““We learn from failure, not from success!””

Bram Stoker

In police work.  Mistakes can get you killed. Throughout my career in law enforcement, I’ve heard over and over again: 

“Hands kill” and “Complacency kills”

With over 16-years of “pushing a black and white” on patrol, I have made numerous mistakes.  Each mistake has allowed me to mold my mindset sharper and sharper.  The difference between me now and me then is how bulletproof I felt as a young street copper.  

I was humble in all other aspects of life.  However, when it came to my tactics and police work, I was determined to stay alive.  So much so that the possibility of dying on the job was pretty much non existent in my mind.  

In retrospect, this mindset I had as a young police officer in a large violent city actually placed me in more danger.  When I did make tactical mistakes, I did not process them in a way to make myself better.  I was so embarrassed and angry from these mistakes that in the following shifts I did not share what I did wrong with my teammates.  

If my humility would have bled into my police work, I could have shared all of my mistakes.  In turn, that would have helped other officers by hearing of my flops.  This would have ultimately made my fellow officers safer. I could have learned a lot from their mistakes as well.

The turning point in my mindset was one particular incident I will describe shortly.  Again, I did not share it due to being embarrassed.  About a year later, a fellow officer brought up the incident in a playful way.  I was surprised by his “joke”.  I became a bit upset at first.  But then I thought, “This is the kind of attitude that gets us killed.”  

So from that moment on, I decided to take on these mistakes with a different approach.  I would attempt to balance the following:

  1. Keep the survival mindset of making zero mistakes.
  2. Accept any mistakes I do make.
  3. Make my fellow officers aware of their mistakes.
  4. Share with my fellow officers why it is important to take ownership of those mistakes.  

I will now share a series of four actual mistakes that have haunted me for a better part of my career.  I will share how they have transformed my police mindset from one of feeling untouchable, to one that is free from guilt.  I mean guilt-free in the sense of embracing mistakes in order to become a safer officer.  An acceptance of my mistakes so that I can make officers around me safer, which benefits us all.  


Mistake #1: Truant Mind

It was a radio call from a parent who was frustrated with her teenage kid.  He did not want to go to school.  So she called the cops.  I walked in as cool as a cucumber.  I was Worry-free. 

Untouchable.  

The kid was gone by the time we got there.  So we listened to mom.  As she told us her story, I could not help but to notice how young she was.  I’d bet money she was younger than me by far.  

“And she had a teenage kid?”, I thought to myself.  

Mom told us about her argument with her son that morning.  She had started to make breakfast when she heard apartment door slam.  After finding some weed in his backpack she finally decided to call the police. 

As she continued to narrate my partner glanced at me in a silent communication.  He eyeballed the only bedroom, then looked directly back at me.  Without uttering a word I knew exactly what his eyes said to me.  

“Mind if I take a look?”

Mom nodded to me without skipping a beat in her story entitled, “The Incorrigible Son.”  

The room was bare.  One frameless bed was pressed on a dirty wall.  A broken dresser was partially inside of the closet.  The closet sliding doors were taken off.  They now rested on the wall covering the only window in the room.  A fist sized hole shone on the closet door.  

I hit the light switch but the single bulb ceiling light barely made a difference.  All the light could muster to do was scatter a few roaches back behind the dresser.  It was dark and opaque.  It was lifeless and empty.

I walked into the small square bathroom.  Nothing much really to see there.  I used my flashlight to swing open the shower curtains.  

Then it happened.

My body’s reaction was two paces ahead of my conscious mind.  Before I could even make sense of what my eyes saw, my body froze and reacted on its own accord. It only took 1-second, if that.  But it was a single second that stretched into Foreverland.  

It felt like my body was a balloon that had unexpectedly popped. The shock caused a sharp and short sting to my insides, from head to toe. What immediately followed was how huge my eyes became. If fear-stricken was a shape, that would be exactly the shape my mouth was forced take.

Then came the bellow.  

A primordial hum of terror passed through my vocal chords and out into the world.  

Finally my conscious mind caught up.  The Incorrigible Son was standing behind that curtain.  Fully clothed for school. His hands were clasped in front of him and his head was tucked down in shame.  He meant me no harm.  He just didn’t want to get caught by the police.  Actually, my petrified reaction caught him off guard!  He did not know how to react to my reaction.  

My immediate impulse was anger.  Or maybe it was embarrassment.  Either way I yelled at him in rage to get out of the shower.  After a lecture and some advice to mom, our radio call had ended.

Looking back at why I reacted like I did, it is clear that my mind state was not prepared to find a person behind that shower curtain.  I was nonchalant about the whole thing partly because it was just a kid.  

I made the mistake of thinking that nobody was there.  That kind of mindset can get a cop killed.  In our world, that kind of complacency can be a death sentence. 

