If I Knew Then: Lessons from Cops on the Street
Brian Willis, editor and author of If I Knew Then: Lessons from Cops on the Street, has commited to donating $10,000 to the ILEETA scholarship fund. Help support his efforts! If you enjoy this chapter, please consider purchasing the book–for yourself or a friend–at www.warriorspiritbooks.com. Enjoy and be safe. –The Editor
Today, there are many checks and balances for hiring police officers that were not in place when I first joined a PD. Still, we see many different personalities and characters in the young men and women entering law enforcement. When I started, I wish I’d been more prepared for the culture shock of the wide range of bosses I have since worked for.
Prior to a police career in 1967, most of my experience with real bosses was with the U. S. Army 101st Airborne Paratroopers. After being discharged and joining an Ohio police department, one of the shifts I was assigned to as a junior officer (just above “rookie” status,) had a grizzled and intimidating old timer for a Sergeant. Like most new officers, you knew little about the veterans other than what you saw was what you got. I saw a police officer who was very knowledgeable about mechanical things (cruisers), was much more personable off duty, but was challenged in some areas of law enforcement, including supervision.
Sgt. Jelly: The Supervisor from Hell
Sgt. Jelly (deceased and not his real name,) had a unique style of “Supervision by Accusation.” What I did not know then, was this style of supervision was not in any texts on the subject. These were interesting but trying times for a newer officer. It seemed like the sergeant was always on my butt and it made little difference whether I did good police work or made mistakes. This, of course, can be depressing, causing employees to hold their own private pity parties.
Privately, I nursed nagging thoughts that the man could not be as clueless as he seemed. His accusations might have been a micro management double-checking of my reasoning. Eventually, other officers revealed that while the Sergeant was difficult with them, I was his favorite “whipping boy” by far. Here are some examples.
My earliest recollection was after a car-stop arrest (rarely done with backup, as this preceded the officer survival movement). Alone, I had booked and locked-up the prisoner, placed the aluminum wrapped hashish evidence temporarily on top of the dispatcher’s large old wooden telephone plug and unplug switchboard, and started evidence labeling paperwork.
The gruff voice of the old sarge was a bit startling, “What the !@#$% are you doing in the station?” As I explained the arrest that he seemed unaware of, the Sergeant’s attention went to the hashish. “Who put this mud on the switchboard”? With quite a bit of pride, I told him it was hashish, and he responded, “What the !@#$% is hashish”? And so it went, my learning from the sarge, and him learning from a junior officer.
Some years later, I was the closest car when an armed robbery at a bar was reported. The pair of gunman had fled, and my job was to get more information while the rest of the shift searched for the getaway car. As I spoke with the bartender and radioed additional information in, the bartender told me that the pair had been drinking at his bar, and pointed to the area where they had been sitting.
There were a couple of beer glasses where he was pointing, and I asked if those glasses were used by the armed robbers. The bartender said yes, and I asked him to get me a paper bag and some paper towels or tissue. I collected the evidence in the best manner that I could recall from basic police school.
Back at the station, my sergeant went through his usual accusatory questions, asking why was I in the station, and then demanding, “What the !@#$% are those beer glasses doing here?” Again, with considerable pride, I told the sergeant that those very glasses were handled by the armed robbers. His astonishing response was “So?” I replied that the glasses were for fingerprint evidence. Then the sergeant removed all doubts from my young mind with his next question. With great elaboration, hands on his hips, and in a blustery loud voice, the sergeant said, “Since when, in the history of this police department, have we ever solved a crime using fingerprints?” I was both stunned and stumped at the same time.
My response was as respectful as I could muster, “Sarge, I don’t know, but this is what they trained us to do in police school.” As it turned out, when we developed other suspect leads to the robbery, our fingerprint evidence did both connect and convict one of them, which was apparently our first.
Riding Shotgun—a Snowball from Hell?
One of my Sgt. Jelly highlights was one winter when our service department was on strike. Rumors circulated that imported union goons were being brought in, so we had police officers riding shotgun on the snowplow and salt trucks. To avoid a potential problem refilling at our own salt depot, permission was obtained to borrow salt from a neighboring city.
We dismounted and spread out while the salt was loaded. Our orders were to be on the lookout for the union troublemakers, and I was. During an outward and peripheral scan, I observed Sgt. Jelly on my right making a snowball, and sensed that he was going to throw it at me. Disappointed that he was fooling around when we were on such serious duty, I resolved myself to being able to avoid any snowball that the old Sergeant could throw. Then he winged one at me! I ducked, and then heard a strange “Splat” on my left.
As I turned and looked, there was Sergeant Ron slightly bent over with snow on the back of his head sliding down his neck, funneling down by an upraised fur collar. His uniform hat was on the ground, and he was slowly turning to see who did this. Sgt. Jelly was completely apologetic, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, honest, Ron, I was aiming for Borsch.” Sgt. Ron exclaimed, “Jelly, you’re an asshole!” I felt sorry for Sgt. Ron, who was a fair guy. Sgt. Jelly would be paying for his own mistake for quite a while since Sgt. Ron was bigger, tougher, and madder.
Although that embarrassing problem was his own fault, I could not imagine that there would be any significant improvement in my relationship with Sgt. Jelly. I had no delusions about being a perfect employee, but it seemed to make little difference to Sgt. Jelly whether my earnest efforts were good or bad. Somehow, I had to defend myself respectfully from his future unfounded accusations and poor employee treatment. I thought some self-defense payback might help.
The “Cardboard Box” Trick
One snowy night, the sarge left the station with his cruiser covered with snow, save for what the windshield wipers could clean. Legally, we were supposed to enforce a 360-degree vision requirement. If we did not actively enforce the vision requirement, the least we should do was be a positive model for citizens. I developed a spontaneous and devious plan as the sergeant’s cruiser approached from the opposite direction. In my best meekest and hesitant voice I radioed him after we passed, asking if he was aware of the cardboard box on his trunk.
There was a significant delay in his response. As you might imagine, our first impulse would be to check the rearview mirror, but with the rear window covered with snow, he would first have to leave traffic, pull over, and exit the cruiser for a physical check. Another patrol officer, observing that Sgt. Jelly’s cruiser had no such cardboard box, told me later that he immediately turned around because there would be hell to pay when the sarge discovered that he was the victim of a gag. The point of this story is that there was an eventual easing of his supervisory harassment, and in the remainder of my three-decade career, I had some wonderful and more professional bosses.
“And This, Too, Shall Pass”
A key piece of advice I would give to any new officer is one of life’s lessons for me. This is to appreciate truly good bosses (and neighbors) when you have them. I wish I knew at the beginning of my career that, good boss or bad, some things are merely temporary—“And this too shall pass.”
Ron Borsch is semi-retired from a full-time 30-year career with the Bedford, Ohio PD. He served with Patrol, SWAT, (both as an operator and trainer), Rangemaster, Arrest Motor Skills instructor, and Active and Defensive Tactics instructor. Ron still serves as a commissioned consultant-trainer, a part-time position. In 1997, Ron was commissioned to start an in-service police academy by the seven South East Area Law Enforcement (SEALE) Chiefs of Police. Since 1998, Ron has served as the manager and lead trainer of SEALE Regional Police Training Academy, a post-graduate facility. Since 2000, the academy has specialized in tactically training first responders. Ron’s precedent-setting research and statistics about rapid mass murder in schools and workplaces by active killers for the “Single Officer Lifesaving Others”©, SOLO, has been widely covered on prestigious law enforcement Internet sites, Blogs, and magazines.