As part of my thirty plus year career in safety, security, conduct and law enforcement I worked as a police officer for many years. I have known a lot of others who have done so as well. Because of that, people who are interested in a law enforcement career will often ask me what I would suggest for them to get into the career field. First, some perspective. I had a great law enforcement career. I started as a part time reserve officer and dispatcher, and toward the end of my career was acting chief of police on many occasions. While on the police department I was on the SWAT team, and spent two years assigned to a regional narcotics task force. I went to a bunch of training classes and was our department’s instructor for firearms, PR-24 baton, and EVOC pursuit driving. For several years I was in charge of training for the entire department, planned and supervised some of the largest attended indoor and outdoor events held in northern Nevada. I’ve investigated homicides, been in car chases, and was even involved in a few shootings.

I served as the information officer for the department, wrote policies, hired, trained, promoted and fired many people over the years. One night while responding to assist another officer, I jumped a police car like in the movies or in a Dukes of Hazzard episode – although not as high or as far as on TV, the frame shop later said it looked like someone had dropped the car off a 10 foot ledge. There were great, good, bad, and horrible – even indescribable things that I was involved with or witnessed.

I was sued several times – once for five million dollars (I was later dropped from that suit). I was able to make a difference in some cases, and stand by helplessly in other situations when I could do nothing to help. I experienced great satisfaction, as well as unspeakable emotional damage that not only affected me, but my family as well. I got to rappel off buildings and kick in doors. It was a hell of a ride. Based on my time as a police officer, I can certainly understand why people would want to go into law enforcement. It gave me a lot of joy, but also took a terrible toll.

I hadn’t planned on becoming a cop. I kind of fell into it by accident, liked it, and stayed for a while. After many years I left because I had to – not because I chose to do so. In retrospect, it was time for me to move on, even though at that moment I didn’t realize it. There is the hard way to have a successful law enforcement career, and the easy way. Were I to do it again – based on my experience, and the experiences of people I have known, I would do it differently. What follows is the path I would take, and as such, offer my suggestions to you based on your interest in a law enforcement career.

First, and before anything else – be sure this is the career path you really want. Watch episodes of “COPS” on TV to get some idea of the variety of things you’ll do. Go on ride-alongs with your local police departments, do some research into the law enforcement agencies in your area: city police, county sheriff, state police or highway patrol, look at other law enforcement agencies: airport police, school district and university police departments, parole & probation, state bureaus of investigations, fire arson investigators, etc. Police work requires a great deal of dedication and personal sacrifice, including very real risk to your personal health, physical safety, and financial future. To have the best chance at a successful career, be very sure this is the path you really want to follow.

My first advice: get a degree. Having a degree can open doors, maybe not at first (you can certainly get hired without one), but later on, not having a degree will limit your upward and lateral movement opportunities. Many positions require a degree – it may not be what you actually know or learned in classes, but that piece of paper can make sure you meet the minimum qualifications and make the cut in the selection process.

To get the most out of a degree when you get into law enforcement, you should take classes that apply to what you will be doing in the job – and the job has a lot of interaction with people and managing bureaucratic systems. It should be strong in areas such as: accounting, management, computers or information technology. And, something that has a focus in those areas that can apply to managing people – maybe some psychology, sociology, with maybe a touch of awareness of public administration. Stay away from the Criminal Justice stuff – the police department and street experience will teach you what you need to know, the CJ classes won’t help at all, in fact many of the theories taught in those classes are counter to what actually occurs on the street.

The Police Academy: during your junior year in college – set up your credits and class requirements so you can take a semester off – and put yourself through the police academy. You can often get some additional college elective credits for completing the academy at the local community college, make sure you can apply as many of those as possible to help further your degree seeking. You might need to take some summer school classes to make up for the classes you miss taking a semester off. Now, if you get hired by a department they will send you to the academy on their dime – but you will have a huge advantage when applying to police departments if you already have been to the academy and have that certificate in hand.

Having completed the academy, you can now qualify to be a reserve officer at many local police departments. Become a reserve officer, and get some hands-on experience as you complete the senior year of college, and finish your degree. If at all possible – don’t get a full time job until you finish your degree, or are very, very, very close to doing so – it’s really hard to go back and finish those classes when working full time. I can’t tell you how many people I encountered over the years that were only five or six classes short of completing their degree, and never ended up doing so, which limited their career opportunities.

The experience you will gain in your time as a reserve officer does a couple things – first it gives you a better understanding and insight into police work – your answers to questions during the interview process will reflect that and likely impress those who are doing interviews. It also shows them you are serious and committed to this as a career, a definite advantage.

