Vargas: Funny, you don't look like a cop

By Joe Vargas

The other day I was with a group of people and during the course of conversation it was mentioned I was a retired police officer. The response I got was the same one I’ve heard my entire career.

“Funny, I would never have guessed you were a police officer.”

My immediate response was, “Why do you say that?”

“You just seem like a really nice guy.”

“Oh really, have all the police officers you’ve met been mean and nasty?”

“No, I didn’t mean that. I meant you just seem so easygoing and friendly.”

“So all the police officers you have met have been uptight and rude?”

“No, it just seems like most officers are wound up and really cynical.”

“So I’m the only police officer you’ve met who hasn’t been a hard-nosed jerk?”

“No, some of the police officers I’ve met have been really nice.”

“Do you know a lot of police officers?”

“There’s a police officer I know whose daughter plays on the same soccer team as my daughter.”

“Is he a real jerk?”

“No, he’s not, but you know he has that ‘cop thing’ going on about him.”

“What’s that ‘cop thing?’”

“You know, he’s tall, white with the close-cropped hair and has that way about him.”

“So you’re saying my being Hispanic, 5’7”, and not having a ‘cop way about me’ means I don’t look like a cop?”

I could see how uncomfortable the conversation had become and I ended it with a quick, “I’m just messing with you man.”

There is a general stereotype of police officers. It probably has its roots going back decades when departments were not as diverse. My personal experience has been vastly different from the cultural stereotype of the donut-eating, tall white male with a crew cut, mirror shades and the personality of a rock.

For me it started with Dad. He was an immigrant from Mexico with this terrible accent who decided he was going to move from driving a trash truck to becoming a police officer. Some would say he did a pretty good job of it.

Dad had an amazing sense of humor and liked eating pan dulce more than donuts and listened to ranchera music in his police unit.

In the 40 plus years I’ve been around police officers, I’ve noticed they are as different and unique as any other work group. There are short ones and tall ones. Male and female. I’ve worked with Mexican, Korean, Vietnamese and African-American police officers. I’ve even worked with a very proud Tennessean.

Police officers do have some habits that are pretty consistent. They feel more comfortable taking the corner table in any restaurant. Like any good sheepdog they are constantly scanning the environment for hazards or threats. They may occasionally have a donut but are just as likely to have a croissant now and then.

So if I don’t look like a police officer, that’s OK. It’s a compliment to the diversity of most police agencies these days. Who knows, maybe in another 30 years the stereotype will change again. What that stereotype will look like, only time will tell.

Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at jvargas@behindthebadgeoc.com