Tricks of the Trade: How to Play a Cop on TV

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Photo Source: “True Detective: Night Country” Credit: Michele K. Short/HBO

With so many police films and procedurals out there these days—we’re looking at you, “FBI,” “CSI,” and “SVU”—there are ample opportunities to land a role playing an officer of the law. In fact, an “SVU” or “Law and Order” appearance has almost become a rite of passage for aspiring New York City actors. But it takes a lot more than a blue uniform and a fake firearm to look the part. We spoke to an NYPD detective sergeant with 20 years on the job who knows a thing or two about what it takes to be a cop. Here, he offers his advice for the next time you need to channel your inner John McClane or Olivia Benson.

Walk the Walk

“Often on a police procedural, we see cops hopping over fences with the ease of a gazelle and giving chase with the speed of a track star without even breaking a sweat. In reality, if you’re a uniformed police officer, your duty belt—the belt that holds your handcuffs, radio, gun, baton, etc.—and bulletproof vest add about 30 pounds to your person, and as you can imagine, it’s not at all comfortable. Keep this in mind when you’re running, standing, and walking so it can inform your gait and stance. When interviewing a subject or conducting a car stop, ensure your body is in a bladed [angled] position, with your gun side facing away from the person you are in contact with.”

Appearance Matters

“Remember that your character has been trained in a likely paramilitary setting, and from the day they were sworn in to protect and serve, it was drilled into them that their appearance has to be up to the highest of standards. When you put on your uniform, be mindful of the “gig line,” which refers to the vertical line your buttons, belt buckle, and trouser zipper seam create to form a straight line down the front of your body. By making sure this line is straight, it will appear as if you have been on the job for years and donning your uniform correctly is second nature.”

READ: Playing Cops (and Robbers Too)

Know How to Hold ’Em

“We are taught in the very first days of the academy to only hold items in our non-dominant hand. The reason for this is because our weapon hand must always be free in case we need to draw our firearm. So when you shine your flashlight, unhook your handcuffs from your duty belt, or grab your radio, you better be doing so with the hand that is opposite your gun.”

Watch That Trigger Finger

“Nothing is a clearer giveaway that I'm watching someone pretending to be a cop than when I see an actor on TV waving a gun around with their finger on the trigger. As police officers—and this rule applies to all gun owners—we are taught to never put our finger on the trigger unless we plan to fire our weapon. This is the most basic tenet of gun safety. A firearm can go off with only a minuscule amount of pressure. So when you’re clearing a room or have your gun pulled and are instructing a perpetrator to “put down the knife,” press your straightened index finger on the frame of the firearm, parallel to the barrel.”