By Police1 Staff
Dear Police Rookie,
Congratulations! You have entered the greatest profession in the world. Your decision to become a police officer will change your life. During your police career, there will be both ups and downs, but you will meet incredible people and work with some of the best folks on the planet.
To help you navigate your first few months after graduating from the police academy, we asked Police1 readers to share their top tips for having a successful police career. Following these crowdsourced recommendations can help ensure your time in law enforcement will be both safe and fulfilling.
- Study and train continuously. Then do some more. The police academy is only foundational and often not sufficient.
- If possible, achieve two degrees: A master’s in law enforcement and another in business administration. Once you get above sergeant, law enforcement becomes a business, with decisions to be made about budgets, equipment purchases, and assisting in human resources and training. One should always try to advance their position but more importantly, give back. Pass your knowledge on to others.
- Don’t be afraid to promote. You’re not selling out your brother and sister officers. If you have a level head, you will give them a chance to have a fair and decent mentor.
- Do whatever you can to remain with a good supervisor and mentor. If they change assignments or days off, apply for re-assignment to stay with them. Good supervisors can enhance your career just as much as a bad one can derail it. Stick with people who challenge you and make you a better cop.
- As James Bond says, “Always have an escape plan.” Don’t be afraid to walk away from this job if you’re not happy. This job isn’t for everyone; better to move on than make a bad decision and end up in jail or on the unemployment line.
- A senior officer told me this when I got into law enforcement: “Kid, don’t be greedy, find your niche. Do not try to take the whole ‘pie’ at once. Throughout your career, take just a small piece of the ‘pie.’ Eventually, you will have the whole ‘pie’ and your career will be winding down. You will leave the table happy and full.”
- Read books on how to become a good police officer, take more time to interact with the people in the community, and don’t fall into the trap of disliking all attorneys and mental health workers. It’s not all about the sheepdog and sheep – we need to get away from that sometimes.
- Dissect all calls you go to, know about and hear about. Monday night quarterback everything you do to find your mistakes and fix them. You’ll never be perfect, but perfection is something to strive for. Once you leave work, leave the work at work.
- Pay attention to your current assignment, not where you think you want to be.
- “Every time you go to a call ask, “What if?” Every time you finish a call, ask, “What if?” Build up a mental response library of “What ifs?” If you become a supervisor, leader, policy maker, or writer, recall all the “What ifs?” Every day is a school day!
- From day 1 in the police academy until retirement, keep a journal. After retirement, write a book.
- Do not be afraid of applying to a large agency or out of the county.
- Take all and any opportunities that come your way from promotions to different divisions. Put your name in the hat.
- Listen to those who are trying to invest in your life and career. Don’t be proud. Open your ears. And never be afraid to ask for help.
- Attend training that interests you, even if you have to go on your own time and at your own expense.
- Study the profession and know the case law that allows you to work.
- Don’t promote too quickly. Explore unit options at each rank.
- Know how to write a sentence, paragraph and then a report based on facts. Have these books: “The Elements of Style,” a dictionary and a thesaurus. If your report has to be read by a judge, appeals court, or Supreme Court – state or fed – they will see a well-documented, grammatically correct police report that makes sense.
- As a 36-year veteran and karate teacher for 50 years, I have learned that self-control must be established in training. When the suspect is hyper-emotional and lacks logic, it is like the child within is making all decisions. The stress hormone response takes over. If the officer is pulled into the same behavior, the officer is also using the child brain. The one (suspect or officer) who maintains logic is the adult on the scene, therefore in control of the situation. Profanity and yelling will usually precede violence. When you clean up your language, your inner adult is in charge. I have seen many officers disciplined or terminated for their use of profanity. It hurts relationships at home too. The effective self-control of the tongue is a tremendous asset, as the words we speak can heal or kill.
- First, the most valuable tool we have is our training. Situational awareness is key under normal responses and crucial during emergencies. Use all the attributes you have obtained since you started in your professional career. Overreaction can be worked on daily and focused on in training. Know your triggers and what makes you overreact. Key in on the amount of caffeine you take in during your normal shift. Overuse of caffeine can cause a good officer to overreact. Proper rest is always a plus! Leave your personal situations out of your mindset during your work hours.
