Detective Lieutenant Barry M. Baker (ret.) is a 32 year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department.
Becoming a police officer rests on Five Truths: self-evaluation; recognizing bad advice; self-sufficiency; integrity; and life and death. There really are Five Indispensable Truths for a Successful Police Career.
Self-Evaluation for Becoming a Police Officer – I’ve provided you with ten topics on which you need to conduct your self-evaluation.
Recognizing and Ignoring Bad Advice – This one is as simple as it sounds, yet it confuses some.
Rapid Advancement toward Self-Sufficiency – Again, this one’s not that complicated; although, it’s difficult for many.
The Immeasurable Importance of Integrity – You hear the word integrity a lot. It’s an easy word to say, but the definition escapes some.
Matters of Life and Death – Becoming a police officer puts you in a unique category.
1. Self-Evaluation for Becoming a Police Officer
It’s debatable how effective psychological assessments are for becoming a police officer since you’ll encounter police officers that will make you doubt that effectiveness. I’m not criticizing psychologists or the practice of psychology. Anyone can understand how difficult and complicated a medical diagnosis can be. Why should a psychological assessment be any less difficult or complicated when evaluating a person for becoming a police officer?
Self-evaluation can be the most effective psychological assessment affecting your decision to pursue a police career. The reason is quite simple. You know yourself better than anyone, and as long as you’re honest with yourself about your fitness for becoming a police officer, you’ll come to a very accurate psychological assessment of yourself.
You probably already know that most police departments require that you have a high school diploma or equivalence. At age 21, the minimum age to become a police officer, you may even have a Bachelor’s degree. Let’s say that you have only a high school diploma. Let’s go further and say that you received a less than adequate high school education whether the fault of the educators or your own lack of interest and effort.
You shouldn’t despair, because you’re young and you have the time to continue and improve your education. You have to keep in mind that, after becoming a police officer, you’re going to be writing each and every day of your police career.
Employment history - relavance for becoming a police officer
At the age of 21 or so, you’re not going to have an extensive employment history. If you were fortunate enough to earn a Bachelor’s degree immediately following high school, you might not have any, or a minimal, employment history. No matter what the extent of your employment experience may be, you have to self-examine how you responded to direction, and your willingness and ability to complete tasks assigned to you.
For those of you who have completed military service prior to your application for becoming a police officer, you’ve established an excellent employment history. Some would disagree with that statement; however, those who would disagree have never completed military service. Your military service has given you excellent experience to work in a disciplined and task oriented environment.
A police career is unique in that past employment experience is not a prerequisite for becoming a police officer. The irony is that when you become a police officer, you’ll be thrust into a position of enormous responsibility. While you will not have any supervisory control within the police organization, you’ll exercise supervisory direction over countless numbers of people depending upon situations and circumstances.
Compliance with laws and regulations
No individual will agree with all laws and regulations, so there’s nothing wrong with you psychologically just because you think some laws and regulations are bad or unnecessary. However, we live in a representative republic, and all of us are required to do our best to comply with laws and regulations.
Becoming a police officer will thrust upon you the responsibility to comply with laws and regulations that far exceeds any standard applied to others. When it comes to your police department’s regulations governing your conduct, you must accept and conform to the fact that those regulations are non-negotiable.
Just because you’ll see some police officers violate regulations with no action taken against them, you must not believe that failure by management will in any way benefit you if you find yourself in violation of a regulation(s).
Recent illegal substance use effect on becoming a police officer
Just by use of the word recent, police departments are acknowledging a declining element within American society. Look, nobody’s perfect, and the proliferation of illegal drugs and the access to them do make it likely that more people will experiment.
If you’re one of those who experiment, or worse you use illegal substances regularly, you can be certain that the continued behavior will probably prevent you from becoming a police officer.
Interpersonal and familial interactions
This one is really important, because how you interact on a personal level with friends and family will affect how you interact with your coworkers and the public.
Some of you will have experienced a less than desirable childhood wherein domestic violence was prevalent. People react in one of two ways when they experienced or witnessed domestic violence during their childhood and adolescent years. While some people will incorporate the violent behavior into their adult familial interactions, others will view domestic violence as the cancer it is and do everything in their power to eradicate it from their adult relationships.
