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Plotting Your Path to Promotion

Plotting Your Path to Promotion

Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith

The very last thing on my mind the day I was hired by my police department was getting promoted. Oh sure, I had a fleeting fantasy that “some day” I’d be the agency’s first female chief. But I was mostly concerned with getting through the academy and then on to field training; in other words, I desperately wanted to be a “real cop.” Promotion seemed so far away.

Well, I became a real cop and then about 5 years later, near the end of my assignment to a regional narcotics task force, I started to think about becoming a sergeant. It took me nearly five more years to realize that goal, in part because I just hadn’t given that phase of my career much thought. I was having too much fun learning the job, taking on different assignments, and having a great time being a crimefighter! However, if you have any aspirations of moving beyond your entry-level assignment, whether you’ll eventually consider a lateral move, an upward promotion, or both, here are some things to keep in mind right from the beginning.

Show leadership from day one

From the minute you fill out that application, start thinking about the future. The detective who does your background check could one day be the sergeant who fills out your annual evaluation. Your field training officer may eventually become the lieutenant who recommends you for promotion. Do what you’re told and beyond, always make the extra effort but do it without fanfare. Work hard, perform consistently, make a good impression, and be humble. Remember, a good leader does the right thing even when no one is watching.

Keep your study skills and your mind sharp

Read frequently; stay abreast of current events, crime trends, and societal issues. From the day you start the academy, you’re going to be required to absorb an enormous amount of information in a relatively short period of time, and this will continue when you get to field training. Even after you complete field training and your probationary period, never stop reading, learning, and seeking out new information. Leaders know what’s going on in the world, in their community, and in their backyard, and they are always and forever someone else’s student.

Look and act like a leader

Stay in shape, keep your uniform sharp and your gear looking good. Carry yourself with command presence; look and act confident. Hone your skills on the range, on the mat, and on the street. This will not only help you stand out, it will improve your officer safety. Studies show that the more “squared away” you look and act, the less vulnerable you are to attack.

Keep up on laws, trends and technologies

Law enforcement is a very fluid profession, there are constant changes and there is always something new to learn. Sign up for websites and newsletters (like Police Link!), subscribe to periodicals, browse the online bookstores, download podcasts. Seek out tactics updates, cutting-edge seminars, updated firearms training. Take courses (either online or at your local university) that interest you and that demonstrate you’re looking to improve yourself. If the department won’t pay for aditinal training, pay for it yourself. Share what you can with the rest of the department, and if you encounter resistance, be respectful but persistent, use what Dave “J.D. Buck Savage” Smith calls “The Power of Positive Annoyance.” Don’t complain about your command staff’s lack of flexibility or willingness to try something new or different; instead, use your frustration to encourage yourself to work harder to earn that promotion so you can one day be in a position to affect change. And while you’re at it, remove the phrase “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” from your vocabulary…permanently.

Keep up with departmental policy changes and updates

Good supervisors know a little about everyone’s job, not just their own. They also know how to find the correct answer to almost any question, and they can do it quickly and with confidence. When the promotional process comes along, you’re going to need to know your general orders, policies and procedures as well as employment law, long-term organizational goals, and the general political climate of your city, county or state. Don’t just read your policy manual and your law books, but read the local paper too.

Find a mentor

In fact, find several. But be cautious about who you choose to take advice and assistance from. That hard-drinking, rogue guy on the SWAT team may have seemed like a cool operator when you were a rookie, but is he the best guy to emulate when it comes to leadership, ethics and departmental politics? The captain that everyone else seems to dislike has taken a liking to you, but will your association with him hurt or help you in the long run? A good mentor will have your own best interests at heart; they won’t use you to further their own career or try to sabotage you when you begin to move in a different direction. And don’t make the common mistake of “hitching your wagon” to just one person. Learn from and associate with many different people in your organization, both civilian and sworn. Keep in mind that you can learn something from almost everyone. Having a single mentor is risky, limiting, and not very savvy.

When you’re ready, become a Field Training Officer

I know of no better preparation for becoming a supervisor than training young recruits. On my agency, the majority of our detectives, sergeants, and command officers were all FTO’s early in their careers. Being an FTO motivates you to stay current, seek out additional knowledge, and learn how to truly lead with patience, authority, and compassion. Being an FTO is a signal to your own bosses that you’re not afraid to work hard, take on tough assignments, and are committed to the best interests of the organization. Besides, it’s a whole lot of fun and can be extremely rewarding.

