Paragon Investigative Services
SURVIVING YOUR CAREER
In the police academy, new officers are regularly instructed on the subject of career survival, but from the perspective of officer safety. While that is important, it is but one aspect of career survival. The other aspect of career survival is finding a way to successfully navigate the political (both external and internal) and everyday challenges that face today’s officers. On that subject matter, a new officer is usually left to find his or her own way. Many, including me, didn’t even think of that aspect of career survival when we were hired. We were just excited to have a job, so surviving your career at that time meant successfully passing the academy and then probation. It usually isn’t until a few years later, does the thought begin to form that if you can successfully navigate the next twenty-five or thirty years in law enforcement, you can actually retire.
Most officers who make it to retirement have acquired information from fellow law enforcement professionals that help them navigate both the political and everyday challenges. While that can be helpful, I think the law enforcement profession can and should do a better job to provide a framework for officers to use as a reference to assist them in this aspect of career survival. This can be accomplished through the various academies or during in-service training. The purpose of this article is to begin building a framework that officers can use to help avoid the difficulties that can be present during their respective careers, and establish a positive trajectory to help them achieve their own success.
It’s not about you, especially at first
When you are hired as a police officer, you are there to fill a vacancy: in other words, a need of the department. You were not hired to fulfill your lifelong desire to work narcotics, ride a motor, or have a K9. While those assignments may be in your future, the department needs to first see that you are able to perform the job competently. This includes competent performance without creating issues with other employees or the public. Law enforcement is a profession, so the learning doesn’t end when you successfully pass probation. Learning is a career-long endeavor.
Just as learning is a career-long endeavor, surrounding yourself with successful people should also be part of the process. Seek out learning opportunities, both from within the profession and from the outside. Find professional organizations to join, such as CPOA, that offer training classes and have many successful people among their ranks to emulate and learn from. Leadership can be learned and watching how successful people lead is a great way to grow personally and professionally.
As a new officer, take the time to learn your department’s policies and procedures and to understand the particulars of your job. If you were selected to work in a specialty, educate yourself on the nuances of that new position. The more competent and trustworthy you are, the better the opportunities will be in the future. Put the needs of the department above your personal goals, as you persevere to establish a pattern of quality work product. Once this is established, you will also be able to focus on achieving your personal goals. It’s not about you, it’s about what your can bring to the department to accomplish the overall mission.
Always be professional
One of the best pieces of advice that I received during my career was very simple and direct; if you can’t say it or do it in front of the chief, you probably shouldn’t say it or do it while at work. In other words, be professional. Being a police officer is more than a job; it is a professional career that can be very rewarding, while being extremely challenging.
Without doubt, you will not always be able to convince others that you are right, or that they are wrong. What you can demonstrate by your choice of words and actions is that you are a professional officer. Consistent professionalism will help you to earn the respect of others, even if they disagree with your perspective. In other words, while they may not agree with your perspective, they will usually respect your professionalism. “Winning the argument”, yet looking unprofessional while doing so, does not lend itself to a positive career path. Getting in the last sarcastic comment will not endear you to those who make the decisions as to who will work where. Besides, with all the camera-phones out there do you really want to end up on a video embarrassing yourself or your department? Again, if you can’t say it or do it in front of your chief, just don’t.
“They” can’t get what isn’t there
During my career, especially when I was working Professional Standards, I heard repeatedly from officers a belief that “they” were out to get them. The “they” referred to was usually the command staff, supervisors or another employee. While certainly there are those that may gain from your failure to act professionally, it is only you and your conduct that will invite failure. Rarely, in my experience, can someone else cause you to violate a law, policy or procedure. Your conduct is your choice.
During your law enforcement career, you will have to work with individuals that you do not like, agree with, or even want to be around. This is when professionalism comes to the forefront. If you allow your conduct to be negatively influenced by a personal or professional conflict, then it is you that has allowed yourself to be in a compromised position.
When a conflict arises, make the effort to meet with those involved and attempt to resolve the differences. I have found that many times the perceived conflict was more of a misunderstanding than a true conflict. Even if the meeting is not productive, you have made the effort, which is the professional choice and will not go unnoticed. Remember, “they” can’t get you if you maintain your professional demeanor and follow departmental policy and procedures. “They” can’t get you unless you put yourself in a position to be “got.”
Attitude, attitude, attitude
A positive attitude combined with a good work ethic can create opportunities for your success. The “chip” you carry around on your shoulder, regardless of your work ethic, will limit your opportunities. If you were a supervisor looking to fill a specialty, would you rather have an officer with a great attitude and an average work ethic, or someone with a poor attitude but an outstanding work ethic? As a supervisor, I would take the good attitude every time. The reason? A poor attitude can infect a unit or detail, thus, hurting the efficiency and productivity of that entire team.
The attitude you project becomes who you are to your agency. A negative attitude is unsettling to those around you and can impact your chance of a successful career trajectory. From a practical perspective, if an officer is that unsatisfied with their law enforcement career, then perhaps they should consider other career alternatives. A positive attitude can help you achieve your goals, while a negative attitude will limit your chances for success. I’ve gleaned more about a person’s character by watching their reaction to a setback, than from a success. In other words, a person’s true character is more evident in their reaction to failure than success. The attitude you project is how you are perceived.
While the points above appear basic, they often take an entire career to learn. The next generation of law enforcement can better benefit from the learned mistakes of others by being provided the necessary training in the academy and early in their careers. Career survival is much more than making it to retirement. It is, and should be, about getting the most out of what you have to offer and want to achieve. Always remember why you got into the law enforcement profession to begin with. Bear in mind that you were hired to help the department, not the other way around. Keep the perspective that you are a professional and should act professionally. Understand that “they” can’t get you unless your conduct dictates such. And in the words of Albert Einstein, “Weakness of attitude becomes weakness of character.” Be safe!