- Live within your means so that you don’t create a cycle of having to work overtime. Being able to turn down extra duties will help keep you from working when you should be at home resting. I’ve found that the times people got under my skin were when I was tired.
- Remove “I” and “me” from the situation, replacing it with “you,” “you’re” and “your.” We are here to help “YOU,” and “YOU’RE” going to be ok. We are here to answer “YOUR” needs. Always understand, they don’t understand why you are there. Stay calm, stay rational and remove any ego you may have. Try to connect on their level.
- Detach (but don’t over-detach), prioritize and execute.
- NEVER take it personally. If you weren’t there, they would only attack someone else in the uniform you wear. Keep it moving, keep it professional, always.
- Prove their words wrong. Anger provokes anger and sometimes the provoker just wants to see if they can get a reaction. Make them laugh. Leave on a high note and get to know them. Make an unannounced visit later and check on them, just because. You may earn respect, or you may not. You may earn their trust and their heart. But always give respect even when not due.
- Just remember…it’s not you. Don’t give them standing to complain. Work like you are on video. Give your chief the tools to protect you.
- I do a quick analysis of the scene and surroundings. I maintain my safety first then the other responders. I don’t take the knuckleheads to heart. Safety is my first priority, and if a person is being a heckler and creating friction, I will remove the agitator. I use my people skills, emotional intelligence and situational awareness. It takes all kinds of people to make the world. However, I will not accept or put up with anyone who wishes to cause harm, hurt, kill, or maim any first responder or innocent civilian. I have been shot at and had a knife pulled on me and still walked away. Keeping cool and maintaining an easy and smooth voice, I was able to get the person apprehended without incident.
- Knowing that you will win the war, it is not necessary to win the battles as well. The person is the one who will pay for the ticket, so it does not matter what they say during the stop.
- One of the best quotes I ever heard was “the sting in the barb is the truth” meaning if they are getting to you, you need to address it and figure out why it is a vulnerability. It’s usually ego or a lack of confidence.
- Know your local and state statutes. People choose to learn three or four laws and try to provoke you into an illegal arrest. Know what you can and cannot enforce.
- Depending on the situation at hand, kill the suspect with kindness.
- Leave your personal issues at the door when you report to briefing. Leave work at work and have some type of positive release from stress. Realize you can’t fight everyone.
- Before you go toe to toe with someone in a stand-up argument, always remember this one thing, in ALL your interactions with people – whether they are suspects, witnesses, victims, or colleagues – every person’s perception is THEIR reality. It may not be logical, reasonable, fathomable to you, or even right, but it IS their reality. If you think about this before you speak, it will inform both your actions and words.
- You’ll be surprised how many people will become calmer and cooperate more when you show you are actually LISTENING to them and are looking them in the eyes.
- Be understanding. One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was, “Everybody has a story to tell, it isn’t going to hurt you to listen to it.” People will tell you if they are good or bad if you just listen.
- Master the art of underreaction (as it applies to insults and verbal assaults). Let them see how little their words, insults and jeers impact you (even if you have to act a little bit).
- Keep an open mind no matter how many times you deal with the same people. Remember, bad guys also have bad days and are still victims of crimes.
- Always try to start with Plan A. That’s the nice, cordial officer. The other party will dictate when you switch to Plan B, the forceful, stern, deadly serious officer. Yes, some people are already on Plan B before you get out of the car. But whenever possible, use Plan A first.
- Remember that today’s suspect is tomorrow’s witness. How you treat him today will dictate how much cooperation he gives you tomorrow.
- It is easier to talk to someone for 2 hours than fight them for 2 minutes.
- De-escalation and a discussion solve 95% of the calls. Just know when that 5% of them a discussion won’t work.
Family and home
- Don’t sacrifice family for the job. The job was there before you and will be there after you – you only get one chance with your family.
- Don’t limit your social circles to cops only. Maintain friendships outside the job.
- If you are or get married, stay faithful and loyal to your spouse. Far too many law enforcement marriages end in divorce and as a result, many lives are destroyed.
- When you are not working, find a hobby or skill outside of law enforcement that you can enjoy and unwind. That hobby or skill can be something to do after retirement.
