How Cop-Dreams Can be the First Signs of Trouble

They’ve promised that dreams can come true-but forgot to mention that nightmares are dreams, too.

Oscar Wilde

Burnt Flesh

Today I woke up in a panic.

But was I awake yet?  

I wasn’t sure.  

I couldn’t let myself breathe a sigh in relief prematurely.

Like in a classic race, when the vampire that chases the curious mortal towards the exit of the cave, angrily snarling and viciously angry.  How dare the curious mortal awaken him in his state of slumber. He was perfectly fine hanging upside down, clinging from his toes, in the deep dark safety of this cave.  

Nonetheless, the vampire would make the curious mortal pay.  He would dine on his throat and exsanguinate the curious mortal of every last drop in his body.   Hunger now drove the vampire’s flight. 

The curious mortal ran towards the light.  He ran fast and hard.  He ran desperately.  The vampire gained on him with ease.  

As he ran his feet never felt so heavy in his life.  He heard the vampire’s snarl grow louder behind him, then his heart sunk into his stomach when he felt the tips of the hungry vampire’s claws poke his neck.  

The curious mortal made a quick maneuver to his right, then zagged back in line towards the sunlight of the cave opening.  That move gave him another chance.  With a deep fear fueling his desperation, he jumped towards the light.  

The curious mortal hoisted himself onto the ledge he had jumped down from in order to enter the cave in the first place.  As he squinted from the sun’s brilliance, his heavy leg still dangled in the dark part of the cave for just a moment.  That moment was enough for the vampire to snatch it with his pale and decrepit hand.  

A tug-o-war battle ensued between them for possession of his leg.  In a final attempt at victory, the vampire squealed a high pitched battle cry that pierced the curious mortal’s eardrums. His insides froze in shock and his eyes widened as he caught a full glimpse of what had been chasing him.  

The vampire’s hand was pulled into the sunlight.  The smoke and sizzle was immediate as the vampire released his grip and pulled his hand back into the dark.  The curious mortal stood up in the safety of the sunlight and faced his pursuer. 

He could smell burnt flesh.  

The vampire pushed off from a rock and began his flight back into the recesses of the cave.  As he did so, he held his right hand close to his body, then looked back.  His wild eyes boiled in anger but a creepy smirk shone on his face.  As if the vampire knew he’d have another shot.  

The curious mortal thought to himself how he would never step foot into that cave again.  He’s learned from his mistake.  And so he walked away and put the whole thing behind him. 

It was all in the past now.  

All of it.  

Except for that smell.

The smell of burnt flesh.  

Today I woke up in a panic.

But was I awake yet?  

I wasn’t sure.  

I couldn’t let myself breathe a sigh in relief prematurely.

The nightmare had followed me into my woken state.  Just like the vampire’s hand made it out of the cave, but quickly retracted, this particular dream stayed with me during the moments immediately after I had woken up.  

And I swear I could still smell that burnt flesh.  

That was evident through the mumble that escaped my vivid dream then landed into the present. “No, no, no, no, no…..” As I laid there half awake, in the first 3-seconds of opening my eyes, I wasn’t quite conscious yet. My heart still thumped loud in my head. My chest rose and fell in quick short spurts.


I had another one of those “cop-dreams”. 

I couldn’t see the bad guy. But in my dream I somehow knew he was pointing a gun at me. I fired my Glock once. The bullet hit him but it had no affect.

I fired again… Again… Again and again… Nothing.

I don’t know how I ended up on the floor. But suddenly I was laying on my side on the pavement of a sidewalk. I could see this person walk towards my police car.

My partner was in there.

I couldn’t move to help.

I couldn’t yell to warn.

The bad guy’s gun pointed into our black-and-white.

With every ounce of strength in my core I battled my paralyzed body to get up and fight.

But nothing.

All I could do was mouth the words “No, no, no, no, no…..” 

I mouthed those words frantically and repeatedly until I violently woke up on my bed.

The words “No, no, no, no, no…..” had escaped the dreamland and warped into the actual.  It was cut short, like the vampire’s attempt to escape the cave into the sunlight.  