If you belong to the latter group, you’ll never have the problem of domestic violence affecting your police career. However, if you belong to the first group and find yourself as the aggressor in an abusive relationship, domestic violence will always hold your continuing police career in jeopardy if you get that far. Realistically, becoming a police officer won’t be possible if you have a prior conviction for domestic violence.
Financial difficulties related to becoming a police officer
Your first response to this one might be “Who doesn’t have financial difficulties?” As a young person just entering your earning years, your financial management is going to be a learning experience. It’s an old phrase but an applicable one; you simply have to learn to” live within your means.”
There was a time when a police department really had no interest in how you handled your finances, but that has changed. Anything that negatively reflects on you is now transferred to the organization.
Self-perceived strengths and weaknesses
Here’s where you really have to be honest with yourself in the context of becoming a police officer. When examining your strengths, you’ll probably over estimate just a bit. Not a big deal; that’s normal. Over estimating can be corrected when you start evaluating the really important part of this item: Your weaknesses.
If you’re accepted for employment as a police officer, you’ll have to pass minimum physical requirements. Remember the word minimum. The level of your actual physical abilities will lie somewhere at or above that standard. The higher you are above the minimum, the more secure you’ll be in your ability to perform as a police officer.
Height and proportional weight requirements for police officers are pretty much a thing of the past. Here’s where your evaluation of your psychological strengths or weaknesses come into play. If you’re a person of considerable physical stature, you have a natural advantage for becoming a police officer. But, you must never forget that there’s always someone out there who can kick your ass. If you’re a person of small physical stature, you must honestly evaluate the psychological strengths you’ll need to compensate for your smaller physical stature.
You might respond with, “There are many other areas where strengths and weaknesses apply.” You’d be exactly right in that observation. For example, you could assess your abilities as a problem solver and your skills in conducting conflict resolution. While intellectual abilities are always important, what happens when you meet a person who has no fear of or respect for intellectual abilities?
Reasons for wanting to become a police officer
Remember, all public safety positions are not the same. First: The position as a police officer is unique given your power to arrest people denying them their liberty. Second: You have the ability and power to apply deadly force. Whatever your list of reasons may be at the beginning of your self-evaluation for becoming a police officer, these two circumstances should be your first considerations when you exercise your self-evaluation.
Is money at or near the top of your reasons for becoming a police officer? It certainly may be, and there’s nothing wrong with wanting to obtain a good paying position. However, if money is the primary or only reason you’re considering a police career, you may be ignoring other more important reasons.
When I became a police officer in 1971, money was certainly not an item that attracted young men to police work. My point is that a police career should be something that would draw you even if the money was not as good as it is today.
Professional goals for becoming a police officer
Here’s a hard one for me to offer advice because of my extensive experience. While this may seem like an odd statement, it comes from my knowledge of police department politics. You’ll be working for government, and police officers, like any other government employee, must negotiate the obstacle course of politics. Some of you, like me, will shun the politics only to learn that your advancement within a police organization will be much more difficult.
Psychologically relevant medical history
This only applies if you have a medical history of psychological problems or self-induced problems such as alcoholism or drug abuse. While your self-evaluation may assure you that you defeated such problems, these circumstances will remain relevant in determining your suitability to become a police officer.
2. Recognizing and Ignoring Bad Advice
The process of becoming a police officer does not end with your graduation from the police academy. During those first days, weeks and months of your career, you’ll need to rely on guidance and advice from others to prevent mistakes and mitigate mistakes you make, and you will make mistakes.
Hopefully, you’ll be assigned to a knowledgeable and experienced sergeant who closely supervises you; until, the sergeant determines that you’re capable of performing your duties under minimal supervision. There will be plenty of times when the sergeant is not available, and you’ll turn to other members of your squad for advice.
Here’s where you have to use the knowledge you have and simple common sense to evaluate any advice you receive from anyone. You have to ask yourself, does the advice sound reasonable? When defining reasonable, does the advice conform to directives and policies of your department. Remember, bad advice can sometimes sound reasonable even when it contradicts your department’s directives and policies.
Bad Advice can Sound Reasonable
In this scenario, your sergeant is not exactly the knowledgeable and experienced sergeant I mentioned. Your sergeant is an obviously intelligent young man who was recently promoted just after three years of service. You’ve only been on your own for a few weeks, and the sergeant is closely supervising you. He shows up frequently to observe your activities.
