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What Was Your Scariest Moment On the Job?

What Was Your Scariest Moment On the Job?

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“What was the scariest moment you ever had on the job?”

When PoliceLink posted this question on Facebook and Twitter, it really gave me pause. I started my law enforcement career as a dispatcher at age 17, became a cop at 21, and retired as a sergeant two years ago after 29 years on the job. I’ve had plenty of frightening moments in those thirty three years, but “scary” is a relative term. I was just as scared when I was a brand new sergeant and my team and I got shot at responding to a domestic as I was when I realized I had hit “reply” instead of “forward” on a particularly inflammatory inter-departmental email about the boss who had just sent me the original email. Like I said, scary is relative. What scares you?

Our family and friends often believe that “danger” is the most stressful and frightening thing about our job. As most police psychologists will tell you, it’s actually the “administrative stress” that wears at us. As Dr. Kevin Gilmartin says, “It’s not the a-holes on the street, it’s the a-holes in the station;” and some of those people and situations can be downright scary!

As one reader responded, “having to explain to the undersheriff where that hole in the ceiling came from’ was certainly a frightening moment in his career. Being called into Internal Affairs, having your butt chewed by the sergeant, or getting into an on-duty fender-bender that’s totally your fault are just a few of those things that scare us.

Fear is different on the street. It can actually be a great motivator and trainer. One reader talked about deploying stop sticks during a pursuit and watching the suspect lose control, hit a cement barrier next to him and then hit his patrol car. Another wrecked his cruiser driving 110 mph in a pursuit. I’m guessing that once the dust settled, these crimefighters learned the valuable lesson that it’s not just thugs with guns who kill us.

Vehicle-related incidents kill us with frightening regularity. How about when we’re assaulted by someone with an edged weapon? Even when we win, we learn to be alert to knives, fists and feet, not just assailants with firearms. When we respond to a “run of the mill” domestic and the shooting starts, we remember that there is no such thing as a “routine” call. Having the heck scared out of you can be a powerful training event, pay attention to those unexpected lessons, and share them with your co-workers.

Many of our respondents talked about situations where they felt totally out of control. Several found themselves in spontaneous riots while trying to make arrests; others were involved in foot pursuits and lost their radios, batons, sometimes their partners! Many told stories of equipment failure. One talked about spotting an oncoming tornado that was snapping high tension wire; how fast can you safely drive in the opposite direction of that?!

Correctional officers have many frightening moments dealing sudden attacks by inmates who are already known criminals and now want to take out a cop. Several others discussed how frightening it was to be the rookie passenger in a cruiser during a high speed pursuit. Ironically, one of my most frightening moments on the job was being the FTO and passenger during a pursuit; I still have nightmares about that one! Cops like to be in control, and a lack of it can be ridiculously scary.

Animals also seem to be a big cause of fear among cops. My husband, Dave “JD Buck Savage” Smith, remembers that his very first call as a rookie in Tucson, AZ was “mountain lion in the back yard.” How do you train for that?! One of our readers was attacked by a rabid raccoon, and many were attacked by various breeds of dogs. Another was nearly killed when a moose stepped into the roadway! We’ve had officers in the US killed when they’ve struck cattle, deer and other large animals, or they’ve swerved to avoid a dog or cat.

Not only do we need to train for armed assailants, we need to visualize and train for those unexpected and unpredictable animals that may come our way, whether we’re on foot or in a vehicle.

Sometimes our most frightening moments occur when we’re off duty. Remember, ten percent of police officer murders occur when we’re not working! Several of our respondents told stories of being car jacked or robbed at gunpoint. Do you carry off duty, and do you train mentally and physically for potentially violent off duty encounters?

Cops love to tell “war stories, “ but what struck me about so many of our responses was that bone-chilling fear came from concern for the well-being of our friends and family. One officer was bitten and potentially infected by a life-threatening disease, and yet his concern was primarily for his wife and son. Many spoke of life and death struggles to save their partners, not themselves. Warriors tend to be pretty damn selfless.