Lesson learned without dying: Complacency kills.  


Mistake #2: Fallen Cape

I was a young badass cop.  I was going to save the day.  I was going to fly through the city and hunt out the bad guys.  I was going to be a brave hero.  I was ready.  

Untouchable.

My cape came to a clean neat resting point as I landed on the rooftop of a brick building.  The “S” on my chest gleamed bright in the moonlight.  My fists rested upon my hips as my eyes searched for the stairwell.  I walked the halls in my red boots.  I walked directly to the apartment in question.  I squinted my eyes until blue laser beams emitted from them and penetrated the walls.  There was no sign of any dangero—

“Partner!”

I blinked back into reality, “I don’t hear anything”.  My ear pressed on the outside wall of the apartment. I had a bad hair day and my uniform had a stain from two days prior.  My nostrils and chest heaved from climbing 5-flights of stairs.  My face was a bit greasy from the heat wave, or maybe it was just my acne acting up.  In any case, I didn’t hear anything.  

It was a domestic violence call.  We knocked and entered.  The pitiful lady had a black eye and watery eyes.  With both hands she held a crumpled napkin close to her chest.

Ya se fue.” she said in Spanish.  

“How long ago?” my partner asked me.  I translated some more and told my partner that he had left 5 minutes ago.  We searched the apartment for the guy but he was gone.  

After our investigation and a report were finished, we asked the lady if she had anymore questions.  She stayed quiet and her eyes began to swell with tears.  She began fidgeting with her crumpled napkin as she held it in tighter than before.  Tears now spilled from her eyes onto the floor as she cried silently.  Her eyes remained towards the floor as she motioned with two pumps of her hand towards a mattress behind us.  

A stained mattress stood upright against a wall in the hallway.  You could feel how serious our energy was by the sound of our leather simultaneously unsnapping. 

I raised my gun and pointed it towards the mattress.  My partner reached with his fingertips and  peeled it away from the wall.  

The lady’s husband.  He was there.  He was behind us the whole time.

My Superman cape slowly fell onto the ground.  As it landed it soaked up the lady’s tears until the ground became dry as it had been before her silent panic pointed us towards the truth.  

What could have been.  

Oh…

What could have been.


Mistake #3: WWF Dreams

Hulk Hogan was a hero of mine as a kid. Naturally, I dabbled in some Greco Roman Wrestling in high school.  I wish I could say other schools feared me.  But really, I was a 135 lbs dummy they used for practice.  It’s ok.  I had a killer sprawl and my go-to move, the single-leg take down, was always good for a couple of points, at least.   

I would tease my opponent by smacking his forehead.  They usually got so annoyed by it that I knew some pain would be coming my way.  I would fein arm-drags from the standing position a few times until I saw the weight shift in their feet then BAM!  

Single-leg take down!  

The referee’s wrist with the blue sweatband would chop the air twice signaling take down points for the scrawny 135-pounder. After that, most matches would be over pretty quick. I took many “L’s” in my wrestling career.

Time warp 20-years into the future.

The 135 pounder from freshman year in high school was now a big city street cop. Little did I know the tiny bit of wrestling IQ I retained would benefit me years later.

My partner and I were dealing with a 5150 at a Korean market.  He was a large solid man.  Popeye forearms, oak tree calves and a horselike rear-end that could probably squat our police car with us in it!  

To add to his immense size, he took a classic wrestler’s pose when he saw us.  I knew we were dealing with a crazed man who had a wrestling background.  The ability to recognize that, yeah, that was about as far as my IQ would help me there.  

As we approached this beast, he put himself on all fours.  Again, in a classic wrestling position.  We were in for a good one.  

The fight was on. 

Moves I learned in the police academy were countered with ease.  It was as if he was one with the ground. He was immovable.  He even held a wrestlers grip as he clasped his hands together under his body.  

Just then I remembered a technique that I was taught in as a police recruit.  I removed my baton and was about to shove it between his arm and his body for leverage.  Before I did that, I looked up and saw every single person in the market pointing their cell phones at us.  

At that point I made the mistake of putting away my baton.  

We struggled for another 15-seconds with the suspect.  Finally my partner removed his baton and used the technique I had passed on.  It worked like a charm and the giant suspect was in handcuffs in no time.  

Even though I was in policy by using the baton, I hesitated due to fear of administrative repercussions. Even though using my baton in this scenario was the most effective thing I could have done, I hesitated due to perception.

It was only about 15-seconds that lapsed between the time I put my baton away and my partner used his effectively.  But 15-seconds fighting with a large suspect who was mentally unstable is a long, long time.

A lot of things could have happened in those 15-seconds.  Maybe my back would have gave out.  Then my partner would be faced with the suspect by himself.  What then?

