The Truth About What It’s Like to be a Police Officer – Part 1

Are the stories you hear about police officers true? Are they racist? Do they abuse power? Should we fear or respect them? Is the criticism fair? Ryan, a police officer in a large western city will tell you his perspective on the topic.

Ryan is a blogger at Arrest Your Debt. Some of Ryan's writing is to help people get out of debt. And he's not afraid to tackle controversial issues like how participation trophies lead to financial failure.

I met Ryan virtually as a part of a blogging community. We had several conversations about what it's like to be a police officer. As one who has worked in racial reconciliation ministry for close to three decades, I was keenly curious to get his perspective on the issue from his perspective as a police officer.

As the parent of a recovering heroin addict, I also wanted to know about his experience dealing with addiction as a police officer. He was kind enough to put himself out there to talk about both subjects. You will find Ryan brutally honest and open about both topics.

A two-part series

The interview is a two-part series (maybe more). In part one, we're going to tackle the issue of race, the use of force, and whether the public perception by many about police officers is fair. In Part 2 I ask him what it's like as a first responder dealing with people under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

What's funny about Ryan's and my relationship is how it started. We got into a bit of a Twitter spat where I took him to task for something he said that I thought unfair. Shortly after, we found ourselves in the same blogging group. We both kind of ignored that we knew each other until one day I jokingly brought it up. It was pretty funny the way it all worked out. Ryan is someone for whom I have a great deal of respect. His is a life of service to his community. Though he's not directly on the street anymore, he spent a number of years in harm's way. You're going to hear about some of that in the interview.

Like many who choose to become a police officer, Ryan has a family. Ryan, other first responders and those in the military willingly put themselves into danger to keep their communities safe. Before turning things over to Ryan, I first want to personally thank him for his service to the greater good. And for his wife and children for allowing him to do so.

With that, meet Ryan.

Please tell us about yourself

My name is Ryan, and I live in Arizona. I am married and have three children all under the age of 10. I have a few major passions in my life and am stubborn to a fault – just ask my wife.

My primary income for the past 15 years comes from my career in law enforcement. I wanted to be a police officer throughout high school and geared my life for that career. I stayed out of trouble, “mostly” and avoided some of the more sketchy parties because I didn’t want to jeopardize my future career.

Three of my major passions in life are my family, my career, and my blogging about finances. I love to create, which is why I thoroughly enjoy blogging. There is not much room for creativity in law enforcement, so my creative side is definitely used more in blogging.

A one-income family

One of the struggles I had early on was learning to live on one income. My mother stayed at home with us when I was younger, and I think that kept my brother and me out of trouble. I wanted to allow my wife to stay at home with the kids if she wanted, and that is what we have been able to do.

Living on one income with a family of five is difficult, but it certainly has taught us how to manage our money better and live on a budget. I think we save and invest more than we would if she was at work because we are forced to pay attention to where every dollar goes. 

What made you decide to get into law enforcement? Why policing rather than something else?

The answer that most people give to this question is the standard, “I wanted to serve my community and give back to make it a better place to live, etc.” While that was partially true for me, it certainly wasn’t the motivating factor.

I doubt if any high school kid is overly concerned about the safety of their community. But maybe I’m wrong. That seems to be more of an adult ideology rather than kids.

Even in grade school, law enforcement and the military appealed to me. I had an uncle in the Air Force, and I thought flying a fighter jet would have been the coolest thing ever. Other than him, no one else in my family was in law enforcement or the military, so I’m not sure where my passion for these career fields came from.

In high school, I thought that driving a police car and having all that gear would be a really fun job. Driving fast with lights and sirens while chasing bad guys? I mean, come on, how cool does that sound? Oh yeah and protecting the community and all that stuff as well, but light and sirens

Youthful ambition

When I was 17 years old, I remember going into the Army recruiting office with my mom. I did well on my ASVAB military placement test, and the recruiter was offering me all these positions in military intelligence.

When I took one look at the flier with the camouflaged guy in the jungle holding a rifle, and I was like, “I want to be that guy!” That day my mom begged me not to go in the military and suggested I go to college and get into law enforcement instead. I decided to listen to her and went to school to get a criminal justice degree.

Fortunately, when I was old enough to apply for the position of a police officer, they were hiring a ton of candidates. As a result, they hired me right away. I graduated from the academy four days after I turned 21 years old. 

