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Fitting In

May 01, 2008  |  by Mike Menegiio

The Pitfalls of The Cop Lifestyle

Whether it is "Law & Order" or "CSI," we have seen the glamorous side of being a cop. At one time or another before joining the academy, my generation pictured ourselves living on a boat with an alligator á la Miami Vice. The hardest part of becoming a cop is realizing it is not like the movies. Next, it is correcting the same misperceptions of friends and family once you learn the truth.

Just the transition from civilian to law enforcement officer can be difficult. We begin saying things like, "You don't understand what it's like to be a cop," to family and friends outside of law enforcement. Just keep in mind that these are the people that still know you as "Little Johnny, who used to sing at the top of his lungs in the shower."

It is important to look for balance in your relationships on and off the job. Your non-law enforcement friends usually remind you of your roots. Your peers from work are the ones you can vent to about the work problems that old friends may not understand, like the pain-in-the-butt supervisor that conducted a "spare tire audit" on me last month. (That's a real one, folks). Or the crazy "laser lady" that called the station the other day to report the CIA was shooting lasers into her brain. Her concerns are as important as any citizen, but that is the stuff that only other cops can truly appreciate.

It is important to keep a balance in your friendships from the start. Don't let old friends go and certainly do not alienate your family. For you and those close to you, police work might be the first encounter with the seedier side of life. Unless you were a pit boss in Las Vegas prior to joining the law enforcement family, you may not have known that bars open for swing-shift cops by 7 a.m.

However strange it may seem at first, you may see your peers finishing up their 12-hour shift with a daily dose of stale beer and tequila chasers. It may seem more and more like the norm as you progress in your career. The tight wire act you will have to walk is not falling into the trap of this sad lifestyle.

I witnessed firsthand how alcohol can destroy an officer's life. My first five years on the job, I watched as my roommate destroyed his police career and personal life with alcohol. It started out as innocent as most of life's tragedies. Just a few drinks after work with the boys did not seem like anything out of the ordinary. Several years later the party ended, as did his police career, after two alcohol-related arrests and a life-long battle with addiction.

Develop the Art of Communication

Gone are the days of Joe Friday and, "Just the facts, ma'am." Modern law enforcement requires more engagement between officers and the community. You may have heard it in the academy. "It is easier to talk someone to jail than to fight them into handcuffs." I am speaking out of experience after wrist and shoulder surgeries, and countless ripped uniforms.

Being an effective communicator holds true for dealing with your partners and supervisors, too. After all, who wants to sit in a police car with someone who can't hold a conversation during a 10- or 12-hour shift? Having a partner is a lot like being married. You often spend more time with your fellow officers than you do with your family and friends. Only you truly know your weaknesses. If being a poor communicator is one of them, do something about it. Read a book, buy the tapes, or take a class, but for everyone's sake, practice being an effective communicator.

Paving Your Career Path

As you navigate your first year, there will come a time to think about what you want to do with your career. Are you going to be the aggressive kick ass cop? Or, will you have a DARE sticker taped to your locker? One of the first things I used to have my trainees do is write down short- and long-term goals for their career. Your long-term plan may be to become a SWAT cop. Your short-term plan may be to work the jobs that will make you more marketable when SWAT has a vacancy.

Likewise, if your plan is to promote through the ranks then it is best to get yourself into positions that will make you an effective leader. Often, the best way to pave your career path is to find a senior officer or supervisor to mentor you on your journey. If you do find a good mentor on this job, latch on to him or her and soak up as much experience as you can.

As a new officer you will be faced with some of the greatest challenges and changes in your life. How you respond to these changes in the first year after the academy will affect the rest of your career. Developing good relationships with fellow officers during your formative years will smooth the transition from being a civilian to being a police officer. The earlier you lay a solid foundation, the stronger and more enjoyable it will be. Be careful of the pitfalls and enjoy your career. You have earned it.

Mike Menegio is a police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. He is currently assigned to Division and is tasked with dignitary protection duties. His past assignments include patrol, field-training officers, gang and narcotic enforcement, as well as several undercover assignments.

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