10 Signs You Definitely Have Cop Brain…


It develops pretty quickly in some of us, and others take quite a bit of time to acquire it.  Some can’t get it no matter how hard they try and eventually filter out to do other things.  Once you have it, it’s almost impossible to shake regardless of your surroundings.  It can keep us alive and can drive our friends and family insane.  The only thing that seems to make it go away in the Donut is to be promoted to a command staff position, because apparently it is not allowed in the exclusive star and oak leaf cluster club.

You may be thinking that I’m referencing common sense, but you can’t really claim to have common sense when you regularly head in the direction of shots fired calls, violent disturbances, or to traffic crashes on a busy interstate.  Common sense would dictate that you head in the opposite direction of those things.    If your job requires you to wear something ballistic and carry a firearm to protect yourself, you hopefully have it.  It’s a “cop brain”.

As a child of the 1980’s, I vividly remember the old “this is your brain” public service announcement.  The difference here is that once that egg is cracked and it hits the hot frying pan, the sizzle isn’t as a result of drugs.  Dump a rookie cop in an unfamiliar scenario and that sizzle is because he or she hasn’t developed the “cop brain”.  Given some experience and confidence, the sizzle point is harder to reach for the young copper and eventually the pan has to be pretty damn hot to induce any sizzle at all.

Cop brain is a blend of classical and operant conditioning.  It can be triggered without conscience thought by sounds or situations, or it can be prompted by handling a situation in a manner to prevent certain punishment in the form of physical pain.  Cop brain can be a great thing while you’re on duty, but it can make you look pretty silly while you’re not at work.  Check out the list of 10 symptoms and see if you have “cop brain”.

Symptom 1:  The Phantom of the Radio

After wearing a lapel microphone attached to a portable radio for hours on end while on duty, it becomes second nature to lean your head in the direction of the mic in order to hear what is being said.  It’s a totally normal behavior while you are in uniform and actually have the lapel mic on, but if you’ve ever done it while you weren’t in uniform and the mic was nowhere around you, welcome to the club.  I’m not only a member, I’m the president.

Symptom 2:  The Cop License Plate Game 

Like a lot of others, while patrolling the beat in between calls for service as a police officer, I pay some attention to the license plates near me just in case there’s one that is expired and begging to be stopped for a simple equipment violation.  Sometimes I may even say the license plate number out loud to make it easier to remember as I type it into the computer to check the plate’s status.  If you have cop brain it’s hard to shut this off, and you’ll likely drive your family crazy on long trips as you consistently point out all of the expired plates around while sometimes muttering them aloud.

Symptom 3:  Sharing the Wealth 

Since we deal with folks that don’t necessarily want to comply with us from time to time, we have mandated cop-fu training that consists of refreshers on pressure points, arm bar takedowns, and other similar tactics.  Now if your five year old can drive a bony little thumb into the mandibular angle of his classmates because you’ve shared this wealth of information with him, you probably have cop brain.  It seemed like a good idea at the time, but just remember, it’s all fun and games until the Kindergarten teacher wants a special meeting with you to discuss little Johnny’s technique.

Symptom 4:  The Bean Counter

As a whole, Americans love movies.  A bunch of those movies have some sort of gun fight  in the plot.  If before you were a cop you enjoyed these without any sort of analysis, but now you find yourself counting the rounds fired and calling bullshit when a  magazine change would be needed but the Hollywood firearms seem to have an infinite capacity, welcome aboard.  You get extra bonus points if you insist on pointing out the inaccuracies with those around you in the theater during the movie.

Symptom 5:  Been There, Heard That 

If someone starts a story with “you’ll never believe what happened at/when” and you secretly think “nothing you say will surprise me”, it’s your cop brain at work.  We see it all.  Humans are unpredictable creatures.  We get paid to wade into the shallow end of the gene pool on a regular basis, so we have to keep ourselves open to the possibility that something ridiculous is possible.  So yeah, try me, I’ve surely heard it before.

Symptom 6:  I Swear, By the Moon and the Stars It’s a Lie 

It doesn’t take long to develop this one, but if you hear any combination of “I swear (to God), (on my mother’s grave), (on my kids)”, etc. and immediately know what comes next will be an outright lie, you have cop brain.  I’m not absolutely positive, but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything like it on the street and later found out it was true except for the occasional drunk drivers that say “I swear to God I had no idea you were a cop when you were behind me”.

