"If I'd only known then what I know now."
We have all uttered that phrase. There are certain traits that will always separate a great cop from a mediocre one. Likewise, there are pitfalls that will make your career more difficult if you allow them to trip you up. The secret is avoiding the classic pitfalls. The first year after your academy graduation is critical in building the foundation for the remainder of your career. A great deal of it starts with the personal relationships you build with your peers during your first year on the street.
We all remember the day we graduated from the academy. When we were younger, slimmer, stronger, and knew exactly what we were in for. Fast forward a few years, a few pounds, a few suspension days. Most of us would now say, "I wish someone had told me (fill in the blank) when I first started this job." I am here to tell you how to play well with some of the most difficult people in the world: cops.
There you are standing tall at your academy graduation. You are sporting a freshly pressed uniform, your shoes are shining, and you are about to give the final salute to the chief before heading out to your division of assignment. You are standing motionless with the sternest "cop" look your face can muster. You are about to be a full-fledged cop.
Your mind races about the career that awaits you. All you can think about is getting off that manicured parade field and out to the mean streets of the city you are now paid to protect. You have a gun, badge, and a kick butt set of mirrored Oakley sunglasses. You have a sense of completion as your fellow recruits are throwing their covers in the air and yelling, "It's over!" Little do you know that your indoctrination into law enforcement is just beginning.
Now fast forward 24 hours. It's your first day on the job. You have all the essentials. You think to yourself, "Bullets, badge, baton." It's time to go out and kick some butt. In a matter of minutes you are thrown into a patrol car with the most important person in the world for the next three months: your field training officer (FTO). You will remember his or her name the rest of your life. Your FTO is responsible for molding you, teaching you, and most importantly, keeping you alive.
An FTO Can Teach You Everything, Even What Kind of Cop You Don't Want To Be.
The first lesson my FTO gave me was when he pulled out a blank sheet of paper and drew a large circle that represented my face. On the face he drew two large ears and eyes. There was no mouth. He showed it to me and said, "This is you, kid. Keep your eyes open and listen to everything I tell you. And don't say a damn thing." He followed it up with, "Kid, forget everything you learned in the academy. I'll teach you all you need to know." And with that, out the driveway we sped into the ghetto.
My training officer's words rang true throughout my probationary period. I talked when I was supposed to and asked questions when I needed to. But for the most part, I listened. The field-training officers you work with throughout your probation will leave you with some great lessons. Others may leave you with some less than desirable ones. It is your responsibility to let these lessons mold you into the type of officer you want to become.
Even the FTO who teaches you nothing is teaching you something. The law of averages predicts that you will have at least one bad FTO. However, you cannot look at this as wasted time. Instead, you are learning just what kind of cop you never want to be.
Think of it like this. You will start your probationary period with an empty tool bag. Each training officer will provide you with a tool, or a good lesson, you may want to use later on. Save the good ones in your bag. The tools that you don't want to use later on get chucked. Once you complete your probation you should have a full complement of the best tools to build your own career path.
Your training officer should teach you all the basics such as report writing, putting bad guys in jail, and getting home safe each night to your family. However, there is so much more to learn in that first year.
Getting a Rep
Before you have even set foot in the police station, people know things about you. Police stations are little worlds of their own. Somebody knows your background. It is what cops do, they find things out about people. And since you are coming into their island, they are damn sure going to do their homework on you.
Who were your academy instructors? Cops. They know people where you work and vice versa. If you were late, sloppy, disrespectful, a know-it-all, a clown, a poor shooter, bad at self-defense, or a knucklehead at report writing, the veteran cops at your first assignment already know it. Conversely, if you have given it 100 percent in the academy, people know that too. Sometimes trying hard and working hard can overcome other shortcomings. The main things that veteran cops do not like from rookies are any form of disrespect, cockiness, or unwillingness to listen and learn.
The first year of your career is critical in establishing your reputation with your peers and supervisors. Establishing the positive reputation you want, while not your main concern as a new officer, is a consideration. Just doing your job and being a diligent officer will be a good start. After all, a good or bad reputation can haunt or help you throughout your entire career. Your reputation will follow you to every future assignment.