Be patient

It probably took awhile for you to get hired, make it though the academy, and successfully complete field training, so chances are it will take you years to get promoted. Besides, don’t be too eager to be “a boss” too early in your police career. Remember why you wanted to become a cop in the first place. As most supervisors and managers will tell you, the pure adventure of “real police work” tends to come to a screeching halt once you get promoted. Make sure you’ve gotten to do all the things you wanted to do as an officer/deputy/agent before you take on the job of supervising someone else. Being responsible for the actions of others is an enormous responsibility, and when it comes to promotion, the higher the rank, the bigger the target. Promotion is a life-altering event, make sure you’re truly ready.

Be realistic

Make sure that a promotion is what you really want. Observe the supervisors and managers in your organization; do you really want to be part of that team? Will you have the same flexibility, employment protection, and fun as a supervisor that you have as an officer? Remember, a police department is a pyramid, and only one guy or gal gets to be the chief and then only a few others get those management positions and so on down the line. Also make sure you’re doing this for the right reasons. If prestige and a bigger pay check are your primary reasons for trying to earn those stars, bars, stripes or oak leaves, think again. And if you’re satisfied with your role or assignment, but pressure from your family, friends or spouse to “move up” is forcing you to look for a promotion, don’t do it unless it’s what you really want. I work with some great cops who have been patrol officers for nearly 30 years by choice. They love what they do, they are great at it, and they are invaluable to our agency and to our community. They have no desire to become “a boss.” They love just being great cops; it’s a challenging job and a wonderful adventure; so whatever path you take, don’t forget to enjoy the ride.

  • Badge_2013_max50


    almost 2 years ago


    Check out Police Promotion Super Course at;

  • Tombraidertj_max50


    over 5 years ago


    Good advice for anyone starting out in this field. I promoted to Supervisor after only three years of doing the job. I do not regret my choice to promote when I did as it provided me with a much needed challenge. I knew when I started in the field of juvenile corrections that I wanted to get into supervision, and I had the benefit of having two great mentors help prepare me for the job. Even with their help the learning curve was still huge.

  • Quadding_in_west_virginia_005_max50


    about 6 years ago


    I believe that was a great article. We have to test for the promotion at my facility, than interview with the warden, and county personel staff. They review everything including sick time. Higher education and additional classes truely help you in getting promoted here. Coming to work doesn't hurt either.

  • 000_0055_max50


    about 6 years ago


    i second what nasser said :)

  • Img_0639_max50


    about 6 years ago


    Great article. Thanks for sending it in.

  • Memorialbadge_max50


    about 6 years ago


    good point

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 6 years ago

    Great advice in this article!

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 6 years ago

    Awsome article, definitely will come in handy starting the day I get hired

  • Jayden_n_isabella_max50


    about 6 years ago


    great article thank you very informative for someone like me who has dreams of becoming a cop and one day become a detective. give me goosebumps thing about what the future holds for young guys like me that really want to become cops and make a difference.

  • Dsc01654_max50


    about 6 years ago


    This is a great article, even for someone who is starting at a new department. Gives great insight.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 6 years ago


  • 7_max50


    about 6 years ago


    As 695cet said this is good advice if you are with the right dept. My current agency promotes who they want regardless of the promotional process and in 9 years of working here I have only seen 1 person promoted that actually deserved it. Every other position is given based on how buddy buddy you are with the admin. When I got into LE 16 years ago one of my goals was to be a patrol sergeant one day. After 9 years here that desire is gone.

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 6 years ago


    works fine with the right dept. Mine was not. 22 years with nothing but a bunch of ass kissers, snitches and back stabbers, apparently what the sleasy admin. wanted. Yes, I should have moved on. DeKalb County, Georgia proclaimed to be the best in the S.E. Far from the truth.

  • Icon_max50


    about 6 years ago


    Good article!

  • Photo_user_blank_big


    about 6 years ago


    'Thanks for the informatin this was really helpful. Good advice provided.

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