Now – you are completing your senior (or last) year of college, you’ve graduated with a bachelor’s degree – or are about to: literally only a few weeks away or less. You also have a POST (Police Officer’s Standards & Training) certificate from attending the academy. You have a year of part time experience as a reserve officer with a police department – making arrests, writing reports, etc. Now is when you apply for full time police positions. Your chances will be great because you will be competing against people who don’t have the POST, nor any actual hands-on experience. In some cases you might also get additional consideration for your degree during the application process.

Before you get to this point, you need to seriously think about the kind of department you want to work for. You should have been quizzing others in your academy, talking to the instructors at the academy, finding out their opinions of their agencies, and the kind of attitude and priorities that agency holds most important.

Some nearby examples (based on my personal experience and history):

  • Washoe County Sheriff’s Department – you’ll be working in the jail for the first three to five years of your time there. Once you get out on the street, you are working for an elected official, you’ll need to focus on community service, so the people who vote don’t vote against your department’s budget or the person who holds the office of sheriff.
  • Reno PD – they tend to be very aggressive, and very “gung-ho” – most want very much to be a really tough city police department, like the larger cities. There is a lot going on, and you need to be able to not only handle situations – but dominate the incident. They have places for less aggressive people, but if you can’t step up and be tough – you won’t go far. They need action oriented people, and if you don’t fit in, you won’t be there very long.
  • Sparks PD – they basically have a lot of warehouses, and a lot of houses where the people who work in Reno live. They need to have a strong community service attitude, to get along with their residents. Depending on your assignment, you may be working with the attitude of a small town department, or a big city agency – since they do some of both.
  • UNR Police – smaller department, larger amount of politics among the officers. The danger lever is a lot less, the community service and involvement with the campus is very high. Because of the environment, It’s a great place to work, and you will be a lot less likely to get burned out. You will need to understand that as a police officer, what you do is contrary to the vast majority of people who work and go to school there – political correctness and people whose worldview only revolves around “feelings and theory” will be your environment.
  • North Las Vegas PD. Quick story: Some friends of mine went down to Vegas to teach an EVOC class. The Northtown guys showed up with different cars each day – they pointed out why: each night guys would bring cars in from patrol with bullet holes in them. The cars with bullet holes would be sidelined for a day or two until they could patch the holes. They used these cars for training for a day, then they would get different cars with new holes the next day as the ones they drove the previous day had the bullet holes patched. Northtown is a hot area. There are departments that get in a lot of shootings, and deal with hot calls all the time – know if that is what you want or not.
  • Las Vegas metro, big department, big issues. Once on the street you’ll work days – in 115-120 degree heat, the most senior guys take the overnight shifts where it will cool off below 100. You’ll be in a big city, with a lot of risk, real danger, and a very real chance you will get hurt, injured, sued, fired – or want to quit before you hit 10 years. Some thrive in this environment, other don’t.
  • Highway Patrol. You’ll need to know all the traffic codes by heart. You will be stopping speeders, issuing tickets for expired registration, and burned out taillights all day. Otherwise, you’ll also be measuring skid marks and filling out traffic accident report forms after completing the math to figure out how fast the car was traveling when it crashed into the truck. A lot of DUI’s, fatal crashes, and in the outer areas, not having anyone close for cover – you are on your own a lot – good or bad. It’s not about fighting crime, it’s about being a traffic cop. Some like that, others don’t.
  • The Rurals: Sheriff’s Departments, Police Departments – lots of small departments in the state. You won’t get much formal training (they don’t have the budget), but you’ll do a little bit of everything – since you and one or two other guys are the only law enforcement working within an hour’s drive. The small town politics will either embrace you, or turn against you. Either way, the longer you stay, the harder it will be to get out (bad references if you piss someone off, not enough training to give you a step up with some other agencies, etc.)

With a small department you’ll have more opportunity to do things (training, special assignments, etc.) but you’ll also have less chance to actually put that training to actual use because the number of crimes and type of crimes is less, but when something happens, you’ll be able to get involved – with larger departments the patrol guys stand on the perimeter, while the detectives do the real stuff. In a small department – everyone gets involved.

Why you’ve done all this work: a department wanting to hire officers will favor someone they don’t have to send through the academy – it’s pure economics: they have to pay them while going to the academy, and the person can wash out without finishing. You have already proven you can pass the academy – that is good. Instead of competing with 200+ applicants, you are in a different category – if you aren’t totally objectionable (a criminal history, drug addict, etc.), chances are very good you’ll get hired if you have done good work as a reserve with another department.

