Paying Your Dues in Police Work
Sergeant Betsy Brantner Smith
I had been a field training sergeant for several years when we hired a new recruit who sat down with my boss and told him that she really didn’t have the time or the inclination to go through all that silly police academy and patrol officer stuff. She asked to be immediately assigned to our Investigations Division as a detective, and by the way, she could only work 8am – 4pm, Monday through Friday. She appeared quite certain that her experienced deemed her more than qualified and didn’t want to “waste time” working patrol. Besides, our department would undoubtedly jump at the chance to take advantage of her extraordinary talent.
Needless to say, we withdrew our offer of criminal justice employment. This experience was part of a growing trend that we continue to see in law enforcement today: many young officers fail to understand that they need to “pay their dues.” Go to any of the online forums and you’ll find a young wanna-be cop who expects to skip uniformed patrol and go right into SWAT.
Ambition and Goals
Many cops start out with big dreams and even bigger ambitions. I wanted to be the first female chief of my agency. I wanted to be a K-9 officer, a narc, a detective, and a manager too, but it never occurred to me that any of that would happen without a lot of hard work, plenty of advanced training and many years in patrol. Fortunately, I loved being in patrol, but I also enjoyed the other assignments I was privileged enough to be assigned to. As it turns out, my goals and ambitions changed over the years and, as I matured and learned more about the profession and about myself, my idea of “success” changed. Ambition is a great thing, but unrealistic expectations can ruin a law enforcement career before it begins.
Learning the Basics
In most agencies, patrol is where you begin to understand the basic function of policing. Most of what you learn in the academy and in field training relates to the uniformed patrol assignment. Patrol is the crucible by which your ability to make spur of the moment, critical decisions is judged. It’s where you learn to write reports, deal with people, and keep both yourself and the public safe. You begin to figure out how to negotiate departmental politics, determine who might be a good role model or a potential mentor, and what specialty you might truly be interested in. Even though you watched all those hours of “CSI” while in college, when you actually become a cop you may discover that you like the thrill of running code to a burglary in progress much better than lifting latent fingerprints at a cold burglary scene. Patrol is where you grow up.
The skills you learn in patrol ultimately translate to almost every specialty and ancillary assignment in the department. View the early years of your law enforcement career as a continuation of your education; it is an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to enhance your knowledge. Almost limitless advanced skills can be developed in patrol: interview, interrogation, investigations, fitness, weapons, tactics, reading people, interpersonal communication, leadership abilities and so much more. As you develop talent and expertise, you must also cultivate your own humility. One of the most detrimental traits a young officer can have is arrogance.
Be Realistic and Be Informed
If you want to fight the war on drugs, join the DEA. If you want to fight the war on terror, join the CIA. But even these highly specialized organizations have their “rookies” and their “grunt” duties. Do your research and learn everything you can about the organization you want to join. You may want to work at your local police department for a few years before pursuing a federal career; you just might find that policing in your hometown is exactly what you were born to do. Wherever you decide to work, don’t expect to be assigned to a specialty as soon as you are off probation. Does it happen? I was a detective within two years of becoming a cop. One of my fellow FTOs was still on probation when he became a field training officer. These were unique situations, and while they worked out for us, it’s not always beneficial to be “moved up” too quickly. Although I had been a cop for five years, I was in patrol for less than 18 months before taking the sergeant’s test. I didn’t have the necessary experience to supervise my fellow patrol officers, so my placement on that first list was not very high. When the next test came up three years later, I made sure I was ready.
Check Your Attitude
No one is entitled to a specialty. It’s great to set a goal of making the SWAT team, however it’s arrogant to feel that you are owed it. The line between confidence and hubris is a fine one. It’s great to have high self-esteem, but if it becomes self-adoration, no officer is going to want you as part of his or her specialty unit. I’ve had the opportunity to meet many of the best trainers, investigators, and tactical operators in this country and some of their common traits include approachability, humility, sincerity, dignity and an incapable desire to continue to learn.
One of the best compliments anyone can give you, no matter how talented and renowned you are, is “he sure seems like a regular guy” or “I would have never guessed that she is a world champion shooter.” And if you ask, they will all tell you the same thing: “Oh yeah, I had to pay my dues.”