From time to time, I get approached by young men and women who ask me what they should do to get hired as a police officer somewhere. I patiently answer their questions to the best of my abilities and genuinely make an effort to find out why they think law enforcement is for them.
The real question is “do you know what you’re asking for?”
Candidates without experience or close relatives who are officers typically have no idea what they are getting into. There’s a progression that most who are hired follow unwittingly because of a lack of knowledge of the true law enforcement experience.
The media, personal experience, and expectations that go unchecked by the hiring agency prior to hiring can lead to doubt and confusion in the rookie cop. Not having realistic views of this life can feed into a new officer deciding that law enforcement isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
Successful new officers who finish the academy and field training are typically balls of fire. They write traffic tickets for everything possible, jump every call for service, and start wearing “Police” t-shirts and paraphernalia everywhere. You can’t make them take a day off.
After about year two or three, something changes. Law enforcement careers tend to push a new officer into over investment, because it’s one of the few careers that require a total change in lifestyle. New officers who fully immerse themselves in everything policing start to recognize that old friends act differently around them.
Spouses and children begin to seem distant and have adapted to a life dictated by a crazy schedule. Extended family members and non-law enforcement friends call only to ask for advice or to get out of a traffic ticket. Suddenly the support system that has always been around starts to disappear.
The “us versus them” attitude creeps in as “us”, the police, are in a constant struggle with “them”, the community. Not just criminals and traffic violators, but all of “them”.
Cops in suburbia live in a fishbowl. We are scrutinized by everyone. Driving 5 mph over the speed limit in a marked car can result in a citizen complaint. Telling an entitled 16 year old shoplifter who has called you every vulgar pejorative in the book to “shut the hell up” can result in the officer being called into a confrontational meeting with the bosses.
A few years more into a career, the “us” circle closes to the officer’s assigned shift, while “them” begins to include everyone not assigned to that squad. There’s only so many times that an officer can respond to a call and deal with an issue only to find that another officer from a different squad had the same call at a different time and did nothing to address or fix the issue before this new reality sets in.
At this stage, “them” includes the administration that never works a holiday or misses their family functions. Resentment reigns supreme as the “star and oak leaf cluster club” touts a philosophy of rank has its privileges in defense of not doing any sort of police work.
The “us” circle closes more tightly as a career progresses. Suddenly it no longer encompasses an entire squad, but is limited to another officer or two with whom years of experiences are shared. Other officers who dodge calls, seem to receive special assignments for no reason, or manage to request and receive all of the prime days off fall into the “them” category.
Without an outlet or healthy alternative, the “us” circle has the potential to shrink to the individual. Everyone else is obviously either an idiot or an asshole.
Having a non-law enforcement life is vital to reversing the shrinking of the “us” circle. Exercise, hobbies, and other non-work related activities help a great deal. Making time for family is essential.
I have yet to encounter any officer who hasn’t experienced the “us versus them” mentality during at least some point in his or her career. It can creep in or make a sudden appearance to any well-intentioned officer.
At this point I fluctuate depending on what’s happening at the moment. My home life is great, so no matter how small my “us” circle happens to be, I have something to look forward to at the end of the day.
Agencies who fail to train their officers on this cycle are setting themselves up for failure. Officers experiencing stress and alienation resort to other means to fix it. Some of those means aren’t healthy or productive and can lead to serious personal and professional problems.
There are many factors that play into a successful career in law enforcement. Preparing for the natural progression of “us” and “them” will make for a more satisfying experience.
I love my job, it is the only thing I know how to do. But it serves the purpose of putting food on the table and a roof over the heads of those I love. With a proper mindset, those in the “them” group are typically as bothersome as a cloud on an otherwise sunny day.
Time to go patrol the Donut…