The difference between a good cop and just another cop

When I was taken off regular beat patrol and assigned a scout car I felt like I had been promoted. As was the practice then, I was partnered with a senior officer – and because of my uber zeal approach to policing, I was paired with old Tony. He was a late-middle aged copper who didn’t miss a thing going on around him. Police work was always as much a part of his day as any other detail that needed to be done, domestic or otherwise.

He walked and talked slowly and it felt like he was an anchor to me. He had a keen eye for factory castoffs and would sometimes ponder an item found at a factory’s back dumpster for the longest time before finally saying “Oh well, let’s throw it in the trunk and I will think of a use for it later.” Tony had a backyard that looked like a scene from the movie Wall-E.

He had little tact and no charisma but knew who to talk to, and how to approach them, when he needed information. He knew every restaurant, bartender and store keeper and the names of their kids. “They are the people who know the heartbeat of the city,” he would often tell me. He taught me that they hear all and know all, and if they happen to be familiar with a bottle of Scotch – bonus.

Realizing we would be partners for some time and that life would be about seeking compromises between the two of us… I shut up and paid attention.

I noticed that when a hot call came over the radio, he started driving toward the incident, regardless of its location. He would continue chatting without interruption but had clearly attuned his hearing to the radio. In some cases he would be talking and simply turn the scout car around in mid-sentence.

I would be surprised because I had not heard nor seen anything unusual. Invariably we were often very close to the locations where an officer needed assistance. In these circumstances Tony would advise the dispatcher, in his calm steady voice, that we were almost on scene and to cancel the other units.

“Almost on-scene – then why the heck are we not at least going faster than the speed limit?” I often wondered.

I eventually learned that Tony controlled the car, his surroundings and even the dispatcher. In spite of my uber eagerness to get to the call we always made it safely and in time, and managed to get and keep control of the most horrific scenes the Jane-Finch neighbourhood could throw at us. He controlled the dispatcher as well. Fighting the urge to raise your voice and sounding panicky you reduce the need for dispatchers to feel you are out of control. Honing the skill of communicating calmly on the radio also ensures clearer and more accurate information to be transmitted to other officers.

Tony gave me my first lesson in voice control as I experienced my first car chase with him. Speed wasn’t an issue because our car could never keep up anyway. Hampered by a slant six police car with no roof lights or siren, I knew most of the challenges which lay ahead. The motor would wheeze like a cat coughing up a hairball if you hit the gas pedal too hard. The biggest advantage of a chase was that at least the alternator would create enough power for the radio to work properly.

On this particular day Tony suddenly told me calmly, in mid conversation, to make a U-turn and “follow that car.” I complied and the suspect car immediately accelerated. My adrenaline kicked in as I hit the gas pedal. Predictably the car wheezed and chugged. “Take it easy now son,” Tony said soothingly. “We don’t want the engine to kack on us.” I eased off and saw the errant vehicle make a sudden right turn down a side street.

I made a hard right at the corner and gunned the engine in an attempt to keep my speed up. I failed to notice that there were no vehicles on the street ahead. Tony told me to stop the car.

“Stop? This is a chase – we aren’t going to catch him by stopping!” I complained.

“Pull over to the curb here,” he said in a curt and firm voice. I did as told but fumed at the prospect of the guy getting away. Tony rolled down his window and calmly asked a man standing in front of a shop if he had seen a red Ford that seemed a bit in a hurry. “Yes I did,” he said. “He pulled down that alley way over there.” Red faced, I headed to the alley and watched as Tony and I got out and arrested the driver.

I suddenly had a renewed respect for “my anchor.” He understood I was a keener but also that in my eagerness to do my job I had missed the nuances that make the difference between a good cop and just another cop. A good cop realizes the public is the gatekeeper of the knowledge they need. Cops don’t own that knowledge, they only borrow it in order to keep their community safe.

There are two kinds of witnesses; traffic lights and road signs. The first intends to stop an offence as soon as possible and the second simply wants to give directions to where it is happening. Both are necessary and helpful. The day we stop asking for a citizen’s help is the day when every cop will need thicker armour and bigger guns. They will be digging trenches instead of building bridges.