For a while (a mere 2 or 3 seconds but that was long enough) I was awake and CONVINCED I had actually let my partner get ambushed. I sat up quickly as my chest rose and fell in quick short spurts.  

It was just a dream.

If this were to ever actually happen, I am now prepared and would know what the feeling would be.  It would be that exact terror that owned my whole being as I sat up.  Regret.  Panic.  Self-blame.  So pathetically not in control.  

I looked around.

I blinked away the sleep.

I saw my dog curled on the floor by the foot of my bed.

And with one word spoken aloud to myself I realized it was just a dream… 


When Dreams Trespass on Reality

All cops have them.  Sometimes the gun won’t work.  No matter how hard you try to press the trigger, nothing happens.  Other times the gun does work but the rounds have no affect on the bad guy in the dream.  Then evil keeps coming.  The dreams come in all forms.  But there are some important things they have in common that are important to understand.  Allow me to list and explain: 

  • They fill each person with overwhelming anxiety. 
  • They control each person with a powerfully high and abnormal stress factor.
  • They are the result of active suppression of emotions, which begin to surface through these dreams.  
  • Survival instincts kick in by an active minimization of the dreams themselves.  They get shrugged off as “it was just a dream.”

First of all, these dreams are completely and utterly anxiety ridden.  No matter how tough a cop is, and no matter how much he or she might convince themselves how they in fact were not scared when they woke up, what they cannot ignore is the heightened speed their heart was pumping at during the dream.  They cannot ignore the shallow breathes of their chests or the sweat that soaked them as they lay asleep and trapped in these dreams.  

Secondly, it’s where these dreams come from that tell the true tale of the affects of stress upon the psyche of a law enforcement professional.  Daily work for those in law enforcement consist of a constant mental preparation for violent battles.  A street cop might not actually have a physical fight or a shootout everyday of their careers, but the daily mental preparation can be just as deadly if not dealt with in a healthy manner and early in one’s career.  

Suppression and staving off natural human fear as part of a daily habit in police work causes undeniable stress.  That stress will always work it’s way to the surface.  Many times, the first signs of this stress in a young cop’s career are these cop dreams.  

Most people in law enforcement don’t realize the stress that is building inside of them.  They’ll have these dreams and shrug them off as part of the job.  Many of them fall into the category of thinking work does’t seem that stressful anyway.  After all, there are plenty of “slow” days to off set the busy ones.  

It is this impression of a “slow” day that can be one of the the worst enemies of a street cop.  

One Slow Day at a Time

Let’s take a look at a slow day.  One simple radio call.  You have the luxury of knowing the outcome, which is, officers are ok at the end of this scenario.


The police radio blares: “Officer [insert your name here], handle a domestic violence at 123 Happy St.  Neighbor hears arguing and things breaking in the apartment next to hers, possibly apartment #404.  Handle your call high priority with lights and sirens”

Let the multi-tasking begin.  Pretend you are the driver of this police car. Here is what you are doing as you handle this simple, slow day radio call:

-Take a deep breathe and read the following as fast as possible-

You drive at a high rate of speed through red lights in a densely populated area of the city.  As you cross red lights, you look left and rely on your partner to verbally clear your right side for traffic, all the while looking for pedestrians with headphones who are staring down onto their phones and oblivious to your police car.  Cars don’t slow down and they don’t pull to the right so you have to maneuver through intersections to try to get to the address as soon as possible so that nobody gets hurt.  

While you battle the dangers of driving with lights and sirens, your partner reads you the comments of the radio call from the police computer.  He gives you the address and you picture your approach in such a way that is safest for the the both of you.  Your partner then reads off the description of the suspect and as you avoid crashing, picture your approach, you then have to visualize the person that was just described to you so that you can recognize him or her when you get closer to the address.

As you drive fast through traffic, picture your approach, and visualize the possible suspect, now it’s time to simultaneously communicate with several entities.  You must grab the police radio and talk to dispatch for further information, while switching back and forth to a different channel so that you can also talk with the police helicopter above and communicate all of the information to them above since they do not have a computer inside of their cockpits.  

