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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

  • Im001299_max50


    almost 6 years ago


    I was the Field Training Officer for my department and I noticed the same attitude amoung the new
    officers we hired. They believed that this was just a job, a pay check and not a career. They figured once they did their shift that was it.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    almost 6 years ago


    Excellent commentary! Honest and truthful advise! If I only had a dime for all the know-it-all rookies......

  • Louisiana_max50


    almost 6 years ago



  • Photo_user_blank_big


    almost 6 years ago


    Good article, thanks.

  • Randy_usbp_bio_max50


    about 6 years ago


    Will Rogers said “Some people can learn about something by reading about it, other people can learn about something by observing it but some people just have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.”

    During my 20 years in the U.S. Border Patrol I found I could learn by observing. I saw men that were outstanding in the field take a promotion to a desk job and hate to come to work for the rest of their career. My observations showed me that pay raise wouldn’t even pay for my “Maalox”. I spent all 20 years at one station, something very rare in the Border Patrol, but I was stationed in San Diego, CA a lovely place to live, and it was the action spot in the nation. Some men got burned out. I thrived on the action. Often these men transferred to a nice quiet location where they could just hunt and fish but in a couple of years they were climbing the walls. Then they would transfer back to an action spot on the southern border usually at some armpit of the earth and wish they had never left their original post.

    I loved working in the field and I was good working in the field. I retired as a “Field Operations Supervisor”, one step away from the mandatory desk and a case of “Maalox” and enjoyed going to work right up until retirement.


  • Ku_relays_4_20_06__6_max50


    about 6 years ago


    Good job, Sarge. It is obvious from this article that you "paid youir dues". You are spot on.

  • Photo_user_banned_big


    about 6 years ago


    Its very true you need to be ready for anything, but make sure that you are realistic about it everything you do.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 6 years ago


    very good article. It took me two hard years to make Corporal and three extra hard years to make Sergeant. But what they do not understand when you move up in rank including special details it cost to be the boss and more work. And I EARNED IT ALL.

  • Wayne3_max50


    about 6 years ago


    great article it took me 6 years to be our SWAT team.5 Years to be K-9 and Now Im biker on the motor scouts I worked 12 years night shift no Im on days and riding a motor cycle and like my chief said you paid your dues .All new officers start at the bottom just like we all did and worked and busted your byt for what we got. Nothing was given to us we EARNED it

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 6 years ago

    Very good article

  • Dsc00182_max50


    about 6 years ago


    Gives the rest of us a bad name....I busted my a** to get hired and do the job. When you have this type of crap happening, they think anyone can be a good cop or get to a certain position. You see it in high schools: kids think they are going to graduate and go be a CSI immediately and it will be as cool as on TV. Amazing!

    I do like the last paragraph: Check Your Attitude- pay your dues!

  • Me_and_trace_max50


    about 6 years ago


    I paid my dues in nursing. Started at the very bottom and worked my ass off going up. These young kids have no idea what life and the corporate ladder is all about. A rude awakening when they do find out. If they ever do. Great article. Maybe this will open alot of wanna be's eyes?? Nah. toodles debs

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 6 years ago

    Wish I was training her.

  • 8ckwhrom_max50


    about 6 years ago


    WOW I really wish I could have been there for that interview, I dont know if I could have kept a straight face through it. I hated being a rookie, all the torment and extra assignments but I look back now and wouldnt change a thing about it

  • Tn_tnmoose_max50


    about 6 years ago


    good article

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