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Not having what it takes to be a cop — I'll cop to that, by John McGauley

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I never know whether to call a cop a “cop” to his or her face.

Do cops refer to each other as cops?

Actually, the word “cop” is an old Anglo-Saxon verb for catch, grab or capture, and it dates back to the 1300s, way before a time that’s taught in any school these days. All you have to know is it was an era when everybody wore very scratchy wool clothes that made them especially irritable, spurring them on to invent linen and the Renaissance.

I’ll refer to them as cops, since it has such a long history.

I have a number of cops in my extended family. I have some friends who are cops — well, now they’re retired cops. Most of the people I hobnob with are now retired.

Far as I can find, there were 686,665 full-time law enforcement officers — cops — in the United States in 2018. Now, figuring that each one of these cops is related to, or close friends with, say, 30 people, that’s just a bit more than 20 million Americans who have some idea about cops from a personal perspective. Add to that a couple million people who work with cops as administrative assistants, dispatchers, forensic people, receptionists, and so on, and you’ve got a whole lot of people with a stake in this.

To make a comparison, there are 460,000 plumbers in the United States, 1.3 million lawyers and 1.2 million insurance agents. (“So, a cop, a lawyer, a plumber and an insurance agent walk into a bar …”)

Cops were pretty exclusively men up until 40 years ago, and it’s still a man’s world, at 87.4 percent. (Not as male-dominated as plumbing, of which only a tiny 1.5 percent are women. Go figure.)

You can infer what you want, but a profession that is 87.4 percent men is probably going to have a culture that is … well … male.

The average age of a cop is 39.5 years. For some reason, that surprised me, as the cops I see on the street appear so young. But I guess that has to take into account the older ones who are detectives or stay in their offices a lot.

Now, the average American cop earns $69,036 a year. That doesn’t sound so bad to me. But men cops earn an average of $70,272, while women cops make less, an average of $61,850. That disparity is common in most professions.

Police forces are primarily white, at 77.1 percent. African Americans make up 13.3 percent, and the remainder is primarily Hispanic and Asian. Hispanic cops are the fastest-growing segment in police work. (African Americans make up 12.1 percent of the U.S. population, Hispanics 16.7 percent).

Now, the city with the most cops per capita is Washington, D.C., with 56.9 for every 10,000 citizens, followed by Wilmington, Del., with 43.4 per 10,000. The rest of the top five are Baltimore, New York City and Philadelphia.

Keene has about 20 cops per 10,000 residents.

Some believe that cops have a higher divorce rate than other professions, owing to the stress, but they don’t. The average divorce for workers in all professions is 16.96 percent, but with cops, it’s 14.47 percent. (I found out, too, that telemarketers have an amazingly high divorce rate of 49.2 percent! Maybe they bring their irritating work home, which might be one reason.)

Cops do have a higher risk of suicide than any other job. Suicide is so prevalent that the number who kill themselves is more than triple that of cops who are fatally injured in the line of duty. (Thirteen out of every 100,000 Americans die by suicide, but 17 out of every 100,000 cops.) Researchers attribute that to the combination of easy access to firearms and intense stress of the job.

About half of the cops in the United States have a college degree, either a bachelor’s or an associate’s. Some 5.4 percent have graduate degrees.

It’s been difficult to recruit new cops for the past decade or so. Chiefs say it’s because of low pay, high risk, and the fact they don’t get the respect they once received. And, it’s no easy feat to become a cop, either, as you have to be physically fit, psychologically tested for stability and pass intelligence tests. Virtually everybody I know fails at least two of those three categories, including myself.

I could not be a cop because of … uh … maybe a hundred reasons. I don’t like uniforms; the armor vests look really uncomfortable; I hate night shifts; and paperwork.

But the main reason is I’d be scared a lot of the time. If I had to stop a car on a lonely, isolated stretch of rural highway at 2 a.m., I’d wet my pants. The same for approaching a domestic disturbance where I didn’t know if I’d be met with a gun or a knife.

I earned in my career a lot more than what a cop makes, and all I had to do was sit in long meetings and babble about mind-numbing stuff like strategy or synergy or thinking outside the box, and write stupid memos and “cc” them to the universe. Once in a while I’d go to a convention in Florida.

I had to call the cops once, here in Keene. It was a big case — there was a skunk in my garage. A big burly cop arrived, asked me what the problem was, and I told him.

He strode right into the garage — which I would not even step into because of my shaking legs. He found the skunk and knew exactly how to handle it — picking it up by the tail.

He deposited it in the yard and it ran away.

“Thank you, officer, thank you so much,” I said, sounding like the weakest, prissiest man-child that I am.

John McGauley, an author and local radio talk-show host, writes from Keene. He can be contacted at

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