You get hired by a police department, complete the training and probationary period (and if you’ve worked as a reserve, you have a better idea of what is needed to get through that process), and begin your career. It is dangerous out there – this is the reality: you can actually get killed doing the job. Accept that and during that first year you need to train & prepare to give yourself the best possible chance to succeed. Some things to remember:

  • Physical Fitness – You need to start an extensive and regular program well before you go job hunting – or you won’t pass the physical testing process. You will be up against bad guys on the street – you’d better be in excellent physical condition. If you have a job in law enforcement, you give up the right to be fat, out of shape, or in “average” physical condition. That means running a couple miles two or three times a week, and going to the gym a few other days each week.
  • Physical Skills – your hand-to-hand defense skills need to be top notch. Handcuffing, grappling, fighting on the ground, etc. – you need to be very good at these. Otherwise, if you are lucky, some guy with nothing to lose will kick your ass when you go to take him into custody. If you aren’t lucky, he’ll kill you, or break you bad enough you’ll need to retire on disability.
  • Equipment Skills – Baton, TASER, chemical sprays, etc. don’t just be really good, be excellent with each – these tools can save your life. Always wear your body armor, always keep your duty belt and equipment in excellent condition – replace items as soon as they start to wear out.
  • Driving: Your patrol car & driving skills, they need to be as good as possible – more cops are killed because of car crashes than anything else – be the best you can be when driving, always wear your seatbelt, and protect yourself from those risks out there (driving with your emotions instead of your head, going too fast and no arriving because you crashed on the way, etc.).
  • Firearms Skills – don’t just qualify when you need to – shoot whenever you have the chance. Be the absolute best you can be with all the firearms you have available or might use. Not just good – but great shooting skills to make sure you have the best chance to survive.
  • Volunteer for every training opportunity offered to you. Ask to go to training, become an instructor in those areas where the skills are most important. Make sure you take advantage of whatever special assignments or training opportunities are available.
  • Know the law – read the state and local statutes and understand how they work. Read the updates, the briefing sheets, keep up on court decisions and how they affect the cops on the street. You can physically survive the job, only to lose everything because of a lawsuit that was filed because a court ruling determined you overstepped your authority. Schedule a day every month and go to the local law library (usually in the county court house), or get onto various legal web sites – don’t just know the summary – read the entire case files on the major legal decisions.
  • Go the extra distance – If you need to, spend your own time and money to get additional practice or go to training schools – do what it takes to get the best training you can. This will not only help you, but help others to look to you as someone who always knows the answer, is always ready, and can always be counted upon to be there – and is respected as a result. When they do the background check for your next position, they will talk to your co-workers, if they talk you up, chances are you’ll get that next position.

Your police department plan: you’ll be on probation for a year – that’s fine. Your goal and plan should be to learn everything you can, master the job to the degree you can during that first year. Talk to the experienced guys – the 10 year plus ones – ask them questions and then listen to the answers, they learned hard lessons, and if properly approached, they’ll share. Beware of the old timers, they are often cynical, bitter, and their street survival skills have shifted to something more important to them: political survival skills. They are too deep in the job to leave and start over, and they are angry about it. So they do what they can to survive until they can retire, they have mastered the ability to stay low and keep out of trouble, but they also bad mouth whatever and whoever they perceive as a problem – they have enough time on the job to get away with that, don’t think you can as well.

If you are doing it right that first year, you’ll be doing research, reading, and effectively taking classes after hours in police work during that first year. After your shift ends, the homework should begin – whether your FTO assigns any homework or not – you need to keep learning after each shift ends – to be even more prepared and ready for the next shift. Learn from each and every mistake you make, don’t wait for the FTO to point it out, ask how to do it better the next time. Once you get off probation, you can relax, but just a little. Then you can start planning for the next phase.

As soon as you get off probation – don’t wait, start on getting your master’s degree the beginning of the very next semester. A bachelor’s degree will help take you to the next level, but you need to be planning ahead, being better and more qualified than those you are competing with for promotional opportunities. I say wait until you are off probation to start your masters program because there is nothing more important than that first year on the job, learning what to do, how to do it, and being very, very, good at the job – so you’ll make probation, and have the solidly strong core of skills that will take you through the rest of your time on the street.

Next: You got your foot in the door, now work on setting yourself up for a successful future in law enforcement.