London North member Michael Matthews has released a book about policing on the streets of the US. This was recently posted on the IPA website. Michael was asked if he would write a short post for the blog. This is his story.
By Michael Matthews
Like many coppers, I have always had an interest at how our colleagues in America, police. ‘The Job’ is often considered the same everywhere, and to a degree that is true but there are also huge differences.
As a kid I grew up watching all those great American cop shows and movies – Hill Street Blues, Cagney and Lacey, Beverly Hills Cop and even Smokey and the Bandit. This diet of American cop action and stereotypes stayed with me long after I joined the Metropolitan Police in London and I vowed to one day delve into the American cop world.
For 12 years now, I have been doing just that – immersing myself in their world and their culture. I have been travelling regularly to America to meet with – and often patrol with – cops from less likely places such as Alaska and Mississippi to the more expected including as New York, Chicago and Las Vegas.
My experiences were everything you would imagine them to be. In the time that I have been patrolling with officers, I have been up in department helicopters, out on SWAT raids, accompanied homicide detectives in the ganglands of major cities, spent lonely nights in remote locations with a single trooper and ‘blue-lighted’ it through Times Square.
The result of these experiences is a book called ‘We Are The Cops – The Real Lives of America’s Police’. American policing has come under much scrutiny of late and the book, I believe, goes some way to helping people understand what is it really like to be an American cop today. Forget the TV shows, forget the movies, this is it, for real. And the realities are often more unexpected than what you would find on TV anyway.
I spoke to one Boston officer who told me about the time a gorilla called ‘Little Joe’ (he wasn’t very little from what I understand) escaped from the zoo and proceeded to cause havoc in the city. The officer told me:
‘So he was just kind of walking around, then he’s coming towards us and he’s banging his chest and everything. Then at one point he starts running after us. There had to be fifty cops there by now – you know, pistols, rifles and all this stuff – and we all just started running away! We don’t want to shoot him, so we’re running and we’re kinda laughing too, because it is kinda funny. But it’s a gorilla and he’s out. He’s out on the street!’
That sort of thing could only happen in America. But not all the stories and tales were quite so amusing. It is no secret that being a cop in America can be a dangerous job. Last year 127 officers died in the line of duty. 47 of those officers were shot. The chapter ‘Officer Down’ that appears in the book was a difficult one to write as I had to get officers to open up to me about being shot themselves or about colleagues that they had lost. One officer I was told about was still alive but in a vegetative state after being in a shoot-out where another officer’s round had ricocheted and struck him in the head:
‘He got hit in the head. I think it was just a fragment but it got him in the brain. They think it could have been friendly fire. He’s been permanently handicapped and on life support ever since. He’ll never come back to work. He’ll never get out of rehab, probably ever. He’ll probably never walk again.
He’s not responding to any treatment. He’s almost like a vegetable and he’s only thirty-seven years old. He’s got four little kids. He’s on a vent and he’s not coming back.’
By the time I got home, that officer had died.
Despite the dangers, America can be a fun place to visit and to work but there is no denying that policing in America can be anything but routine. Their mindset can be different from officers’ working in quieter and safer places:
‘Being a cop in Detroit, you have to accept that you can get into anything, not just gunfights. You have to accept that you’re going to have to get physical at work. You have to accept that. You may not come back alive. You have to accept that. When you accept that, it helps to clear your mind so that you can do your job.
Do I get frightened? No. Do I get scared? Yeah. But doing your job supersedes you being scared; you’ll be scared after it’s over. Your mind is, ‘I’ve got to get this guy and not get shot.’’
Guns and shootings are a big part of the job. It is always at the forefront of officers’ mind at any call they attend – I have seen that for myself. There are after all, 80 guns for every 100 people in the States (compared to 6 in the UK):
‘I’m going to do whatever it takes to do my job and protect others. Of course, you don’t want to shoot people and I don’t want to sound like a monster but shooting a person was not that emotional for me.’
Like I said, it can be a different mindset.
I have loved the time I have spent with cops in the States and I continue to travel there to learn, to make new friends and to visit old ones. It is everything you have seen in the movies and much, much more. As one cop told me:
‘Where else are they going to give you a gun, a badge, a fast car and tell you to go play with ten of your best friends every night?’
We Are The Cops – The Real Lives of America’s Police is published by Silvertail books. Priced in the UK at £9.99 in paperback and from £2.49 ebook, it is available from Amazon and other usual book store and outlets. It is also available internationally.
All photos copyright Michael Matthews.