Today I’m kicking off my exciting interview series, The Real Deal.
One night while watching a documentary on spying, I almost flipped out when a woman on screen said that we’d all be disappointed to learn that most “spy work” is actually done behind the desk.
Boo! I don’t want paperwork, I want James Bond.
I also learned that during Cold War era spying, Soviets liked meeting in remote areas, preferably the woods, while American spies liked meeting amidst the noise and hubbub of eateries. Go figure.
It got me wondering, what else do writers (myself included) take creative license with when we portray everything from childbirth to lawyers and disarming bombs? Some things we have personal experience with, and for other things, we just have to rely on research and documentaries that crush our hopes of becoming badass spies. I thought both writers and readers would like to join me in meeting people from the different professions we run into when reading books and watching films. I’d like to see their take on how their occupations and personalities are portrayed. In other words, what’s the real deal?
Today’s interview is with Stuart Land, a former police officer. By the way, he’s currently a paranormal-fantasy author, and his books are damned good (I’ll link to his info at the end of this interview).
The Real Deal: A Day in the Life of a Cop
Interview with Stuart Land
Disclaimer: Stuart has been gracious enough to share some of his insights and experiences, and with that said, please don’t swipe his direct experiences for use in your writing, but *do* thoroughly research police procedures and talk with current officers and detectives who will be genuinely happy to answer your questions–just let them know you are a novelist, not a journalist 🙂
Thank you for joining us today, Stuart. In what capacity did you work for the police department (and in what city)?
I was an officer in the Metropolitan Police Force Washington, D.C. I held that position for about one and half years. At that time I was on the force there were no female patrol officers. They were assigned to administrative or child services. A few years after I left the force, one of the first women patrol officers was killed in the line of duty, becoming the first woman officer killed in the nation.
Wow, didn’t know that about the D.C. police force. May she R.I.P. So when you were there, when did your day begin, and when did it end?
Shifts were usually eight hours long, but rotated every two weeks. One week was from 8 to 4, the next 4 to midnight, then midnight to 8 AM.
Give us a brief walk-through of your typical day.
A typical day began in the squad room where everyone would gather to hear the captain brief us on current crimes in our district and assign each officer their beat for the day. I wanted to experience as much as possible in my daily routine, so volunteered for various jobs. The police academy took up the first four months of my rookie year until I was assigned to the 1st District, which was the area that extended completely around the US capital building into all four quadrants of the city. At first, I rode in a scout car with an experienced officer. Within the first half hour, we were in a foot chase with a burglary suspect. That was not typical on a daily basis. Mostly the day was mundane, driving around, checking on this and that, giving parking and moving violation tickets, and responding to radio calls for various things like burglaries, traffic warrants, and domestic disturbances.
A couple of months into this regular patrol, I was approached to try undercover work, as I looked extremely young for my age and drove a sports car and motorcycle. I did this for about two weeks. At the time, I was too inexperienced with myself and life to be good at that job. I marveled at these guys who could walk into a room and suss out the whole situation in a matter of seconds. I just didn’t have that ability. Of course, if I had stayed with it I would have learned the ropes and gained the insight which I did acquire many years later. However, at that time, being undercover meant infiltrating gambling, drugs, and prostitution, none of which I thought should be crimes. So I left and signed up for the country’s first experimental motorbike patrol, which actually started with motor scooters. I enjoyed that because I got to be on my own for the whole shift. This was also at the time when walkie-talkies were first introduced, so I got to carry one.
When I wasn’t on a scooter, I either drove a scout car or walked a beat. I enjoyed both. Because I had been in a very bad accident prior to joining the force when I was hit by a crazy driver, I took special pleasure in giving moving violation tickets to crazy drivers, and chasing them when they decided to try and outrun me. This was highly exhilarating for a young man., especially one who grew up around cars, working on them, and racing them at the track.
I hate crazy drivers too. Speaking of cray-cray…what was the most interesting, crazy, or tense experience you’ve had on the job?
The year and half I was on the force wasn’t typical because it was the year all the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations began. I was in all of them, either on one side or the other. When off-duty, I marched with the protesters, when on-duty, faced them down with helmet and gas mask. It was a weird predicament to be in.
Agreed. I wonder how each side felt about that.
I saw and experienced crazy actions from both sides. On the most part, from my two perspectives, most people on either side were conscientious, but there were always those few who took things to the extreme and weren’t comfortable unless they instigated violence. The only time I was injured was during one of the anti-war demonstrations, when the Weathermen (a hostile contingent of the SDS, Students for a Democratic Society), led a group of several hundred folks off the designated course and over me. I had to fight to keep my gun. I lost my hat and baton.
The most intense experience as I can remember came from being the first police officer in the nation to be assigned hall duty in one of the most crime-ridden high schools in the country. A student had been either shot or killed sometime before, I can’t remember which, and the mayor demanded a police presence. Well, this didn’t seem like a good idea to assign me since I looked to be about the same age as the students, with one exception: I was white and every other person in the 2000 student body was black. Luckily, while in the academy, we were recipients of some revolutionary new training called Psycho-enactment, or something like that. Professional actors devised scenes from real-life situations, like domestic violence encounters, suicide attempts, and crowd control, where we would act out the various parts to learn how to cope with these types of situations. Since this was a brand new experience for all of us, most officers couldn’t (and wouldn’t) be serious about it. However, for me, what I learned save my life and the kids I was there to protect.
