Like many of you, my path to becoming a law enforcement instructor included time as a field training officer (FTO). There are some trainees who I look upon as my successes. I am proud of them and what they became. The opposite is true as well; there were some who had no business being cops. As an FTO, I helped facilitate their realization that they weren't ready or weren't capable.
The time I shared a radio car with trainees ran from being very rewarding to downright frustrating. If you've worked as an FTO, you know what I mean. I also remember my time as a new officer. It was 1976 and the FTO program in those days was not as focused as it is now. After about two weeks riding with various officers, I was told to "get out there." It was exciting and equally intimidating.
Recently, my aged brain came up with the idea of sharing some thoughts for newly hired officers based on my experiences. Although a lot has changed since then, there are aspects that are still relevant. These thoughts are what new officers need to hear rather than what they may want to hear. And they have relevance from the first day on the job forward.
One trait that is high on the list of skills needed to be a good officer is maturity as a person—not just as an officer. The maturation process takes time. New officers need a common-sense approach that prevents them from doing stupid, idiotic, even moronic things both on duty and off.
It's a fact that common sense isn't always too common. That means making good decisions is a must. Here's a five-part process that will help. Ask yourself, "Is the contemplated action":
- Within policy?
- Where applicable, tactically sound?
That may seem like a lot for a new cop's cerebral cortex to absorb and apply, but it's actually a simple decision-making model, and it encompasses that much-desired common sense. If the answer is an obvious "no" to these questions, then a mature realization that "Nothing good will come of it" should follow, leading to a different course of action.
As an example, consider the social media shenanigans some officers engage in. Some of the posts that have gotten officers in trouble would never have been written if they'd applied common sense through the use of these five questions. If the department discovers such foolishness, a smack down will surely follow. If a defense attorney finds a senseless, unprofessional posting during a trial, the consequences will be significantly worse.
Off-duty actions also carry an expectation of professionalism. Unfortunately, cops often don't remember this, and out-of-uniform behavior has been a high-profile, discipline-generating topic reaching the media and courts. A Google search of "police off-duty misconduct" will provide plenty of examples. Don't become the next one. While there are exceptions, the norm is that the off-duty officer made poor decisions—often influenced by attitude and alcohol—that led to the misconduct. Have fun but don't let stupid behavior creep in, whether with you or others. If it develops with a cop friend, step in and stop it before it goes too far.
I couldn't close this section without a final word: Choose to tell the truth. Nothing will get an officer disciplined quicker than dishonesty. Lying on the job has contributed not only to ruined careers and families but also the diminished faith the public—including juries—has in its police. Don't allow yourself to become part of this.
Another suggestion is to look outside oneself. New officers sometimes get tunnel vision on their role. They may even go through a "super cop" stage. This typically shows up in behaviors such as trying to arrest everything that moves and a belief that if it isn't a "ghetto gunslinger" felony in progress, then it isn't worthy of their time. A third symptom: Reluctance to take a report—trying to kiss it off—as well as not producing a quality written product. A good supervisor should correct this quickly, but it's preferable that the new officer doesn't create the problem to begin with.
Within this category are the habits a cop develops as far as appearance and equipment. Physical fitness is a must. Don't give up on the commitment you made in the academy. It will serve you well while working the streets—especially in moments of danger and stress—as well as in your overall health. An equipment commitment, both personal and departmental, is equally important. Practice with and maintain weapons properly. Take care of the patrol units as if they were your own. Don't be like the officer who covered the red engine oil light on the dash with black tape, which was only discovered when the engine seized up and had to be replaced.
All cops should be students of their profession. Completing the FTO program is not enough for new officers. Although patrol is a learning process, it too is not enough. Cops are on the streets to do a job that encompasses a wide range of skill sets and human dynamics. You must work at mastering all of them.
