What’s it like to be a Cop

This is a relatively long article, but I strongly recommend reading it. I was fortunate enough to have two recent experiences that gave me some idea of what it must be like to be a police officer, and I think that it is information that everyone should have. If you cannot dedicate the time to read it in one sitting, put it down and come back to it when you have more time. I think you will find it interesting and informative.

By the way, they don’t mind being called cops. 


The media seems to bombard us with stories about incidents with police officers. There is no question that police misconduct sometimes occurs. With approximately 800,000 law enforcement officers across the United States, a few will inevitably exceed their authority. I, like everyone, am outraged when it happens. Police officers that I have spoken with are just as outraged. At the same time, I have wondered if many of the highly publicized incidents involved good cops who were put in a situation where perhaps they felt they had to use force for one reason or another that may not be obvious to civilians. Decisions made in a split-second were seemingly being dissected and analyzed by people who had never been in that situation and had the luxury of time and hindsight to use in their judgment of the officer’s actions. I feel it’s usually wrong to judge someone until you have walked in their shoes. I wanted to do just that. I wanted to walk in a cop’s shoes and experience what they do as best I could.

As a member of the Upper Downtown Neighborhood Association Safety & Quality of Life Committee, I sought and received permission to do two things to help me gain that experience. One was to go on a ride-along to get a sampling of the calls they received. The other was to receive Virtual Training (VirTra), which I had heard about, which would put me in the position of a cop who must make split-second life-and-death decisions. Both experiences were scary, educational, and eye-opening.


On Friday, March 1, 2024, I reported to the District 6 Denver Police Department (DPD) headquarters in time to attend their 2 PM roll call. There, I was assigned to Officer Brian Long for the day. Officer Long has been on the Denver force for seven years and loves his job. All his equipment would weigh anyone down, and police officers carry it daily. In addition to his sidearm and taser, carried in a belt holster, his Kevlar ballistic vest is loaded with a radio, tourniquets, two pairs of handcuffs, a collapsible baton, extra magazines, a flashlight, pepper spray, and a multi-tool. All this equipment weighs about 50 lbs. He is used to carrying the weight, but it affects him if he must chase someone or climb several flights of stairs. 

We visited the Mall Unit before we left for patrol. This group of officers is the motorcycle unit primarily dedicated to the 16th Street Mall. The construction activities currently prevent them from doing very much on the mall itself, and they look forward to the day when they can resume their patrols there. They are also used as support for other areas of District 6 and are often called in situations or areas where a motorcycle is a better option than a squad car, such as the walkways next to Cherry Creek or the South Platte River. They have a total of 18 gleaming motorcycles, each of which weighs about 1,100 lbs!

They asked me if this would be my first time in a police car, jokingly adding, at least in the front seat.  I am happy to say that it was my first time in either the front or back seat of a police car. In addition to the radio, there is a computer for easy access, and it provides Officer Long with a wealth of readily available information. The main page shows a list of calls that must be addressed.  Officer Long is assigned to area 623, a region just south and west of Colfax & Broadway. He responds to any call in that area and other calls in nearby areas as time permits.

We went on several calls over the eight hours, some mundane and some very interesting. The first call was for someone lying down on the sidewalk along Colfax. When we arrived, we found a male who went by the name of Carmine. He was apparently in the process of a sex transition, was wearing heavy white makeup on his face, and was very high on drugs. When Officer Long ran Wants and Warrants on Carmine, it revealed a long history of 20-30 arrests over the past few years, most for assault and sex crimes. It also revealed that he had an outstanding warrant for Failure to Appear.

Due to that warrant, we transported Carmine to the Denver City Jail on Colfax & Delaware. After the Sheriff’s Deputy began the intake process for Carmine, Officer Long showed me the holding area that is used during high arrest-rate periods. The cells are not what you picture when you think of a jail. There were no bars, just small rooms with a bed, seat, and toilet. Each one had a window and door, which could only be unlocked from the outside. 

After returning to the car, Officer Long removed his most frequently used tool and used it in the back seat where Carmine had been sitting – deodorizer.

We responded to a report of a man with a knife in the atrium of an apartment building. On the way to the location, Officer Long explained that whenever there is reason to believe that there could be violence, the DPD policy is to outnumber the people who would harm them. We waited in the alley outside the apartment building until the four officers were ready and coordinated. They quickly entered the courtyard with  

weapons drawn and with me taking up the rear with my heart pounding.  The lead officer shouted, “Denver Police Department – get on the ground spread-eagled”; luckily (especially for me since I was unarmed), the trespasser was very cooperative and got right down on the ground. For the next several minutes, they tried to sort out what was going on. Ultimately, the landlord decided not to press charges against the man who had been staying in the apartment but had been asked to leave. The police gave them explicit instructions to sort the situation out between themselves.

