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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

  • Swat_teaser_fin_sm001_max50


    about 6 years ago


    VERY informative... thank you

  • 100319_max50


    about 6 years ago


    I would have to agree with alot of the article. You really need to start from scratch especially if you are just starting out. Things people do not think about is every department in the world runs different than others they are not all run the same. Take here for instance we use sig codes where as a town not even two miles down the road uses only 10 codes. So you take the advice and learning and advance yourself in what you want to do. The best knowledge comes from a man whom has done the same job several times and had several teachers whether more or less knowledgeable. Sometimes it takes a fresh and new perspective to learn something you might have overlooked.

  • Bugshideaway_max50


    about 6 years ago


    The world would be a much better place if "People were half as good as they think they are"! EARN YOUR POSITION! Climb the ladder

  • 2004feb004_max50


    about 6 years ago


    A great article. I would emphasize Sgt Smith's sage advice concerning arrogance and hubris, and how very detrimental these traits are regardless of the rank or position.

  • In_remembrance_of_oakland_pd_max50_max50_max50_max50_max50


    about 6 years ago


    Words of wisdom and sound advice gained from experience.

  • Pictures-of-cartoon-characters-tom-and_3_max50


    about 6 years ago


    If say I wanted to be a forensic patholgist then I would expect to start in patrol. Moving up is what its all about and if i were hired directly as a forensic patholgist I would think twice on why they are moving me up too fast.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 6 years ago


    I have to totally agree with Sgt Smith's comments. I served in many and varied LE agencies, and in each one I told the training personnel and my superiors TEACH me your methods and way to do things. This was even as I brought with me many. many years of experience and knowledge. You WILL always find a new and different way to approach a sitution. I was once told, AFTER getting my Masters Degree and returned to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, that I did not need a Masters Degree to go up in the BOP. I informed the person that I knew that, I got the degree to prove to myself I could. However, the MA did assist me in later years in another agency to qualify as a Captain level State Chief Prison and Jail Inspector. Everyone needs to start at the beginning level and then PROVE to your superiors that YOU are the one they want for that certain job or position when it comes available.

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