how do cops always know their direction?
February 26, 2005 4:36 PM   Subscribe

Whenever I watch a show like cops, I notice that the police always seem to know what direction they are headed (ex. "suspect is heading east on franklin, turned north on vine"). Even when they are on foot they call out directions on their handheld radios. I don't see them with a compass. So how do they know what direction they are going?
posted by vronsky to Grab Bag (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Perhaps they just know the area really well. I almost always know the points of the compass anywhere in Toronto, though in any other geographic region I would not.
posted by orange swan at 4:44 PM on February 26, 2005

In a lot of cities, except in hilly areas and the NE/NW US, the roads are often oriented in a certain direction with respect to the compass. With that and a knowledge of the street layout, it's pretty easy to keep aware of your direction. Also some people (myself included) have a strong sense of direction; I'm pretty sure cops may have developed that as part of their situational awareness.

The question is how well they can do it in the windy, twisty parts of Pittsburgh or in a arterial city like Boston. Even I get disoriented in places like that.
posted by rolypolyman at 4:44 PM on February 26, 2005

Two possible answers:

1) When you know a city well enough, you can easily intuit which direction you are headed on a street. This is especially true in cities that are laid out roughly in a grid-like pattern. Also, "eastbound" and "westbound" may be convention as much as actual directionality - e.g., Massachusetts Avenue in Cambridge, MA doesn't run directly north and south, but if I told you that someone was "heading North on Mass Ave" you'd know what I mean.

2) They have little dash-mounted compasses in their cars and you just can't see 'em.
posted by googly at 4:47 PM on February 26, 2005

In the western two-thirds of the United States, most cities are laid out on a N/S/E/W grid, so it's extremely easy to know directions.

Portland, for example is divided north and south by Burnside. If you're in the northern half of the city and moving towards Burnside, you know you're going south. Block numbers on streets that run parallel to Burnside tell you how far you are from the river that divides the city east and west.

The city is divided east and west by the Willamette River, so if you know which way you're going in relation to the river it's easy to know that direction as well. Also, most streets that run parallel to the river are numbered, with the numbers going up as you get farther from the river. Block numbers on these streets tell you how far you are from Burnside.

It's not just Portland, though. I attended college in a small city in Iowa, and they also laid their streets out on a grid, though the naming and numbering conventions were different.

It took me a while to get used to, since I grew up in the mid-Atlantic region, where a lot of early streets were laid based on the easiest horse route from one destination to another, and new streets wind around because of geographical contraints and pre-existing property rights.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 4:47 PM on February 26, 2005

I vote for knowing the area. My father was a police officer and he knows the area he policed inside out. I inherited the maps he used in his office and his knowledge of that area is breathtaking. He knows every inch of it, and it includes a lot of moor and wasteland. I'd imagine it's even easier in a city where there are streetnames.
posted by fire&wings at 4:51 PM on February 26, 2005

Keeping track of which direction you're facing is also a habit you can learn. I've known people who could just estimate which way north was, the same way I can just estimate what time it is. I'm not sure what the connection is, but a lot of them seem to have grown up on farms or in farm families.

Still, I can imagine a cop who was always calling out directions on his little handheld radio would eventually get pretty good at keeping track of that sort of thing.
posted by nebulawindphone at 4:57 PM on February 26, 2005

I suspect it is familiarity with the area. I can usually keep track of directions, (N,S,E,W), once I get an initial orientation.

Left at the church . . .
posted by geekyguy at 5:05 PM on February 26, 2005

As others have said, familarity with an area helps. It's also possible that officers have special training for determining direction. I find that by looking for certain clues — location of the sun or moon, for example — I almost always know which direction I'm facing in a city. Or, more precisely, I'm able to orient myself, and then from there keep a subconscious bearing.

This doesn't work in the woods, unfortunately.

I, too, am fortunate to live in Portland, and know which direction I'm facing 99.5% of the time. (SW as I type!)
posted by jdroth at 5:14 PM on February 26, 2005

What everyone else said, with the addition that no police officer is going to shout out "suspect is heading some direction on franklin, turned some other direction on vine" when a TV crew is following them. You only hear the directions when they actually know them.
posted by revgeorge at 5:40 PM on February 26, 2005

This doesn't really answer the question, but there's a brilliant and hilarious scene in the HBO series The Wire where a senior officer berates some rookies for not knowing the directions of the streets of Baltimore and, out of his hearing, a grunt ridicules the officer for his perfectionism (something to the effect of, "I'm sitting in a chair and my dick is pointing south-southwest").

Methinks there would be some kind of semi-Darwinian weedout of street cops who didn't have either the street knowledge or the sense of direction or both.
posted by matildaben at 5:53 PM on February 26, 2005

In NY I use that sort of language all the time ("then turn north on 5th ave..." etc). If you're oriented in an area, it is just natural to use the environmental directions rather than the relativistic ("he took a left, yeah, his left, which would be your right, if you're coming over from 4th...")
posted by mdn at 5:57 PM on February 26, 2005

Once again I have to agree with everybody who said "they know the area." I have a friend in the academy right now and they are expected to memorized EVERY block number in their precinct.

I guess if you do memorize the block numbers in every direction after a while it should become second nature even on the run.
posted by TetrisKid at 6:01 PM on February 26, 2005

In Seattle, no parking signs often say "No Parking North of Here" or "No Parking East of Here" or [include other two directions]. And, of course, Seattle is often cloudy enough (or dark enough) that one can't use the sun as a clue. These signs exacerbate my wife - she doesn't have a particularly good sense of direction, even though Seattle is generally laid out on a grid, and sometimes the sign is roughly in the middle of a short block, so it isn't obvious to what the sign applies.

