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Paying Your Dues in Police Work

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.

Moving 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.”

Criminal Justice Career Paths

  • Img_3265_max50


    about 5 years ago


    I was hired by local PD and I start the Academy in August. I will be paying my dues, I know nothing and I am nothing as far as being an Officer. And I am sure the little that I do know is just my own preconceived notions of what it takes to do the job. It will take some unlearning and learning to become a good Officer.

  • Chiefs_max50


    about 5 years ago


    Love this article, its amazing hearing when I hear friends getting hired how clueless they are after they pass the FTO in terms of wanting or thinking they have earned a right of passage...I was fortunate enough to have a lineage of police officers or criminal justice related family members that I know when my time comes to be humble and to be a student of the profession, not a "think I know everything" green horn...Another great article Betsy!!!

  • Bronzestarribbon_max50


    about 5 years ago


    AMEN! We all start at the begining because its a good place to start. You have to crawl before you can walk and walk before you can run, then we still fall on our faces and get our butts handed to us throughout any career. Good read..

  • 1470392_10205607568942018_1213501835514947434_n_max50


    over 5 years ago


    The problem with some todays young officers, is that they want everything handed to them, without having to earn it. Their attitude ism "What's in it for me," and they have no respect for senior officers or their department. Some just need a little attitude adjustment.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 5 years ago

    An article every new rookie officer should read

  • M_47410fdb0048b0ac6cdb0d27962cc918_max50


    over 5 years ago


    I agree with Pixie79
    "If I was lucky enough to become a LEO, I would never presume to have such an inflated sense of entitlement. Everyone starts at the bottom and works their way up, there's experience there that can't be gained elsewhere and a person would be cheating herself if she tried to start at the very top."

  • 8494_bozo_pd_max600_max50


    over 5 years ago


    Good article Sgt. As are all your articles. The woman in the article sounds like the typical millenial generation (as I learned from NU-CPS). As far as I'm concerned though, your dues are never fully paid. You start as a recruit where you pay your dues, move up to a trainee, where you pay your dues, move to a special unit or supervision, where you pay your dues, get older and wiser and begin to pay your dues in other ways. By then, you need to either have continued to learn the basics (where the basics always change) or start learning them all over again. What was easy becomes complex, what is easy becomes complacency. Humility is the only true constant that an officer should take with them no matter where their career takes them. For those aspiring to become Law Enforcement, remember what the Sgt has written and take it with you through your career, pass it along to those who come after you.

  • Shorthair_max50


    over 5 years ago


    If I was lucky enough to become a LEO, I would never presume to have such an inflated sense of entitlement. Everyone starts at the bottom and works their way up, there's experience there that can't be gained elsewhere and a person would be cheating herself if she tried to start at the very top.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 5 years ago

    Excellent article, Sergeant. I rue the trend I see with young people feeling that just because they've watched "SWAT" or some other movie about police, or any other profession, that they are instantly an expert and owed the position. I had to work nights for three years, and a lot of them double shifts, before I earned my spurs, even as a Security Officer. The only thing a new probie can expect, really, is to get dumped on before they make their bones with their company or department. Keep up the good work, and be safe!

  • Graduation_2009_university_of_phoenix_016_max50


    over 5 years ago


    Wow I just wish that someone in law enforcement would just give me a chance, I would not turn down the chance to get my foot in the door. I want to learn the ropes and move up in the field that I went to school for but I know that you have to crawl before you walk.

  • Officer_darby_max50


    over 5 years ago


    Excellent write-up Sgt. Your comments are right on point. would love to read more of your articles...keep up the good work.

  • Jiu_jitsu_logo_max50


    over 5 years ago


    Its kinda funny when people think they can go right to SWAT or something. Facebook advertises it too, they have ads on the side panels saying "Become a SWAT police officer!!!"....dumb. lol

  • Image1_max50


    over 5 years ago


    I am really impressed that women, She was confiedent in herself with a good self esteem, proud, and also it's good to be true that immediately they gave her a job as detective. As far as I know you need to go for a special test to be a detective.
    The only thing a new police officer can expect unexpected situation which wa not in class, it's real, be smart, safe think and thing fast and smart, never bertaid your partner and ypourself, watch your back , be safe.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 5 years ago


    I'm actually surprised that someone who was taken under the wings of the respective academy asked to skip over the basic essentials. If I ever get into an academy, I would never pass up an opportunity to learn what I need to survive and help people when I'm out doing my job and protecting my community. Thank you for shining light on this issue. I didn't even know people were this arrogant, as you put it.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 5 years ago


    The only thing a new officer can expect to be owed is a pay check every two and that is for every two weeks they worked. Todays generation of cops feels they are entitled to something, they don't want to actually work, and they fail to give the respect to those who are senior to them. They need to realize that senior officers can be the best thing they have when it comes to learning this job. I however, acknowledge that there are a number of senior officers that are RODS (Retired on Duty). With some guidence, a new officer can be directed by the FTO as to who he/she should be taking advice from? The first lesson a new officer can learn is, no shift goes from 8-5 M-F. If the work is happening, they need to be ready to answer the call. The second lesson is do what you are told and keep your comments to yourself. Hopefully, they will survive FTO and probation?

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