Cops have a certain way of doing things, sitting with their backs to the entry door waiting for an armed robbery to happen or wearing a jacket when it’s 90 degrees out and you're trying to cover up your gun and badge. And of course, there are also the spit-polished shoes on or off duty. Or if conversing in public, we seem to be bobbleheads, constantly looking around and scanning for..., well honestly, scanning for anything and everything.
You never know what a threat is until it’s too late, so you are looking for the pre-threat signs or watching for a victim in waiting, you’re constantly looking about. You know the type, the woman who has her open purse sitting in her shopping cart and she’s an aisle away, or the guy with his wallet or checkbook sticking half out of his back pocket, keys left in a running car etc.
I have suffered the “you’re not paying attention” to me accusation myself on more than one occasion. Instead of looking at whomever you are talking to in the eyes, which you do briefly, you’re always looking about. Once family and friends understand this it goes much better. What’s funny is to watch two cops talk in public, between both of them doing this; it’s as if they don’t even know each other. The whole conversation might as well have taken place over the phone.
If you have ever had the “pleasure” or as some in my family call it the scariest time of your life riding with a police officer you are normally regaled with the vehicle code and how each driver on the road but them of course, just broke 169 of the thousands of laws governing driving.
License plates are also part of this adventure.... Many times in the vehicle of a police officer you can hear “I know that plate”. When it comes to observing vehicles, normally the cop firsts notes the plate, then the color, make and model. Something like Illinois plate 123XYZ, a black 4 door Buick Century, M\W occupied 4 times, meaning 4 male whites are in the car. You then look for odd things, broken windows, tail-lights, rust, damage, or broken radio antennas etc., things that set “that” car apart from anything similar.
It was teaching this tactic to my son that led me to believe he may need glasses when he was young. We were out and about and I asked him certain questions, like what is the plate number of that car ahead of us, or what do you notice about it besides the color? His response..., what car? Got home and told my wife she needs to take him to the eye doctor!
Then there is holding hands or carrying items in public. I don’t normally hold hands with my right hand or carry things with my right arm. I am right “gun” handed you see, so my right hand normally stays free. It’s also a great trait to get out of carrying shopping bags!!
Now there is one area where when out driving or even just out walking in public that is almost a dead giveaway to a cop’s presence and will stop that “bobble head” appearance. Once you determine something may be a threat, or even worthy of a closer review a police officer who works in uniform is accustomed to watching people, even staring at them. When the person of interest notices and looks at the police officer, normally in most situations, the person will look
away. It’s something to do with social standards and acceptable behavior. It’s akin to your mother using your full first and middle name to call out to you. You know without a shadow of a doubt you’re in trouble, or at the very least nothing good is going to come from this. It’s the same way here. The public is accustomed to having the police “look” at things, even them. Think about this next time you’re out driving about and a police officer in a marked squad car pulls up next to you. Very rarely will you continue looking at them, once they have made eye contact, or if they are already looking and you glance over, you will almost always divert your eyes, maybe after a brief smile, nod or wave. It’s like going through airport security, you know they are checking YOU out and you just want it over. It’s not a great feeling, but one you accept as part of a civilized society.
Well, this behavior does not change from on-duty to off-duty. I have many times received the “what are you looking at” or the return glare from someone I was observing. Sure they saw me staring, no big deal, I do this 50 times a day on shift.... Oh wait, I’m off and in my truck now. Never mind.
Lingo is another thing, sure we all have a specific lingo that goes with our jobs, medical staff are forever yelling out STAT for example.
Within police work, we also have specific terms, but we have our slang as well, and even more confusing sometimes is regional slang. For example; on the East coast, NYC specifically when they make an arrest they “collar” them, Chicago\Midwest it’s a “Pinch” and on the West Coast, they “hook em up”. We even call our police cars something different; here they are “Squads”, the West Coast they are “Radio cars” while many East Coast agencies refer to them as “beat or district cars”. As I already mentioned in an earlier article, police officers never go anywhere, we are “en route” and when we get there, we “arrived”.
These are all things that new officers to undercover work have to “break”. You are trying to teach them to assume an undercover role as a bad guy, or maybe even a good guy, just not a cop. They have spent years being the police, and all the nuances that go with it, now you need to break that in them, much like socializing a dog by having them interact with the public and other dogs.
So next time you see someone in ratty old jeans and an untucked flannel shirt, with boots so polished you need sunglasses on just to look at them on a 103-degree day staring at you? Yeah, that’s off-duty me, I’m just en route home!
Al Hobbs is a Law Enforcement Correspondent for DrydenWire and writes on a wide-range of topics on Law Enforcement but focuses mostly on the human element of being a cop in his weekly segment titled: "Behind The Badge". Al brings a unique writing style that allows him to connect with his readers. You can read his introduction to DrydenWire here.
Al is a retired police detective from the metro Chicago area. He has been a Law Enforcement Officer at the City, County, State and Federal level in excess of 35 years. His career has taken him all over the nation and the world. Al has been involved in all aspects of criminal investigation as well as general police duties. He is once again on the street as an active LEO for a North Shore community, just North of Chicago in Illinois.