5 tips for transitioning from military to police

Some this advice may or may not apply to you, so take what you find useful

Editor’s Note: This week’s PoliceOne First Person essay is from PoliceOne Member Gordon Eatley, who writes that making the move from a military career to a police career can be done successfully if you plan ahead and prepare for setbacks as well as success. In PoliceOne "First Person" essays, our Members and Columnists candidly share their own unique view of the world. This is a platform from which individual officers can share their own personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line. If you want to share your own perspective with other P1 Members, simply send us an email with your story.

By Gordon Eatley, Police1 Member

In December 2009, I’d just returned from a nine-month deployment to the detainee camps at Guantanamo. After the homecoming hugs and kisses, my wife asked, “What ever happened to you wanting to be a cop?” 

I didn’t have an answer. I’d joined the Navy in February 2000 after graduating from college. At the time I believed it would help in a later career in law enforcement. But after three years at sea, changing my rating to Master-at-Arms (Navy Police), three years in Italy, coming back to the states and then volunteering for my most recent deployment, nine years had gone by. I was 33-years old. I’d made Petty Officer First Class in seven years and had an excellent chance of making Chief. Without a doubt, I was a career sailor, and for the most part, loving it. 

But the question caused me to wonder: Was I too old to be a rookie cop? Did I really want to jump ship from an already promising career that was already half way to a retirement check? Did I really want to start over? I was solidly on the fence. Then the Navy made the decision for me. I was told all E6s were being extended a year at my Command. The people were good, but for various reasons I couldn’t stomach it. The fence collapsed and I knew it was time to go. And so began my transition from sailor to cop.  

1.) Remember the Seven Ps
If you’re thinking about getting out, you need to start thinking way ahead — remember: prior proper planning prevents piss poor performance. Start making plans at least a year out. The more time you give yourself, the greater your options will be. In my case, I didn’t care about moving back home so the field was wide open.

Unless you are dead set on returning to your home town you need to do your research. Take a hard look at the departments you’re interested in. They will be doing the same to you. Read local articles about the departments. Learn about what’s going on there (valuable in an oral board!).

You may not want to join a department being investigated by the DOJ or going through major upheavals. Employment brochures don’t tell the full story. Call them. Ask questions about shifts, pay, promotion opportunities, and specialized units. Do they put on their own academy or send you to a regional one? Do you get paid during the academy? Will they wave residency requirements (most do) for military veterans? Are they actually hiring or just trying to fill the hiring pool? When would you start? 

2.) Know the Lay of the Land
While you are doing this, look at the city itself. I nearly took a job at a department in Arizona. Fortunately, my parents traveled there for a visit. While the  website looked great, the city itself left much to be desired. I thank God I found out before I wasted time and moneygoing to a place I would never want to live. You won’t be transferring somewhere else in three years so make sure that the city and the job are right for you.

The hiring process can be lengthy. In my case it was more than a year, and I travelled to my new home in Texas four times before getting hired. 

Get as much done prior to your EAOS as possible — while you’re still getting paid and can take leave. Unless you are dead-set on a specific department, don’t put all your eggs in one basket. I applied all the way from the southern east coast to Arizona. The application process can help you get a feel for the department and whether or not you want to work there. This — and timing — played a major role in where I decided to accept an offer.  

3.) Take Advantage of Still Being in the Military
You’re going to be background checked. If the department you’re interested in is like mine, they are going to want more than just “US Navy, 2000 to 2010.”

You’re going to need to names of supervisors, references, addresses and points of contacts for all of them. If you have spent enough time in the service to have transferred at least once, this can be difficult due to these people’s transfers as well. Make use of the personnel departments at your Command. They can help you find people. Don’t rely on Facebook. 

Speaking of Facebook, it has a delete option for posts. Feel free to use it. My background check involved turning over my usernames and passwords for my social media sites and for a political blog I used to write. In this day and age, it is irresponsible to not police your pages and to allow some idiocy you posted while on drunken leave to cost you a job.

4.) Paying the Bills in the Transition
Be prepared to have other means of supporting yourself between your EAOS and starting your new job in law enforcement. If you’re one of the lucky few who are able to start at a department or sheriff’s office while still on terminal leave or immediately after, then great! If you’re like the majority, then consider the expenses you are going to have in the intervening time. 

In my case I was going to be one of the lucky ones until the economy tanked in 2009. The academy got pushed back six months for my current department. The academy for the other department I got hired by ended up not starting theirs until a year after I’d left active duty. We had saved our money and were fortunate to have family that had room for us. Prepare. Save your money!

As an E6 with nine years of service, I made approximately 35K a year. What I didn’t figure in is that I lived in base housing, received BAS, and paid no utilities and no medical other than dental for the wife and kids. 

I was excited because I was starting out at 41k a year at my department. Had I figured in all the new “civilian” expenses I would have, I would have realized that this amounted to $10,000 a year pay cut. If you’ve suffered any injuries while in the service (I injured my back, blew out an ACL, and suffered some hearing loss) do not be ashamed to apply to the VA. While these problems may not affect you now, they may in the future and it’s a lot easier — as in, automatic — to prove a service connection to the injury within in a year of discharge. 

I refused to do this for some time until I was convinced by my Vietnam veteran father, who had also refused to apply, but now suffers from the effects of Agent Orange etc. There is nothing to be ashamed of. You earned it. This small amount of money meant the difference between paying the bills and going into debt.

DO NOT LOSE YOUR DD 214! You will need this document for just about every job you apply for. Things go missing when you’re moving. A simple way to prevent this is to have your DD 214 made a part of the public record. Go to the court house or county/parish clerk and have it entered. 

You will be saving yourself a major headache in the future.

5.) Prepare for Some Culture Shock
Having joined the Navy right out of college, I had never worked in the civilian world other than the typical high school and college jobs. Entering the civilian world again, I discovered something: military life — while it has its share of trials — is often a very sheltered existence. 

You will get paid, have a place to live, and you will be fed. And unless you really, really screw up, you’re not going to be fired. These sound like simple things until that guarantee goes away. 

I suffered from a certain level of naiveté despite being in my thirties. I was told by the recruiting Sergeant that I was number eight on the hiring list and that they were hiring 17.

I figured, “Great, I’m set.”

Until I walked into the oral board and found out that this didn’t matter and that the board would make the final decision. Knowing that I had abandoned a ten year career and that the next twenty minutes would decide my future and my families was stressful to say the least. Again, have a fall back plan. 

Everyone is different and so are the departments out there. Some of this advice may or may not apply to you, so take what you find useful and data dump the rest. Starting over can be a major risk, but it can be done successfully if you plan ahead and prepare for setbacks as well as success. From one vet to another, this is just another mission to accomplish and I know you know how to get the job done.

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