Hand-in-hand with this is the truth that the department entrusts the officer with huge responsibilities. Never stop learning. Paying your own way through training classes, listening—really listening—to good advice from veteran officers, reading books and periodicals, getting a college degree and using the Web as an educational tool are just a few options
I was eager to learn when I started. I still am. Early on, veteran officers encouraged me to talk with those who know crime best. When legally appropriate and outside of Miranda, they suggested asking suspects questions like, "OK, tell me how you did it." Priming the pump with a cup of coffee or a soda and a little respect before that criminal goes off to the "gray bar hotel" can be rewarding. Such conversations extend to talking to criminals on the streets. "When was the last time you were arrested?" "What gang do you claim?" and "How often do you use drugs and what kind?" can all be useful questions both for the learning process and for archiving information in a report or FI card. This approach to developing "street smarts" won't always work, but it's worth a try.
The duties of new officers are extensive. They carry with them temptations and challenges. One guiding force is the Below 100 campaign. It's a street cop's personal prevention and protection program that all of us should practice. The Below 100 tenets are:
- Wear your belt.
- Wear your vest.
- Watch your speed.
- WIN—What's Important Now? (which relates back to good decisions)
- Remember: Complacency kills!
There's much more waiting for you at Below100.com.
Watching cops in their mobile office is another work ethic indicator. It drives me nuts to see officers at the wheel with cell phones to their ears. It's especially hypocritical in a state with a "hands-free" law. Sure, there may be emergency exceptions but in truth, it would worry me even more to see them rolling Code 3 using a cell phone. In today's patrol car, there are enough distractions from radios, computers, etc., so don't create more. Pull to the curb to take or make that call.
An officer's situational awareness in a patrol unit is important. Always give yourself room to maneuver: At a red light, a dialed-in cop will keep some distance between their car and the one in front of them. Choosing a lane that would allow a quick turn out of the traffic flow is another awareness technique that shows preparation for the unexpected.
Also, scan the streets. The primary focus is safe driving. But you should also regularly look around, as well as check the mirror to see what's behind you. Good police work through self-initiated contacts can come from monitoring the environment. The job is to find enforcement opportunities, including people deserving of attention.
Finally, remember that you have to get there to make a difference. "Hot calls" can be exciting and adrenaline-pumped. But you can't help out if you crash on the way. Rolling Code 3 requires more self-control and restraint to ensure arrival at the scene.
Getting a steady paycheck is great, especially for a new officer. That hot cash or new credit card can be used in so many ways. Make an early commitment to prioritizing where the money goes. Take care of your family, pay bills on time, maintain good credit, buy a home within your financial limits, stay healthy and plan/invest for the long term. While enjoying life is also important, consider the higher priorities before buying those big ticket toys. Starting a savings program now that will be there for retirement and your kids' college aspirations decades ahead may not be as attractive—but do it anyways. There are plenty of retired cops out there who deserve the comfort those "Golden Years" promised. But they can't because they're still working—often in menial jobs—to pay the bills. A great family life, a great career and a terrific retirement should be your goals.
Your attitude is your destiny. A veteran officer shared this with me years ago, and it's good advice today. One of the most common methods that officers get themselves in trouble is the way they talk to people. Early on, I learned this the hard way through visits to the Watch Commander's office and invitations to stop by Internal Affairs. Saying stupid and/or "macho" things was the mistake that created these career-defining moments.
People will accuse cops of verbal misconduct. The best way to deal with this is to hit record on a digital recorder each time the contact may "go south" on you. One of the pleasures of my supervisory years was to meet with a complainant, listen to their accusations and then play the officer's recording of the encounter. Typically, it revealed the cop's professional behavior and the individual's lies. Although you'll certainly have moments that require forceful language when you're on duty, always keep this guideline in mind: "If your lips are moving, the chief is talking."
For the keen observer of the obvious, it's evident by now that the word "wisely" has played a major role here. It is meant to. I honestly believe that a successful law enforcement career will be the result. It's your decision now.
Train safe. God Bless America.