One of the most admirable traits of any new officer is that of humility. My grandmother always said, "Michael, learn to eat humble pie." Although I never found this recipe tasty, we all have to eat it sometimes and I now see the importance of it. The earlier you learn it in law enforcement, the better, because you will always make mistakes. Humility in any work place is important. For a cop to keep sane, it is essential.[PAGEBREAK]
The Pitfalls of The Cop Lifestyle
Whether it is "Law & Order" or "CSI," we have seen the glamorous side of being a cop. At one time or another before joining the academy, my generation pictured ourselves living on a boat with an alligator á la Miami Vice. The hardest part of becoming a cop is realizing it is not like the movies. Next, it is correcting the same misperceptions of friends and family once you learn the truth.
Just the transition from civilian to law enforcement officer can be difficult. We begin saying things like, "You don't understand what it's like to be a cop," to family and friends outside of law enforcement. Just keep in mind that these are the people that still know you as "Little Johnny, who used to sing at the top of his lungs in the shower."
It is important to look for balance in your relationships on and off the job. Your non-law enforcement friends usually remind you of your roots. Your peers from work are the ones you can vent to about the work problems that old friends may not understand, like the pain-in-the-butt supervisor that conducted a "spare tire audit" on me last month. (That's a real one, folks). Or the crazy "laser lady" that called the station the other day to report the CIA was shooting lasers into her brain. Her concerns are as important as any citizen, but that is the stuff that only other cops can truly appreciate.
It is important to keep a balance in your friendships from the start. Don't let old friends go and certainly do not alienate your family. For you and those close to you, police work might be the first encounter with the seedier side of life. Unless you were a pit boss in Las Vegas prior to joining the law enforcement family, you may not have known that bars open for swing-shift cops by 7 a.m.
However strange it may seem at first, you may see your peers finishing up their 12-hour shift with a daily dose of stale beer and tequila chasers. It may seem more and more like the norm as you progress in your career. The tight wire act you will have to walk is not falling into the trap of this sad lifestyle.
I witnessed firsthand how alcohol can destroy an officer's life. My first five years on the job, I watched as my roommate destroyed his police career and personal life with alcohol. It started out as innocent as most of life's tragedies. Just a few drinks after work with the boys did not seem like anything out of the ordinary. Several years later the party ended, as did his police career, after two alcohol-related arrests and a life-long battle with addiction.
Develop the Art of Communication
Gone are the days of Joe Friday and, "Just the facts, ma'am." Modern law enforcement requires more engagement between officers and the community. You may have heard it in the academy. "It is easier to talk someone to jail than to fight them into handcuffs." I am speaking out of experience after wrist and shoulder surgeries, and countless ripped uniforms.
Being an effective communicator holds true for dealing with your partners and supervisors, too. After all, who wants to sit in a police car with someone who can't hold a conversation during a 10- or 12-hour shift? Having a partner is a lot like being married. You often spend more time with your fellow officers than you do with your family and friends. Only you truly know your weaknesses. If being a poor communicator is one of them, do something about it. Read a book, buy the tapes, or take a class, but for everyone's sake, practice being an effective communicator.
Paving Your Career Path
As you navigate your first year, there will come a time to think about what you want to do with your career. Are you going to be the aggressive kick ass cop? Or, will you have a DARE sticker taped to your locker? One of the first things I used to have my trainees do is write down short- and long-term goals for their career. Your long-term plan may be to become a SWAT cop. Your short-term plan may be to work the jobs that will make you more marketable when SWAT has a vacancy.
Likewise, if your plan is to promote through the ranks then it is best to get yourself into positions that will make you an effective leader. Often, the best way to pave your career path is to find a senior officer or supervisor to mentor you on your journey. If you do find a good mentor on this job, latch on to him or her and soak up as much experience as you can.
As a new officer you will be faced with some of the greatest challenges and changes in your life. How you respond to these changes in the first year after the academy will affect the rest of your career. Developing good relationships with fellow officers during your formative years will smooth the transition from being a civilian to being a police officer. The earlier you lay a solid foundation, the stronger and more enjoyable it will be. Be careful of the pitfalls and enjoy your career. You have earned it.
Mike Menegio is a police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. He is currently assigned to Division and is tasked with dignitary protection duties. His past assignments include patrol, field-training officers, gang and narcotic enforcement, as well as several undercover assignments.