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Hazing and Rites of Passage

November 01, 2008  |  by William Harvey - Also by this author


I just got off the telephone with a fellow trainer who was distraught. It seems that a young and tender academy recruit has said that the trainers teaching him defensive tactics are being far too rough, and he thinks it might be a form of hazing. He doesn't want to be touched by others and wishes to instead simulate defensive tactics. After a few minutes of calming down my old trainer colleague, I had to ponder this situation.

I am positive that each of you has belonged to a fraternity, club, sports team, or some other group with its own distinctive rites of passage. You have been warned in the academy that you will be tested (mentally and physically) and probably picked on (hazed) as a new member of law enforcement. So what is the problem here? There is a difference between feeling pushed to participate in college frat-type shenanigans and merely being pushed to do your best under trying circumstances. It's important to understand the distinction.

In this situation, it seems that someone does not want to enter "copland" traditionally but wants an easy ride. My recommendation to this young recruit is to drive on. Bad guys won't give you an easy time of it. If you train hard in the academy, you suffer less on the streets. Besides, if or when you go to a special assignment such as "detectiveland" it will start all over again. So just what is right and acceptable?

Old School

When I joined policing, I was the F'ing New Guy (FNG) on the watch. Back then the "Fabulous" New Guy caught every sorry assignment. It wasn't the softer, gentler culture it is now. Back then you were intimidated and you knew your place in the pecking order. If it was a crime scene that was reeking, you had to carry the crime scene access log so you could smell it. Pouring down rain at the traffic accident scene? You got the traffic detail. You were not allowed to use the elevator, but had to take the stairs; that one was from my old chief himself.

You had to pay your dues, prove your mettle, and learn the ropes. It was not all peaches and cream. Everyone had to suffer a few embarrassments. Get a serving of each from the reality buffet under your belt and before you knew it, you were accepted. Some say that you are not the "real police" until you've experienced your first big bar fight, pursuit (both foot and vehicle), or trip to the emergency room. It matters not; it is all about "firsts."

Times could be tough. However, I and thousands like me made it through the rookie gauntlet and lived to tell about it. Looking back, none of us would trade these events, and we even laugh about them. One old lieutenant (God rest him) used to call out for rookies at the top of his lungs to frighten and humiliate them. I can hear him now: "Harvey, you big dumb Irishman, get in here now!" I would love to hear his voice again, not only to remind me when I mess up but to frighten the rest of the department into better performance. But alas, we are a politically correct lot now and some of these old actions defy human resources guidelines. This was my tradition.

Today

Nowadays, the field training officer (FTO) program takes care of most of the "firsts." It is regimented and guided by policy. The recruits of today are treated with far more respect than 25 years ago. Now, by the time a recruit has completed the multitude of weeks with an FTO, most of the introductions into Copland and the precinct have been taken care of. Most feel that all is needed now is for the Fabulous New Guy to make his way or "self-inflicted introductions" into Copland. You can expect to be given some less than stellar assignments and the like. These will be your funny stories later in life.

I must remind you that in most cases officers are not picking on you or bullying, but carrying on their-and soon to be your-traditions. What can be a little joke could be a lead-in for a teaching point. These are the ones that you will remember later in life. Often, life's lessons are the ones we take the hardest.

When I was an FTO I had one recruit who was poor in time management. He would not complete his paperwork on time and we constantly were in the station after the shift due to this problem. So I came up with a solution.

We were allowed two safety breaks per shift, which meant coffee time. There was one very pretty waitress my trainee had been making progress with for a date. I made sure that he understood that if the paperwork was incomplete, he couldn't have a coffee break, but I would have mine. Sure enough, I pulled in for coffee while he sat in the car. When he finished his paperwork, I went back in service. If he didn't complete his task, no break for him, he learned. Was this hazing or enlightenment?

If an FTO or another trainer is the point of your consternation, there are ways to deal with it. If you feel that your daily evaluations are at stake due to this problem or it is inhibiting your performance or learning, stop and discuss it with this person or the person's supervisor. FTOs and trainers get very familiar with their students.

They may interpret something that offends you incorrectly. The supervisor may be able to correct this, and maybe all that is needed is a clearing of the air. If you do not let anyone know what your problem is today, it will be a bigger problem tomorrow for you'll have let it fester overnight. Don't just talk, but communicate.

A Touchy Bunch

As for touching each other during defensive tactics, you have got to do this. This is not hazing! You'd best practice handcuffing, come-a-longs, and take downs now-and not by drawing pictures or verbalization.

When it comes to training, this is a no brainer. The harder you train, the more you prepare and push yourself; all equate to your survival in the field. When I was a new recruit, I wanted the big and bad instructors in the room, for in the streets there are no "tap out" rules nor stress cards. In the academy, I expected trainers to run me and drive me to new physical levels. Most academy recruits that have never been in the military know they are being pushed to new limits. Gasp for breath here and you will not breathe hard on the streets.

As for the "do not touch me" mindset, let me explain it this way. Police officers are very touchy people. I am not talking about frisking, arresting, or shaking hands. When a police officer is hurt, tragically injured, or killed, cops get real touchy. We hug each other. We pat each other on the back to see if our brother or sister officer has on a vest. We are worse than a football team; we pat each other to know that we are there. We both need it, for security and closure. Get used to this; it is not hazing, but a coping skill.

Of course there is a limit. I would be remiss if I didn't warn that if this ever turns into unwanted or unsolicited advances without cause, especially for the female officers, follow your agency's guidelines in reporting.

Keep Your Sense of Humor

As a recruit, understand that any "hazing" is a test of your sense of humor more often than your heart. Cops are often the most jaded people I have ever known, but they will laugh at themselves, especially when nobody else finds it humorous. This is a great quality to have.

You will get called names, but they're usually terms of endearment, whether they sound like it or not. I say cherish them, for if cops take time out to kid around with you and invest their time (sometimes at your expense) then it is a good thing.

Again, these names should not cross any lines of proper decorum such as attacking one's gender, ethnicity, and so forth. If the lines of proper decorum are crossed and you are subjected to cruelty or something illegal, contact your supervisor. But, when you find out that your car was set up so that all the emergency equipment comes on when you turn the key, stop, laugh, and know that one day you will be subjecting a younger colleague to such silliness. And it's all a part of becoming part of the team.

Law enforcement is no different than any group of warriors. They may pick and fight among themselves, but often that is the cement that binds you against the outside odds. Maybe nobody ever talked to you that way except your father or mother, but nobody will protect you anymore than the brothers and sisters of Copland. It is not an easy journey here but I would not trade it for anything from this universe. This is from one big, dumb Irishman to the Fabulous New Guy of tomorrow.

Tags: Handling Stress, Hazing


Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

mtarte @ 8/9/2009 10:53 AM

Excellent article. I became a cop over 30 years ago and had a short FTO program. I was held at arm's length until I proved my mettle in bar fights, family dust-ups and the like. When an old time cop who came on board in the mid-1950s walked up to me one day after I had talked down a barricaded suicide attempt and told me that was a "good job" I felt like I could walk on water and had won the lottery. His praise was more important to me, and still is, than all of the formal commendations in my career combined. Having been accepted by him meant I was accepted by all. After that, I wasn't an FNG any more, though I still had to pour coffee for the old timers and they got the best cars, it didn't matter, I had arrived. That cadet in the academy is not going to have a very long or good career if he cannot do the defensive tactics needed for this job. If HR gets involved and they force the academy to let him simulate DT rather than actually go hands-on, I hope his time in FTO is short and his termination long.

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