How You Can Become a Better Cop Right Now

Becoming a better cop may not ensure formal recognition such as a promotion, but it'll virtually guarantee it informally. It'll simultaneously help you to do your job faster and increase your prospects to work elsewhere.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

In striving for personal improvement, some may draw upon a mental image of what an ideal cop should be, something that transcends the professional terseness of Joe Friday ("Just the facts, ma'am."), or the Socratic questioning of Harry Callahan ("Do you feel lucky, punk?"). For they know that becoming a better cop involves something beyond marshalling the personality quirks of some archetype. But who to turn to? The artist might have his muse but who inspires the cop?

The cop who seeks to better himself may have a hard time finding an ideal mentor. In an era that promises amorphous change and delivers blistering debt, cops can be forgiven for being a mite bit skeptical of any prospective change agent that comes their way. The messenger needs to be evaluated along with the message.

With this in mind, what better messenger than someone who is successful and happy in his or her job?

Answer: Several of them.

Keep It Real

Success entails valuing what we do and who we do it for. Unfortunately, some cops acquire an Us vs. Them mentality.

"Them" can be everyone from suspects, to admin, to peers, to the citizens we serve. In a profession that offers ample opportunity for frustration, the temptation to put up walls and just say the hell with it can be strong.

Charlie Varga has seen it, particularly with younger cops.

A SWAT sergeant with the Riverside County (Calif.) Sheriff's Department, Varga notes that cynicism is the biggest danger to cops, and it is proportional to the disappointment felt by the individual officer: The more idealistic the officer, the greater the discontent.

"Cops have to keep their expectations and goals within the job realistic," notes Varga. "Just because you're not going to change the world doesn't mean the work you do isn't important. We can make a difference-one person at a time."

By focusing at a more microscopic scale-on the individual victim or suspect-you're better able to avoid cynicism.

It's no small conceit.

Sgt. Lou Olivier with the Rye (N.Y.) Police Department has saved four lives during his career. Knowing that gives him a constant sense of accomplishment, and a drive to keep going and improve his ability to do his job: There may always be a fifth.

Don't Buy into the Hype

Sometimes cops can suffer the residual temptation of creating their own war story. Mark Weidhase, a supervisor with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), believes this is largely a residual effect from the academy.

"A problem with academy instructors is that they're compelled to relay their one or two great war stories," observes Weidhase. "These collective stories create a perception on behalf of the student that they're daily occurrences. To impressionable recruits, these war stories are cool: That's what they want to do. But we don't get to choose which war story we live. Odds are those instructors didn't pick that battle that day. It came to them; it'll come to you. Be ready for it, but don't chase it."

By continually laying the foundation to respond effectively when that battle comes to you, you are embodying what a better officer should be.

[PAGEBREAK]Take Stock of Your Life and Prioritize

Sgt. Gerry Velona of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department notes that getting one's ducks in a row on the home front allows an officer to conduct himself more constructively at work. Prioritizing what is important in life is what it boils down to.

"If you want to be a better copper, you better take care of your family," Velona says. "Because no matter what the department tells you, it's not going to do that for you. You don't want to do things that'll jeopardize your family, your home, or your career. That's not what being a better cop is about."

Lou Olivier believes that by not only spending time with your family, but being actively engaged in interests external to law enforcement, you actually improve your ability to do the job.

Keep Your Perspective

As noted many times by POLICE Magazine columnist Dave Smith, cops can be single minded when the chase is on. We can be kind of like dogs chasing prey. We're going to get it no matter what.

That instinct can be good when it's needed. But it can be dangerous to your career and even your life, if you lose perspective. In other words, make sure that who and what you are chasing is worth the chase.

Velona puts it this way: "I always had TOs who would tell me that we're going to do the right thing for the right reason in the right way. If the bad guy gets away this time, that's fine. We'll see him again. That little $20 rock of dope is not worth how you take care of your future ex-wife and children. End of story."

Remember, You Don't Know It All

There's an old saying that the beginning of wisdom is to realize that you don't know and can't know everything. That applies to police work as much as it applies to anything else.

"The hardest part is to look at one's self," notes Weidhase. "At five years on the job, the mantle of invincibility and the belief that somebody knows everything dissipates. Hopefully, that leads to the realization that you don't ever stop the learning experience. By stepping back and intellectualizing your job and your role as a law enforcement officer you become realistic: Just what can you accomplish?"

The stereotype is that cops fresh out of the academy think they know everything and think they are invincible. But Weidhase says it's the transitional veteran who starts to feel like he or she is God's gift to law enforcement.

