Getting an Early Start on Your Law Enforcement Career
Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith
Teenagers get a bad rap. Many adults think that teens today are nothing but a lazy, drug-crazed, sexually obsessed, over-privileged, video-game-addicted drain on society…all the same things that adults thought about my generation, except for the video game part. In reality, this current generation of teens may be the next “Greatest Generation;” many have an excellent work ethic, a deep sense of service, and a desire to make a difference.
I was in junior high when I decided I wanted to be a cop. I was frustrated that I had to wait until I was 21 to become a full-fledged police officer, and you may feel the same way, so in addition to finishing high school and getting ready for college or military service, here are some things you can do to prepare for a life as a crime fighter.
The Explorers program is a great program for youngsters to find out if law enforcement is really the career for them. Explorers can get involved in community service, simulated police training, ride alongs and much more. The National Rifle Association even has a marksmanship program specifically designed for Explorers Posts.
Military ROTC programs are a great way to serve, to learn and to earn money for college. Law enforcement is a paramilitary profession, and during the hiring and promotional processes most police agencies give special consideration to those who have served in the military. ROTC is also a great way to learn more about a career as a military police officer.
Many high schools also have work/study programs where half of your day is spent at school and the rest of the day is spent off-site, learning about a specific career. Most of these programs include the building trades, the medical field, technology, and service industries like hairstyling, but more and more are offering a chance to study criminal justice. See if your school district is willing to participate in such a program or already does. Some high schools also offer the opportunity to receive both high school and college credits by taking classes at your local community college. See if this program is available and if you can take a criminal justice class or two while you’re still in high school.
Volunteering is another way to gain valuable experience helping people while meeting potential mentors and building your resume. Working with kids, senior citizens, or on a great law enforcement cause like the Police Unity Tour can be extremely rewarding and help you learn about service, organization, and personal sacrifice, all skills you’ll need as a professional crime fighter.
Most of us have to or want to get a job when we’re in high school. Try to choose a job that will not only line your pockets but will help you develop skills you can use when you’re on the job as a cop. I was lucky enough to get a part time job as a police dispatcher in both high school and college, but I also worked as a waitress, in food prep, and in several office settings. I learned how to type, file, and most importantly, how to deal with customers. The people we serve and protect as police officers are our “customers,” and whether we like them or not, we have to deal with them patiently, respectfully, and with compassion. Nothing prepares a young adult for community service better than working in a restaurant or a retail establishment where “the customer is always right.” Besides, working in the service industries gives you the chance to study the human animal. Body language, proxemics, speech patterns, group behavior – its all fascinating stuff and it’s often vital to your very survival as a cop.
At any job you do, volunteer or not, work harder than anyone else, show leadership in your assignment or task, and be respectful, ethical, and honest. Stand up for yourself, but be willing to say “I made a mistake” or “I’m sorry” when you need to. Stay out of trouble and choose your friends and associates carefully. Always be mindful of the fact that you want to be a cop, not be running from one!
Make fitness a permanent part of your life style now and never give it up. Work out, play sports, and get involved in martial arts, the shooting sports and any other activity that will keep you in shape and continue to build your self confidence and your skill. And yes, play those video games – superior hand/eye coordination is essential to many law enforcement tactical skills, and technology is just as important as gun-handling skills to today’s modern cop. Just don’t forget to go outside, get some exercise, and interact regularly with your friends and family.
Law enforcement isn’t just a job, it’s a career – one that is filled with history, honor, and tradition. If you’ve decided to become one of us, work hard, learn all you can, and when you pin on that badge and strap on that gun, enjoy the adventure, there’s nothing else like it on the planet. Good luck!