Police officers' guns are always loaded because they never know when they're going to need them.
This was one of the great tidbits I picked up this past Saturday at my local Sisters in Crime meeting. Our speaker was Mark Bergin, who served on the Alexandria, Virginia, police force for twenty-eight years, retiring in 2014. While on the force, he was twice named his department's officer of the year for drug and robbery investigations. Bergin shared stories and answered questions for over an hour to help us authors get our police details right. Here's some of what he told us. (Any mistakes are mine.) Some of this information I already knew, and maybe you do too, but it's always good to get a refresher:
- Police work involves a ton of paperwork that you often don't see in novels and short stories.
- Patrol officers wear twenty-three pounds of gear, such as a radio, gun, extra bullets, a bullet-proof vest.
- Every cop has extra bullets, handcuffs, radios, pens, and more on them while on duty.
- While fictional officers seem to work on one case at a time, real cops are always juggling cases. In the Alexandria police force, the average was six to eight cases at a time, and the officers work each of them as much as they can.
- Officers always like to sit with their back to the wall, especially when on duty. They want to see the whole room. Bergin called this "hyper-vigilance," and said it especially comes into play when you are in uniform.
- Cops have a presence that's different from that of other people. Cops look at other people's faces. They give off the impression of being knowledgeable, which is why people often ask them for information such as directions.
- Ninety percent of an officer's job is maintaining control of a situation. That's done mostly by walking in and being "a presence." Officers also gain control of situations through using a commanding voice, which they're taught, as well as through control holds.
- Police officers have short hair, look bulky, and are strong. They're not always physically fit because so much of the job is sitting and driving. While on the force, Bergin worked out a lot to have big arms so he'd look like he could win a fight, which was designed to make people not try to fight him.
- Officers receive extensive training so that they get "muscle memory." In times of crisis, this memory kicks in so they will automatically do things the right way without having to think about it.
- Cops typically stay in the same police department throughout their career because--unless you are a chief or deputy chief--if you switch departments, you always have to start at the bottom. This is true even of homicide detectives. If an officer moves to a new city and thus a new place of employment, the officer starts out on patrol and has to work his/her way up the ladder again.
- Ninety-five percent of the time, prosecutors don't get involved in police cases before an arrest. The exceptions can be for homicides, bank robberies, and when there is a series of crimes that seem to be by the same perpetrator.
- Preliminary investigations of most crimes are done by patrol officers. The exceptions are rape and homicide cases, which go to detectives right away.
- Police investigate missing-person cases immediately; the twenty-four-hour waiting period often portrayed in TV and movies is a myth. However extensive resources may not be immediately available for a search.
- Patrol officers are strictly controlled in what they are allowed to do. For instance, they must ask for permission to do follow-up work on cases they're interested in that have already been handed off to detectives.
- Most cops don't worry about fear interfering with their ability to do their jobs because the hiring process/training program weeds out potential officers with this problem. Potential officers with fear issues either are trained to overcome them or they leave the program.
- While fear isn't a problem for most officers, stress is. They think they could be attacked at any moment, and thus are always on guard.
- Ninety to ninety-five percent of police officers never fire their gun at another person.
- In Alexandria, Virginia, the police department has three shifts of officers working each day. Officers work ten-hour shifts. Eighty-five to ninety percent of each shift is spent on the street. (I didn't get the chance to ask if this information is representative for most departments.)
Now that he's retired from police work, Bergin has turned to writing fiction. His first novel, a police procedural titled Apprehension, is scheduled to be published this fall by Inkshares/Quill. More information about the book is available here.
Thanks very much, Mark Bergin!