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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

  • M_84c7a84cabfa4bcbf2857d50d9e7ce69_max50


    over 5 years ago


    Every business goes by the same principle. You train & learn the ropes & earn the experience. In radio, you have go to a small city before you can be a DJ in a major metropolitan market. In Broward County Fla. you have to work the Jail for a year before you hit the street patrol. Another reason most businesses fail within the first few years. Exp. is the task master and reality is what smacks you in the face in the real world. Respect the authority and intelligence of rank! Learn from the rest, before you can be the best!

  • Jpd_new_max50


    over 5 years ago


    Another great article from one of Illinois' finest. The Sgt. hit it on the nose when she said you have to pay your dues. I had to.

    Work 5 years in a small Dept., being on the SWAT team there, to having to start all over in a bigger place. Sure I knew how to do the job, but I still had to pay my dues there. Waiting and listening pays off in the long run. I'm now on the SWAT team on my current Dept. and also an FTO and K9 Officer. Had to pay my dues when I started K9 too. Here I am an LEO with 13 years of experience, worked on 2 SWAT teams, and was a lead FTO being treated like a rookie when I started K9 training.

    Nobody likes to be the "new" person, but eventually you will be the crafty veteran.

  • Capt_973bc9c198ad455496f74daf552fdfa5_correction_zombies_ahead_ny136_max50


    over 5 years ago


    Well written and very insightful. I am pursuing this dream wholeheartedly, and very much enjoy hearing experiences and opinions of veterans who have paid their dues on their own journey. Thank you for sharing these.

  • M_903ad95c5c5440ef88cae95efa91f282_max50


    over 5 years ago


    so so true

  • 2008_nyc_suicide_run_030_max50


    over 5 years ago


    Sad to say but true. Today noone has to go through, any B.S., that most of the older vets had to endure. Today's society tells everyone they should go after what they want and it is not necessary to be in line or trained for that position. Also in today's world you see that young children are being taught, there are no loosers, only winners. Very sad state of affairs.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 5 years ago


    Just looking for my opportunity to join law enforcement (dream of a lifetime). Angers me how someone given the opportunity would throw it away once it's in their pocket.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 5 years ago

    awesome article. my opinion is that every officer as bad as it hurts should start in corrections. you learn a lot about dealing with people and a lot of other important things by doing that.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 5 years ago

    I was so excited to see this article and share with my students. Too many students think they can go straight to detective or CSI. Many have told me they don't want to do patrol.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 5 years ago



  • Seal_09_max50


    over 5 years ago


    it's amazing how many people have told me they want to be police officers, then say they want to be in csi, when you tell them yehy just can't go into a specialized unit, they don't want to be police anymore TV dosen't tell the true story.

  • L_a8cf169d61494345b83ecd0c8222aa96_max50


    over 5 years ago


    As a rookie just exiting the academy and now entering in to policing I find this very helpful. Thank you

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 5 years ago

    This is great information. I can't believe that many young potential officere feel as though they deserve rank right out of the gate. How nieve. I am young and have done plenty volunteer and undercover work and I can say patrol is the best learning you can get!!

  • M


    over 5 years ago


    Excellent article. If you quit wanting to learn, you become a liability. A good read for everyone especially young officers.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    over 5 years ago


    This is an awesome article. A must read for all young aspiring officers like myself.

  • 6921071_max50


    over 5 years ago


    Awesome, I love reading your articles.

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