When you get closer to address you slow your approach and lookout for the made up character in your head that you created using the descriptors given to you by your partner as you drove there.  You scan the streets for this unknown person while looking for the address.  You drive slowly as to not pass or park directly in front of the target address.  Cops do this so that they don’t put themselves in a position of disadvantage of potential ambushes.  Once you park a few houses away, you make your approach.  But you do not simply walk up.  You walk and scan, walk and scan.  You look into vehicles for hidden shooters.  You off-set yourselves so that if one of you gets shot by a volley of gunfire, the other has a chance to get cover.   You look up for high ground positions where you can be shot from.  You keep mental notes of where good cover and concealment are.  

Then you finally reach the address.  If it is a multi level apartment building, as it often is in a large city, you must find creative ways to open the door and make entry.  Once you do manage to open the lobby doors, you have to prop it open.  You know, in case you get shot and need help, you don’t want the responding officers to be locked outside unable to render you medical aid.  

There.  Now you are in.  You are well aware of the lack of cover or concealment.  Long hallways put you in a position of disadvantage should someone begin shooting at you and your partner from the other end of the hall.  

You don’t take the elevator.  Getting stuck in it is not an option.  When elevator doors open, you become a box of sitting ducks that can easily be taken out by one press of the trigger from a fully automatic rifle.  So, you take the stairs.  

Apartment #404.  That’s 4-flights.  You think to yourself how you wish you didn’t skip leg-day at the gym.  As you climb the stairs, at least one of you clears the landing of each floor.  Again, for ambush reasons.  

Finally you make it to the 4th floor and you find the target apartment.  You lower your police radio so that they hopefully don’t hear your approach.  One officer leans in and places an ear on the wall next to the door, never directly on the door, as to not get shot through it.  

You and your partner hear nothing.  

You pound on the door with that “police knock” that you were given ample training on in the academy.  Then you announce yourselves as police.  

You hear steps coming to the door.  The peep hole goes from a pinpoint light to shadow.  Someone is now watching you, but you cannot see them. Depending on the comments of the radio call, your gun may be out already.  Your hand is at least on your gun, hopefully it’s unsnapped.  

As the door creeks open the moment of truth arrives.  What can follow are many many things.  Gunfire.  A sword.  A bloody victim can run out yelling that her children are inside.  That’s part of the game, the unknown.  

A couple comes out.  

The come out side by side embracing each other.  They are surprised to see the police at their doorstep.  You explain why you are there.  They both are adamant that there was no argument.  They were overly excited about the football game and dropped the bowl of chips.  You get permission to look inside their apartment and find that nothing is out of the ordinary.  

You then grab your police radio and announce a “Code-4”.  No crime.  

As you walk away from the apartment you look to your partner and ask, “Code-7?”

Your partner tightens his lips and ponders what to eat for lunch.  

All of the preparation leading up to that academy level door knock has disappeared from your mind in an instant.  In fact the very next thought was simply what you were going to eat for lunch.  

And then…


All over again.

Whether you placed yourself in this scenario or placed a loved one in it, the pair of officers in this description of a simple radio call hit a tremendously high level of stress.  The stress levels within them hit the the very peak of the ceiling.  Then in a split second, the stress drops to the floor level of relaxation.  Just to be ignited again by the next radio call that blares from their police radios.

Keep in mind, officers completing this ritualistic behavior are never outwardly paranoid.  They don’t look at high ground or clear each floor’s landing explicitly thinking “Someone is going to shoot me.”  

They are usually as cool as cucumbers.  

These behaviors are part of their training and daily work routine.  It becomes normal.  Despite how calm they look or even how calm they feel, this frenzy of mental multi-tasking in order to offset violence against them occurs many times per shift.  Even on a simple radio call like the one above.  

Even on a “slow day”, filled with 10 to 20 of these slow radio calls where nothing happens, the inner stress levels of street cops slams to the top ceiling then slams them to the ground floor.  It does so over and over and over again.

One radio call after another.

One day after another.

Week after week. 

Month after month. 

Until the years pile up into decades.  

Pretty soon this invincible roller coaster of stress takes it’s toll on the individual.  

One slow day at a time.  