Back then, I thought I was old enough and had plenty of experience. Now I look back and have no idea why anyone thought it would be a good idea to give a 21-year-old kid a gun, badge, and a fast car. I’m lucky I didn’t get myself killed in those early years. I thought I was superman – I wasn’t afraid of anything.

Fifteen years later, I finally have started to mature – a little bit.

Tell us about your career path. Where did you start? How did you get where you are now?

The first two and a half years of my career, I worked as a patrol officer answering calls for service. I worked in some of the most dangerous areas of my department and had a great time.

It was a fun job, but I quickly found myself wanting to experience other things. I have a short attention span and lose interest quickly if I don't feel challenged. I developed a reputation for being a hard worker and worked a few temporary assignments on other details to include undercover positions.

After the two and a half years, I tested for and obtained the position of Field Training Officer (FTO). An FTO is responsible for training new recruits out of the academy the basic principles of law enforcement. I trained nine new police officers about the basics of policing. It was a challenging yet rewarding experience.

Training recruits was a slow and painful experience, especially since I became accustomed to working quickly and efficiently on my own. Showing someone how to log onto the computer and write a report was painstaking.

Neighborhood enforcement

After training recruits, I tested for and obtained a position as a Neighborhood Enforcement Team (NET) Officer. This was, by far the most fun position I have ever worked. These teams are made up of a group of officers who directly address and impact neighborhood crime problems.

NET officers work in undercover positions, surveillance details, marked uniformed patrol, and serve search warrants. Our biggest complaints were drug houses in neighborhoods. We routinely worked with our Drug Enforcement Bureau to purchase drugs from the dealers and later kick the doors down and arrest all the bad guys. Talk about a fun job!

I did that job for about two and a half years but knew I wanted to get promoted someday; to have a well-rounded resume so I could later supervise anyone in the department. To improve my resume, I tested for and became a detective in our Crimes Against Children Unit.

In the Crimes against children unit

This was the most rewarding and stressful job I have ever had. I was trained in forensic interviewing and routinely interviewed young children about some of the most traumatic and terrible things you can imagine. 

It was a difficult job, and I had no idea about the evil in this world that occurs regularly – to our most vulnerable in society – children. I was good at my job and put many monsters in prison, but this was certainly not a position I wanted to work forever.

Luckily, I tested for Sergeant and promoted. I worked on a patrol squad and later transferred to our Professional Standards Bureau (PSB). PSB is responsible for investigating complaints against officers and giving them discipline if they acted inappropriately on the job.

I was part of several investigations where the involved officer got fired for misconduct, and even one officer went to jail. This was not a fun position, but it was essential to hold our officers accountable. The ability for us to hold officers accountable for their misconduct is EXTREMELY important to maintain the public’s trust.

After a while of investigating our own, I promoted to lieutenant. I oversaw four patrol sergeants and about 50 officers until I later transferred to supervise our Property Investigations Unit. 

I now supervise seven sergeants who are responsible for managing squads of property crime, metal theft, pawn shop, and animal crime detectives.

How have you handled the criticism of police over the last few years over the treatment of minorities?

Honestly, I try to ignore the criticism. I buy into the idea that we all have our areas of control and our areas of concern. While I’m certainly concerned about the criticism and the incidents that have happened over the nation, there’s not a lot I can do to change what happened.

I can only control how my sergeants and officers interact with the community regularly. I do this by setting clear expectations and ensuring they are focused on providing positive service to our community. 

As far as how I handle it, I mostly ignore it because I know that the vast majority of people support the police. I will not stand for any bias or unfair treatment of minorities or anyone for that matter. Each officer’s action is a direct reflection upon all of us.

The harsh reality is that the vast majority of us hate the officers who are racist, biased, or dirty. As you know, one bad apple ruins it for the rest of us. One news story of an officer who should never have been a cop in the first place makes all of us look bad. 

Is it fair? No. Do I understand the impact we all have daily? Absolutely.

Do you think it’s fair criticism?

I do not think the overall criticism is entirely fair. Yes, some incidents have been in the media where the officer was in the wrong. No doubt about it and I am not here to defend them. We should all be held accountable for our actions. 

However, there are roughly 800,000 law enforcement officers in the United States.

