In the first section, we talked about getting started in your career. Now it’s time to start working toward the next level in your law enforcement future. You’ve completed your first year successfully, focusing entirely on learning about your new career, you are now starting the classes for your Master’s Degree. You should plan on leaving the police department in five, and no more than seven years of total time on the job. Don’t worry, you’ll have 5-7 years in some governmental retirement program (maybe buy a couple extra years as you are getting ready to go so you’ll have a full ten years vested in the retirement system when you leave), that you can keep in place, re-invest, or whatever – so you can have that as an extra financial resource when you actually retire. You don’t want to work the street your whole career, and you need a plan in place so you don’t get caught without options or stuck where you don’t want to be.
This gives you about five years to get your masters degree – to give you more options. The masters degree should be in something that accomplishes two things – first, something you like – you’ll be working and going to classes – so you’d better enjoy the topic. Or, it should be something you can directly relate to – again, to help you get through the program. If possible, it should tie into your longer goals – public administration, political science, emphasis in management, maybe some psychology, or other hard skills needed to deal with people or manage within public organizations.
If given the opportunity, continue to take advantage of training opportunities. Go to more classes, get additional certifications, try and become an instructor in a topic – and teach classes not just to the departmental officers, but seek to gain experience teaching at the police academy (you not only teach, you get to spend time with other officers from other departments who have also earned the opportunity to do similar assignments). You are not just becoming a better police officer, mastering skills by teaching them to others, you are getting experience in other areas to make you more well-rounded as a person.
If you absolutely can’t do these things in the department, do similar things outside – become involved in the community. Serve of boards of charitable organizations, groups that provide services to the community, etc. This gets you involved with important members of the community, and improves your abilities in presenting yourself as a professional, and someone with a diverse group of skills and experiences – always an asset when applying for additional career opportunities.
There are only two reasons you should stay longer than seven years at the police department – the first is that you get promoted to a sergeant’s position or similar special assignment opportunity. The second – is that you have been given a lot of opportunities to attend specialized training, such as being assigned as an instructor at the police academy, member of the SWAT team, assigned to detectives, etc. – and that has caused a delay in completing your master’s degree.
Either of these might justify you staying a little longer – but only a little longer. Here’s why the timeline is critical: in five years to seven you should be vested in the governmental retirement system (maybe after buying a few years to reach that ten year level). You’ll also have a solid work history that will look great on your resume – two years means you can’t handle it, five to seven says I’ve done all I can here, I need more challenges and want additional opportunities for growth. That’s why the five to seven years.
The seven year limit, it should be as solid as a brick wall – working in uniform on the street as a police officer is a young man’s game. And staying on the job past seven yours, you won’t learn that much more or really gain anything to justify staying. No matter what, if you want to have the greatest chance for a really successful life – you need to be off the street by age 30.
Being a street cop is all about being hands-on. Directly in the mix. On the street. Right in the middle of the action. Dealing directly with the bad guys, often one on one. Although you still feel young right now, your body will very soon be getting old and tired. After a few years, it’s time to start shifting your priorities: using your mind – and apply the knowledge and experience you gained during the hands-on stuff in a different way. You have some understanding of how criminals and crime actually works. Now it’s time to move from responding to the crimes, to preventing the crimes, and catching those who committed them – preventing them from committing more crimes.
You need to get off the street. It impacts you greatly and in so many negative ways, both physically, and mentally. Shift work, job stress, cynicism, bitterness, dealing with people at their worst – especially as a street cop – will literally beat the happiness out of your life. Look again at the bitter old timers and their issues. Most retired cops only live a few years after they leave the job. The law enforcement field is great, but now you want to seek a position and future with the promise of a Monday-Friday desk job with good pay, and great benefits as you start and grow your family – pushing a patrol car on midnight shift is not the way to ensure you will have a happy life.
Even if you still really love the excitement, it’s time to get off the street. Some might look at a career path within the department – sergeant, lieutenant, captain, assistant chief, maybe even chief. Here’s the deal. You’ll have more responsibility, the job will be a little different, but you will have shift work for the next ten years or more, only the very few at the top get a desk job on dayshift (and even they get called out at 2:00am and need to work some night shifts). And, there will still be the inner-departmental politics – the back-biting, the petty crap, the kind of things that will wear you down having to deal with – especially in a management position where you can’t hide from those things that happen on your shift, now your job will require you to address them directly.
