5 Tips for Joining a Specialty Unit

Female officers may encounter resistance when they apply to join special units such as SWAT, K-9, narcotics, internal affairs, or crime prevention units. To help those hoping to break into these units, PoliceMag.com is launching a Web-exclusive, multi-part series offering strategies to reach this goal.

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Photo by Yuda Chen.Photo by Yuda Chen.

Female officers may encounter resistance when they apply to join special units such as SWAT, K-9, narcotics, and motor patrol, but are welcomed into criminal investigation, internal affairs, or crime prevention. To help those hoping to break into these units, PoliceMag.com is launching a Web-exclusive, multi-part series offering strategies to reach this goal.

To start with, I'll share some of my personal experiences and provide five overall tips for how to join specialty units. In future blog posts, I'll give specific tips for each unit.

After completing our field training and probation, we soon realize there are numerous specialized units in a police or sheriff's agency. Even at smaller agencies, you will have opportunities to join specialized units that may not operate full time.

Don't let the fact that you're at a small agency discourage you. Keep your options open even though officers promoted to these units rarely leave. Once you arrive, you may be able to spend your career with the unit.

While going through the academy, I was focused on patrol and being a first responder. I didn't think much about getting into the specialty units. In the early 1980s, there were few females on patrol so there were opportunities in multi-agency task forces. These assignments were not full-time and were expected to be done in addition to an officer's patrol schedule.

My first offer to participate was in a narcotics task force as a drug dealer's girlfriend. I didn't do much, just sat in the vehicle on scene for appearance purposes, but it was a start. Even though my part was small, I was there as the team planned and prepared the operation. I was on scene and watched the team initiate, complete, and clear the operation.

This may not sit well with some female officers today, but at the time I was glad to participate if for no other reason than to watch and learn from the experienced officers. I realized early on that you can't get that from a book. After that I was offered other assignments as they became available, and as time went by I was given more responsibilities and began to find my niche.

Today there are many ways to get connected with and into specialized units. I researched federal, state, county, and municipal agencies and found most agencies have designed career paths. Larger agencies require five years on patrol before transferring. Mid-size agencies require anywhere from two to five years on patrol before a transfer. Smaller agencies have not changed much in regard to these units; most officers are primarily patrol and also participate in the specialty units as needed. However, officer training comes before participation.

It does not matter what department you are with, large or small; there are things you can do well in advance to determine what unit you're interested in and how to get there.

Here are five tips for joining a specialty unit:

1. Know your agency and what is required for the different units.

Start early, prepare, and practice what is necessary for the unit. Whether it is physical, technical, or academic you can prepare in advance on your own. Remember, it is not your agency's responsibility; it's your career path.

2. Get online.

You will find books, magazine articles, instruction, and courses online. Due to the vast amount of information out there, I have had to save links to review later or I would have been online for hours.

3. Talk to and get to know officers already in the unit.

Some find it intimidating to approach an experienced or specialized officer, but don't let this stop you. All they can say is "No," or "I don't have the time." They won't eat you. Sometimes your location or schedules will not allow for face-to-face discussions. But you can interact over the phone or via e-mail if necessary. 

4. Make the effort on your own.

You might have to use your own time and money, but there is something to be said for focus, determination, and sacrifice for what you want. Even if no one ever mentions it to you, your efforts will be noticed.

5. Be realistic in where you are and what it will take to get into the unit you desire.

Reaching your goal might simply require training and waiting on that transfer, or you might have to change agencies or relocate. Keep in mind that while preparing for the future and going through the process it is easy to get so wrapped up in what you're working toward that you lose interest in where you're at. Be careful not to lose interest or begin slacking in your current position. There is nothing more aggravating than picking up the slack of an officer who has his or her sights focused elsewhere. 

Editor's note: Look for future installments of this series here on the Women in Law Enforcement channel. Is there a special assignment you love working, or one you're itching to join? Add your comment below.


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