tension or conflict, think about these rules of survival. Then, knowingly break them. Trouble will follow.

Here a sample scenario: An officer–in-training responds to a peeping Tom call.

Rita edged slower as if seeking protection, her hand resting on my arm during the interview.  It began as a feathery touch.  Then—as I peppered her with more questions—she slide her hand gently up my arm until she grasped my elbow, her watery sky-blue eyes telegraphing her struggle to understand my questions.
            “Officer, I shhaw a man in the shadows just outside my window. Watching.” She shuddered, gripping my arm. A lighted match would have ignited her 100-proof breath.
            I tried to pry her talon-like fingers loose, before trying to write down her statement. “I have a unit checking the area, ma’m. Can you give me a description of the guy?”
            She pressed forward, pushing herself against me, her voice dropping almost to a whisper. “I woke up and he was there, just watching me with those evil eyes. I screamed and … he disappeared like a ghost.”
            At that moment, I heard footsteps down the hall. The bedroom door stood ajar.
            She pressed her face close, stale booze seeping from every pore. I tried to distance myself from this woman as those heavy boots thudded closer.
            Suddenly, she lunged forward and I lost my balance. We fell on the bed, the woman sprawled on top.  I tried to squirm away just as a figure loomed in the doorway. It was Pete— my Field Training Officer, a man who held my future in his rough and calloused hands.
            Pete glared at me. “What the Sam blazes … I leave you for two seconds and you let this woman climb all over you, rookie.”
            I pushed her to the side and sprang from the bed. Pete’s face pulsated catsup red, his eyes squinting in disbelief. “Sir, I was just—”
            “—I can see, you knucklehead. You should be ashamed. She’s old enough to be your mother.”
            I tugged on my uniform. “You don’t think …” I let the words hang in the air, my uncertain future leaving me speechless.
            Pete gave me a glare hot enough to fry eggs.
            I felt my stomach tighten, the taco salad starting to work its way back up my esophagus. I just knew my career was cooked the first week on the job. I tried not to hurl.
            And then I saw something strange. It started as a twitch on Pete’s face, like a horse’s hide when it’s troubled by flies, his mouth widening into a menacing smile. Next. I heard Pete roar, belly-shaking laughter that began to force tears down the man’s leather-hardened face.
            I saw Pete reach for his wallet and pulled out a twenty-dollar bill. He flicked the bill onto the bed, the woman snatching it up a moment later and sticking it down her blouse. “Thanks, Babe. You played the part like a pro.”
            She  smiled, slowly rising from the bed like Cleopatra. She reached over and patted me on the butt. “Everyone calls me Rita” She leans my way. “You got a lot to learn, boy. Listen to what Sam teaches you and you just might stay alive.”No more slurs.
            Pete stepped back as she stood, then edged closer, whispering into her ear.  “We still on for Saturday night?”
            Rita  reached up, patted Sam’s face almost tenderly, then slapped him across the face quicker than Wyatt Earp could pull his gun. “That’s for your little comment about my age, you old fart.” She laughed, looking my way. “Not a bad bit of acting  if I do say so myself, junior. I haven't had a drop today, but I had you fooled.”
            As she left the room, I began to smile until Sam turned and glared. That look told me everything—my days on the force might be numbered. Sam would make sure my training days would make Marine Corps boot camp seem like a picnic.
            I heard the radio squawk. Dispatch sending us to another call. A real one this time. It was going to be a long night.

So, how many survival mistakes did you catch in this scenario? Here are three:

Never EVER leave your partner alone with the opposite sex—particularly in the bedroom.  The rookie should have called his FTO back into the bedroom. Strike One.

Secondly, he let Rita in too close. He failed to control the situation. She could just have easily grabbed his weapon, produced one of her own, or alleged sexual misconduct. Strike Two.

Lastly, he allowed Rita the upper hand  by getting too close until they fell on the bed. He allowed her to get him in compromising position or worse. Strike Three.

Writers: How much trouble can you create for your main police character?


  1. This was a GREAT piece!! I loved and learned from it thank you!! Mari!

  2. You're welcom, Mari. Thanks for the visit.

  3. Mark, Excellent points. Thanks for sharing your experience with us. I suspect the police shows on TV set your teeth on edge.
    I guess that's why I don't watch medical shows. I get tired of seeing mistakes. Some stuff is fine on the screen but would never happen in real life.

  4. Thanks for joining us, Doc. Why watch television medical shows when they can read the real thing in your novels. Look forward to your next novel.

  5. Excellent information. I'd love to hear more like this.

  6. Thanks, Daniel. Explore the archives and you might find other articles of interest. This year we will have more guest police authors share their experiences and knowledge. Thanks for joining us.

  7. What a great post!

    It's funny, my husband isn't a cop, but he does the exact same thing about seating. Whenever we go to a restaurant, I've learned to wait for him to sit, because he's scoping the place out already. When I asked him about it, he said, "It's a guy thing."

    It may have more to do with testosterone than with cops :)

  8. You may have something there, Selena. Guys might bring this trait to the job, however, I've found the gals in law enforcement are quick to pick it up. Part of the FTO program where you sink or swim. Thanks for the input.

  9. You got me thinking about the sheriff in my novel. He's ex-special forces living in a small town in the South. I can do a lot more with his whole demeanor, resulting from his training.

  10. Sounds likes like you have a walking-talking Rambo to work with, Karla. Have fun with him.

  11. Good words. I agree. It comes down to the details!