Life as a Police Officer—What It Looks Like, What It Is

September 26, 2014

When we tried to lift him into the backseat of the police car, the man’s legs detached from his body.

I was working patrol at Central Precinct. The patrol division in many departments consists of officers assigned to respond to 911 calls and non-emergency requests for service. A radio call from dispatch sent me to the downtown bus mall to check the welfare of a man collapsed on the sidewalk.

Homeless people spending the night on the street usually find their way to doorways or overpasses for protection from the rain. This man was lying in the middle of the sidewalk. I introduced myself. He didn’t respond. I shook his shoulder to rouse him because I wanted, and was obligated, to assess if he was able to care for himself. My efforts were rewarded with a growl. The alcohol emanating from his body was palpable, tangy.

Ordinarily, I would have called for Willy 26, the “drunk wagon,” to haul the man to detox. But I was curious to learn his name, and so, perhaps mistakenly, I searched his pockets for identification. Some officers interpret a wet homeless person collapsed on the sidewalk as an affirmative defense to a pat down, but following policy, I entered the man’s name into the patrol car computer and learned he had a warrant.

A warrant meant a mandatory arrest—an order from a judge commanding a police officer to arrest this man—and a trip to jail. I called for another officer to help me lift him to his feet so I could perform a proper search. Before placing an arrestee in the backseat of my patrol car, I would thoroughly search him both for my safety and because of bureau policy—even handcuffed people can access weapons hidden in clothing (or other parts of the human body).

An inert, average-sized man is impressively difficult to lift. My cover officer and I counted down from three. “Three. Two. One.”

And off came his legs.

To a passerby, two cops struggling with an apparently homeless man on a dreary sidewalk looked bad enough, but two cops ripping the man into pieces—was it tragedy, dark comedy, police brutality? I was partly responsible for the situation, and it even looked bad to me.

Police work exposes officers to a grab bag of surprises, some gruesome, some horrid, some sad, and some amusing. Sometimes legs detach, or a rifle (with bayonet included) emerges from a person’s pants, or a friend of law enforcement with a self-proclaimed drug-detecting ferret offers the services of his beast.

I became a police officer because I wanted to make a difference in the community where I grew up. I did not want a job that would anchor me to a desk. I wanted unpredictability, to peer into humanity’s grab bag. Policing opened a peephole into the American experience that I could not have imagined as a suburban kid from a family where excitement meant chasing the family beagle when he escaped through an unlocked gate.

Policing, in reality, is long periods of boredom briefly electrified by shock and surprise. The speed with which an apparently benign encounter can spiral into violence is difficult to describe. Experience teaches officers to identify triggers, but no amount of experience is preparation for every possible, sometimes surprising, decision a person can make.

This speed in particular makes an officer’s job difficult to do well. It goes without saying that an officer does the job well when he or she acts within law and policy. And for the job to be done right, an officer must also act out of concern not only for the community, but also for the person or people he or she is dealing with. But the Catch-22 of policing is that even when done well, the results often look troubling to an outsider. Consider that even the relatively routine process of handcuffing a person can be unsettling: an officer, and often two officers, representatives of the state, physically control a person and secure him with metal rings. Nothing about handcuffing looks good.

To the mix of speed and unpredictability, add a thick criminal code, ambiguous constitutional law, hundreds of pages of departmental policies, unwritten department rules, and community expectations. Officers are charged with understanding and relying on all of this and applying it no matter how fast an encounter unfurls. This is one of the most challenging parts of the job—applying the criminal code and a monstrosity of a policy manual while driving 100 miles per hour on a city street and communicating by radio to your cover officers that you are in pursuit of a shooting suspect. Also, factor in that you must constantly weigh the benefits of your actions against the risks. Is it a surprise that bad things can happen?

Most officers sign up and show up because they care. Even at 100 miles per hour, most officers strive to do the right thing. Sometimes the right thing has deadly consequences. And sometimes, bad things happen despite an officer’s good intentions and thoughtful decision-making.

As it turned out, the man on the downtown sidewalk relied on a pair of wooden legs attached to his body with an elaborate system of leather straps. After the failed lift attempt, his wooden legs and leather straps were as tangled as the clothes in your dryer.

My cover officer and I finagled the man and his parts into the backseat. I drove him to jail only to repeat the catawampus process in the booking area. I don’t remember seeing him again. I know that the trip to jail meant he was safe from the night predators prowling city streets. The encounter looked bad—even brutal. But in checking on a drunken man and serving the warrant, I did my job, which was to follow the law, policy, and community expectations. I protected a drunk Portlander from potentially serious harm.

I became a police officer because I cared. While it sounds trite, I wanted to make a difference. Arresting a man, wooden legs and all, was a small part of that.


Cody recently began his legal career with a firm in Portland, Oregon. He worked as a police officer for the Portland Police Bureau before law school.  

Image: Thomas Hawk via photopin