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4 critical elements of professional growth and development in law enforcement

Preparing for the future is an ongoing process that begins the first day on the job


There are four critical elements for growth and development in law enforcement: Reputation, education, networking and training.


I regularly receive guidance requests from law enforcement professionals who are transitioning from one phase of their careers to the next. I’m frequently asked the same question: “How do I make myself viable for the next level?”

Whether the person is vying for a promotion/specialized position, or considering a career after retirement, the answer is generally the same. Simply stated, if you waited until the eleventh hour to prepare, you are behind the curve. This does not necessarily mean you will be unsuccessful. This simply means that those who recognized the importance of professional growth and development early on in their careers will have a distinct advantage over those who have not.

Preparing for the future is an ongoing process that begins the first day on the job, but it’s never too late to start. With this in mind, let us examine the four critical elements for growth and development: Reputation, Education, Networking and Training (RENT).


Developing and maintaining a good professional reputation is paramount to success. High ethical standards, being reliable, trustworthy, dependable and selfless are among the strongest indicators of a positive reputation. This conduct must transcend both professional and personal lives. All too often we see good law enforcement officers who do a stellar job while on duty, yet their personal lives are a disaster.

Consistency is essential. Once a reputation is damaged, it is extremely difficult to rebuild. Law enforcement is a profession of dignity, honor and commitment in concert with high ethical standards. Strive for excellence from day one and maintain it forever. Always make good first impressions and remember that there is never a second opportunity to make a first impression.


Over the years I worked with many law enforcement officers who complained about attending school. Some were fortunate enough to have obtained a college degree before entering the profession, where others did not. Going to school while working in law enforcement is not an easy task, however continuing with higher education is essential to advancement. The excuses and rationale for not attending college during the working years are many.

Once again, the absence of a college degree may not necessarily mean that opportunities will not be available. It does mean that those who have made the commitment and sacrifice for higher education may have strategic advantages. Regardless, almost all the higher-level command and chief executive positions require a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree to even be considered. There is no substitution for a college degree – you either have a college degree or you don’t. It is very difficult to attend school while maintaining a balance between rotating shifts, family commitments, and other responsibilities but it can be done. Find a mentor who has done it and seek counsel and support.


In the early stages of a law enforcement officer’s career, the network of professional colleagues generally does not extend beyond the walls of one’s department. There is, however, a vast universe waiting to be explored beyond the smaller sphere. Recognizing the value of building and maintaining a wide professional network is extremely valuable for growth and development.

Consider joining professional associations on a regional, statewide or national level. These associations provide vast opportunities for networking and mentoring. Along the way, you can meet other professionals and expand your outreach.

Exchanging business cards has always been the common way of establishing a relationship with somebody, and technology should be used to maximize the encounter. Most often, a business card gets placed in your pocket and eventually in the hands of the local dry cleaners. Try using a card scanner smart phone app. When the business card is handed to you, scan it into your phone and it’s immediately in your contacts file. Once it is in your contacts file, send the new contact a follow-up email acknowledging your acquaintance and encouraging a future dialogue. This sets the stage for collaboration with the new contact. These types of power-networking habits separate the good from the great.


Anyone can attend required mandated training, but exceptional candidates recognize the value of specialized courses. It is a good idea to develop expertise in a certain area and pursue training opportunities that will separate your qualifications from others. A word of caution in this regard: Don’t become so focused upon one specific area that expertise in other areas becomes dormant. Develop the specialty, but simultaneously be a well-informed generalist.


In addition to all the aforementioned, here are a few other anecdotal suggestions:

  • Understand, use and embrace technology;
  • Be accessible and return phone messages/emails promptly;
  • Pay it forward;
  • Follow news and current trends;
  • Be a mentor, leader and inspiration to others;
  • Be part of the solution, not the problem;
  • Always strive to be the best at whatever you do.

Reject mediocrity, embrace excellence and know that it’s never too late to pay the RENT.

This article, originally published 7/07/16, has been updated.

Paul Cappitelli is an honorably retired law enforcement professional with over 45 years of experience. From 2007-2012, Paul served as Executive Director for the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST). Prior to his POST appointment, he retired at the rank of Captain from the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department in California, following 29 years of service. Paul is a past and present member of several professional groups and associations. He holds an undergraduate degree in business management and a master’s degree in public administration. He is currently a public safety consultant and police/corrections practices expert. Visit Contact Paul Cappitelli.