On our last call of the shift, we responded to a report that a naked woman was having sex in a bus shelter on Colfax. When we arrived, there was indeed a large obese woman who was wearing pajama bottoms and nothing above her waist. She was very high on drugs. When she was asked what drugs she takes, her answer was, “All of them”. Officer Long asked her why she was providing sex in the bus shelter. I won’t share exactly what she said to keep this article G-rated. Officer Long later told me that she probably will do just about anything to earn money with which to buy drugs. He put her in the back seat of his car and called an ambulance, which took her to the hospital for her own good.

When I asked him later why he didn’t arrest her, Officer Long indicated that she had broken no laws. Interestingly, it is not illegal in Colorado for anyone, male or female, to appear in public topless. Since he hadn’t witnessed any sex act, there was no proof that it happened. On the way back to the headquarters, we talked about the events that had transpired, and I asked him if this shift represented a “normal” day for him. The answer? There is no typical day for a police officer. Some days are boring, some days are exciting, and all days have the risk of death at any moment.

My observations after the Ride-Along

There were three observations that I would like to share with you that I developed during the Ride-Along.

The first observation is that Officer Long was friendly and exceedingly respectful in his every encounter with civilians. This behavior is something that I have always witnessed in the past by almost every officer I have had contact with, and it continued throughout the evening.

The second observation was one that I found disturbing. The equipment that the police use is in poor shape. Several of the cars were unusable for one mechanical reason or another. Some didn’t even have working heaters, a real problem in the winter. Our vehicle had torn seats and rattled loudly with every crack in the street pavement. Happily, their protective equipment seemed to be in good shape. These men and women working daily to protect and serve us deserve better.

Third, these people are dedicated to their jobs. They want to help make a difference and love it when they can do what they call “proactive policing” where they simply patrol their assigned area. In these situations, they are highly visible, and that visibility deters crime. When they are not responding to calls, they can look for ways to better protect the public.

VirTra Training

On March 20, 2024, I met Corporal David Hunter and Officer Brent Cairns at the Denver Crime Laboratory at 1371 Cherokee Street for my training.

VirTra is a shortening of “Virtual Training”. This training simulates real situations like those they will face in their careers. When officers encounter those situations in real life, they must make split-second decisions that affect not only their lives and the lives of criminals but also the lives of innocent bystanders. This training simulates those situations in a very lifelike manner. Mistakes made here are learning experiences, while mistakes made in real life can have tragic consequences. I strapped on a weapons belt with a taser and a sidearm designed to look and feel like actual weapons; when you fire either one, a laser interacts with the system, recording exactly where you shot. The system consists of a computer operated by an officer who controls the action, which is displayed on three life-size screens that form a semi-circle in front of me. When I stepped up to the screens, I became a cop for the day.

I was there for 2 ½ hours and went through about twenty scenarios.

In the first scenario, I had to approach a homeless person who was trespassing on private property. My job was to get him to pack up his tent and go somewhere else. He was angry at me for making him leave.

● I wondered if I would be able to talk him into leaving or if I would have to remove him forcibly.

● I convinced him to leave and get help in a shelter.

● Result: I did the right thing. The property owner got a trespasser off his property, and the homeless man went to a shelter. Whew, that was a snap – not too difficult, I thought. I felt pretty good, but as I would soon find out, Corporal Hunter, who was at the controls, had taken it easy on me for the first scenario. After that, it got difficult.

The following scenario involved two brothers who were fighting in their front yard. One went into the house and reappeared on his porch with a knife while my partner was wrestling with the other guy on the front lawn. Suddenly, the man with the knife bolted toward my partner.

● Various options went through my mind. Should I try to shoot a moving target with bystanders in the area? If I shot him, I’d save my partner’s life. If I missed, I might shoot an innocent bystander.

● I shot, but I missed him. Instead, I hit a child in a neighbor’s backyard. My partner was knifed.

● Result: I failed miserably. I shot a kid, and my partner was knifed.

Next, I encountered a man who was angry at his neighbor; the neighbor was allowing his dog to relieve itself on the man’s front lawn. As we talked, he became furious at me for interfering. He suddenly reached for something behind his brick railing, quickly returning with something in his hand.

● He moved so quickly,  I thought he might be going for a gun, but it could be something else.  Should I shoot him, perhaps killing someone that wasn’t a real threat, or should I shoot him to protect myself?

● I thought he had a gun and shot him. He had a beer can in his hand.

● Result: Another failure. I made the wrong choice, shooting an innocent man out of fear for my own safety.

I talked with a suicidal girl who had a knife in her hand. As we spoke, she became more upset.

● Should I keep talking to her or tase her and take the knife from her?

● While I was evaluating my options, she suddenly brought the knife to her own throat. I
quickly tased her, and she lived.

● Result: Success. I chose a non-lethal weapon and saved her life, giving her some time to
receive mental help.

A man emerged from his pickup truck with a gun to his head and tried to go toward the entrance to city hall.

● Should I shoot him to protect the innocent lives inside the building that he might harm, or should I let him go in, thinking that since he was suicidal, he would not hurt anyone else?

● I decided to protect innocent people in the building, and I shot him in the back as he entered City Hall. I would have a lot of explaining to do and would probably be vilified by the press about why I shot a man in the back.