- If you plan to go out and socialize with coworkers, always call and check in at home so that your better half is not worried. I did that and I am celebrating my 50th wedding anniversary.
- Start planning for retirement NOW, and commit to saving at least 25% of all raises, overtime and off-duty job income.
- Once you hit the top pay step, max out deferred comp and get a Roth IRA too.
- Don’t work overtime to buy toys – save that money and invest it or go to school on your time off and learn something other than law enforcement.
- Don’t work the night shift (unless you have to) because it’s busier and to get the night differential, work days so you can be home with your family at night.
- Don’t waste your time and effort at an agency that doesn’t offer retirement/health benefits.
- Write down a memorable event that happens every day at the end of your shift. It could just be a funny run or traffic stop. Keep a memoir that your kids could read one day when you are no longer around.
- When you are off duty spend time with your family and friends. Don’t crawl into a hole and shut people out.
- Use your vacation time. Don’t hoard it. Go places and experience the world. That’s why you have a job anyway. Take patches and challenge coins when you go – it’ll open doors you’d never expect. Cops in other countries make the best tour guides.
- Always be mindful of how you drive. A person may not ever come face to face with a police officer, but everyone has seen a police cruiser driving on the streets. They will develop ideas about you and our profession based on your driving. You can add to a positive image or add to a negative image just based on how you drive.
- Get out of your car and talk to people. Do not hibernate in your vehicle with the exceptions of lunch and calls. You will be amazed how many people appreciate you just being sociable.
- Be the same person “in and out” of uniform. Don’t be a tough guy behind the shield because the bad actors out there will sense it. Stand in front of your shield and others will respect you for it.
- Keep in mind that every decision you make becomes part of the legacy you leave. Keep honesty and integrity at the forefront all the time. The result is that after you are retired, it’s a satisfaction looking in the mirror and knowing you gave it your all, every day, every call, to make a difference in people’s lives.
- Remember, you’re out there to “serve and protect.” That means for everyone. Always be respectful to all you encounter.
- Even though it is beaten into you during the academy that integrity and professionalism are the cornerstones to good policing, it doesn’t hit home until you are on the streets. I would tell myself to ALWAYS act professionally and never give up my integrity for anything.
- Don’t be afraid to be kind, it’s not a weakness.
- It’s not us against them. It’s bold and unwavering service to every single person you come across.
- Don’t let the lazy cops influence your career. It is your career, you joined to make a difference, so make a difference.
- Treat the people you contact the way you would like to be treated under the same circumstance. The badge is not a shield of protection, it is for recognition as a law enforcement official not a person of punishment. It is to help and problem-solve the calls you respond to. After the call is completed critique yourself. You represent your organization and sometimes you are the only contact the public will have with local government and that is how you and your organization will be remembered by that contact, whether good or bad.
- Speak low, calm and firm. What is the situation? Is it involving emotions? Shooting, death, accident? Explain your intentions of helping. Is it a disturbance or riot? Do you have instigators inciting others to follow? Swift and firm arrest and transport ASAP. I always told my shift, the calmer we are, professionalism shines, and the foolish person will become tired and leave. When cameras are rolling, don’t give them what THEY want! It’s hard holding up the thin blue line, but if we all maintain the integrity of the profession, we ALL win.
- On a good day, you recognize the trigger points and you just smile and walk away from those trying to poke the bear, it’s on the bad days that you need to keep breathing and don’t let those baiting you get the better of you. Just remember, that person isn’t worth your job.
- After Code 3 driving to a scene or maybe just clearing from a fatal MVA or high-impact call for service, it is not always easy backing down your posture, tone and body language. People react to all three based on how we present ourselves. I would try to take a few breaths, look confident and as be as positive as I could be. Start every call with a “clean slate” if you can.
- Don’t let senior cops cajole you into doing things the “easy” (i.e., “wrong”) way, least of all when you know better.
- Stay away from bitter, negative cops who whine and complain about the profession.
- Check your attitude. You will be known for your attitude much longer than the quality of your work.
- When asked by a higher-up to do something you disagree with, stand your ground. A career comes and goes, moral integrity shouldn’t be for sale.
- Tell the truth, even on minor BS. I’ve seen too many young cops ruin their careers by lying over BS. That small dent that would’ve gotten you a write up, just got you fired for lying.
