When I entered the police academy in the summer of 1999, a sergeant told us, “You guys have friends that aren’t cops? Make sure you keep it that way.” And admittedly, I didn’t really understand him, as the only other cops I knew were the 1,400 new friends I had just made at Queens College a week ago, and no one in my family was a cop. And yet they proved wise words.
Right after graduating from the academy, and even before, I could see what was happening. I had a good number of friends from both college and high school who lived in New York City with me, but they worked normal people hours. They worked 9 to 5 with weekends off while I was working 4 p.m. to 12 a.m. and had sliding days off. Before the police department, we would call around and see what the plan was for the weekend. Now with my complicated days off, people just stopped calling me to hang out because I was always busy.
But that was OK, right? Because I had all these new friends and we had shared experiences, and we would go to cool places after work like bars, taverns or other alcohol-drinking establishments. We didn’t need to hang out just on our days off either! We could hang out after our shifts when the bars were nice and quiet on a Monday at 1 a.m. And we would discuss calls and human tragedies while eating wings, and life was good. Who doesn’t want to hear war stories every other night? Living the dream.
Having someone to check you and check in on you is a gift.
It was on one of my rare actual weekends off where I caught up with my friends from college that I realized that I was missing something. I was missing them, sure, but more than that I was missing what their friendship gave me. It grounded me. They were friends with Graham Campbell and not Officer Campbell. In the beginning of my career, those were the same person, but over time as you see more things and develop your own self-defense and coping mechanisms, they diverge. I started to realize that I liked Graham more than I did Officer Campbell.
Let me be clear, cops are real friends. In some way, they are even better than real friends. I loved going out with cops because they would always pay more than their share of the tab and would even give you a ride way out of their way if you had too much to drink. That’s part of the ethos. Taking care of each other on the streets translated to helping each other after you signed out. I had a partner for three years who was my best friend. I stood up for him at his wedding next to his little brother, and we knew each other’s families. It was a partnership that you see on TV, and it was great.
It’s perspective that cops often don’t have, because they’re in it with you. They normalize the same things you do, and they change and harden like you do, which, while comforting, isn’t always as helpful. Your original friends, who might always insist on paying $5 less because they had a salad, have perspective because they don’t know about that world. And you need that perspective. You need to keep a foot in that world. Having someone to check you and check in on you is a gift and one that your friends might not even realize they’re providing. Also, life changes and friends will make time for you for dinners on those odd days off, and you can pick back up where you left off like nothing happened. Have you ever returned to your old station or precinct and run into guys you used to work with? Once you get past asking about the family and discussing the weather, you often run out of things to talk about, or you return to war stories or dumb cop stories. It’s not better or worse. It’s just different.
Now I’m old and life is different. The days of going out a few times a week after the shift have slowed. Text chains involving a patrol area serve to keep people up to date about the latest news and humiliations for everyone on or off duty. I’m seeing smaller select groups of cops who are friends hanging out on their days off, with the occasional choir practice in a blue moon. I am glad I had the experience of an entire shift going out drinking and hearing some of the world’s greatest storytellers spin epic yarns about how their partner got tripped by a grandmother with a cane. It was amazing.
If you are the only person in your friend circle who is a cop, it can be weird. They always introduce you as “the cop” to other people and they probably ask you questions like, “I saw a lot of police cars on Tuesday. Do you know what happened?” Just know that you are providing a service to them and them to you. You are getting a relationship with someone who knows, worries and cares about you, whether you wear a badge or not. And they are getting to see that cops aren’t a monolith as portrayed in the media.
They’re still not of your world entirely, so have patience with them. Think about the stories you tell them, because they might not be surrounded by what you see daily. I told a friend about a shooting and she told me that she was still thinking about it weeks later and I had totally forgotten about it. You’ll figure out which things you can tell which friends, and for some calls it will only be other cops. The greatest gift you can give anyone is your time. Choose who to give it to wisely and then reap the benefits of that decision.