“What advice would you give to someone considering a career in law enforcement, especially in today’s climate?”
This question is one of the more common one’s I am asked from our active Facebook Community Page. While an exhaustive list of the steps to actually become a police officer could become quite lengthy, I’ve tried to boil my answer down into 5 key things that anyone wanting to become a cop should know:
COMMON SENSE WILL BE YOUR FRIEND
We all had ‘that guy’ in the Academy that ace’d every test and made the rest of us feel not so bright. Then, it’s not uncommon to hear that the same recruit is struggling in FTO or on the road or has become someone that no one really wants to work with. That, of course, isn’t the case with everyone who has done well academically, but it still stands that just because you can pass a written test doesn’t mean you’ll pass in the real world.
The situations you’ll find yourself in will require the application of “street smarts” and not just what you can recite from the books. Very often, it’s clear that the best cops are the ones that can think outside the box to resolve a situation using plain ‘ol common sense.
A SENSE OF HUMOR ISN’T OPTIONAL: IT’S CRITICAL
From Day 1, you’re going to need to develop some thick skin. If you don’t have it–you will, or you’ll be miserable. This starts in the station, not out with the public. Cops learn that being able to enjoy a good laugh is key to the job and that includes the laughter often being at the expense of one another. It’s generally all in good fun so learn to deal with it.
Then, once you get to start meeting the “customers” you’ll be dealing with on a regular basis, the only way to stay sane will be to laugh about it. You’re going to get called everything imaginable and some things that don’t even make sense and you’ll need to learn to not take it personally.
KNOW THE LETTER OF THE LAW BUT ENFORCE THE SPIRIT
Discretion is one of the greatest tools a cop has at his/her disposal. What you can do legally and what you should do practically are not synonymous. Laws were put in place for a purpose–that is the “spirit of the law.” You’ll often find yourself dealing with someone that has broken the letter of the law but isn’t going to learn the necessary lesson by simply responding with a citation or an arrest.
It is highly recommended to not only know the law but understand its intent so that you best know how to use your discretion in ways that help people, instead of make life needlessly difficult for them.
LEARN TO TREAT EVERYONE WITH RESPECT WHILE BEING READY FOR THE WORST
A seemingly normal situation can go sideways in a hurry. There is a truism in law enforcement about there being “no routine stop/encounter” that is too often viewed as cliche. The potential for violent encounters in this line of work is tremendous. Fortunately, most encounters do not go that way, but we must be ready. This skill will only be developed on the job or carried over if you’re becoming a cop from a similar background (military, etc.) So, we must learn, as Gen. James Mattis is quoted as having said:
Be polite, be professional, but have a plan to kill everybody you meet.
HAVE SOME OUTLETS
Depending on the pace of your particular Department, after a few months to a couple years, you’ll notice that policing begins to change you and that is a guarantee. You’re going to see things differently and you’re going to have stresses arise that you did not and cannot predict. Every individual will find this happens and one thing you can plan for is having some outlets to deal with that stress. Generally, it’s best to have a physical outlet and a social one. Physically, cops do anything from working out to working on cars, but it needs to be something to physically engage in to reduce stress and preferably to help maintain a general level of physical preparedness.
Socially, you’ll find it difficult to continue to have friends that aren’t cops but resist the urge to push everyone away and be purposeful in maintaining friendships that will help you “get away” from the job and also help you maintain a sense of perspective on what normal is, because you won’t see it that often at work.
Those are a few things I’ve found helpful as I look back on my career thus far and think about what it takes to stay focused moving forward. Today’s anti-cop climate might be a deal breaker for some but I consider that a good thing in that it might weed out some folks that shouldn’t ever have entered this field. You’ve got to want this job deep in your gut because it’s going to take plenty of them to stay in the fight no matter what comes your way.