Personally, and looking back at my own time on the street as an example – shift work is great when you are single. It is a lot of fun. But don’t let that cloud your ability to look at the big picture. Now is the time to make a plan for a better life for yourself and your family. You do not want to suddenly realize you want to get off the spinning wheel, but be stuck in place or unable to do so. Don’t get caught with limited opportunities for advancement, and fewer options to go elsewhere – while kicking yourself when realizing you should have gotten out only a few years sooner.
So, now you are approaching 30 years old. You need to look at getting off the street, out of a uniform and into a suit, and a shift in focus on the kind of law enforcement you will be doing in the next phase of your career. You have a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree (that you finished in five years or less), a lot of training (maybe even some time as an instructor), about seven years of experience as a street cop, and maybe even a couple of years as a supervisor or serving in a specialized unit. Take this whole package, put it all down on paper in the form of a quality resume, and apply for a law enforcement position with the federal system.
That could be the FBI, it could be the ATF, U.S. Marshals Service, Secret Service, DEA, or one of a dozen or more agencies or departments in the federal system. Most federal agencies and departments have a group within them that serves a law enforcement function that is specialized to that agency’s mission or responsibilities.
Federal agencies don’t have budget problems. They don’t have issues with their retirement system. If you get in, you won’t want to get out. You can do 20-25 years with a federal agency and not get burned out. With few exceptions, if you choose carefully, you’ll be able to be at home every night with your family. That is worth a lot more than any benefit staying with a local police or sheriff’s department can offer. Depending on what agency you go to work for, you might need to move a couple of times in the first few years, but considering the larger benefits – that’s not too much of a problem.
You need to get hired in the federal system before you turn 35 years old. Don’t wait – starting a new career is tough, so jump over as soon as is reasonable. They have the 35 year old age cut-off because in law enforcement positions they have retirement when you are in your mid-50’s and they want you to have the full 20 years before you retire. The fed system offers a lot more than any local department can. You get much better pay, raises and increases are almost guaranteed. Once in federal law enforcement, there are opportunities to transfer to another location, a different state, or even another federal agency as well.
After you get out of the academy (the FBI Academy, or FLETC – the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center – for most of the other fed agencies), they’ll probably send you to a big office (New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Chicago, etc.) for a few years. Most of those you attend the academy with will be 22 to 25 years old, fresh out of college – you will not just be able to compete with them, but show yourself to be more experienced. Although you might get lucky and start off in a smaller office, something where you won’t be just another number in an office of 200+ agents.
Remember that you’ll have street experience, additional education and life skills as well, so a lot of the stuff they teach in the academy you will already know – as a result, you can have test scores above others in your academy class (you’ll still need to work as hard as you did early in your career, this is not the time to slack off) – because the higher scores may give you a higher ranking, and possibly additional choices and options as to where your first assignment will be.
Remember the benefit of taking advantage of training opportunities. The more you know, the more skills you have, the more opportunities that will be there for you. Travel, special assignments, participating in events and meeting amazing people – those things don’t happen as often to the guy who shows up and does only the minimum to get buy. Be a hard charger, be the guy who volunteers, who tries something new – I speak from experience when I say doing that makes all the difference in your career, and makes your life more enjoyable.
Once you get some seniority in the big city, you can transfer to a smaller office (a mid-sized city like Reno, with 8 or 10 agents – someplace you want to live the rest of your career, Montana, Utah, or wherever, if you are nice to the lead agent, and he approves your transfer request). Then you spend the next 15-20 years working mostly 9-5, Monday – Friday, driving a take-home car assigned to you, responding to situations to investigate crimes after they have happened. You still go to whatever training they offer, and volunteer for special assignments as they are available.
In your career you should look for opportunities to specialize or become very skilled in specific areas that interest you. And if those things are in high demand, or marketable, so much the better. You’ll know when you are going to retire, and you can make plans on what you want to do, and in the five years leading up to your retirement, make the personal and professional connections that will help you make that transition.
Now you are about 55+ years old. You can retire from the fed system, and go do what you want to do next. If you’ve done this properly, you have been doing stuff for the past ten+ years that you really enjoy, and now you transfer those skills to the private sector. Do consulting for corporations, go to work for a company handing their security issues. Whatever it is you really like doing – you can. Or, just enjoy retirement.
Next: Phase three – the career you can have after your law enforcement career.