How the Cop-Dream Can be Used to Save Lives

Making Sense of the Mess

As a young street cop, these dreams came quite frequently.  As I stated earlier, I shrugged them off as part of the job.  I slowly began to realize that other counterparts had them also.  Even those I labeled “too cool for school”.  We all have been victims of these dreams. 

As the years went by, the dreams began to get worse.  They were very specific to traumatic radio calls.  The intensity of the dreams began to grow exponentially. A good example of one of these dreams is my very first blog post titled, Beethoven’s Sonato No. 14 “Moonlight” in C-Sharp Minor.

In retrospect, the dreams were perfectly spaced apart.  They did not occur often enough for me to recognize a pattern, but they occurred frequent enough to accept as a normal part of my life.  

Still, I never put two and two together.  I never realized the concept of how stress caused these dreams.  

How could I?  

There was never a system in place to monitor this underrated, and often overlooked topic with young officers.  

Early recognition can be used as a tool for mitigation.

I offer this perspective not for pity, but for an attempt to find a type of measuring stick.  A measuring stick that can be used as an early sign of mental health concerns which causes a huge burden beyond the badge.

So as I sit here today as an expert in my field of police work yet a layman to the science of stress and sleep behaviors, I want to offer a bridge between the two. 

That bridge is the infamous: cop-dreams.  

A comprehensive and long term analysis of these cop-dreams could save a lot of lives.  If we can study a sample size of police who are treated for these dreams from an early point of their career, there is the possibility of legitimizing the cop-dream as a first sign of trouble.  

Once we use proven studies to make these dreams an official symptom, we can mitigate the stress.  We can lessen the chances of a young cops inheriting PTSD.  They can ultimately lead  more informed and self aware lives, which can directly lower all of the after affects the police culture suffers from.  

It’s a simple attempt for a solution.  Perhaps too simple.  But it would be a powerfully progressive step in bettering the lives of future generations of police.

After all, who else is going to take care of our innocent and our weak?

Self-Care & Looking Out For Each Other

Some simple things I have made a conscious effort to try for myself include:

  • Write down the dreams on a notes app on a cell phone.  Details and emotions you felt.  What you do with that gathered information can differ from person to person.  At the very least, it allows you to analyze yourself and confront your feelings rather than fall back onto the usual shrug-off.  
  • Talk about it with your work partners.  See how it feels to talk out loud about it.  I am willing to bet that most of your partners will speak of similar dreams.  It’s important to know you are not the only one having these horrible dreams.
  • Pay attention to those who make fun of you for sharing these dreams.  Pay attention to those who seem uncomfortable about it.  Watch out for those who don’t say a single word. Sometimes the quiet ones are the ones who need the most help.  Pay attention to see if that person is you.
  • Therapy. The awful agency provided therapists.  Many people in law enforcement are wary about opening up to these therapists.  It is part of the cultural stigma and the mistrust between the officers and the agency they work for.  However, baby steps are important.  So if we can find the courage to visit a therapist to talk strictly about these cop-dreams and nothing else, we can keep ourselves safe from any fear of retribution. The professional perspective can be priceless in understanding the human psyche, understanding the affects of stress and understanding yourselves.
  • Hobbies or simple interests with other like-minded people.  Camping.  Cars.  Fishing.  Gym.  Knitting.  Child-rearing tips.  TV shows.  Anything, really.  Using that time to proactively relax the mind.  A healthy escape or detachment, which has to be coupled with dealing with the stress of cop-dreams, is extremely important.

I am currently working on an ebook.  It is a police journal/calendar that helps officers organize their careers, personal lives & mental stressors throughout their lives.  It will be meant to help an officer be in control of their lives with a different power-dynamic than that which comes from “the badge”, if you will.  It will track progress and digression.  I hope to make this an inspirational product that we can use to mitigate the stressors in the microcosm of our society that is police work. 

While I work on this…

Be aware. Be aware of the implicit affects of a slow day.

Be conscious. Be conscious of these dreams and why they are infiltrating your sleep.

Be active. Be active in practicing quality sleep just as much as a good quality workout.

Be present. Be present for your peers.

And most importantly…

Most importantly take care of yourself early so that you can be there in the long term physically and mentally for a beautiful retirement and beyond.  

-Tom Ludlow