The Familiar Sounds of Law Enforcement

In a career full of sensory delights, these are the top sounds every LEO knows intimately

By Darrin Fulton  |   May 1, 2019

Law enforcement is one of only a handful of jobs where all the senses are engaged much of the time. There are obviously distinct sights and smells that officers encounter throughout their career. However, there are sounds that law enforcement hear so often that they never seem to go away throughout an officer’s life.

The following is a short list of just a few of those.

Sirens: Of course, this one is a little obvious, but the sound of a police car siren symbolizes so many things to law enforcement, as opposed to the general public. Cops can distinguish between a police siren and that of an ambulance or fire truck. A cop knows sirens mean, “Get the hell out of the way, I have somewhere to be in a hurry!” A dire situation is occurring and someone, whether citizen or officer, needs immediate help. (We also know that it might, on rare occasions, be a case of indigestion and a rush back to the office …)

The sound of sirens becomes second-nature to a cop. For most people, a siren means they’re getting a traffic ticket. But cops know that the sound of a siren the sound of relief to those who are suffering at the hands of a criminal—help is on the way

Gun shots: Again, this seems obvious. But officers not only become accustomed to the sound of gunfire, most can distinguish between different types of guns and especially between fireworks and gunshots.

Officers spend a good portion of their academy learning the tools of the trade. Becoming an excellent marksman is something officers take pride in. Knowing how to handle a handgun, shotgun, and rifle are all part of the job and are critical to an officer being able to handle themselves should the need arise. Fourth of July and New Year’s Eve are where an officer’s keen sense of hearing come in handy. Also being on patrol and being able to hear a shot and know which direction it is coming from, as well as what kind of gun is being fired, is a definite plus for officer safety.

The screams and cries of family members of a deceased person: This is the sound that no officer likes hearing, and one that they can continue to hear for days or even years after an incident occurs. The ear-piercing sounds can haunt a person’s dreams when a family shows up on a homicide scene and sees their loved one in a pool of blood. Sometimes the deceased is a person we might not have a lot of sympathy for. However, when the family arrives to grieve, you can’t help but feel for them.

Worse yet is the sounds of a mother who just found her small child who died in its crib and nothing could be done to save them. The pain and hurt an officer feels knowing that no words can comfort someone who just lost a child makes the job even harder on those calls. Any call where someone has been found dead or dies when an officer is on scene are very hard for officers. Whether one family member or an entire clan, the sounds they make are never easy to forget.

The death gurgle: As traumatic and difficult as hearing family members mourn for their loved ones is, looking into a person’s eyes that has been shot and listening to them take some of their last breaths may be even harder. No person wants to see someone die in front of them. To see blood oozing out of someone’s mouth and seeing them look at you as they take their last breaths is never easy. I call it the “death gurgle” because you can literally hear the blood choking their throat as they try to breath. They almost always are unable to speak by this point, but most definitely are looking at you and knowing that they are dying—hoping that some way, somehow, they can be saved.

The sounds of someone gasping for their last breaths in front of you and knowing there is absolutely nothing you can do for them brings a feeling of helplessness. You came to this career wanting to help and now you realize it doesn’t always work out that way.

The good and the bad from the citizens you encounter: A majority of the people that officers deal with don’t leave any sort of lasting impression. They are more often than not a footnote in a shift worth of calls and officers. If they saw the same person again, may not even be able to recognize them. However, there are three types of sounds from individuals that officers encounter that tend to stand out.

There are the times when someone calls an officer every name but Jesus himself. A clatter of verbal abuses, rambled by some unhappy individual shouting obscenities, telling us they will have our badge, that they pay our salary, and the ever-wonderful, “Fuck the police!” We hear it so much we become immune to it and do our level best not to let it get to us.

The second is the type of people you see when you go into a business or restaurant and hear the same unfunny jokes you’ve heard a million times. “Hey officer, I didn’t do it.” “Oh, hey they finally found you and came to take you to jail.” “Excuse me I hate to bother you during your lunch, but I have a question.” The first two of course you just try to smile and move on. The third you try to be nice and listen to this person who is interrupting the thirty minutes you have to wolf down a quick bite before going on another call.

Finally, this one you don’t get too often, but it’s the best kind: Those people you encounter who actually stop and say, “Thank you for your service,” or “We support you and what you do.” Those are the ones that stick. After all the garbage we hear so frequently, being told thank you is one of the greatest things to make an officers’ day better.

Radio traffic, dispatch tones, and a last call: I group these three together because they are all part of one of a law enforcement officer’s most important tools, the in-car and hand-held radio. There was a time when I would actually catch myself bending my head to hear my mic that was not there because I was off duty, but I’d been hearing the radio so much that I thought I had one on. There are those days when there’s little air traffic and you have to run a license plate or just get on to say something to make sure that dispatch is still listening and the radio is still on. It’s rare because most times someone is chattering on the air non-stop and if you are not listening to the radio, that little beep makes any officer’s ears perk up.

The radio tone is a quick alert that officers know either some important information is being given, there’s a situation going on that an officer has asked for the air, or there is an officer not answering the air that may need assistance. A radio tone has always gotten my attention quickly and always made me focus more on what was going down on the air if I was not paying close attention.

And finally, in that same group is the last call. No officer wants to hear it because it is absolutely heartbreaking.  It means that one of our comrades will never again answer that radio and is getting one final send off. I have yet to hear one that has not brought me to tears and made me feel like someone is punching me in the gut. It is an amazing way to honor a hero, but a brutal reminder to everyone else how fleeting life can be.

Conclusion

This list is by no means all of the sounds that become familiar to officers or all the ones that we become accustomed to or become engrained in our mind.  If there are any others that anyone would like to share, we would be happy to hear from you.

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Darrin Fulton

Darrin Fulton has 14 years of law enforcement experience in patrol. Fulton has years of experience in defensive tactics, field training, and is currently in crime scene investigation. Fulton has been involved with the National Latino Peace Officers Association since 2011. His wife of over 11 years is also an officer.
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