For those new to this, my first solo blog, I’ve been posting short stories–true stories–based on my police experiences for some time at Confederate Yankee. This particular tale of bulldogging and education is cross-posted there, and will be my final literary exercise–but not my final post–at CY. I’ll be posting all such endeavors here in the future. Welcome, and I hope you enjoy this little story.
There is a classic scene from Mel Brooks’ Get Smart TV series. The bumbling secret agent Maxwell Smart was working with a prototype human-appearing secret agent robot named Hymie. On the way out of a room, Smart said “kill the light Hymie.” Hymie, not understanding the idiom, pulled out his gun and shot it. Robots, it turns out, aren’t alone in taking things too literally.
All cops begin their careers as patrol officers. It’s in that job that they learn all of the basics of police procedure, the law, and most importantly, how to deal with people without unnecessarily ticking them off. The best cops—because they have an innate feel for human nature–can talk people into doing just about anything, and as a result rarely have to use force. Master officers are easy to spot: people they arrest sincerely thank them for doing it.
Cops usually start by attending a state mandated basic training academy, and larger agencies also have their own in-house academies. Virtually all police agencies have a field-training program. Some are very brief, little more than a rookie riding around with an experienced cop for a few weeks. Some are very specific and lengthy—up to six months–but the idea is to team up the new officer with an experienced officer who rides with them in a patrol car, watches over them and teaches them what to do and when, and most importantly, what not to do and when. In professional law enforcement agencies, new cops aren’t allowed out on their own for a year or more.
Many people think anyone can be a teacher. Not so. Being a Field Training Officer (FTO) is a surprisingly difficult and demanding job. A good FTO can anticipate each trainee’s needs and accurately recognize and help them overcome their problems. A really good FTO can remember their own beginning experiences and can help to make the transition from rookie to seasoned professional seemingly easy for a new cop. Great street cops aren’t always good teachers of street cops. Just because they can do their jobs very well doesn’t mean that they can teach others to do the same. Very different skill sets are involved and are sometimes mutually exclusive. The best FTOs learn as much as they impart.
It took several years before I became a FTO. Having many years of prior police experience, to say nothing of being the only officer on the force of any rank with an undergraduate degree in education (with years of teaching experience), made me suspect rather than an obvious choice for the job. Go figure. But when the time came to appoint new FTOs, my qualifications were so far ahead and above whoever was in second place, it would have been too embarrassing not to give me the job, so there I was, to the chagrin of the Chief, a guy who gave lip service to hiring only highly educated, smart cops. The problem was, he wanted them only smart enough, and not too smart. Cops that are too smart aren’t very easy to trick or control, but that’s another story.
My trainee was Steve McCandless. He was a young guy from a state that mandated all potential officers complete an authorized training academy on their own time and at their own expense. He did just that, but couldn’t find a job in his preferred city. It wasn’t his fault, really. He had a bachelor’s in law enforcement, an academy certificate on which the ink was not yet dry, but no one was hiring. With a new wife as fresh as his certificate, he needed a job and ended up with us, one state to the left.
Steve was a bright kid, very anxious to go to work, but like most new cops, had no real idea how much he had to learn. He was particularly frustrated because he had to attend, at our expense, the state law enforcement academy. Yes, he already graduated from an academy, an academy that was likely far superior to ours, but the law is the law, and off he went to several months of near fatal boredom. Now, with two still dripping academy certificates on his wall, Steve was assigned to me, his second FTO.
His second? The program moved a trainee through several phases, all taught by different officers. It was assumed that this policy assisted new officers by exposing them to a variety of styles and techniques. Maybe yes, maybe no. In Steve’s case, his first FTO turned him into a basket case.
The guy, let’s call him “Jerry,” was appointed a FTO because he was “one of the boys.” That tends to count for a great deal in law enforcement. He wasn’t an incompetent cop, but he was an awful FTO. He had a fatal flaw: He couldn’t shut up. No matter the situation, he just kept running his mouth, usually saying little or nothing for hours on end, even when talking was potentially dangerous. We used to joke that he would be effective in interrogations. Just put a criminal in a room with Jerry and within 20 minutes he’d be begging to confess to any crime we cared to name—sinking the Titanic, leading the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, 9-11–just to get out of the room. But we knew any court would throw out such a confession on 8th Amendment grounds (the 8th Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishment). Jerry was so bad, so unable to control himself, that on a SWAT field exercise (yeah, being one of the boys counts there too) which included an overnight component, another officer, who had been, until that night, completely sane and rational, had to be forcibly restrained from killing Jerry with a combat knife when he refused to shut up and let everyone sleep.
