Military and Police

Misunderstanding Cop Stuff: Police Actions and Officer Safety Habits

Why do cops do what they do? Some people don’t give officers a chance to explain their actions. One thing cops do that gets people riled up is resting a hand on a holstered gun. I’ve had people narrow their eyes as if they’re about to shoot laser beams before asking me, “Is that necessary?”

Baffled, I ask: “Is what necessary?”

“Putting your hand on your gun,” comes the answer, along with “I won’t hurt you” or “Are you gonna shoot me?”

Um, no! I’m not going to shoot you unless you do something that requires I shoot you. You don’t know why my hand is on my gun. It could be for several reasons. But, during normal social or low-risk contacts, it’s not as nefarious as you might think.

An officer might put a hand on his or her gun for many reasons—it should be inoffensive to law-abiding people—and following are a few of those reasons.

Gun retention: The veteran police officer is standing among a not-yet-violent crowd of a dozen demonstrators. They’re agitated. The protesters are shouting anti-police slogans, and no officer can ever be certain any person in any angry crowd won’t become violent. However, in a mass gathering event, gun retention—not drawing the gun—is high on the list of officer safety priorities. What’s a good way to keep someone from taking your gun from you? Put your hand on it.

(Credit: Pixabay/bearinthenorth)

Preparation: Let’s say you’re a cop and you’re investigating an incident. You don’t know the details yet, and you have to be prepared should things turn violent. Your hand on your holstered gun does not mean you’re about to shoot someone. More likely, you’ve adopted prevention and preparation tactics. Not only is retaining your gun important, you need to be able to draw your weapon quickly if necessary. An armed suspect could suddenly show up. You would be derelict not to consider and prepare for that possibility. And anyone at the scene whom cops have not searched could be armed. Both tactics—retention and drawing—work best and quickest if you keep your hand on your holstered gun.

Habit: This is probably the most common reason a cop has a hand on his or her gun. It also may be the reason the public considers least. If you carried a gun every day for a living, you’d understand what I mean. Sometimes, I also had my left hand on the radio at my hip opposite my gun. No one seemed to complain about that. Here’s an anecdote from my life before becoming a police officer to help people understand that cops usually mean no threat when they put their hands on their guns.

Before becoming a cop, I was a contractor. I had a small landscape design and construction company. A major part of our business included building fences and decks. This required me to wear a carpenter’s tool belt. Dangling from a loop on the right side of my belt was a 22 oz. Estwing hammer. You know what’s weird? That hammer hung in about the same place my gun sits as an officer.

You might already be where I’m headed, but allow me to finish the story. When I’d talk to my clients, while wearing my tool belt, I’d often have my hand on my hammer. It seemed like a natural resting place. It became a habit. Sometimes I’ve been known to put a hand on a hip while not wearing a tool or gun belt. It’s a natural thing many people do with their hands while standing, talking to someone. But not once during my time as a contractor did I ever have a client react with fear I was about to bash him or her in the head with my hammer.

I thought about this gun on the hip issue recently when I saw a photograph (feature image above) of a man taking part in a demonstration provoked by an officer-involved shooting in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. From what I’ve learned so far, the demonstrators’ anger was understandable. Although, I still say let the investigation run its course before arriving at any conclusions.

The photograph credited to Facebook/Michael Ashley shows a heated Leonard Hammonds II, gesturing with outstretched arms and open hands toward a police officer. The caption tells the reader Hammonds was “angry that an officer had his hand on his service weapon during a rally to protest the police shooting of Antwon Rose.” A police officer shot and killed Rose after he ran from a suspect’s car that was being investigated in a drive-by shooting.

Was Mr. Hammonds frightened the officer might actually shoot him or was he looking for anything to exploit? I’m guessing that under ordinary circumstances, Mr. Hammonds is a reasonable person. Any reasonable person looking at that photograph could tell the officer was not threatening. In fact, the cop’s posture is defensive, not offensive, even as an agitated crowd directs their hostility toward him. The cop appears to be listening to radio traffic on his collar mic. I’ve stood in a similar position many times.

This is one reason I harp on why it’s important to teach the public what cops do and how and why they do it. Passive officer safety tactics should never upset law-abiding community members. An officer is not about to compromise their safety just because you don’t know about the safety tactics they’ve been trained to use.

You may know you mean the officer no harm, but until the officer assesses you, or in some cases pats or searches you for weapons, he or she would be stupid to assume you mean no harm. In fact, it’s kind of strange if you think an officer should trust you because you know you mean no harm. Remember, departments don’t issue officers crystal balls with their badges, guns and batons.

(Credit: Pixabay/21150)

Good people have a hard time understanding that anyone would ever consider them a threat. But, if you think about it, the officer doesn’t know you. If the officer hasn’t patted or searched you for weapons, he or she doesn’t know if you are armed. The officer does not know what you may or may not do—only you know that. For an officer to let down their guard before assessing you, or at all during a mass demonstration, is risking his/her life.

There are many things an officer may do that people could take as threatening or even rude—especially if they’re looking for something to interpret as threatening or rude. However, if you take the time to learn why and how officers do what they do, you won’t find it necessary to react negatively when an officer does something they’ve been taught to do.

If you wonder about certain police actions, rather than thinking the worst, just ask a cop for an explanation. Just don’t do it while they’re investigating an active crime scene or working at a volatile protest. Most active and retired cops would be happy to explain why cops do what they do.

If, after learning a bit about what cops do and why they do it, you still perceive an officer’s safety actions as rude or threatening, then that’s how you want to perceive it. That’s on you—it says more about you than it does about the police officer.

The opinions expressed here by contributors are their own and are not the view of OpsLens which seeks to provide a platform for experience-driven commentary on today's trending headlines in the U.S. and around the world. Have a different opinion or something more to add on this topic? Contact us for guidelines on submitting your own experience-driven commentary.
Steve Pomper

Steve Pomper is an OpsLens contributor, a retired Seattle police officer, and the author of four non-fiction books, including De-Policing America: A Street Cop’s View of the Anti-Police State. You can read a review of this new book in Front Page Magazine and listen to an interview with Steve on the Joe Pags Show. Steve was a field-training officer, on the East Precinct Community Police Team, and served his entire career on the streets. He has a BA in English Language and Literature. He enjoys spending time with his kids and grand-kids. He loves to ride his Harley, hike, and cycle with his wife, Jody, a retired firefighter. You can find out more about Steve and send him comments and questions at www.stevepomper.com.

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