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Seven Keys to Surviving Your Police Career

To be effective and successful, you have to bring the right tools and the right mindset to the job.

December 03, 2014  |  by Amaury Murgado - Also by this author

Photo: Amaury Murgado
Photo: Amaury Murgado

The principles of being a law enforcement officer have changed very little over the years, but the way we do business has. Law enforcement has become less people oriented in favor of high-tech solutions. Politicians and agency chief executives place a premium on officers and policies being politically correct. And as recent events have demonstrated, the ranks of people embracing an anti-cop agenda grow every day.

In order to survive this complex environment, we must have a complete understanding and thorough working knowledge of what I call the "seven essential components" of a successful law enforcement career.

Let me walk you through them in no particular order.

  1. Have a Thick Skin

As a law enforcement officer, you deal with situations that would make most people run away. And yet, those same people will turn around and get ugly with you. So you need to have a thick skin and not allow any of their button-pushing comments to get to you. I know it's easier said than done, but practice responding and not reacting.

To succumb to your raw emotions is to surrender to the very people who are trying to bring you down. You need to take the higher road and keep your cool. Remain firm, focus on your duty, and learn to recognize when someone is trying to play you so your reaction can be captured on video.

  1. Think Like a Wolf

We are sometimes referred to as sheepdogs protecting the flock. Though I appreciate the analogy, I prefer to think of myself as a wolf.

Like the wolf, we spend time operating alone and yet we also have to work with others. The wolf is both protector and predator. As protector, we keep those we serve and protect from harm. As predator, we hunt down those who would hurt (or have hurt) the people we serve and protect. Since perception is reality, I would rather project an image of a wolf to the criminal element than that of a sheepdog.

  1. Know Your Job

You have to know your job inside and out. There is no excuse for sloppiness or careless mistakes. Graduating the academy is but the first step in an ongoing learning process that will span your entire career. Times change and so do laws; leadership positions change and so do policies. That alone is reason enough to stay current on what you can and can't do. You should know your duties both assigned and implied and make good use of officer discretion. To do otherwise is to invite failure.

  1. Go All-In

Whatever tools you use, you should be very well versed in them. Most of your important law enforcement skill sets are diminishing in nature. If you don't use them, you will lose them.

You need to be crazy good with your handgun, shotgun, and rifle. You can't afford to be otherwise. One miss could alter not only your life, but the life of someone else. You also need to stay up on your control techniques.

Realize that being a cop is an all-in endeavor; any half-loaf effort is not acceptable. You can't wish yourself into success; you have to work hard at it. But having crazy skills is not limited to weapons or hands-on techniques. The same can be said for any skill you need in order to do your job. Knowing how to use your agency's database can be just as important in solving a crime as anything else.

  1. Know Your History

You need to know the history of the issues you are working. Things don't just pop up one day out of the blue. There is usually a string of events that led to the case you are working. In order to address the issue you need to know as many of the variables as possible.

As law enforcement officers we tend to deal in symptoms instead of root causes. Dealing with the cause will lead you to answers. A little more time up front studying the issue will lead to less time in trying to resolve it. This applies to regional, national, and international issues that filter down to you as well. Don't think your area is immune from any of it; the world is a much smaller place now. Conflicts aren't just because of simple neighborhood disputes anymore but may be rooted in long-term cultural or religious beliefs.

  1. Be Tactically Aware

The Internet and video games provide a wealth of training information for tactics and operational techniques that the bad guys can use against you. Instruction from the Islamic State (ISIS) for sympathizers around the world to rise up and commit jihad should also concern you. The recent beheading in a workplace in Oklahoma and axe attack on officers in New York confirm that jihadist attacks are a legitimate concern and we need to up our game and prepare to counter them.

How are you with tactics? Do you know your individual and team movements? Do you know the common tactics that might be used against you? It will benefit you to spend some time studying tactics (yours and theirs). Military small unit tactics manuals and books by John Poole such as "Tactics of the Crescent Moon" and "Militant Tricks" are a great start.

  1. Study Current Events

You need to stay up on local, regional, and national events. You need to know what's going on in your area and your surrounding jurisdictions. Crime knows no borders.