On the other hand, I've got a pretty good sense of direction, and I don't find the signs to be problematical at all.
posted by WestCoaster at 7:34 PM on February 26, 2005

I second the "in Portland it's almost impossible to not know directions". I'm usually able to get by in other cities (SLC is easy with the temple, Seattle is not with its weird 30 degree angle streets), but in Portland you know exactly which way is which.

This is significant because COPS started here and often features shows here... to attempt to add something worthwhile to the discussion
posted by togdon at 7:40 PM on February 26, 2005

Dad says grandpa knew north like skunk knows stink. He just knew. My wife is like that in unfamiliar cities if she has seen the map, I usually do pretty well out in the country.
posted by jmgorman at 7:42 PM on February 26, 2005

by looking for certain clues — location of the sun or moon, for example — I almost always know which direction I'm facing in a city.... This doesn't work in the woods, unfortunately.

posted by five fresh fish at 7:42 PM on February 26, 2005

because the trees are the way, fff. ;>

thanks for that link geekyguy. I use the same method that women (and gay men) use for directions, and it works great. I also have a very poor since of direction and distance. But really, which is more helpful - "You'll pass Church St. and then turn left after you see the used car lot." or "Go 3.7 miles northeast and turn left"?
posted by puke & cry at 8:23 PM on February 26, 2005

To follow up on matildaben's post, after the Major said that it was explained that they need to always know exactly where they are in case they ever need assistance. Which was an issue in an earlier episode of The Wire.

Also, police end up driving or walking the same streets over and over again. Eventually you'll start picking up on exactly where you are, and if you don't, you probably shouldn't be a cop.
posted by drezdn at 8:26 PM on February 26, 2005

There's a book called Inner Navigation by Erik Jonsson that addresses this phenomenon. Pretty interesting stuff. Seems that the sense of direction is definately enhanced by practice but also goes deeper than that. If you ask people with highly developed senses of direction how they know, they often can't explain it.
posted by Jeff Howard at 8:58 PM on February 26, 2005

You don't police an area, drive around an area, interact with people in area with a keen sense of the geography of the area. Drive around your own neighborhood, do you know which way is north? Imagine if driving around is what you did for 8 hours a day, 5 days a week.
posted by Arch Stanton at 9:16 PM on February 26, 2005

i think it's just knowing the area very well ... although i'm a person who has very rarely become confused on directions, even in strange towns ... or the woods ... i just know ... i've navigated back country roads many times just by knowing what direction i needed to go in, no map
posted by pyramid termite at 9:21 PM on February 26, 2005

What matildaben said about a Darwinian weeding out of police officers who do not learn to keep track of where they are at all times. While driving with a rookie police officer, a good field training officer will often get a rookie in an intense conversation, than interrupt him and ask, "Where are we? What is the closest cross street? Is it a one-way street? Is the street we are on North/South/East/West?"
posted by mlis at 9:02 AM on February 27, 2005

I delivered pizza's in State College, PA for three years which admittedly is a small city and is almost totally on a grid but by the end I knew what block every major apartment building and dorm was on. I definitely knew what direction every one-way street was in, what the security codes were for many of the buildings, where the parking ticket payment drop boxes were, etc. It seems like being a cop would require you to pick up mostly the same knowledge. Every job has a huge amount of domain knowledge that a new employee doesn't know and you have to get on the job.
posted by octothorpe at 9:27 AM on February 27, 2005

Thanks guys - great answers. Having lived in cities on a grid (Manhattan) I know it makes direction a breeze. Having lived in cities like Greenville S.C. which are laid out like a spider's web I got lost frequently. And I remember that episode of The Wire matildaben - that show is genius.
posted by vronsky at 10:51 AM on February 27, 2005

Star charts
posted by punkbitch at 2:02 PM on February 27, 2005

"In Seattle, no parking signs often say 'No Parking North of Here' or 'No Parking East of Here' or [include other two directions]. And, of course, Seattle is often cloudy enough (or dark enough) that one can't use the sun as a clue."

This is how we weed out the non-natives. You get piles of parking tickets and soon decide to go elsewhere. :)

Seattle does have some odd streets, mostly because of the hills. But native Seattleites tend to use the water, I-5, the ship canal, etc. as basic navigational orientation. I pretty much always know which way I am facing when in Seattle, but when I'm in, say, Olympia, I get confused.

Seattle does have a street grid system that may be useful, though. Study the map and see which direction the street numbers should be going. If you are on, say, "40th Avenue NE", and the next Avenue NE is in front of you (a block away) and it's a higher number than the one you are on, say "42nd", you are (roughly) facing east. Aves NE get higher numbers as you go east. NE Streets get higher numbers as you go north. (However, there are cases where streets don't have numbers. The actual Ave just east of 40th in the part of Seattle where I grew up is Alton Ave NE. In that case, you can look at the little number tab on top of the street sign, which shows the house number range for that block.)

Look at house numbers, as well. Odd house numbers are on either the south side or the west side of the street. This alone is often enough to help you figure out which side is up when faced by a "No Parking West of Here" sign.

Don't forget that in midsummer, the sun here does not set in the west, but pretty solidly in the northwest. (Seriously! We're a long ways North!) In winter it sets in the southwest, but no one sees the sun at that time of year. ;)

To tie this back into the topic -- I'm sure that cops internalize these rules just as any long-time resident does. And they get a lot of practice at it. :)

(These Seattle navigation notes brought to you by a Seattle-native and former pizza delivery driver.)
posted by litlnemo at 5:14 PM on February 27, 2005

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