Symptom 7:  The Occasional Creeper 

If you are so used to getting special attention from little kids while you are in uniform that you’ve ever creeped out some parents while you were off duty in civvies by waving or talking to their child, that’s cop brain.  In the middle of a shift it’s always nice to get a smile from a little one, and it’s a good practice to make them feel comfortable around a cop.  Sometimes it’s hard to remember that the other people around you don’t actually know you are a cop when you aren’t in the uniform.  Then you feel compelled to clarify things for the parents so they know you aren’t driving a panel van with “free candy” signs posted in the windows.

Symptom 8:  First Time Caller

When you make a telephone call to a business to speak with their customer service folks or to just order a pizza and you deliver the required information by rattling off the individual letters with the phonetic alphabet just so you don’t have to repeat yourself again, it’s the cop brain coming to your aid.  If you’re like me you don’t talk on the phone too often while you’re off duty, so you get a gold star if you have to consciously keep yourself from starting the conversation by introducing yourself with name, rank, and agency.

Symptom 9:  The Cop Knock         

I haven’t kept track of it, but at this point I’m sure I’ve knocked on a few thousand closed doors while on duty.  It’s always the same, four quick, loud raps on the door and some big steps out of the doorway toward the knob side so I can get a quick view of whoever answers the door and avoid the peephole.  The thought process makes a lot of sense when there’s a chance that the person on the other side of the door may want to shoot you.  It doesn’t seem so logical when you’re picking your daughter up after a sleepover at a friend’s house, but it’s a door and a habit.

Symptom 10:  Road Trippin’

I spend a majority of my shift driving a police car, either to a call for service or to patrol the Donut.  I am alone in the car most of the time, and it typically handles pretty well.  I brake in the straight-a-ways and stay off the brakes while in a curve.  I’ll serpentine through speed bumps in parking lots, especially after businesses are closed.  My car is built for these things.  My wife’s minivan is not.  Sometimes that’s hard to remember until after sippy cups fall out of cup holders and displaced Cheerios reappear from the cracks in the seats and floor boards.  If I don’t notice, Mrs. Donut is usually pretty good about giving me a quick reminder that the fine print of our marriage contract states that I am the “in-vehicle vomit cleaner-upper”.        

Before I laid these out I compared notes with one of my firefighter friends to see if there was any crossover that I could add to be all inclusive.  Apparently firefighter brain can be summed up in a much shorter piece.

Firefighter Brain 1:  Water good, fire bad.

Firefighter Brain 2:  Shiny good, dirty bad.  This apparently applies to trucks and dishes.

Firefighter Brain 3:  Fire Union Maltese Cross stickers and t-shirts good, no stickers or t-shirts bad, very bad.

For his help in this article, I made sure to deliver some crayons and stickers to the Donut County Fire Department as a thank you.  They were excited to have them because apparently there weren’t enough red crayons for everyone to have one at the station house.  Apparently the red ones taste better than the others.

It’s time to patrol the Donut…



About donutcountycop

I am a husband, father, and coach who began a career in law enforcement at a very small agency in 2003. After a deployment to Iraq with the USMC reserve in 2004, I changed agencies and moved to a “donut county” that borders a major US city in 2006. My current agency is composed of about 50 sworn officers, and is the busiest agency in our part of the donut. I am currently a mid-level supervisor who is in charge of a night shift, and serve the department in many other areas that include SWAT, FTO, and primary instruction. I’ve been around long enough to lose the illusion that I have every answer to every problem and now fully understand that my experiences have prepared me for little else than a life of wearing a badge and pistol.
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3 Responses to 10 Signs You Definitely Have Cop Brain…

  1. I don’t “Facebook,” so I’ll post my comment here.

    Oh, man, that was good. But you left out the part about noting all the exits as you walk into a room and then always sitting against a wall.

    When a local police department got the new Dodge Chargers, I asked a patrolman one day what those cars had under the hood. He gave me a sad look and confessed it was only a v6. He said since they aren’t allowed to engage in high speed chases anymore, there was no need to spend money on muscle. What the–?

    Liked by 1 person

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