What this means for you is staying up to date on the news. It means reading your intel bulletins. It means signing up for free newsletters like those sent out by the editors of PoliceMag.com. You can also customize your search engine to highlight certain types of news. I get several email alerts from different sources. I also have a small network of retired military and law enforcement officers that share information with me. Considering you can get all this information for free, there is no excuse not to do it. What's happening around you affects what's happening to you.

Putting Them Together

Whether you agree with me or not, these seven keys to a successful career are important considerations for today's officer. We are expected to perform miracles and then get attacked for doing so.

No one is going to protect you so you have to protect yourself. The only way to do that is to know your job, train consistently, and perform your duties to the best of your abilities. Make it hard for anyone to sacrifice you and your reputation for the sake of political correctness. Become the protector and the predator and do the job. Whether you like it or not, you are the line in the sand.

Amaury Murgado is a special operations lieutenant with the Osceola County (Fla.) Sheriff's Office. He is a retired master sergeant from the Army Reserve who has more than 27 years of law enforcement experience, and has been a lifelong student of martial arts.


Comments (15)

Displaying 1 - 15 of 15

sam @ 12/3/2014 8:22 PM

and#8 keep murdering innocent peoples then grand jury will forgive you

Bman @ 12/4/2014 8:03 AM

Sam, I am sorry to inform you but because it is obvious that no one has, I feel I must tell you that you are an idiot. You obviously have no idea what you are trying to comment on or what "evidence" means and why grand juries and the courts convict based on that rather than the rumors you obviously believe. Do the country a solid favor and research how to grow a brain. As a hint, don't ask the same clowns that feed you the information that made you believe cops are out murdering innocent people because they evidently do not know what the term "innocent" means.

132&Bush @ 12/5/2014 7:22 PM

Anyone got a current count on the number of cops killed by blacks since Mike Brown was shot?

TheRookie @ 12/6/2014 7:53 AM

The whole concept & idea is to go home alive & safe at the E.O.W. Regardless of the situation someone will always have a snide comment.

Sam is a wannabe who couldn't get hired and/or washed out. His comments sound like he lives in his mummies basement.

kevCopAz @ 12/6/2014 8:58 AM

SAM, really do you feel that way? If you do then its based on FEELINGS not FACTS or you are a complete dick!. This is a good list of things to make your career a good one. I spent 32+ years in a major city PD and now working a PD job in a large populated County. If you follow these rules as I did, your chances of surviving your career till retirement and enjoying the career are fantastic. Oh SAM, grow up or at the least get the facts and stop being a POS

rede2hike @ 12/6/2014 10:17 AM

This was a great article, several of the points I tried to teach to the rookies I used to train as a vet FTO.
Always stay on top of the rules/laws. Always expect the unexpected. Constantly ask yourself, "What if"? .
Ignore the idiots like Sam, but always remember where the live & what the drive and be sure the always obey the rules.

Mark @ 12/6/2014 3:16 PM

What happens when you have done all these 7 things and still have an unsuccessful career? During my four years of earning a Criminology degree and over a year of police/investigator training I was never taught how to successfully deal with back stabbing coworkers and incompetent/insane supervisors. There needs to be a class on how to deal with department/office politics. That derailed my LEO career faster than anything else.

As a rookie patrolman I was quote, "One of the best new officers," in a large agency according to my sergeant. As a plain clothes investigator I was better than senior guys in my unit at the above 7 items and one of the only guys making arrests and generating stats. None of that mattered when my supervisor said, "You are performing just fine. However, I just personally don't like you."

What is the key to success in that situation? Now I am radioactive and no agency will ever hire me again to be a LEO.

Lonegunmann @ 12/6/2014 4:56 PM

I am amazed how so many obviously civilian people who hate law enforcement prowl here and spread their hate. Funny think too is as they will eventually grow older and mature they will become more conservative and recognize how the world truly works. They will have matured!

