Police Officer Interview
The association between cops and donuts is as accurate as the one between lawyers and ambulances

I met with NJ State Trooper Shamus Williams the day after St. Patrick’s Day. How appropriate for interviewing an Irish cop, right? I tried to convince him to meet me the night before for some green beer, but he was having none of it. Not because he doesn’t celebrate St. Pat’s Day (he does), but because he doesn’t drink beer, green or otherwise. Over glasses of water, we discussed what it takes to be a State Trooper and what it’s like to work on the Delaware River. Shamus told me his thoughts on the movies TRAINING DAY and STRIKING DISTANCE. He’s also an avid fantasy reader and shared an author recommendation for those who like fantasy with both demon and law enforcement elements.

Do all the cops really hang out in the donut shop?

Jill Archer: If someone was interested in a career in law enforcement, what are some of the things they need to do?

Shamus Williams: If you are young enough that you are looking for a career in law enforcement, then the most important thing is to keep your record clean — not just for the sake of keeping your record clean — but because that is the type of person you need to be. You have to respect the law and that lifestyle has to come naturally to you. Otherwise, it’ll never fly. You won’t be able to maintain the required level of commitment and we’ll be reading about you in the paper as one of those people who never should have become a police officer in the first place.

You also need 60 college credits and two years of work experience — any work experience . You just need a work record that the investigators can use to look into your work habits. Then you’ll need to take a written test. If your score is high enough, they’ll issue you an application. The New Jersey State Trooper application is the most thorough application I’ve ever seen. It details everything about your entire life, education, work history, personal habits. Everything. All of it.

After the application is completed, they do a background check. Old teachers, neighbors, landlords, friends, ex-girlfriends, ex-boyfriends, spouses, your family, every person you’ve ever known, is asked to provide information about you. Then you submit to a medical exam and physical test. Everything is written up, and the summary is sent to a review board. Then you’re called before the review board to answer questions. Finally, you are given a score. The high scorers are sent to the Academy. After six months in the Academy — if you graduate — you become a trooper.

JA: What was the Academy like?

SW: [laughs, but I’m guessing from the sound of it that nothing about the Academy was funny] Everyone has Academy stories and, well… it’s an environment that you really can’t understand unless you’re there.

Hmm, I think. Maybe like law school, but with a physical component? Frankly, I can’t imagine experiencing that in real life and it makes me even more grateful for the people who are willing to put themselves through it just to keep the rest of us safe.

SW: I remember before I went to the Academy, I asked another trooper, “What’s the hardest part?” and he said, “The first day to the last day. You just have to go prepared for anything. Do whatever you’re asked to do, and try to do your best all the time, every day, from the time you wake up, until the time you go to bed, and if you can commit to that for six months, you’ll be okay.”

JA: What happens after that? Do you get your first assignment?

SW: Yes. You get a “trooper coach” [a mentor]. You ride every day, for two months, with that coach. The coach is supposed to make sure you know all the basics and can handle yourself. After that, you’re on your own.

Police in the Movies

JA: Did you see the movie Training Day?

SW: Yeah…

It’s clear he’s not a fan.

SW: I’ve noticed there tends to be two stereotypes for police in movies. The one is very robotic. Those are the ones where the government is usually the “bad guy.” The police follow orders and don’t think for themselves (unless it’s the hero). And the other is total incompetence. Police can’t do anything right and the criminals dance circles around them. Luckily, those stereotypes are generally not true. Most police are reasonable and are people, just like everyone else. They’re doing their jobs as well as they’ve been trained to do them.

JA: And how about Striking Distance? What did you think of that?

Shamus laughed and shrugged. He said he got a kick out of the scene where Bruce Willis throttles the boat and his partner falls off the back. It’s ridiculous “movie land” stuff.

Cops On the Job

JA: If you could describe the ideal police officer, what would they be like?

SW: Honorable. I think if you have that everything else just falls into line.

JA: Describe a typical day…

SW: There’s no such thing. Show up at work, prepare yourself for whatever is going on that day. Go out on patrol. Depending on the weather, we might be out all day.

JA: Do you have a partner? I feel like the general perception is that police work in pairs, maybe because we always see that on TV.

SW: No. I’ve never had a partner. The New Jersey state police don’t operate that way. Many city police departments do, but not us. You may work on a squad with other people, and if the situation calls for it, you might be sent out with multiple troopers. But normally, it’s one trooper assigned to one job.

JA: So… I want to hear a funny story about law enforcement. I imagine you may have had some humorous car stops, or at the least, you might be able to provide us with a brief what-not-to-do list if any of us are pulled over?

Shamus decided to let common sense be our guide as to how to behave during a car stop, but it’s not because he doesn’t have a sense of humor. Prior to our interview, I’d forwarded to him a list of phrases that cops have allegedly used during car stops. He confided that he thought “If you run, you’ll only go to jail tired” and “Can you run faster than 1200 feet per second? Because that’s the speed of the bullet that will be chasing you” were — somewhat — humorous.

It’s clear Shamus takes his job seriously, which can only be a good thing. The first thing they teach us when we learn how to drive is how deadly a car can be. So it’s good to hear that someone who wields a gun, has the power to arrest people, and who is generally tasked with keeping the peace, takes his job seriously. That’s how it should be.

JA: What about a scary story?

