With 2015 upon us my thoughts have been drifting to “Resolutions.” The dreaded time of year you falsely promise yourself to lose weight, quit smoking, call your Mother more, save money and the list goes on and on. Usually by February, it’s business as usual and you have accepted that you are who you are and you probably aren’t going to change. I am going to fulfill my resolution early in 2015. I resolve to share with you my best honest advice on how to become a better Officer in 2015. I have no special qualifications, I am not published, I am not hoping to write a self-help book in the future. What I can offer are my personal experiences, what has worked for me, and what I think will work for you. You may not take anything away from this posting but if you do I hope it helps you.
Why did you choose to become a Police Officer?
For many of us the answer will be similar. We want to help people, we believe in Justice, we want to make a difference, and we want to protect those who cannot protect themselves. I hope some of these reasons apply to you. Your success as a Police Officer depends on it. These core reasons must always be your driving force and you should never stray or forget why you held your hand up and took the vow of police service. Of late, it is becoming tragically obvious that we are in one of the most dangerous professions there are. Officers are being targeted, ambushed, and murdered at an alarming rate. These attacks that were once unheard of are becoming commonplace. It is important to be more vigilant now than ever before.
The Police Profession: (Honor, Pride, Bravery, Selflessness.)
Historically the Police Profession has been considered a Profession of Honor. Many brave men and women have come before us and held strong the Thin Blue Line. Many have given their lives to the profession. How will you honor them? When we were all sworn in as young Raleigh Police Officers we swore to uphold a creed and a mission statement. To Serve and Protect!! That is what it is all about in the simplest of terms. I remember the pride I felt seeing my family looking up at me when I was sworn in. I remember all the families of my academy mates doing the same. The pictures, hugs, congratulations being shared and all the excited recruits waiting to give everything to the Police Profession. All Naïve of what was to come and all the drudgery that police work would entail. I believe you have to carry that memory and those beliefs with you throughout your career. Never let that candle blow out. Never lose sight of the willing and excited recruit you once were.
Do you consider Law Enforcement your job or your career?
Ask yourself the following questions:
Do you consider what you do a job?
A means to pay your bills?
Do you hide what you do from other people?
Do you wish you could do something else?
Are you afraid to come to work?
If you answer “Yes” to any of these you need to do some soul searching. Is this the right place for you? I am by no means hoping that you leave the profession. We need you!!! However if you answered yes to a few of the above questions consider this. If you think what you do is a job, if you have no pride in being a Law Enforcement Officer and if you are wishing you were doing something else Do It!! Your job function is not one that can safely be done without 100% dedication. If you are sliding through each shift hoping nothing happens or you won’t have to be put in a trying situation look for options immediately. There is a reason there is no such thing as a two week notice in police work. If your heart is not in it, you are not only a liability to yourself but a danger to your fellow officers. As hard as it is to walk away from a steady job with benefits it is your duty to do so if you are incapable of doing your job. There is no dishonor in admitting you cannot be a Police Officer, it’s not for everyone. If what I described above fits you, discuss it immediately and frankly with your supervisor. He or she will help you make the right decision.
Check your ego at the door.
If you look at your patch and badge you will find that is says Raleigh Police, City of Raleigh, or Capital City Police. The Department did not specifically seek you out. You applied here. If you think that this is the (Insert your name here) Police Department you are wrong. I do not see this a lot of this but felt the need to touch on it in case you are one of these people. You may be highly skilled, shoot 100% at the range, and know volumes of tactical maneuvers. You may think you are better at many things than your peers and that you are smarter than your supervisor. You may be. If you find yourself frequently making fun of less skilled officers or being dismissive of police policies and practices because you know a better way, check your ego. Our profession is full of high achieving Type A personalities. We get it. Use what you know to help those people you are making fun of. When and if you get your opportunity to be a supervisor, squad leader or have a say in policies and practices give your opinion. Until then do your job. You may think a cocky and condescending attitude may look cool to your buddies but there is just no place for it. Get over yourself and join the rest of the team.
Do you complain, whine, and spread general negativity?
We all know a few of these types. You may be one of them. The whiners, criers, moaners, and grumblers. Nothing makes you happy. It is healthy to occasionally be unhappy with something that applies to you at work. This is a large department. There will be thousands of decisions made during your career that are made without your input. That’s just how it is. If you find yourself constantly publicly whining put a cork in it. Your negativity is contagious. There are times to gripe and roll call is not one of them. I am not talking about giving constructive opinions or asking questions. Clarifying things is ok by me. If you think you know a better way, there are channels for sending your ideas up. Avoid the temptation of spreading negativity to your peers. If you have underlying personal issues that are lending you to this type of behavior seek out a supervisor, friend, family member or utilize one of the city services available to you to start addressing it. We all have issue with things occasionally, learn to address them in a professional manner.
Burnout. (Peaks and Valleys.)