In this instance, you’re assisting another officer. You’re towing two vehicles disabled in a relatively serious traffic accident where both operators have been hospitalized. You’ve conducted an inventory of both vehicles to remove and submit any items of value for safekeeping per your department’s written directive. The only item you removed from one of the vehicles is a cardboard box containing six hard cover books.
The books are old and worn and otherwise unremarkable. When your sergeant arrives, he inspects the box and asks you about the contents. You state your intention to submit the books for safekeeping. Your sergeant authoritatively explains to you that items of value would include things like electronic devices or other items of obvious value.
No Apparent Value
The sergeant determines that the books have no apparent value, and the time it would take for you to submit the property would needlessly keep you out of service. You follow your sergeant’s direction and place the box back into the trunk of the vehicle. When you write your towed vehicle report, you note the contents of the box stating the books had no apparent value.
When you report for work several days later, your sergeant grabs you by the arm, and he simply states, “Follow me.” He takes you into the shift commander’s office where your lieutenant is sitting at her desk. Once you’re seated, the lieutenant reads from your towed vehicle report. She asks you if the report is accurate. After you confirm the report, she reads titles of books asking if the titles read were contained in the box. Several of the titles sound familiar; although, you had not gone to that detail in describing the books.
Here’s where things begin to get interesting. Your sergeant is averting eye contact with both you and the lieutenant. The lieutenant gives you the bad news. The vehicle owner reported the books missing from the trunk of the vehicle when he claimed his car from the impound lot. Your lieutenant then gives you the really bad news.
Really Bad News
The books did have value. Five of the books totaled a value of about $400.00. The sixth book, Adventures of Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain, First Edition published in 1876, comes in at $3,600.00. It could have been much worse. Had the book been in mint condition, its value could have exceeded $40,000.00. The silence in that office starts to get depressing as you wait for your sergeant to speak up and take you off the hook.
You look at the sergeant, and he looks away. The lieutenant looks at the sergeant, and he looks down. Your lieutenant asks the sergeant, “Do you have anything to say, Sergeant?” The sergeant shakes his head from side to side as the lieutenant looks back at you. You’re processing a lot of information at this point.
It’s obvious that your sergeant is not a man you can trust. You’re learning a lot in a very short time. You quickly determine that your sergeant will deny his direction to you regarding the books. You simply ask the lieutenant, “What’s next?”
What’s Next in this Odyssey of Becoming a Police Officer?
The lieutenant explains that your action was technically a violation of a departmental directive since the items did have value. However, including the books in your report clearly showed that you did an inventory as required. The fact that you erred regarding the value of the books was in no way negligent on your part since assessing value of such items is not in your job description.
The lieutenant tells you to consider this meeting as a counselling session regarding the incident and that she’ll be recommending no further disciplinary action. Now, you might be asking, “Why wouldn’t I tell the lieutenant exactly what happened? Well, a number of things must be considered. If the sergeant denies the direction you would have alleged, that means either you or the sergeant is lying. When lying is introduced, the incident rises to a whole new and serious level.
Remember, you’re still becoming a police officer with all the pitfalls associated with that process. You’re brand new and still on probation. Your police chief could summarily fire you for any reason. If the chief believes the sergeant, you would be toast. You have yet to know the relationships within your department. For all you know, your sergeant is well connected to any number of people in power including the police chief.
No Win Situation for a New Police Officer
In the scenario, I actually put you in a no win situation. Your sergeant’s advice was more than just advice, it was an order. Had you submitted the property for safekeeping, your sergeant could have conceivably charged you administratively for insubordination.
Realistically, that would be a remote possibility. But, who knows? One of the things you’ve learned from this incident is that your sergeant is predictably unpredictable.
You can be absolutely certain of one thing. At some point you will become a victim of bad advice. As long as you apply reasonable standards, act in good faith, and you know your department’s policies and directives, you’ll ignore bad advice whenever and wherever possible.
3. Rapid Advancement toward Self-Sufficiency
You should view self-sufficiency as a primary factor in any activity in which you’re engaged. Total self-sufficiency can be compared to perfection in that, while ultimately unattainable, it is a goal to which you should strive to attain efficiency and self-satisfaction.