When we look back on our scariest moments, they are often also some of our greatest adventures. The key is balancing the risk with your training, tactics, and strategies, such as wearing your vest, carrying an off duty weapon, buckling your seatbelt, and telling yourself on every call, during every shift, “Not Today!” Continue to tell your stories, embrace the “cop humor” that we all need, and keep reaching out to each other. Law enforcement is one big, crazy family, enjoy the adventure and stay safe!

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    almost 4 years ago


    In my 42 year service (now retired), you can experience many scary times; however you can also have experiences that are totally funny and really help to make up for the bad times. As one friend of mine once said " Best ticket with front row seats on the greatest show on earth--the human race".

  • Reserve_max50


    almost 4 years ago


    I also missed this question... mine was 1 going on my first solo patrol, and then 2 comming ontop of a gun call... we are not armed.

  • Esu_patch_max50


    almost 4 years ago


    I bet they were scary then but most of us will probably tell that story now and get some good laughs out of it.

  • 129_max50


    almost 4 years ago


    I missed this question...mine was being the first officer to pull up to a 2 vehicle crash where 1 vehicle was on fire with the person still inside and the other vehicle involved right beside it with a female still inside sitting in gasoline. The vehicle on fire apparently had shotgun shells in it and they started exploding along with tires and windows...a unknown to this day man tried to help me get the female out until the explosions started and he disappeared....I never once thought about my safety or the blood I had on me until afterwards...the adrenaline kicked in and did what I took a oath to do...I have been in law enforcement for 14 years

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    almost 4 years ago


    Hi Betsy, Dr. Gilmartin was right. It is my co-workers that scare me most. I was surrounded recently by three of my armed co workers who wanted to "straighten me out," for a percieved fail to act. They were wrong, I did act, and they have not backed me on many incidents. I never submitted to the ass kissing situation and good ole boy network for extra jobs and popularity. I just back my partners and do my job. I stay with my wife and kids because they make me happy. Anyway when the 3 surrounded me I was so afraid because I was worried they would try to harm me. It's scary being surrounded by 3 armed policemen with malevolent words and demeanor. I was afraid my USMC/POLICE/MARTIAL ARTS/proven combat skills would kick in. Thank GOD in JESUS' NAME the LORD made my body get into my car, lock the door, and drive off. Trust me I was scared for my livelyhood and for their safety. This is a story that has happened all over the country and is rarely told because of the code of silence. I am not a thug hugger, but I used the incident to remind me even more that there is always two maybe more sides to a story and that we should never push unless we have to.

  • Dscn0105_max50


    almost 4 years ago


    It's wonderful articles like this one that help people like me, future LEOs, and current LEOs to constantly run scenarios through our minds ("what-ifs") so that we have a second-nature readiness in the moment. Thank you, Sergeant, for this article and your words of support and encouragement.

  • Patrolcar_pic_max50


    almost 4 years ago


    Great article!

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    almost 4 years ago

    Well done and well thought out.

  • John_groh_max50


    almost 4 years ago


    Bump bluestar0283, great artical.

  • 1410_max50


    almost 4 years ago


    Great article. I missed that Facebook question. Mine was definitely making my first arrest, which was for operating without a license, with the Assissant Chief backing up me and FTO.. That A/C has sinced retired. Everytime I run into him, he laughs and tells me that he never seen a new officer looked as scared as I did that day......LOL.

  • John_groh_max50


    almost 4 years ago


    Bump bluestar0283 Great artical

  • Cookcountystar_max160_max50


    almost 4 years ago


    As always Sgt. You have hit the nail right on the head. One more outstanding article by an outstanding cop- I wish you the best in your retirement and glad to see that you will still be with us passing on your 33yrs. Of experience.

  • 20130407_095730_max50


    almost 4 years ago


    Thanks you for that amazing truth!!!!!!!!!!

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