I’m honored to have Carl Harper as a guest on my blog. He was a tremendous help for me when it came to In the Line of Duty. He gave selflessly of his time to answer questions about police procedure and even read an early draft of a manuscript and provided feedback and corrections. His knowledge and experience in ERT (SWAT) helped to me create strong and realistic scenes in the book when I’m in Madison Knight’s boyfriend’s point-of-view.
Carl has had a long career in policing and has had various assignments, but how about I let him tell share his journey…
What made you decide to become a police officer?
When attending college and pursuing a Criminal Justice degree in the early 90’s, I expected to join the FBI. The profiling and criminal investigation interested me. I soon found out that they were aggressively hiring people with accounting and law degrees, neither of those specialties were ones I wanted to pursue. The other route was to have law enforcement experience. So, I focused my effort on that instead.
Please tell us about your policing background.
I have been a police officer since 1997 and worked for three different police departments. The majority of it has been in patrol. I recently transferred to our full-time Training Unit.
My first police job was in 1997 as a Seasonal Police Officer in an east coast beach resort town. We had a three-week abbreviated academy and were assigned to a patrol squad. We were equal to the full-time officers in every way except we carried revolvers instead of a semi-auto pistol. I worked midnight shift walking a ten square block area around the busy tourist boardwalk area. It was a great experience and I still remember important lessons I learned during my one summer there.
For months after the summer was over, I took countless police tests locally and beyond. I eventually put myself through the police academy to give myself an advantage over other candidates. It worked. When I graduated, my home township happened to be hiring. My application was accepted and I was employed there for two years. It was a small rural department with four full-time officers and a couple part-timers. I eventually took a police position at my current department in 2000.
My current department has well over one hundred officers and is in the crowded suburbs just outside of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. I worked in patrol for fifteen years. I’ve had various specialty assignments. Plainclothes burglary details, Field Training Officer, Communications Officer/Dispatcher, Firearms Instructor, Less Lethal Munitions Instructor and I’m a member of our Emergency Response Team (aka SWAT).
At the end of 2015, I had the opportunity to transfer to our full-time Training Unit. My partner and I are responsible for scheduling and implementing all in-house training for all sworn officers. We like to say we train “everything on your duty belt” plus defensive tactics, emergency driving, and good communications skills. I’ve been very busy going to training to secure the proper certifications to teach all these skills and disciplines.
Do you come from a long line of police officers?
Unlike some families where Law Enforcement was a popular career choice, mine is not filled with police officers. The only other LEO’s on my side of the family are retired Pennsylvania State Troopers, both married into the family. I do have one younger cousin who is a career firefighter and EMT.
What was the scariest situation you faced while on duty?
I don’t have a single event that I can say was the scariest, but all of the ones that stick in my mind involve me being one-on-one with the person that needed to be arrested to controlled. Once, I rolled up on a guy beating another man with a baseball bat. I was the only one on duty at my small department. It was tense because no backup was close by and he looked like he considered attacking me. Both men were drunk and acquaintances. The bat-wielding guy was coherent enough to understand my commands and see he wasn’t going to win. He didn’t go anywhere until I could have backup arrive from another jurisdiction. There were long several minutes by myself.
The other incident was a domestic call between two women, one had mental health issues and picked up a kitchen knife when my partner and I had them separated. I was close to her and immediately grabbed her hand. There were no secret ninja moves involved. I just kept the sharp edges away from me and we overpowered her and removed the knife.
Have you ever experienced the loss of an officer you knew personally?
There have been some line-of-duty deaths in nearby jurisdictions, but I was not personal friends with those officers. Many of my coworkers were, however. Their sense of loss was much greater than mine. The loss of an officer does have an effect on their “brothers in blue” regardless of their personal friendship. My agency has had some deaths of officers but all were due to illness. Our last line-of-duty death was in the mid 80’s.
What do you find is the most enjoyable aspect of the job?
I always enjoyed being outside and not cooped up in an office, beholden to a cubicle. Being out, and patrolling or having an assignment where you be more proactive rather than reactive, I looked forward to the potential of having a positive effect on our residents. It may be checking a faulty alarm at a building, performing CPR on an unresponsive person, or it could be chasing and apprehending a dangerous criminal. There is a certain satisfaction and pride that comes from being able to bring order to chaos.
Now that I have an “inside job”, I do spend much more time in the office with some administrative duties, but over the course of a year, I am at the range, the driving track, and out with our officers helping ensure they learn new skills, keep existing skills sharp, and provide them opportunities to problem solve in live scenario training. It’s a different form of satisfaction and I have a great time in this role.
What is the biggest challenge you face with your current position as a member of ERT?
