"If I'd only known then what I know now."
We have all uttered that phrase. There are certain traits that will always separate a great cop from a mediocre one. Likewise, there are pitfalls that will make your career more difficult if you allow them to trip you up. The secret is avoiding the classic pitfalls. The first year after your academy graduation is critical in building the foundation for the remainder of your career. A great deal of it starts with the personal relationships you build with your peers during your first year on the street.
We all remember the day we graduated from the academy. When we were younger, slimmer, stronger, and knew exactly what we were in for. Fast forward a few years, a few pounds, a few suspension days. Most of us would now say, "I wish someone had told me (fill in the blank) when I first started this job." I am here to tell you how to play well with some of the most difficult people in the world: cops.
There you are standing tall at your academy graduation. You are sporting a freshly pressed uniform, your shoes are shining, and you are about to give the final salute to the chief before heading out to your division of assignment. You are standing motionless with the sternest "cop" look your face can muster. You are about to be a full-fledged cop.
Your mind races about the career that awaits you. All you can think about is getting off that manicured parade field and out to the mean streets of the city you are now paid to protect. You have a gun, badge, and a kick butt set of mirrored Oakley sunglasses. You have a sense of completion as your fellow recruits are throwing their covers in the air and yelling, "It's over!" Little do you know that your indoctrination into law enforcement is just beginning.
Now fast forward 24 hours. It's your first day on the job. You have all the essentials. You think to yourself, "Bullets, badge, baton." It's time to go out and kick some butt. In a matter of minutes you are thrown into a patrol car with the most important person in the world for the next three months: your field training officer (FTO). You will remember his or her name the rest of your life. Your FTO is responsible for molding you, teaching you, and most importantly, keeping you alive.
An FTO Can Teach You Everything, Even What Kind of Cop You Don't Want To Be.
The first lesson my FTO gave me was when he pulled out a blank sheet of paper and drew a large circle that represented my face. On the face he drew two large ears and eyes. There was no mouth. He showed it to me and said, "This is you, kid. Keep your eyes open and listen to everything I tell you. And don't say a damn thing." He followed it up with, "Kid, forget everything you learned in the academy. I'll teach you all you need to know." And with that, out the driveway we sped into the ghetto.
My training officer's words rang true throughout my probationary period. I talked when I was supposed to and asked questions when I needed to. But for the most part, I listened. The field-training officers you work with throughout your probation will leave you with some great lessons. Others may leave you with some less than desirable ones. It is your responsibility to let these lessons mold you into the type of officer you want to become.
Even the FTO who teaches you nothing is teaching you something. The law of averages predicts that you will have at least one bad FTO. However, you cannot look at this as wasted time. Instead, you are learning just what kind of cop you never want to be.
Think of it like this. You will start your probationary period with an empty tool bag. Each training officer will provide you with a tool, or a good lesson, you may want to use later on. Save the good ones in your bag. The tools that you don't want to use later on get chucked. Once you complete your probation you should have a full complement of the best tools to build your own career path.
Your training officer should teach you all the basics such as report writing, putting bad guys in jail, and getting home safe each night to your family. However, there is so much more to learn in that first year.
Getting a Rep
Before you have even set foot in the police station, people know things about you. Police stations are little worlds of their own. Somebody knows your background. It is what cops do, they find things out about people. And since you are coming into their island, they are damn sure going to do their homework on you.
Who were your academy instructors? Cops. They know people where you work and vice versa. If you were late, sloppy, disrespectful, a know-it-all, a clown, a poor shooter, bad at self-defense, or a knucklehead at report writing, the veteran cops at your first assignment already know it. Conversely, if you have given it 100 percent in the academy, people know that too. Sometimes trying hard and working hard can overcome other shortcomings. The main things that veteran cops do not like from rookies are any form of disrespect, cockiness, or unwillingness to listen and learn.
The first year of your career is critical in establishing your reputation with your peers and supervisors. Establishing the positive reputation you want, while not your main concern as a new officer, is a consideration. Just doing your job and being a diligent officer will be a good start. After all, a good or bad reputation can haunt or help you throughout your entire career. Your reputation will follow you to every future assignment.
One of the most admirable traits of any new officer is that of humility. My grandmother always said, "Michael, learn to eat humble pie." Although I never found this recipe tasty, we all have to eat it sometimes and I now see the importance of it. The earlier you learn it in law enforcement, the better, because you will always make mistakes. Humility in any work place is important. For a cop to keep sane, it is essential.