The first thing I did was make friends with the rowdiest, acerbic kids by taking them aside and giving them power. I let them know that I knew I was in their school and I couldn’t do my job without their help, so gave them responsibility they’d never had before. Everything went fine for the first few days until a group of students from another school showed up and began to fight. When I came upon the scene, we were both shocked; they because a cop was already there, and me because these young kids were much bigger and even looked older than me. There was no way I would be able to physically force these guys to do anything. Unlike me, who grew up fearing police, or at least respecting them in some capacity, these kids were fearless and held zero respect.
They refused to leave, which put me in the predicament to force them. I took one guy by the arm and he looked down on me and my whole world stopped. He was much bigger than me, and very angry at the world, which included teachers, students, and police, especially white police. My hand wrapped around the handle of my Smith and Wesson. My immediate future flashed before me: white cop shoots unarmed black high school teenager, riot ensues, DC is engulfed in flames, young rookie officer dead.
One of the things we’re taught in the academy is that once we commit to something, never back down. This applies to the use of force. So, because of my inexperience, I had grabbed this boy’s arm to force him to leave, only I couldn’t really enforce my desire. I was scared to death as there were three or four of them and only one of me…until the few guys I had made friends with earlier came onto the scene. They literally had my back. I released the boy’s arm and brought up my walkie-talkie, then gave them a choice: either leave or all go to jail. Fortunately, after some name-calling and huffing and puffing, they all left. After a week, I was pulled from that duty and assigned back to the safety of the mean street.
As for crazy, that was when I was alone in a scout car and got a radio call for a bank robbery in progress. I was just down the street. I screamed around the corner very movie-like, skidded to halt, and jumped out, gun in hand…only the gear shift popped out of park, and since I forgot to set the hand brake, my cruiser began to roll back down the hill. I remember having this embarrassing out-of-body experience of me running after my car, gun waving all around, shiny black leather shoes slapping the ground in every slow-motion step. Luckily I managed to jump in, because I had also left the driver’s side door open. Once I set the brake and left the car in the middle of the street, I ran back to the corner bank and stuck my head around the corner. I was too late. The robbers had already left. Fortunately for me, they’d left minutes before I had arrived, so I didn’t get in trouble for being late. However, it was weeks I had to endure the ridicule of snickering comments from my fellow officers.
Dang, high school showdowns to rolling up on bank robberies. You definitely had some tense experiences. Please share with us three things fiction writers tend to over-exaggerate or get wrong when they portray police.
That police are in constant gun battles, when most police officers never fire their weapons in the line of duty for their whole careers.
Anonymous officers are picked off like flies at every encounter with bad guys. This hardly ever happens. The truth is both bad guys and cops are notoriously bad shots. Neither is sufficiently trained to be in a gun battle. When I entered the force, I was given a gun and required to wear it on and off duty a week before I was even showed how to use it. I’m pretty sure they don’t do it like that anymore. Luckily, I had grown up with guns and had already learned how to shoot in the military.
I don’t watch many cop shows, and don’t know if there are any that follow ordinary street officers. It seems they’re all detectives. I have seen some shows which show detectives as rookies, as if they don’t know the ropes, when all detectives are street cops long before they’re detectives. They may be rookie detectives, but they know the ropes pretty damned good by that time.
Are there any books or films (or TV shows) that tend to be mostly accurate?
One Adam Twelve was the most accurate police show. Before that was Dragnet. The modern shows, including Hill Street Blues, which was pretty accurate, are what it might be like if you took a full year of activity and condensed it into one week.
Is there a particular police stereotype that you wish would just go away?
I’d like to say the donut-munching stereotype, but the fact is, we loves us some donuts. Why? Because back in the day, donut shops were the first to open in the morning. They had coffee, they had donuts, and back then, before I understood what graft was, most cops got free donuts and coffee. We got a lot of free stuff because business wanted us around as much as possible, and when they were giving us free stuff, we were in their stores and shops. For them, it was a loss-leader.
Smart move. I wonder if I could foist free copies of my novels on them. Okay…finally, I’ve got to ask, what was the best part about working in a police department? What was the most challenging part?
The most challenging part for me was that hardly anyone I worked with was of similar mind. I was in transition, constantly learning, reassessing my beliefs, and outlooks, while most of my fellow officers seemed rigidly set in their ways, seeing everything in white and black. I made very few friends while on the force.
Being a very young man at the time, there was a feeling of invincibility when carrying a gun legally. Riding in a scout car chasing bad guys and speeders was exhilarating. There were times when I felt I had made a difference when I settled a domestic dispute without anyone getting injured or killed, or made friends with a kid from the ghetto who had never really talked with a white person before, much less a white cop. Now, in retrospect, being a part of American history of that time has become the best part.
Thanks, Stuart! Folks, join me again next week when we’ll meet a physician from sunny California.
Stuart Land is the author of the Original Blood Series. Books #1 Gailene’s Vow and #2 Szenja’s Revenge are available at Amazon.
Visit Stuart’s blog
Read my review of Gailene’s Vow (Original Blood Series, #1)