If in the past few years 100 officers legitimately were in the wrong and were racist, used excessive force, and should not have been an officer in the first place, that would only account for 0.0125% of us. Painting all officers with a broad brush because of .0125% is hugely unfair.

However, even one officer acting out of line is unacceptable. We should do our best to weed them out. But to think that the next officer you see driving down the street has a high probability of being racist or a “bad cop” would be extremely unfair and based on lies. 

Have you seen bias and mistreatment in your department? If so, how was it handled?

From my 15 years in my department, I can honestly say I have never witnessed an officer act on a bias or treat a minority differently. Now before you refuse to believe me, know that I never share my last name or my department on my blog or in any publications.

I am somewhat anonymous for safety reasons that I’m not going to get into on this post. However, there is no incentive for me to lie – I don’t represent any specific department and do not personally identify myself here. This is the perfect platform, to tell the truth about misconduct – which I am. 

I have seen misconduct by officers in my department, but it did not involve race or bias. The misconduct involved excessive force and immediately reported to a supervisor. In my department, if you witness misconduct and fail to report it – and the misconduct gets discovered, everyone who failed to report gets disciplined. This creates incentives to hold each other accountable.

Excessive force

In the case of what I witnessed, the officer that used the force was suspended without pay, and the discipline record put in his file. His actions got referred to the county attorney for any potential prosecution. There are instances where excessive force during an arrest results in assault charges being filed against an officer. My department always reaches out to the county attorney’s office to see if they feel the force should result in criminal prosecution.

We also have progressive discipline in my department, so if any future misconduct occurs, the officer will receive more harsh punishment.

99% of all officers take a great deal of pride in their work and genuinely do their best to keep everyone in the community safe. Most of us sacrifice a lot to be in this career while getting paid a minimal amount of money. The average officer salary in the United States is around $56,000. 

I could make more money doing something else, but those of us in law enforcement feel called and enjoy what we do. It’s not about the money. It’s about the job.

How, if at all, has the criticism changed the way you do things as an officer?

The criticism around the nation has not changed the way I have done things as an officer, and most officers haven’t changed. As stated before, the vast majority of us work within the guidelines set before us and treat others as we would want to be treated.

The one thing that has changed is the amount of support we have received from the community. 

I remember one specific incident that happened to me shortly after the incident in Ferguson, Missouri. It involved a Caucasian officer who shot an African American male. The incident sparked a ton of outrage and unrest across the nation.

Shortly after the incident, I was working in uniform, off duty at a mall, and an African American woman came up to me. She asked if she could give me a hug. Talk about an inspiring moment! Here, after all the racial tension across the nation, this minority woman wanted to hug me. I openly accepted, and we embraced as she told me she felt so bad for the police and what was going on around the nation. 

It was apparent she knew the value of the police and wanted to show her support. That occurred nearly five years ago, and I bet that woman has no idea what an amazing impact that had on me. She was able to let her guard down, and the two of us connected as humans

That’s really what it comes down to. We are all humans, and most of us are doing the best we can in this life. We all need to show each other a little grace and help our communities thrive. To thrive, both the community and the police need to work together.

Can you give us an idea of what it’s like when you get called to a scene that could be potentially volatile?

This is probably one of the most interesting things I experience as a police officer. I am not a confrontational person by nature, and if I can avoid confrontation, I usually do. However, when I put on my uniform, I have no fear – during the incident. It’s like my uniform gives me super powers and confidence – which I need to survive.

In the academy, they drill into your head that you will not lose a fight. If you get in a physical altercation – you will not lose. They do this because of the mental advantage it gives you. If you get in a fight and in the back of your mind you’re thinking about the possibility of losing, you are focusing on the wrong thing. By going in with confidence and the determination to win at all costs, you are better set up for a successful outcome.

A lesson learned

I remember one particularly dangerous situation I was involved in when I was a young officer. Immediately after the incident, I realized how stupid I was and what a dangerous position I put myself in. However, at the time, I didn’t even notice.

It started with a call of a large gang fight at one of our local parks at about 9 PM. Two rival gangs were involved in an all-out brawl in the field, and there were probably 100 people there. I answered for the call and was the first one to arrive. 

Rather than waiting for backup – as I should have – I put my emergency lights on and got out of my car. I grabbed my baton and started walking towards the field. As I approached, I began to yell for everyone to break it up, and I may have used a few expletives in the process. 

