Dear New Police Officer …
You don’t know me, but I was once you. It feels like a couple of lifetimes ago, yet the memories are still so fresh and crisp, they could be from just this morning. I can’t remember not being a cop. And yet, recalling the anxiety and insecurity of being the newest police officer in the department has me looking in the mirror for recent acne breakouts and only seeing new wrinkles in their place.
I don’t know where you work, but without a doubt, I’m guessing you don’t yet have a first name. Instead, you’re known as FNG (Flipping New Guy/Gal), Newbie, Rookie, Boot, Scrub, Youngster, Little Badge, Kid, Fresh Pressed, Shiny, or some other slang term to remind you that you’re not worthy of respect quite yet. Or worse, based on whatever gossip seeped through the holes in the academy trainer’s confidentiality oath, you’ve already been given a moniker like Romeo, Prizefighter, Knuckle-dragger, or Trouble.
Whoever you are, New Police Officer, I know what you’re worried about. I know how you feel. And I know where you’re likely to fail. I know this because I spent 28 years skidding and swerving into almost every pothole and ditch as I travelled the not-so-straight line from academy to retirement. Most likely, you will also get a little lost along your way, but with a better map, and some advance notice about the biggest turns and dead ends, you might just make the journey a little less treacherous and much more enjoyable. Here is the paper folding map you may have never held before due to your age. It may be old-fashioned, but it is highly visible at a glance and the terrain is easier to decipher. Not every turn will be the same, but the start and the end are similar for every police officer.
The goal is simple. Go to the academy, survive a career, and retire healthy with time to spend that pension you worked endless hours and days for — hopefully surrounded by tons of family and friends who will be proud of you, understand your emotional hiccups, and adore you as you adore them. It shouldn’t be that difficult. The mission objective (that term you are all too familiar with) is clear. Yet this map is not offered to most new recruits and new officers seldom follow it — favoring, instead, shortcuts and detours.
Here is what I know.
Family is there to provide support and unconditional love. Do not forget them. Do not abuse them. And if you don’t feel support from your immediate relatives, find it in your “family” of choosing. There is no shame in needing community. Just accept it and nurture it. Always.
Friends come and go, and some will abandon you based on your chosen career. That is a sad fact, but your connections to your coworkers will more than make up for it. They, too, need understanding and cultivation. See recipe above.
Hobbies and personal interests may seem less important as the hours of overtime and missed days off increase, but don’t make the mistake of abandoning them. Fishing, working out, reading, cooking, skiing or running all feed your psyche. The job will rip at your soul, trying to decrease the size of it until there is nothing but the negative left. Without creative, invigorating or enriching time spent away from the person you have to be at work, you run the risk of disappearing into who others think you should be. Make the effort necessary to find the spark in the things you like to do, away from work, and possibly with people completely unrelated to law enforcement.
In police work, our roadblocks are often internal: negative attitudes, isolation from others, pervasive unhealthy thoughts, mental exhaustion, and my favorite, cynicism.
Understand that there is a certain amount of well-deserved respect that comes with the uniform. You have chosen to protect those who cannot defend themselves. You have sworn to uphold the law and live according to high moral standards. Don’t let your head swell, New Police Officer. You get paid. It is a job. Sure, not everyone is cut out to run toward an armed suspect, but remember, not everyone can build a rocket, transplant a heart, educate a 15-year-old or even parent a child. Your gifts are commendable, but not a license to place yourself above anyone else.
People will fawn over you, chase you with admiration, and inflate your ego — even when it is not justified. Remember the above: your grounding family, your friends who will drop you a peg or two for thinking too highly of yourself, and the personal interests that make you unique but not special. Giving in to the idea you are highly gifted or heroic can bring on that badge-heavy attitude no one admires or respects.
That said, you are also going to be tempted by the accolades and flirting that the uniform affords you. How do I say this delicately, New Police Officer? You are not that attractive, witty, interesting or smart. Sure, the badge and uniform might make you 90% more appealing to some of the people walking this Earth, but marriage and commitment are important and worth the effort. Do not contribute to the stereotype of the cheating cop with multiple marriages or affairs. Enjoy the attention. Be flattered by the offers. But keep your uniform on and your reputation unsullied.
Funding for Repairs
I will keep this short and sweet. Save your money. The closer you get to your final destination, the quicker your budget decreases. You cannot look ahead on a road map and predict medical catastrophes, disabilities and family emergencies. Along your journey, you’ll see billboards for new trucks, boats and vacations that will tempt you to take the next exit. I am not saying you shouldn’t enjoy your vacation time or splurge every now and again, but using investment accounts such as a 401K and an employer-provided 4557 plan will set up your future in the most positive way.
A big house, a pool and all the expensive toys sound great. You can justify them by saying they will increase your quality of life now. But what are the things that will help your stress, job fatigue and worry? I can assure you, New Police Officer, they don’t include an inflated mortgage and tapped-out credit cards. Find your peace and joy some other way.
Then there is the scheduled maintenance that needs to be addressed. Cracks in the roadway and even sinkholes are going to happen. In police work, our roadblocks are often internal: negative attitudes, isolation from others, pervasive unhealthy thoughts, mental exhaustion, and my favorite, cynicism. Please point to a cop with more than five years of service who does not think the general population is dumb. What police officer doesn’t have a salty outlook on humanity after years of seeing people at their absolute worst? The problem is the constant negative, cynical view of one’s entire life and surroundings — never seeing the good in people or the absolute joy life can offer.
For a second, just pull up in your mind an image of a cop with 20 years on the job. Now ask yourself, does that cop have a bad attitude? Are they a heavy drinker? Complain constantly? Do they take prescription painkillers for a chronic injury or illness? Does that police officer you just thought of have a high regard for their community and the quality of the citizens?
My guess is, probably not. The person you conjured up in your mind drags themselves to work at the last possible second, volunteers for nothing, grumbles about working conditions and endlessly gripes about the police administration and city politics. That officer has very few friends and a broken marriage or two, isolates themselves on patrol, has nothing positive to say and drones on and on about retirement. And if I were a betting person, I would lay money on the age of that person being somewhere in their mid-40s.
Let me be frank: The person you imagined could be you in 20 or so years unless you take this to heart. You do not have to be that cliché, but it is going to take some planning before the road trip begins.
Just like a real vacation, where the rest stops and layovers are built into the journey, you’ll end up having experiences and taking side trips you didn’t really plan for. A certain amount of indulgence is expected but cannot be continuous or absolute or your experience (and your career) will be ruined in a bloated, hung-over mess.
If you’re smart and careful, New Police Officer, your career will bring you so much satisfaction. I am thrilled to welcome you into a brotherhood (and sisterhood!) that few want to or can be a part of. You deserve my trust and my respect and my pride in your efforts. Do not let me down or tarnish the reputation of law enforcement by taking sketchy detours or trying to blaze new trails across someone else’s land. It will get you in trouble and embarrass the rest of us. Instead, learn from the mistakes of myself and others so you don’t crash and burn along the way.
Find a way to have compassion for others, even if you suspect they might not deserve it. Be selfless and humble. Cut yourself some slack, New Police Officer, but don’t make excuses. And above all, remember how you’re feeling right now and try to maintain your zest for the job for as long as you possibly can. The brain hum of it all will certainly come, but please resist the stereotype; don’t be that cop. Show the next batch of academy graduates just how it is supposed to be.
With love and esteem,