There’s no question that police work, generally speaking, is a teamwork endeavor. However, your goal should be to make decisions and complete tasks on your own whenever possible. There will be times when another officer(s) will not be available to help you. At other times help from others will create problems that could have been avoided through some extra effort of your own.
Self-Sufficiency Requires Knowledge and Experience
Self-sufficiency is not something that develops quickly. It takes the acquisition of knowledge and experience to bring you to a level where you can confidently make decisions and perform tasks without assistance from others. From the very beginning, you must realize that you are a novice, and you have a lot to learn.
Some new police officers make the mistake of vastly overestimating their knowledge and abilities. These officers will hastily make decisions, and they will gladly delegate as many tasks as possible to others.
These same officers will encounter problems sooner than later. While some of the some will learn from the debilitating results of self-created problems, there will be those who will never learn the importance of self-sufficiency. This latter group will become easily recognizable as those who are lazy and less than competent.
4. The Immeasurable Important of Integrity
You’ve led a sheltered life if you’ve never heard the word integrity associated with becoming a police officer. In fact, you’ve probably heard it so often that you don’t give it all that much thought.
The primary definition of integrity is honesty: the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles; moral uprightness. Synonyms that apply are honesty, probity, rectitude, honor, good character, principle(s), ethics, morals, righteousness, morality, virtue, decency, fairness, scrupulousness, sincerity, truthfulness, trustworthiness.
When you consider the effects that an individual police officer can have on another individual and society at large, you can begin to understand the immeasurable importance of integrity. Integrity is important when applied to anyone in the criminal justice system like prosecutors and judges. However, your actions as a police officer will most often introduce a person, whether victim or defendant, to the effects of prosecutors and judges.
Truthfulness is the Most Important Synonym for Integrity
Let’s examine integrity with just one word – truthfulness. When you look at all the synonyms associated with integrity, truthfulness has to stand out at the top of the list when you consider a police officer’s interaction with others. Make no mistake. If your integrity ever comes under scrutiny during your police career, it will almost certainly be related to an issue involving your truthfulness.
Truthfulness will touch every aspect of your daily duties. Every time you commit anything to writing, every time you testify in court, truthfulness will be all important. In fact, here’s an easy way to apply truthfulness. When it comes to every aspect related to your duties as a police officer, every word that comes out of your mouth should be truthful to the best of your knowledge.
There is only one exception. You’re allowed to lie to a suspect under interrogation. Even then, the purpose of lying to a suspect is to extract truth and establish fact. This is subterfuge, and it is a legitimate investigative technique.
Look at it this way, lying to a suspect versus lying on a suspect. The first is legitimate; the latter is illegal and catastrophic for the suspect. You must never adhere to the philosophy promoted by the term, “The end justifies the means.” When this philosophy is implemented, the means is almost always corrupt no matter how the end may be interpreted.
5. Matters of Life and Death - Becoming a Police Officer
At a designated point during your police academy training, you’ll be issued your handgun and begin firearms training. You’ll view the event as a pivotal point in your training; however, you probably won’t appreciate its true importance.
The only purpose for your handgun is the application of deadly force. Fortunately, the odds are with you. Outside of training, you’ll probably never have to pull that trigger in the line of duty. However, every day of your career, you’ll have to live with the possibility that the odds will fail you.
You will encounter life and death situations in varying forms. For instance, you will encounter children and vulnerable adults existing in squalled environments of physical and sexual abuse. But for your intervention, the future existence of these victims would be dire indeed. You will encounter victims of serious assaults or accidental injury where your life saving aid can mean the difference between life and death.
You’ll Never Know
Every time you seize a handgun from a career criminal, you’ll increase the odds for a future victim to continue living. Likewise, your arrest of a drunk driver will eliminate the possibility of a needless tragedy. You’ll never know how many people will escape life and death situations that don’t materialize simply because of your presence at the right time and place.
Most importantly, you must always remain aware that your actions, no matter how well intended, do not place innocent people in jeopardy of serious injury or death. A perfect example of potential tragedy is the police vehicle pursuit. Every year, innocent people die for no other reason than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. They die when a vehicle being pursued by police inflicts injury or death.
Even worse is when the police vehicle is the striking vehicle. Before you pursue a vehicle, you must weigh the importance of the pursuit versus possible outcomes. These few examples can only begin to give you an idea of the responsibilities you’ll assume when you become a police officer.
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