● Result: Did I succeed or fail? Who knows? The only fact is that I shot a man in the back who was holding a gun and going into a government building. Everything else is speculation. I may have saved the lives of innocent people who he might have shot, or I might have shot a man who was suicidal but not homicidal. Who could say if he would have harmed anyone?

Active shooters were in a building. After going inside, I saw a man emerge from a room, pointing a gun at a man on the floor.

● I shot him and then relaxed when he fell, knowing that I had protected the man on the floor. Then, I was hit by a second shooter.

● Result: My widow might feel good that I saved the life of one man before I got killed by a second shooter.

A man was wearing an explosive vest and was holding a control.

● Would he blow himself up, or was it a cry for help? What kind of control was he holding? Would the bomb explode if he pushed the button, or was it a dead man switch that would explode the bomb if he released the button? If I shot him, I might save a lot of innocent lives, but if it were a dead man switch, shooting him would make the bomb explode, costing many innocent lives.

● I hesitated. BANG! While I was evaluating options, he blew himself up, killing me along with other innocent people.

● Result: I hesitated too long while I was evaluating options, and due to that hesitation, many people got killed. There was no single correct choice in this situation. Not shooting him might have allowed me to talk him out of it, or it could have allowed him to explode the bomb. Shooting him might have prevented him from pushing the button, or it could have caused the bomb to explode due to a dead-man switch. It was impossible to know the outcome of any action, and regardless of what I did, I would have been vilified by the press if the action had a negative result – if I lived through it.

A man was holding a woman in front of him as a shield and was holding a gun to her head.

● Should I hold my fire, hoping that he won’t kill her, or should I try to take him out, potentially missing him and shooting the hostage myself? Since he was using her as a shield, only a tiny part of his head was visible to me. Would my aim be good enough with adrenaline flowing in my body and fear filling my head? If I don’t shoot, he might kill her. If I shot and hit the man, I would save her life. If I shot and hit the hostage, there would be nationwide coverage about a cop who killed an innocent person. Could I live with myself if I did nothing and he killed her? Could I live with myself if I took the shot and accidentally killed her?

● I shot him in the head the instant he showed enough of it to make a minimal target. I got him.

● Result: I shot accurately and saved the woman’s life. But imagine what the press would have done to me, let alone the personal agony I would have felt if my shot had gone wrong.

A depressed woman was holding a pair of scissors.

● I talked her into putting the scissors down, but when she looked to me to help her with her depression, I had no idea what advice to give her. After all, cops do not have degrees in psychology.

● Result: Cops aren’t psychologists, but they are still in situations where they must try to help a person right then and there.

I engaged in several threat scenarios where people suddenly went into a backpack or purse and came up with something.

● Sometimes, I shot people who had guns. Sometimes, I shot people who I thought had guns but simply had cell phones or wallets in their hands. Sometimes, I hesitated out of concern that I would shoot an innocent person and be shot myself. 

By the time I finished the training, I felt drained. Even in these artificial scenarios, I had adrenaline rushes and was exhausted by the constant decision-making. This was a powerful experience for me.

My observations from the VirTra Training

I now have more of a feel for what it is like to make the split-second life-and-death decisions that a cop must make. Making the wrong decision can result in the death of innocent or not-so-innocent people. It can result in an officer’s death and can expose them to the risk of loss of his job, income, and pension. It can also potentially result in his incarceration. That is a powerful responsibility that every officer in the force accepts, but always making the right decision is difficult or almost impossible. In many cases, there is no single right decision. A cop has a split second to make their decision, but hindsight in the media and police critics will spend hours examining it in minute detail using the benefit of time and hindsight. The police department is comprised of human beings, not robo-cops. They don’t have computers in their heads that can, in a millisecond, sort through all the possible outcomes and reach the single correct action every time. They have human brains colored by feelings and emotions, human frailties and fears, concern for others, and concern for themselves and their families. You can’t know what it’s like to be a cop unless you have experienced what I did. After that training, I know what it’s like—or do I? What I experienced was just training. It was pretend. What they experience day after day is real life.

In Conclusion
I have always been a strong supporter of the police, and I am proud that UpDoNA is equally committed to supporting them. They are dedicated people who want to protect and serve and are genuinely bothered by the events of 2020 when they felt that their community turned on them. They feel as strongly as we do that when a cop does something significantly wrong, they should be held accountable. However, all cops must not be painted with the same brush. They are beginning to feel appreciated again, and enrollments in the Police Academy are slowly rising. It is vital that they know that the public appreciates them.

When you see police officers, please take a minute to walk over, shake their hands, and tell them how happy you are that they are there – for us. I do it every chance I get.

For more information on VirTra Training, watch a quick video at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4RRRP75qjC0&t=25s 

For even more information and to see some actual scenarios like those I experienced, go to

Previous Clean Upper Downtown Committee Report – April 2024

UpDoNA is a City Registered Neighborhood Organization representing the community of Denver’s Upper Downtown.

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