Programs to Make You a Better Police Candidate
Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith
So you’ve decided that law enforcement is the profession for you. Congratulations! As you’ve probably figured out by now, it’s not as simple as choosing your agency, walking in the door, filling out an application and being handed your dream assignment. Law enforcement is a diverse profession with literally thousands of options, specialties, and career paths. That’s the good news. Here’s the bad news: only a very small percentage of police applicants actually get hired.
Law enforcement is very competitive, and the hiring process tends to be lengthy and seemingly fraught with obstacles. I was chatting online with a PoliceLink member a few weeks ago, and he expressed frustration with the time-consuming application process. Very often a department’s application includes page after page of odd requirements (“List three of your neighbors when you were in grade school, include current contact information.”) and arduous requests (“Attach certified copies of your transcripts from grade school, high school, and college, and list three teachers or professors from each institution. Include current contact information.”). The applicant said to me: “It’s almost like the application is part of the test.” Bingo! That’s exactly what it is.
Police testing is time-consuming and expensive for the agency, so they want to make sure you are serious before they invest time in reviewing your application and background. Not only are most agencies going to ask you to fill out an extremely detailed initial application, they’re going to heavily scrutinize what’s in it. One of the best ways to show that you’re serious about their organization and the profession in general, is to seek out opportunities to learn about the law enforcement community and grow as a potential employee long before you ever get hired.
If you’re a young applicant, look into a cadet program. These vary with each agency, but often offer an hourly wage or a stipend to pay your local college expenses in exchange for your work as a “cadet” or “community service officer.” You’re going to be doing primarily grunt work, such as lockouts or traffic direction, but it’s a great way to further your education both in the classroom and in the field.
Many departments also have Police Explorer programs, regulated by the Boy Scouts of America (boys and girls are welcome to participate), but managed by the individual police agency. Explorers are generally ages 14-20. They’re uniformed, they have their own rank structure and they’re closely monitored by police advisors. Explorers are strictly volunteers, but the program is a great way to learn about law enforcement. Each Explorer Post meets regularly and receives training and assignment opportunities from its home agency. There are regional and national competitions in areas like forensics, building searches, and traffic stops. As an Explorer, I was in one of the few mounted units in the country. With opportunities such as these you’ll have a head start in learning skills such as report writing, radio usage, geography, and even officer safety.
Programs like these also provide both you and the department with opportunities to “check each other out.” Make sure you conduct yourself in an appropriate, professional manner at all times. Listen more than you talk. Be positive, don’t complain, be willing to take on whatever tasks you are asked to perform, and perform them well. Avoid becoming too personal with your advisors or other members of the agency. Work hard to protect your integrity and your reputation. You’re not a cop yet, so don’t act like you already are. In other words, maintain decorum. You’re in a para-military organization, and you’re at the bottom of the food chain. Learn to like it there. It’s temporary, but it’s necessary.
If these types of opportunities are not available in your area, there are many other activities you can get involved in to help you stand out as an applicant. Even though many police agencies do not require a college degree, consider higher education a priority. If college isn’t in your future, strongly consider a tour in the Armed Forces. Military veterans bring outstanding experience to the law enforcement profession, and they tend to find the police academy and the para-military environment of most police departments an easy adjustment.
You can also become a volunteer. Many police departments have volunteer opportunities, such as citizen watch programs or front desk assistance. Enroll in your local Citizen Police Academy, which is a great way to find out about your local department; many CPA’s have an alumni association that often assists the department with special events and other community activities. If there are no law enforcement volunteer activities available in your area, become a community volunteer in an area that you’ll enjoy. Find out where some of your local cops volunteer and see if they need help with their after-school sports programs or their work with senior citizens. Work with kids who need a good role model. Volunteer to assist senior citizens learn a new skill, such as computers and other newer technology. In other words, be a good citizen and get involved in your community. It will make you a better candidate and a better cop.