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Choosing Your Department, and Your Career

Choosing Your Department, and Your Career

Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith

I’ve been a cop at the same police department for 28 years. That’s more than half my life, longer than any of my romantic relationships and four years more than my oldest kid was on his last birthday. That’s quite a commitment.

You’d think that I must have chosen carefully back in 1980 when I took my agency’s police entrance exam. You may think that I had done my research, looked around, and made a deliberate, informed choice. Yeah, you’d think I did all that.

Want to know the truth? I was in college in Illinois, approaching the end of my junior year, and one of my class’ law enforcement advisors told us this: “You’d better start taking police tests, because you’re going to fail the first five you take. Get used to it.”

You see, the system in Illinois at the time dictated that if you wanted to become a cop, you applied at any number of departments, and, if accepted, you took a series of written, psychological, physical agility, and oral board exams over the course of 3 to 6 months. If you passed all of those, you ended up on an eligibility list with at least 200 other people. Finally, the department might or might not hire you, based on your ability to pass a polygraph, a background check, and another psychological exam.

Geez, I just wanted to be a cop; who knew it was such a huge hassle?

My dream was to join the LAPD; after all, I’d grown up on “Dragnet” and “Adam 12.” I wanted to go to California, work with guys like Reed and Malloy, and learn to say things like, “Just the facts, ma’am.” But one winter weekend I was visiting my boyfriend’s parents in Naperville (a rapidly growing Chicago suburb), and I saw an ad in the local paper that said the city was hiring police officers.

Without knowing a single fact about the agency or the community, I filled out an application, turned it in, and participated in the testing process over the course of the next several months. Lo and behold, I earned fourth place on the eligibility list and Naperville happened to be hiring four cops.

I was in! I was going to be a cop, the job I had dreamed about since I was 13 years old. I was ecstatic. I was also hopelessly uninformed about the department, the community, and about my chances to get ahead. I was so naïve that when they handed me my first paycheck, I was stunned to find out exactly how much money I’d be making.

Fortunately, it all worked out quite well for me. I’ve gotten to do just about everything I wanted to do as a cop, and I’m about to become eligible for a great pension with some terrific benefits. But if I had to do it all over again, here’s a few of the things I wish I’d investigated first.

What kind of cop do I want to be?

Federal? State? County? Municipal? There are pros and cons to each one; weigh them carefully. Try to imagine yourself in 10, 15 or 20 years with a particular agency. Law enforcement is an unusual profession; it doesn’t necessarily reward jumping from one agency to another. Pension and seniority systems are different, and if you move around, you may end up back at square one, both financially and in rank. How many times do you want to be “the rookie?”

What’s the growth potential of the community?

Or for that matter, what’s the growth potential of the agency? Is the department going to be hiring lots of cops or no cops in the next few years? Find out if the command staff, the investigations personnel, and any other specialty you’re interested in are a bunch of young guns or if they’re mostly ready for retirement. In other words, will this be just a job or a real career that will satisfy you?

What are the age requirements to become a cop in your state?

In most states you have to be 21, but not in all of them. Some agencies will not take you after age 35, so find out. If you’re looking at going federal, how many times will you have to move during your career?

Do you have to put yourself through the academy or will the department pay you to attend?

Is the academy a “commuter academy,” where you go home every night, or will you have to live there? This can be a deal-breaker for a single parent or someone with responsibilities at home that can’t be ignored.

Is college a requirement?

Many police agencies now require some college hours while others require a four-year degree. If the agency values education, will they help you pay for furthering yours? I know many cops who got their master’s, doctorates, or law degrees on their agency’s dime; find out what the tuition reimbursement rules are if furthering your education is important to you.

Where are the pay differentials?

Find out which cops get paid more for certain talents or experiences, such as military service or language skills?

What’s the salary cap?

Starting pay is important, but what is the “top out?” That’s the highest pay you can reach at any given rank and not only that, how long does it take to get there? You may be willing to tolerate a lower starting pay if you top out at a high pay rate in less than five years.

Does the agency have a union contract or will you be in a “right to work” situation?

Check out the agency’s record for personnel-initiated lawsuits or other litigious actions. Make sure you aren’t walking into a department where everyone’s suing the administration or there’s a battle for every pay raise. Also, find out if you’ll be considered a minority. This can work both for and against you.

What specialty positions are available?

How many are there? Do they interest you? When we first get into law enforcement, most of us are just happy to be part of the “thin blue line,” but if you eventually want to move up or move laterally, you should see what’s available.

What is the activity level?

This can be a double-edged sword for many of us. It’s great to run call-to-call at age 25, but at age 45 you may want the opportunity to slow down. Ask yourself, can I see myself at this department at 30? 40? 50?

Is there a residency requirement?

If the answer is “yes,” then ask yourself (and your spouse or partner) will I want to raise a family in this community?

Finally, one of the best ways to judge an agency is to ride along with the cops who currently work there. Don’t just talk to the brass or the recruitment team members, but spend a shift with one of the senior patrol officers. Ask them about equipment, training, and the general atmosphere of the organization. Most importantly, find out if they are truly satisfied with their choice of departments.

Law enforcement is a wonderful adventure, do your research and chose carefully! Good luck!

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