How do I know about this guy? You guessed it; he was one of my FTOs when I first joined the force. Jerry was talking constantly, just rattling on about everything and nothing, day in and day out. He was actually obstructing me, making it impossible to concentrate, to hear the radio, to do my job, and I had more than enough prior experience to know what the job should be. I finally had to tell him, loudly and not very nicely, to shut up so I could listen to and answer the radio.
Because of my past experience, I knew enough to go to the FTO program administrator and get a transfer to another FTO. It was clear that new officers would have a hell of a time under Jerry. I knew better. Steve didn’t, so by the time he finally got to me, Jerry had put him on probation, written a ton of bad daily evaluations, and so poisoned the well that poor Steve was expecting to be fired at any moment. That tends not to be a good way for new guys to build confidence and ability.
I suspected as much when I learned that Steve had Jerry before me. It was obvious when Steve got into the car. He was nervous and wouldn’t do anything without being told. He kept glancing at me, waiting for me to start blathering. He had been nitpicked to death, unfairly and irrationally criticized for any and everything he did or tried to do or didn’t do, so he did what most people in that situation would do: he shut down.
I immediately pulled him off the street and into a quiet, out of the way office, and told him to relax—he was tensing up, expecting the career death stroke. I laid it out, told him exactly why I thought he was behaving as he was, and exactly what I thought—what I knew—happened. He was amazed, I’d hit it squarely on the head, and he was indescribably relieved.
When we went back to the car, I told him to relax, and most of all, to have fun. By the end of the shift, it was obvious Steve had what it took to become a good cop. He was smart, observant, and had developed most of the basic skills he needed. It wasn’t his fault he hadn’t fully developed the remaining skills, and I knew he’d catch up quickly. I told him that he would pass the FTO program. Months later, when he was out of the program and patrolling on his own, he told me that his wife cried for joy that first night. Who says good deeds aren’t their own reward? To keep my word, I made sure the FTO administrator knew what happened and why. By the end of our time together, Steve was transformed–as I knew he would be–into a confident, capable cop who breezed through the last phase of the program.
The domestic violence call was in a nice neighborhood. Dispatch told us that an ex-lover broke into the house, and the occupants locked themselves in a bedroom. The ex-lover was banging on the bedroom door, trying to get in. Dispatch told us they could hear the banging and someone yelling over the phone. They also said the ex-lover might be drunk.
We parked a good distance away, and as we approached on foot, we saw two young women waving to us from an open window on the side of the house. I asked Steve how he wanted to deal with it, and he thought we should talk to the women first, and so we did. I let Steve handle the conversation while I kept an eye out. We could both hear the ex-lover, who appeared to be female, banging loudly on the door, and sloppily yelling. She sounded drunk indeed. After a quick conversation, Steve decided that it would be a good idea to climb in through the window, and so we did.
Climbing though a window in full patrol regalia isn’t very pretty, but we were soon through, and I took stock of the two ladies. They were in their pajamas, and looked pretty upset. Not terribly frightened, but upset. They kept close together and kept glancing nervously at the bedroom door. Both were in their mid 20’s, one slim, tall and blonde and the other shorter and brunette.
Steve wanted to speak with me out of earshot; we huddled near the door. “They said the ex-lover’s name is Mary, and she’s really drunk,” Steve told me. “She broke up with the blonde a couple weeks ago and has been bothering her ever since. They were getting ready for bed when Mary let herself in and started yelling at them, so they locked themselves in and called us.”
“Right,” I said. Did she assault anyone? Break anything?”
“No, but I think they’re, they’re…” Steve stuttered, glancing at the women.
“Yeah! That’s it!” Steve exclaimed, surprised. I later discovered he had not dealt with any gay or lesbian folks since he began. He apparently thought there was some unusual technique involved.