"Way too many guys with three or four years on the job don't draw on their resources," Weidhase says. "You think you can conquer the world, and then you get your lumps, your failures.

"The catalyst for the change comes when the rookie-which is what I call anybody up to their fifth year of service-realizes that the rigid model taught in the academy does not always work and starts applying his or her intellect to each situation. You eventually come to the realization that there are different ways of doing things. And you start exploiting them."

Velona echoes Weidhase's sentiments.

"The day you think you've learned it all, hang it up, because you're going to hurt someone."

Take your time to pick your fellow officers' brains. Not just the old guys, but the young guys, too. Years before they became staples of investigative dramas, I learned from a younger deputy how criminals were using prepaid phones to coordinate their various illegalities. Everybody has knowledge that you can use.

[PAGEBREAK]Get Out and Be Sociable

One great thing about consensual contacts is that they don't have to end in an arrest. You can simply meet someone who's an interesting person, maybe even develop a less obvious means of intel.

Getting out of your car and roaming around can pay dividends. Not only does it preclude your being sedentary your whole shift, it also allows you to recon those problems areas that are not as familiar as you'd like them to be and scout for likely escape routes for suspects. Your knowledge of the lay of the land can facilitate your setting up suspect containments in the future.

While you're taking a lay of the land, talk with people. Strike up a conversation with the security guards at your local businesses, the kids that congregate in the courtyard of that problem apartment complex, and people who know who's doing what and when. As any foot beat cop can tell you, getting out of your car and giving people a face to remember can come in handy when you later need their help. Besides, it's nice to remember who you're working for.

Challenge Yourself

Career stagnancy, whether imposed by ourselves or our administrators, can be dangerous. Failing to challenge ourselves can result in a loss of enthusiasm for our job, and may lead to some ethical impropriety and the loss of that job, a fate that's befallen some 19,000 of our fellow officers over the span of the last 30 years.

But how does a cop find new ways of challenging him- or herself?

"One of the best pieces of advice I ever got was to move around every three or four years," says Velona. "You learn much more than just what you're learning at your new assignment.

"But you've got to be willing to be humble and be taught."

Exploit Technology

As Connor notes, networking is important. So if you haven't already primed your Blackberry, signed up on MySpace or Facebook, or gotten a database of go-to experts in your iPhone, then get to work.

So much of what falls on law enforcement's radar nowadays is so varied, so demanding of particular skill sets, that you need to have the "go to" people readily available.

There are a variety of law enforcement associations that share online intel on everything from narcotics, to gangs, to GTAs, to pawn shops. The POLICE-L listserv is a great networking tool that allows you to dialogue with officers not only from different regions, but throughout the world.

Not only can these "go-to" people come in handy at a drop of a dime, they can also mentor you in areas you might not otherwise be exposed to. They can assist you with networking, computer forensics, and developing crime tracking programs and matrixes.

Beyond networking, Facebook and MySpace offer investigative opportunities on members residing in your patrol area.

Got an iPhone? Consider downloading some of the following applications: The Law Pod ($0.99) pulls up Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure right to your iPhone screen; Language Translators (prices vary, many are free) Spanish, Mandarin, Italian-you name it, they have it; FBI Most Wanted ($1.99) not only features the 10 Most Wanted list but gives users breaking crime news, a listing of the most wanted terrorists, and a directory of the highest priority missing children. There are some 20,000 apps available, with many other possibilities worth investigating. The more that you can streamline various facets of your job, the more proficient you'll be at it.

Learn New Things

Every month or so, immerse yourself in something you have little or no knowledge in. (I'd say no interest, too, but don't want to be a hypocrite.) Some cops become entirely one dimensional.

"You have these guys that work Century or East L.A. Station and they're great at handling the hot stuff. Give 'em a robbery or shots fired call and watch 'em rock and roll," says LASD's Velona.

"But when they transfer to other 'slower' stations, they often end up asking for assistance. They haven't handled the sophisticated embezzlements. They don't know what to do on a theft by trick or device. It's weird. When we're on training, we're always buying calls, taking the handle on situations we haven't handled before to get exposure to them. But once we're off training, we tend to dodge the unfamiliar. And we're not doing ourselves any favors," he adds.

Becoming a better cop may not ensure formal recognition such as a promotion, but it'll virtually guarantee it informally. It'll simultaneously help you to do your job faster and increase your prospects to work elsewhere.

Besides, sometimes we need to do things to better ourselves not to please our bosses, but in spite of them.

Riverside County's Varga sums it all up:

"Ours is the best job on the planet. We get paid to be the cavalry, step in front of the bully, and save the day. Who could get burned out on that?"

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
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