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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.


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