Into the chaos

I approached two people fighting, pushed one of them onto the ground, and told them to get out of here. Like a fool, I began walking through the crowd breaking up fights as our helicopter was overhead shining a spotlight. The voice from the chopper was yelling over the loudspeaker for the crowd to disperse. I was probably alone for only three minutes, but it felt like an eternity.

After the crowd left, one victim had been stabbed, and there were shots fired from a car as it left.

It was at that moment when the scene started to cool down that I could not believe what I had just done. That was probably the dumbest move I have ever made in my career. I could have easily been shot or stabbed and would have had no idea where it came from or who did it. Quite literally, I went running into the lion’s den without backup.

I want to think that I saved some lives that day but who knows. All I know is that God was watching out for me because the odds were clearly against this young, dumb officer.

My tactics are much better now, but that’s really what police work is like. When terrible things are happening or when people are shooting at you, you’re not scared. You have a job to do, and you do it the best way you can. We are not superhuman, but we are programmed in a way to deal with the problem at hand – and be scared later.

I have been scared several times in my career – but it usually occurred after the most dangerous part was over. It often happens when you look back at everything that happened and say to yourself, “Wow, that could have gone really bad.” 

We certainly are not fearless – we just can’t afford to be scared when the worst is happening. Thank God for adrenaline! 

What would you like people to know about being a police officer that they may not know?

I would like for people to understand that as police officers, we are not robots. We are humans; brother’s and sisters, fathers and mothers – no different than you are. 

We chose a different career path because we have a desire to keep everyone safe – and drive fast cars. That’s why we run towards the bullets rather than away from them.

I work off duty at a mall, and I have gone over many different scenarios in my head about what I would do if someone came into the mall and started shooting at people. Most of you don’t think that way. You go to the mall and enjoy your pizza while you shop. The local cop is thinking of all the different ways a bad person would come in and harm you. He’s thinking about where he could best engage the suspect and minimize the amount of damage the bad guy could do.

The truth is, I have three kids, and I hope none of them are police officers. I have been through so much in my career and have seen things I cannot unsee. My best friend and partner with whom I rode in the same police car for years – was murdered. A person high on methamphetamine started shooting at him and put a bullet in his skull.

Experiencing loss

I had to tell my best friend’s wife what happened. My wife had to watch his kids while his wife came to the hospital. I later carried the casket of my best friend to the cemetery, where we laid him to rest. He died responding to a call of a burglary. A person called and was scared of the intruder and my best friend came to help.

Ultimately both the suspect and my buddy died. No one in that situation won – everyone lost.

Most officers have nightmares of being in shootings or other dangerous situations. And you know what? Most of us still love what we do and wouldn’t trade it for the world. It comes out of our love of serving you and will always come when you call. None of us will sit back and let evil take over this world if we can help it. 

We need your support – emotionally. The next time you see an officer, please thank them for their service, it means a lot. If you have kids, send them over to give us a high five, we love that! Teach your kids to respect officers and to feel comfortable around us. If your kids get lost, you want them to come to me for help, not be afraid of me.

Finally, thank you, Fred, for allowing me to tell our side of the story. Officers and the community need to come together, and we need to get rid of the bad apples, not focus on them. For every bad cop out there, there are tens of thousands of good ones. As a society, we need to start working to bring each other closer rather than tearing each other apart. This change needs to come from both sides, and I am committed to working on it from my end.

Photo of Ryan in uniform

Final thoughts

Ryan, thank you for being so open and honest about your experience as a police officer. I hope it causes people who may have bought into the media stereotype to reconsider their views. Like many things the media picks up these days, the actions of a few bad apples taint the view of a noble and important profession.

I said it earlier but it bears repeating. Thank you and your fellow officers for what you do for your community. I'm grateful there are so many men and women in the profession for the right reasons.

In part 2 of our conversation, we're going to find out what it's like being a first responder, along with the fire department, when called to crimes involving drugs and alcohol. We've already heard a horrible story of Ryan losing his partner to someone high on methamphetamine.

Some of the things we'll talk about are the use of Narcan by first responders, what police and first responders think is missing when dealing with addiction, and the difficulty of dealing with an overdose victim as a first responder. You won't want to miss this discussion.

And now it's your turn. How do you feel when you see a police officer? Do you feel fear? Safe? Has hearing Ryan's experience changed your view at all? If so, how?

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