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What Does Police Work Smell Like?


(Photo courtesy Richmond Police Department, Virginia)

What Does Police Work Smell Like?

We’ve all played the word association game. You say “black,” I say “white.” When we turn it around, I say, “cop” and you say “hero.”

Beyond word association, we connect odors and smells to various experiences in life as well. Growing up in Southern California, the smell of Coppertone—oil or sunscreen—instantly takes me to the beach. If I get a whiff of barbeque smoke—it doesn’t matter what you’re grilling—I relate it to family gatherings in the backyard.

So what unique smells do you connect to police work? Here are a few of mine.

Sweat-soaked body armor

Removing sweat-soaked soft body armor at the end-of-watch has a feeling of completion—surviving another shift. But the moisture exuded through the pores and getting marinated into the Kevlar vest has a unique smell that stays with you. In addition to routinely washing the vest cover, I kept a bottle of Febreze in my locker. As a result, my body armor received about three or four shots from the aroma enhancing product as it hung to dry between shifts.

Gun oil

We qualified with our primary duty weapon monthly at my department, so visiting the gun cleaning bench was pretty routine. As a result, the smell of gun oil, gunfire residue, and associated cleaners is closely associated with work. Moreover, Q-tips were created for personal hygiene, but my guess is they’ve seen as many gun slides as eardrums.

Leather and shoe polish

While footwear and leather gear have dramatically changed in law enforcement over the years, I spent so many days and nights shining boots and polishing leather in our locker room prior to duty, I am immediately returned to “the scene of the crime” when I smell shoe polish. Even now—more than five years into retirement—as I break out the Kiwi to make my motorcycle boots black again, my mind returns to the police department locker room. Moreover, there was always a sense of camaraderie during the pre-shift drill of getting our uniforms squared away prior to roll call.

Wet asphalt

“Wet asphalt” has a smell, I’ve been asked? Indeed it does, especially if there is a slurry seal composition on the road. I cannot describe it very well, but at the outset of rainfall, before things are truly saturated, it wafts from the ground. As I take it in I’m reminded of working traffic collisions since they occur with greater frequency when the roadways become slick.

Drug abuse

You might think I’m going to mention burnt marijuana. Yet that is only part of the recipe. The sense of smell I’m referring to is the combination of cigarette smoke, burnt marijuana, spilled beer that is absorbed into carpet and upholstery, and the general unsanitary conditions of substance abusers in their living environment. It doesn’t matter if you smell the combined ingredients in a home, apartment, automobile, or motel room. When it’s present you know that drug abuse is nearby.

cops can smell crime
(Photo courtesy Chris Yarzab.)
Tommy’s Burger

Every geographical location has their fast-food favorites. Tommy’s Hamburgers is a big hit in Southern California. Tommy’s was one of the few 24-hour fast food options in my jurisdiction, so graveyard officers frequently enjoyed their burgers and chili fries—not exactly the fuel needed before a foot pursuit. While Tommy’s Hamburgers has an appealing aroma before it’s consumed, the greasy nature of their food has a smell that lasts for days in a patrol unit. A day watch officer inheriting a patrol car from a graveyard cop always knew where he ate if it involved Tommy’s.


Skip this category if you’re eating. … “Stinkers” refer to dead bodies that have been there for days or weeks before being discovered. The body gasses and maggots make you want to vomit. And yes, I’ve had a few dry heaves in my day. Once you smell a good one you’ll never forget the odor that caused your eyeballs to nearly dislodge from your head.

Furthermore, beyond “stinkers” are the other nasty odors associated with crime scenes. I.e. burnt bodies, singed hair, grotesque body fluids etc.

And the acidic stench during CPR never leaves your memory. But this was meant to be a lighthearted article, so I will end there.

What are some “smells” that you associate with police work?

Jim McNeff, editor-in-chief, Law Enforcement Today

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Jim McNeff

Jim McNeff is a partner and managing editor of Law Enforcement Today where he has worked since 2016. Previous to this he served in law enforcement for 31 years. He retired as a police lieutenant after 28 years with the Fountain Valley Police Department in Orange County, California. Prior to that he served the 3902 Security Police Squadron in the United States Air Force, assigned to the 1st Air Command and Control Squadron at Offutt Air Force Base, Nebraska.Jim holds a Bachelor of Science in criminal justice from Southwest University and graduated from the Sherman Block Supervisory Leadership Institute as well as the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) course, Leadership in Police Organizations. He’s authored two books, “The Spirit behind Badge 145” and “Justice Revealed.” His third book, “Jurisdiction,” is due to be released in early 2019.Jim has been married to his wife Jamie since 1983. They have three adult children and three grandchildren. You can contact him at and learn more about his ministry work at You can also follow him on Facebook at "Badge 145 - Trending Truth" or Twitter @jimmcneff.


Having worked EMS for a number of years, alongside police officers and fire fighters, I’d say you hit all the “high points” of the olfactory map of policing, except maybe the smell of blood that also mingles with the rest at far too many scenes. Sometimes chronic allergic Rhinitis can actually be a blessing.

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