All because of my hesitation and fear.  


Mistake #4: Coffee Shop Gangstas 

There is a basic tactic two officers use in order to safely deal with 3 or more suspects.  The manner of which suspects are positioned.  The movements  and responsibilities of each officer as they physically search each suspect, one by one.  

There is a science to it.  

Being outnumbered is a common occurrence in the streets.  Practicing good tactics is important.    As an agency, we try to have a baseline of tactics so that no matter who you work with in the city, when faced with dangerous situations, officers can relatively be on the same page.

In order to achieve this best practice in police work, it is always preached to discuss each other’s tactics before heading out into the field.  

On this particular day, I was working with a well liked officer.  He was a smart guy.  Very well spoken and knew how to defuse situations on an expert level.  

The only thing was, we failed to discuss tactics at the start of shift.  

A priority call popped up on our police car computer.  A local business called for police because a group gang members were hanging out at a coffee shop.  We began driving towards the address and still failed to discuss tactics.  As we approached, we saw three gang members at the coffee shop.  One looked at us and started walking away.  

We maneuvered our police car and blocked them all in.  I saw that one more gangster was sitting in the coffee shop acting as if he was not with the group.  I ordered him out to join the party.  

My partner and I began the tactical dance necessary for an encounter of 2 versus 5.  

However, we were quite obviously not on the same page.  We stumbled a bit through our tactics.  We looked at each other hesitantly.  And the worst mistake of all, we failed to communicate.  

I assumed my partner knew these baseline tactics.  I trusted he would adhere to them.  My partner also assumed things about me.  

We searched them, questioned them, checked them for warrants and finally released them from custody one by one. As we removed the handcuffs from the last gang member, our Gang Unit drove by and two officers exit their police car.

They began a conversation with the last gangster on scene.  As we were talking, one of the gang officers noticed a bulge on the front waistband of the gang member.  The officer reached over and lifted his shirt.  

Tucked in his waistband was the butt of a gun. 

My heart dropped into my stomach with a loud thud.  Guilt and embarrassment coursed through my veins like boiling water.  After all was said and done, it was a toy gun.  But it looked real enough. 

I apologized profusely to my counterparts.  I sent them both a long apology text.  Needless to say, I lost many nights of sleep after this incident.

This is the one that came back a year later in the form of a joke that attacked my reputation as a safe cop.  I’m not mad at the officer who poked fun at me.  It was this defining moment that changed my mindset from that point on.

I’m also not mad at my partner that day.  At first I blamed him.  But I realized that I was quite literally equally at fault.  If one of my fellow offices would have gotten shot by this gangster, the implications of what could have been are scary.  

We did not discuss tactics at the beginning of our shift.

We did not discuss tactics as we approached the address.

We did not communicate while dealing with the threat.

We assumed rather than verify which one of us searched each suspect.

It could have been a lot worse.  And my selfish need to not be embarrassed had to be checked.  It took some time.  About a year.  But I was definitely put in my place. 

And I am a better police officer for it today.  


Latest Approach

I was talking with some old-timer cops the other day.  The sun was hitting my face in a vicious way, so I decided to walk to the other side of the huddle.  As I did, my arm brushed on one of the old-timer’s holstered gun.  

His reaction was quick and fierce.  His whole body shook as his hand snapped onto his sidearm.  He looked back with a serious glare.  One that was ready to take out any potential threat.  The glare was one of death. He realized it was me, then continued with his story like nothing had happened.  

At first I laughed at his reaction.  But then I thought to myself that his reaction was the appropriate one.  That kind of instinct is exactly how he was able to become an old-timer.  

My laugh turned into a moment of self realization.  

I hated the fact that The Incorrigible Son scared the crap out of me.  I hated that I had missed a domestic violence suspect behind a mattress who could have killed us.  I hated that I hesitated in that supermarket.  I hated that I did not communicate and missed a potential gun during a search.  

From that moment on, my mindset would be different.  I took on the following reality:

Someone is always there.  

Someone is always trying to kill me.  

Sometimes I murmur those statements to myself during building searches. It’s a forced belief system for survival that embodies within a person the heaviest stress imaginable. It’s a stress that comes with long term health consequences. But it’s either take on that stress or set yourself up to be killed because of complacency.

We need to acknowledge and accept these stressors as a huge burden beyond the badge.  As important as that is, we also need to acknowledge and accept our mistakes on the streets.  Let’s begin a new brave meme in our culture.  Let us embrace each others mess-ups, judgement free, so that we can learn from each other and keep ourselves alive.  

Perhaps you can share a mistake you made during your roll-call.  Let your fellow cops know how bad you feel about messing up.  I guarantee they’ll remember your story when faced with similar tactical situations.

And that’s what it’s all about. 

-Tom Ludlow