- Always treat everyone with dignity and respect. People will remember it, and the way you treated them may pay off later when you need them to help you in an investigation.
Safety and wellness
- Slow down when rolling to a hot call. You are of no use if you’re in a car accident. And wear your seatbelt.
- When you are making stops or handling calls, make sure to watch those hands, control your suspects at all times and do no backpedaling. Remember: Time, distance and cover are your friends.
- Don’t forget that every time you wear the uniform, somebody daily thinks about killing you. You don’t know who it is so make officer safety a way of thinking. Be constantly aware.
- Maintain control, analyze the situation and take proper action. This works every time, whether you’re flying a plane or pulling up on a chaotic scene as an LEO.
- Lift with your legs, NOT your back!
- Find yourself a good psychologist immediately and start seeing them right away to discuss what you have seen and experienced. Don’t let the trauma build up. You get your car maintained regularly, and you have to do the same for yourself because when your car is on fire on the side of the road, it’s too late at that point.
- The job will wear you out if you let it, take your days off, and use your vacation and PTO time. Say no now and then when they call you to come in. You can’t do this job and not take time for yourself.
- Make time and force yourself to exercise. You’ll get out of shape quickly and the older you get, the harder it will get.
- Always know where you are in case you need to call for backup.
- It is a tough job at times. You see the worst in people. Find an outlet for stress other than alcohol. When the job gets the most stressful, talk it out, but don’t drink it away because it will still be there when you sober up.
- 7-11 hot dogs and Monster at 3 a.m., however delicious they may sound, are not your friends. Your pants will thank you.
- If you don’t feel 100%, make the call and call out. Relax and reevaluate yourself tomorrow.
- Don’t wait for irreparable nerve pain and damage caused by the duty belt before buying hip/back protection devices and modifying the location of the tools. Work for a department that approves load-bearing vests. You don’t want to live the rest of your life in pain or disabled all due to a belt.
- You have two bags when you graduate from the police academy; one empty and one full of luck. Your job is to fill the empty one with experience before your luck runs out.
- Always wait for backup unless you have to act immediately to save life or lives.
- Keep working hard…you may not see the results but they’re there.
- You’ve chosen one of the hardest jobs in the world, physically and emotionally, you just don’t know it yet. There are going to be a lot of hard days to come, but don’t let them take away from the good ones too. Remember the good you do for people along with the funny, outrageous, silly and downright weird stuff you will see and do. Retirement comes sooner than you think it will!
- You can’t save everyone and not everyone can be helped. Reality isn’t what you think it is. Don’t get discouraged when things go wrong.
- If the court system fails the community, it doesn’t mean you failed the community. Make every decision on the street with the victims in mind and don’t forget why we do this job. We do it for the people who depend on us.
- This job is gonna hurt like hell, kid – body, mind and spirit. You won’t make very many true friends, but the ones you do will be keepers. Some will pass on before you. That hurts a lot, and you’ll swear a little bit of your soul went with them. You won’t have many fond memories; but those few, you’ll hold onto like gold. The bad memories visit more often than the good ones. That’s why you hold onto the good ones. You’re going to wonder why you did this, but at the end of it, you’re going to miss it because this isn’t a job it’s a calling. When you leave, it doesn’t stop calling your name.
- Treat everyone with respect. It will pay off greatly in the current situation and even years later. You will be remembered by all involved for the way you treat people. The motto of police work is to “Serve and Protect,” but that is a fancy way of saying “I’m here to help.”
- It takes one crying child knowing you made her safe. To put a vicious killer in prison to make the case so airtight that his fancy lawyer couldn’t do anything to get him off. To stop a person from dying by suicide and having them thank you later. To be there at the right place at the right.
- Remember, 90% of the people you deal with are good people!
- When you have lost the idea that you serve the public, retire. It’s the best for the public, the department, your coworkers and most importantly, yourself.
- Enjoy the camaraderie, stay positive and embrace the nobility of the mission.
- When you wake up in the morning make sure you like who you see in the mirror.
- Enjoy the ride. There are many ups and downs, but you will meet incredible people and work with some of the best folks on the planet (and some of the worst). Never stop being human to be a cop.
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