Lately I have been hearing officers say they are “burned out.” I have heard this term being used by officers with less than 5 years on the job. In my opinion no officer should be looking for a specialty assignment without a minimum of five years of line experience. You owe it to yourself to build a good foundation of experience before taking that next step. Slow down and learn the job before looking for a specialty. I never felt “burned out” per se but I did experience peaks and valleys over the years. There will be times when you are writing your fifth domestic report of the day or taking your third car accident of the day in the rain that you think to yourself I am “burned out.” This is a normal feeling. You will have the days that you just don’t feel like writing any tickets or doing anything proactive. We have all been there. The trick is to not “live there.” Try not to get stuck in the rut of mediocrity. I experienced these peaks and valleys and you will as well. This is not a glamourous job all the time. There is drudgery and monotony involved. Trudge through the times that you feel burned out. Talk to your supervisor about it. He or she will hopefully help you find a spark to get you headed toward your peak whether it be finding an out of town class on a few duty days, letting you do a fun special assignment or maybe letting a rookie ride your beat for a few days and leaving you unassigned. We work on average in patrol 14 days per month. Cowboy up and do your best until an opportunity for change comes your way.
Do not waste or misuse your leave.
Think of your leave as a treasure chest. Every day you save in your chest is a day sooner you walk out the door. To me, misuse of leave is one of the most prevalent problems in day to day operations of the department. With the growth of our city we need all hands on deck. Admittedly sick leave abuse is one of my pet peeves. Outside of a family death and a few kidney stone ailments requiring doctor’s visits I haven’t burned a sick day in about 13 years or so. I am not bragging but merely using myself as an example of someone that just doesn’t abuse sick leave. There are times when you should not come to work, I understand. If you are not sick, don’t call in sick. When you pick up the phone to call in “slick,” be sure you can look at yourself in the mirror. You are not only accountable to yourself but the rest of your squad. When that 0400 dayshift alarm goes off and you just want to sleep in and think to yourself “I will just call in. They can get by without me,” consider your friend and fellow officer that may not have a check in because you are drooling on your pillow. Throw your feet on the floor and come to work. Your sick leave is a benefit provided to you by the city. It is provided solely so that you can continue to receive your paycheck when you are too ill to perform your job function. For those of you that are “earning and burning” think of the big picture. If you are injured outside of work, if your wife has a baby or heaven forbid gets a terrible disease and you need to take care of her or your children what will you do? Is your “mental health day” you burned to sleep in or lay around on the couch worth it? Are your peers going to donate leave to you when you run out knowing that you depleted your leave by abusing it all these years? Don’t put yourself in a position to find out. Plan your time off in advance as much as possible so that we can maintain minimum staffing and your peers will be safer knowing they can count on you to be at work when you are supposed to be. Be responsible!!
Are you a positive example for young officers and your peers?
I am sure we have all done this to a certain extent over the years. Have you been a training officer or just a more seasoned officer on calls with a new recruit and said something along the lines of “I know this is how they taught you in the academy, but this is how we do it on the street?” To a certain extent there is some truth in that statement. We all learn ways that work for us as we progress in our career. We may find certain “short cuts” or techniques that work faster than what we were taught in the academy. Please do not instill into young officers ways to speed up the call or make things easier if it means they are straying from policies and procedures. You are doing them a disservice and planting the seed that it is ok to break the rules no matter how small it might seem at the time. Be a positive example. It is ok to share some of your street wisdom, just do it in the right way. As a young officer I remember looking up to other officers that I worked with. The ones I remembered were the ones that helped me and took the time to teach me the right way to do things. Be that person for the new guys/gals coming to your squads. Don’t teach bad habits for the sake of saving time. Take one call at a time and do your best to show them the right way.
Report Writing and Minimalism.
Avoid the temptation of just doing enough to scrape by. Take pride in your reports and strive to investigate your calls as thoroughly as possible. The larceny of a family heirloom might not mean much to you but to the victim it means everything. Give the citizen the investigation you would want given to your loved one. As a supervisor I check many reports. Your reputation as a poor or skilled report writer is on display every time a report gets sent to investigations. If you have any hope of one day becoming a detective, start writing thorough and detailed reports. If you struggle with the right questions to ask or what approach to take seek out a squad mate that is good at it or seek the advice of your supervisor.
Hone your skills.
Find schools you are interested in. Most every officer I know has a special niche that they enjoy. Whether it be tactical stuff, following up on a case and fully investigating it, searching down warrant suspects, catching drug dealers, DWI suspects etc. You get the idea. There are lots of free classes available to you if you just look for them. Granted you have a primary job to do and understand if you are not approved for every class you request. Look for classes offered by Wake Tech, Wilson Tech, Hidta and any classes offered within the department like In-Service electives and leadership seminars. These are the most widely accepted and easily approved classes that we can find for you. If you don’t ask you won’t go so take the time to find some training you are interested in. Be willing to sacrifice your RDO for good training. A good supervisor will try to get you in the book for some time off if you are working a long stretch. Most out of town classes that require the use of a police car, travel voucher, and hotel stay will be highly scrutinized and are approved on a case by case basis. Be able to articulate the importance of the training when pitching the class to your supervisor. Do not seek out training just to get out of regular duty. It’s just not right. If you cannot find any classes that interest you consider talking to a peer in a unit you are interested in. Due to manpower restraints cross-training has been limited. It is ok however to take a few hours to shadow a Detective, S.E.U Officer, K-9 Officer with permission from your supervisor within the limits of manpower and as long as the person you want to shadow is willing and has their supervisors blessing. They may even invite you to participate in their training days.