SW: Scary? Hmm… I don’t know. I think I’m one of those people who hasn’t yet perceived real fear…

JA: You’re very lucky…

SW: Well, maybe, in a way. Sometimes. It’s worked out that, so far, I’ve always been able to talk to people and to diffuse situations before they get out of hand. But it could have gone the other way a few times, I suppose, if I hadn’t been able to communicate well with the other person. It could have been bad…

JA: What sort of things can go wrong?

Shamus looks at me incredulously for a moment, surely contemplating how I could ask such a broad, open-ended question of someone whose job it is to be on call for any emergency. But then he gamely answers.

SW: [laughing] Well, the list is limitless, really. I hate to give a clichรฉ answer, but the problem is, you’re dealing with life. So anything that can go wrong in life, we can be called in to deal with.

Working on the River

JA: What did you do before being assigned to patrol the Delaware River? And what’s it like being a river cop?

SW: I spent twelve years on the road, at road stations, and then one year in the Fatal Accident Investigations Unit. And now I’ve spent almost four years in the Marine Services Bureau. Basically, we patrol the river.

JA: What kind of specialized training have you had for the Marine Services Bureau?

SW: A lot is hands-on, and a lot has changed since I was trained. When I went through, there was a one week course in the classroom, followed by 120 hours on a vessel. It usually ends up being much more than that, but that’s the minimum. Obviously, you have to know how to operate a boat. We participate in various emergency drills, search and rescue operations, and general safety patrols.

Common Misperceptions

JA: I always like to ask people about common career misperceptions. I think it’s because I used to be a lawyer and, as you know — you’re married to a lawyer — there are a lot of misperceptions about lawyers. So how about cops? Do they really hang out in the donut shop?

SW: I hate donuts.

While I thought Shamus was either kidding, or possibly hated them because of the stereotype, or maybe because he’s a fitness fanatic, he shared with me the real reason.

SW: When I was young, my parents would get donuts after church on Sunday and bring them home. One day I hadn’t eaten anything else and I ate four donuts, got sick, and now I can’t stand them. Haven’t had a donut since I was fifteen.

JA: What about funnel cakes?

Shamus just laughed. (He truly is a health nut). ๐Ÿ™‚

Cop as Reader and Writer

SW: [joking] Usually, when people ask me, “What are you going to do after you retire?” my answer is… “Nothing.” But actually I’d like to focus on my own writing then.

Shamus and I talked about writing for a bit. Currently, he’s in the process of querying agents regarding a fantasy novel he recently completed and he’s in the process of writing a supernatural story about a Philadelphia police detective. Shamus is a regular fantasy reader (he’s a frequent commenter on my blog), but I asked him if he ever reads police procedurals.

SW: I’ve read the series that begins with Mark of the Demon [by Diana Rowland]. That series was written by a former police officer and I think she did a good job in showing what the actual activities are like in the police world. That’s an urban fantasy novel where the author clearly incorporated her police knowledge into the story and it came off pretty well.

JA: Have any recommendations on books for people who are interested in law enforcement? What should they be reading?

SW: One guy [John Stark] wrote a book called Troopers Behind the Badge. In the forward, he tells readers that he carried around a recorder for hundreds of hours on trooper ride-alongs and he told them, “If you ever want me to turn off the tape, just let me know” and they never did. If you’re looking to get a trooper’s first hand perspective on what happens every day, that’s a compilation of stories that is spot on, straight from the troopers who were involved in both significant and ordinary, everyday events.

Other Interests

Shamus is into “Crossfit.” For anyone unfamiliar with it, Crossfit is the “sport of fitness.” When I admitted I’d never heard of Crossfit, Shamus told me there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of websites — and thousands of YouTube videos — devoted to the subject.

SW: The Crossfit Open, which is going on right now [March 2012], is the largest, most inclusive athletic competition in the world. There’s about 68,500 of us competing against one another.

JA: [frowning in confusion, still not really getting what Crossfit is] How does that work?

SW: There are two ways to compete. One is you can go to a Crossfit affiliate to compete and be judged by the Crossfit affiliate. Or you can upload a video tape of yourself doing the appropriate workout and post it on You Tube for judgment in the competition. In the Open, there are five workouts. Each workout is posted on Wednesday and you have until Sunday to post your score or video.

JA: What kind of activities do you compete in? Weight lifting events? Cardio?

SW: The thing about Crossfit is, it’s everything. You can be given any task.

JA: [nonplussed] You don’t even know what you’re going to be asked to do? Then how do you train for it?

SW: By doing as many varied tasks as you can.

JA: [sputters indignantly on behalf of planners, preparers, and plotters everywhere. Clearly all Crossfitters are pantsers!]

SW: Weight lifting is a big part of it, of course. Running, jumping, throwing… There are several theories of fitness that have been examined over the years that discuss the perfect definition of fitness. One of those theories is that there are ten aspects of fitness, and he who is best at all ten, is the most fit.

I’m sure Shamus meant to say, “and he — or she — who is best at all ten, is the most fit.” Well, it won’t be me, but more power (and the rest of those nine godlike aspects of physical fitness) to them! ๐Ÿ˜€

Final Advice

SW: As a final piece of advice, if you can’t swim, don’t get on an inner tube and float in the river.

I thought he was kidding. Unfortunately not. So I’m gonna end this interview the way I end some of my tweets and FB status updates — stay safe, people!

So, readers and writers, how about you? Are you working on any stories with law enforcement elements or characters who are cops? Do you love to read stories about law officers or policemen? Have you ever considered a career in law enforcement? Did you see the movies Training Day or Striking Distance? What did you think?