Tom Ret @ 12/6/2014 6:52 PM

A couple lessons I learned and tried to pass on to rookies who would listen were 1. the arrest is not priority #1 as there are very few who will pat you on the back for stats but there are plenty waiting in line to crucify you if you screw up or something goes wrong in your zest for numbers. What goes hand n glove with this is know and follow dept policy and your legal standing before acting and generally don't bluff. Using the right tactics will give you a better chance of surviving lethal and physical confrontations. Quality trumps quantity in police work and don't get in a hurry if possible so you can think things through. The better you are at handling weapons and being in shape will give you more confidence. Weight lifting and/or martial arts will help your fighting skills. Learn to write complete and accurate reports and don't embellish. Treat people the way you would want to be treated and look and act professional. Be conservative, not slothful. Don't sweat the small stuff.

lodall @ 12/8/2014 8:11 AM

For those who are wasting their time & effort responding to Sam, perhaps re-read #1 again. We can all see what he is trying to do and people feel compelled to react, and I completely understand that. But what is needed is a trained response, and in my humble opinion, the best response to his sort of vitriol commentary is no response at all. He's not important to us so why even acknowledge his existence?

Stay safe brothers & sisters.

Jamcoski @ 12/8/2014 11:58 AM

Parabéns pelo site e pelos comentários, nós aqui do Brasil admiramos muito e gostamos muito do serviço policial dos U.S.A., mas os problemas internos acho que são os mesmos em todo lugar do mundo!! Um grande abraço!!

Eddie @ 12/12/2014 11:57 AM

Mark, I feel your pain. I have struggled my entire career, almost 30 years, with the same problems of back stabbing co-workers and bosses who were afraid of my policing success. I too have been handed a very heavy hand in an attempt to destroy what I have worked for 30 years to get. My dreams have probably been shattered, only time will tell. I am trying to put the pieces back together and figure out where I go from here. If not for my faith in the Lord, I would be another statistic. What they meant for evil, He meant for good. I can't wait until they realize it, just like Joseph's brothers did in the Bible.

Ima Leprechaun @ 12/14/2014 3:40 PM

I am sorry Eddie@ but the machine called the "Police Department" doesn't even know who you are or care. Police Agencies are measured by its ability to grind up good people and never give it a second thought. Most likely those in-charge have no knowledge of your existence nor do they care. Most of us are just "warm bodies" to the powers that be, we fill a slot, they don't care who we are, just that the slot is filled. Sad but very true. I have found that police departments tend to promote people that they are scared to death to have on the street. Promotions put as much distance between these people and the public as possible. Every new Sergeant goes thru a period of dictatorship over his command. Everything he or she ever did bad they assume those under them are doing the same and they will over compensate for all of their own failings as a police officer by taking it out on you, even though you have never done what they have done. This is just how the machine works, the incompetent are the achievers within this system. Once in a blue moon you get a great supervisor but they are very rare.

Ima Leprechaun @ 12/14/2014 3:51 PM

I learned the above very quickly and so I used something they cannot block, reverse psychology. I fed anything that would benefit the department to the head butt-kisser and let him take all the credit for my ideas. I never cared if I got the credit as long as I got the benefit from the idea. This worked great my entire career and our agency became known as insightful and progressive. As long as I got the end result why care who presented it? I was happy with my little niche in the world and I quit worrying about other employees. The easiest way to find the back stabbers is feed them a lie about yourself and see how it comes back to you. Since it's your concoction you will realize who you can and cannot trust. It really is just that easy. Have fun with it because they have no idea you love your job.

Toprad @ 12/17/2014 10:57 AM

I tend to keep people at a distance. That helps me stay away from the crap that tends to run freely around the department. I don't hang out with them off-duty very much, I don't associate with them socially unless I decide I want to. I am somewhat sociable on duty, but only enough to get through the shift. I tend to come off as a prick, which keeps people at arms length, the way I like it. I don't aspire for higher authority, so I don't need to kiss anyone's butt. I do my job as well as I know how, and that's it. If my opinion is asked about something, I usually give it unvarnished and un-PC, straight forward. This may sound somewhat strange, but it works well for me. I work at a department where the majority of the officers are ten years younger than me and more, are at different places in their lives and careers, and have different goals than I do. I do my job and don't play the games. I'm still highly regarded by most of the admin because they seem to respect the fact that I'm not afraid to speak my mind, even if it goes against the grain of what the admin wants or thinks, and I do my job. Obviously this won't work for everyone, and probably wouldn't work in a different agency, but it's how I've learned to deal with the day-to-day BS in my own department, and as I said, it works. Good Luck.

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