Reputation and career advancement.
As an example, I served in a patrol capacity as an officer and later corporal for 14 years before transferring to a detective position. I know that is not the norm and many of you will cringe thinking of riding the streets that long before doing something different. I am better for it and have seen just about everything there is to see. It is my opinion that an officer should have a minimum of five years patrol line experience before even considering seeking out a specialty assignment. You owe it to yourself to build a good foundation of experience. Without it you will struggle later. That being said, in a department our size competition for promotion and specialty units is fierce. If you think you are going to be considered for a specialty assignment, promotion, or transfer solely based on seniority or attrition think again. Expect it to be highly competitive. That being said there are ways to align yourself for a better chance at achieving your goal of advancement. Your reputation is paramount. Throughout your career you will be labeled in some way or another. It will happen. You have the opportunity to make that reputation what you want it to be. For most of us our first chance at promotion beyond officer class rankings will be something along the lines of a community squad officer, sro, officer position within a specialty unit like family violence or similar. When decisions are made for these positions your immediate supervisors are the ones that will be pitching you as a good or bad candidate. When memos of interest are submitted and those eligible to compete are decided the true decision making occurs. You will be judged on several factors to include leave use, general attitude, teamwork abilities, report writing and grammar, skill level and many other things to include your overall reputation. You don’t always have to excel in all these areas to be chosen but you can be sure you are going to be compared to the other candidates on a microscopic level. The previously mentioned comparisons are a great place for you to start improving yourself to become a more desirable candidate. Take the time to make lists of these categories and try to improve them to make yourself more promotable. Talk to your supervisor and seek out advice from those you hope to emulate about their keys to success. Our job is to help you succeed.
Show respect for rank, authority and the public.
I have seen a general degradation of respect for rank within the department. This being a para-military organization we have rank for a reason. I have seen a trend of officers becoming too casual with how they address their supervisors, the public, court officials etc. The reason your uniform and badge commands the respect that it does is due to the officers that came before us that displayed professionalism and respect. Show your supervisors the respect of their rank no matter what your personal opinion of them might be. Afford the same treatment to everyone you encounter in your day to day work. You will be surprised on how effective it can be to treat a person with respect when they weren’t expecting it. Don’t “tough guy” your way through police work. There is a time and place when you know that no matter what you say you are going to have to go hands on. Until that time use your Brain instead of your Braun. Learn how to talk to people, listen, let them vent no matter how ridiculous their logic may be. Everyone wants to and deserves to be heard. I am not saying you have to try to reason with the unreasonable for extended periods of time or ignore officer safety but allow those in distress to say their peace. You will be surprised at how many less uses of force you will be involved in. Explain your actions before acting as much as possible. Let people know what to expect even if it is not what they want to hear.
Family First, Over investment and Off Duty.
So far I have been strictly discussing how to be a better “Officer” in 2015. Before you can do that you have to be a better Husband, Wife, Son, Daughter, Brother, Sister, Partner and so on. Most likely the reason you are where you are is because you have had the support of family. The decision to enter a law enforcement career puts many stressors on the loved ones that wait at home. Many a relationship has crumbled under the stress of balancing or often not balancing a police career and home life. Please consider the stressors on your loved one waiting at home for your return. Keep them in the loop and communicate with them. This is something I have had to learn myself over the years. Many officers including myself have supplemented their income over the years with off duty work. As tempting as the extra money can be it is a double edged sword. Try to balance your extra duty time and family time. Consider if the things you “want” and the off duty time away from your family is worth it. I won’t pretend to understand everyone’s circumstances, but make every effort to put your family and relationships before anything else. At the end of the day your career does not define you. Your career has a shelf life. At the end of the ride you go home to your family and friends. Don’t get to that point and have nothing but memories of how great you were as a police officer and nothing more. Work as hard on your family life and relationships as you do at trying to get that next promotion. Hopefully when you retire you will have the comfort and normalcy of family and loved ones to look forward to.
I suppose if you are still reading this at this point you at least found something of value or at least something to consider. I can only offer you my experiences and advice as an example of what I have found to have helped me over the years. I am sure some of you don’t agree with some of the things I have said. That’s ok, we’re all different. Take from it what you will. As I enter my twentieth year of my Police Career with RPD I can honestly say I would never want to work anywhere else. If you are a younger officer you may not see it now. Throughout your career you will develop friendships stronger than any you have known. It will take time for this life to make sense to you. For all the salty veterans still reading lead by example and try not to forget to protect your candle! My wish for all of my Brothers and Sisters in Blue and for you and your families is to have a safe and happy 2015.
Sergeant W.S. Rolfe