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Newly appointed police officers can find that it is quite challenging to transition from being a recruit officer in a boot-camp style police academy to working the street as a rookie police officer. Luckily, many agencies recognize this challenge and have well-established field training programs designed to help officers adjust to their new and unpredictable daily tasks.
Police training programs have had a major impact on the quality and readiness of rookie officers. Long gone are the days when officers were handed a badge, gun, and cruiser keys and told, "OK, kid, get out there." Now, these systematic and standardized programs are in place to better prepare officers for their new career. Unfortunately, many officers fail to meet the required standards and may find their on-the-job training program to be an insurmountable hurdle. Consequently, many officers are terminated or quit while involved in this process.
While this may be good for departments that can more readily weed out individuals who may be a bad fit for the job, it is frustrating for those rookies who have worked so hard to get there. There are a number of common rookie mistakes that contribute to officer loss during post-academy training programs. Knowing what they are is an important step in successfully avoiding them.
1. Being a Know-it-All
Many rookies, prior to getting their full-time appointment as police officers, have some job experience in their past related to the field of law enforcement. Some have experience as part-time officers, military police, other military assignments, correctional officers, or have family members who are police officers. One of the most challenging types of rookies to train is the one who thinks he knows everything.
Remember, every agency does things a little differently and rookies will always find new things to learn. Having the "been there done that" attitude will impede your ability to learn and may stifle your Field Training Officer's willingness to teach new things. Additionally, FTOs simply don't like training rookies who claim to know it all.
2. Failure to Ask Questions
While going through the Field Training and Evaluation Program (FTEP), trainees are expected to have many questions. This is the time to learn, and the best teachers are experienced officers who are there to assist. New officers are sometimes tempted to impress their FTOs by trying to do too much too fast. But patience is critical, and recognizing that it is acceptable and expected to ask questions is the key to successfully navigating through an FTEP.
3. Disrespect for Police Hierarchy
Field Training Officers are representative of the many types of police officers who have different policing styles. Areas of focus could include paperwork and report writing, motor vehicle law enforcement, community relationships, or drug enforcement. Anyone who has been through an FTEP has had the experience of working with different types of FTOs. Inevitably, a rookie will get paired with an FTO whose style they don't like or don't feel is "the right way" to be a police officer. The best departments out there are comprised of a great variety of officers who use different styles of policing. Police departments will have opportunities for promotion or assignment to specialty units such as SWAT teams, community policing bureaus, investigations, K-9 units, accreditation teams, juvenile crimes and crime scene services. Each one of these assignments requires a different type of person to best fit the position. If a rookie is paired with a trainer whose policing style he does not enjoy, appreciate those differences, learn from them and recognize the value that each officer brings to the department.
Beyond respect for the trainer's style, rookie officers need to understand that police departments are quasi-military organizations with a heavy emphasis on command structure and established hierarchies. Rookies should always address supervisors using their title, such as Sgt. Wilson, even if the supervisor is friendly and other officers call him or her by first name. Using people's first names comes with time, if at all.
4. Misunderstanding the Job
Everyone knows someone who's watched one too many episodes of "COPS" or "Law & Order" and thinks every call is high-speed, high-action, and easy to solve, and that the difference between the "good guy" and the "bad guy" is as clear cut as night and day. Policing is grossly misrepresented by the mainstream media. This impacts the average citizen's expectations of the police, but also impacts new officers and their expectations of what it's like to be a police officer.
Becoming a police officer can be a long and challenging process. Competitive written exams, residency and age requirements, physical fitness standards, and interview panels can make getting a policing job difficult. It takes many people years to get on a department and they may spend a lot of time and money working toward that goal.
Before beginning the sometimes long and frustrating journey toward a policing career, it is wise to do everything possible to understand what the job is really like. There are several ways to do this. One suggestion is to find a department that has a ride-along program and to ride with a street-level patrol officer. Best practice would be to ride with an officer at the agency that you want to work for. This will provide the most realistic glimpse into the agency and is also a good way to make some connections and show interest.
Another strategy to better understand the job is to join a local Police Explorers Post or to work as a Special Police Officer or volunteer. Different areas of the country have different programs. If you want to learn more about policing at local departments, you can usually find information online about what opportunities are available.