Like many departments, time, money and manpower for training and equipment can be a hard juggling act. Regardless whether ERT is a full-time assignment or not (my agency has a “part-time” team where other police assignments are our main responsibility and ERT is a collateral duty) we still have to strive to be just as well trained and dedicated as a full-time SWAT officer. If our added equipment and training is needed to resolve a situation, we have to perform to the highest standards.
When I experienced my ride-along and spent most of it with a dead body, I really got to experience the wonders of adrenaline firsthand. I was able to focus at the scene, but later on, I became emotional from what I had witnessed. Can you give one or few examples of how adrenaline has really proved to be an ally for you?
This is a tough question. That physical and emotional response you experienced can be a good or bad thing depending on training, mental preparation, and expectations. Your experience with the dead body was not personally dangerous to you and was new and on some level exciting. You could likely function more appropriately because you were still safe and trying to take in all the investigative procedures the officers were performing. Later, when you had a chance to ponder the gravity of the situation and how it affected the family etcetera, it became overwhelming.
An officer can have an inappropriate response to that “adrenaline dump” if they have never mentally prepared or experienced a similar situation in a safe training environment. A situation that is personally dangerous for the officer, such as a combative suspect or a deadly force incident; or one where the officer was put in a dangerous position to help someone could cause hesitation if their physical (adrenaline) response coupled with a lack of training didn’t allow them to make a rational and quick decision on how to handle that threat. This is why proper training is important and officers should be exposed to various “force on force” scenarios so they can have an approximation of what they may physically experience and feel so they are not trying to deal with it for the first time during a critical incident. The adrenaline helps prepare your body for action, the mental preparation and training properly directs that response so you can still function and react.
As an ERT officer, I’m sure you’ve faced very dangerous situations. Would you be able to share one with us?
We had a call-out some years ago where a live-in maintenance worker took some other staff workers hostage. He was armed with a shotgun and a bag of unknown items, possibly explosives. He was faced with losing his job, and for some reason he thought this would fix things. Initially, I went as part of the patrol response, but our ERT team was called out.
There were hours of negotiation and a few times were the subject tried to escape, not knowing we had a complete perimeter around the building he was in. He stayed secured in the building but eventually surrendered and released the hostages. We took him into custody and searched the building he was in. He did have a loaded shotgun and a few small explosives with him. This could have turned into a very bad event, but fortunately was negotiated out. It was a good day. Hostages were unharmed, the bad guy surrendered, no one was injured on our end.
I know there’s no such thing as a typical day for a police officer, but could you run us through one of your days and what you went through and experienced?
I’ve heard some call it “having a front row ticket to the best show on earth.” It’s true. I’ve seen both absolute good and absolute evil occur before my eyes. Not to mention the downright weird. Some days are boring yet busy, and many were spiked with brief periods of excitement, fear and frustration.
My regular assigned “beat” (my agency still uses that term) was both residential and commercial, and it also bordered a high crime area of a major city in another jurisdiction. I liked that area because my day was more varied and I could have more experiences than an officer in a beat that was strictly mansions and low traffic roadways (we had that too).
My “typical” day involved lots of neighborhood and commercial vehicle patrols, foot patrols in areas that experienced recent crimes or other complaints, traffic enforcement and monitoring. There were always a couple vehicle crashes (usually minor) and always the potential for a theft or robbery in progress. Those incidents were not as common, but it keeps you on your toes. Some days, you’re so busy with reports, that you feel like you got nothing done, even though your shift flew by. Hopefully, I got a chance to eat without being interrupted, but that wasn’t always the case either. I learned to like cold coffee that I never got to drink before that “hot call” came in.
With all the reported violence against police and a shift in how some people view them, how has this affected you on a personal level?
It’s very disappointing to say the least. Some current stats have shown that there is a definite increase in officers being assaulted and ambushed in the wake of this new strong anti-police bias in the United States. Police officers are proud of their profession; they should be. I am very proud of what I do, but it’s difficult to share that pride when it’s now popular to hate cops. I was never one to brag about my job, but I am even less likely to advertise my profession when off duty. My “cop” T-shirts are usually reserved for training days or wearing around the house.
If there was one thing you’d want to tell the public about being a police officer, what would that be?
Police officers are citizens just like the residents we serve. They want to do good. They want to make a positive difference where they live and work. It can be thankless and frustrating, but we know there are a vast majority of the public that still support us and we appreciate that immensely.
What do you enjoy doing for fun?
My one long time passion is cycling. This has been my past time since I was a teenager. This was my way of keeping fit and having fun. I put a couple thousand miles on my bike every year at local club rides, charity rides, and just “getting lost” on my local roads for a few hours.
More recently my family and I have put a priority on taking real vacations and not day trips. We been on a few cruises and go to the beach. We enjoy the family time as a way to relax and leave all other work stress behind.
Thank you for sharing a bit of your life story with us, Carl. And, even more importantly, let me express my gratitude for your service, not only to your community but to the world. Thank you.