“OK. Does that change our procedure? Are there any special lesbian provisions or exceptions in the law”
Steve thought about it for a few seconds. “Uh, I guess not…”
“Good answer,” I said. Steve smiled, obviously relieved. “So what do they want done?” I asked. It was obvious he hadn’t asked, so I suggested he do that. They told him they wanted her removed. I questioned them to clarify—for Steve’s benefit–that they had asked her, repeatedly, to leave. So I huddled with Steve once more. “OK. So what charges do we have?”
Steve thought a few seconds. “Trespass?”
“Good. How about burglary? Are all the elements present?” I asked.
“Well, no theft…she didn’t commit any felony—yet…”
“Still good,” I replied. “How about a domestic violence charge? Elements?” I was asking Steve about the elements of the various offenses for a good reason. The real world is not like TV. The police must know the law very well, because every law has specific “elements,” acts that an offender must perform in order to break the law. It those elements aren’t present, no arrest.
“Nope,” Steve said. We just reviewed those statutes the night before. “No assault.”
“Good again,” I replied. “Trespassing then?”
“Trespassing,” Steve said, nodding emphatically.
Mary was still slurring loudly and banging on the door. Steve seemed a little hesitant, so I prompted him. That’s where I made my Hymie mistake. “When you’re ready, pop the door open and take her down,” I said. What I meant was that Steve should quietly and calmly arrest Mary, handcuff her, and we’d leave. I scarcely got the last word out of my mouth when Steve started bouncing up and down, pumped up like an NFL wide receiver on speed, flung the door open, and in a flash of blue, streaked into Mary, who let out a piercing scream of surprise.
Equally surprised, I followed Steve into the living room in time to watch him execute a textbook arm bar take-down that, with extraordinary speed, flopped her face down on the floor, driving all the air out of her lungs with a loud “whoof!” As she lay, gasping like a freshly landed trout, Steve whipped on the cuffs in the flashy manner of a rodeo cowboy wrapping up a steer he just wrestled to the ground. He was so excited I was afraid he might chuck her out the same window we entered, so I quickly leapt in and helped him lift her to her feet, allowing her to catch her breath. Steve was grinning like a kid on Christmas morning that just unwrapped the toy he’d been badgering his parents about for months.
The women who called were standing in the doorway, clutching each other. The blonde was crying a little and the brunette was looking at Steve, who was still bouncing up and down, with a mixture of awe and wariness. Steve’s neatly wrapped package wanted to say something, but was still gasping. It was time to refocus and redirect Steve.
“Officer McCandless, I’ll be happy to take this young lady to the car if you’ll gather all the necessary personal information from these nice ladies,” I said, nodding toward them. Steve suddenly focused on me and stopped bouncing.
“Oh, right. I’ll do that,” he nodded vigorously and pulling the small spiral notebook I convinced him to buy out of his shirt pocket, began the ritual of information gathering I drilled into him early on.
By the time I had her in the back seat of the car, Mary could talk again. I asked if she was OK and if she needed medical attention. She told me she was fine, but it was obvious she thought Steve was a cross between The Flash and The Incredible Hulk. And of course, she started crying. It was the usual tale of true love gone wrong—cops hear that all the time. After hearing her out and nodding at all the right places and making all the right comforting noises, it was pretty obvious that Mary wouldn’t have come over if she hadn’t been drinking. Booze sparks a huge portion of police business.
By that time, Steve was done and returned to the car. I quickly filled him in and we drove Mary to the jail where I let Steve handle the booking procedures after first telling him to carefully observe Mary, get on her good side, and fill me in afterward. He handled her well. Steve was a good scout who actually liked people; amazingly, not every cop does. He came to nearly the same conclusions, and I helped him the rest of the way.
When we debriefed his handling of the entire affair after shift, Steve demonstrated his ability for self-examination, again, not a quality every cop shares. He realized how hyped up he was, and while he didn’t use excessive force or do anything truly wrong, he also realized he needed to be much calmer and more in control in the future. Shaking his head, he said “Man, I really bulldogged her, didn’t I?”
It was at that moment he received his police nickname. One of the more senior officers was walking by, overheard what Steve said and Steve immediately became, to his embarrassment, “Bulldogger.”
I learned the most important lesson that night: It’s never smart to assume that new officers, no matter how bright, understand even simple procedures until they’ve demonstrated they do. Bulldogger made me a better FTO and my Hymies didn’t kill any more lights.