A rookie's guide to becoming a top cop

Veterans share their best advice for new cops looking for an edge

By Nicole Forzano

A recent consultation with a handful of expert sources close to Police1 produced a series of valuable tools that will apply to any new police recruit who aspires to one day hold a top position in an agency “Anywhere USA.” Officers who follow these four simple tips may find themselves a step ahead of the game, and on-track for a respectable career in law enforcement.

1. Knowledge First

Your goal is to help improve the overall performance of your agency, not to increase your ego.
Your goal is to help improve the overall performance of your agency, not to increase your ego. (Getty Images/kali9)

Regardless of how long you’ve been on, it’s highly advisable to continually seek opportunities to study your craft. Navigating your career in law enforcement will be a challenging feat. Be willing to find someone at your agency that can provide you with guidance. Seek someone who has been in your shoes, will have time to provide you with feedback, and can help you propel your professional development.

“Each new position requires more dedication more loyalty more intrusion on your time and space. Are you willing to leave some things behind to gain others? There is a price to pay and I believe it is worth it, but to be successful moving through the ranks you have to believe it too.” — John Douglass, Chief of Police at Overland Park Police

“As a new recruit, I would be less concerned with achieving rank and more concerned about being the best you can be at each job you have. Be the best jailer, patrol officer, detective, etc. that you can. It’s ok to be ambitious, but you have to be careful...if you are known for ambition only, that is a no go. Work hard, learn your job, teach others, and be a good ambassador for your agency. If you do that, the rank will come, and others will want to follow you. If you work hard, keep your mouth shut (negativity is a career killer...even when you think it is warranted) and think big picture, you will be fine.” — Paul Kunkel, Detective Sergeant at San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office

“Read trade journals and legal updates. Volunteer for training within your agency. Understand your departmental policy and reasons for those policies. If available, read old major case files and search warrants. Strive to be so knowledgeable about your position that eventually you become the informal leader of your section, but keep in mind this takes time and work on your part. Your goal is to help improve the overall agency performance and not to increase your ego.” — Phillip Patterson, Captain at Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Office

“Too many young police officers want to move on and up before they really have a good foundation. They think that because they have graduated from the academy and completed the field training program, they know the job. I think that most veteran officers would agree with the statement, 'They have only begun to know the job.' The lack of a solid foundation will come to hurt these new officers in the long run." — Paul Verrecchia, Chief of Police/Director of Public Safety at College of Charleston

2. Embrace Diversity

If you are going to achieve any kind of success, it is imperative that you understand the dynamics operating within your community, and the dynamics within your agency as well.

“We all work together at this agency for a common goal to serve our citizens no matter the division or squad. Team work!” — Phillip Patterson, Captain at Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Office

“Seek out, and even create, multiple opportunities daily for positive personal contacts with the reasonable members of your community in "non-law-enforcement" encounters. This helps in a number of ways, but two stand out. One, it gets the new officer in the practice of drawing the community TO him or her, instead of pushing them away. Two, it begins on-the-job training for becoming an expert at human interpersonal skills, which is where most people get paid in their careers... So, when you enter a restaurant, market, post office, or whathaveyou, take your sunglasses off, make eye contact with someone, smile, and say, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ Begin early letting people look into your eyeballs!” — Michael Fann, Instructor at Public Risk Management Association

"You must be willing to talk to anybody. You cannot pre-judge anyone as having nothing important to say to you. You never know who will give you an important piece of information." I was given this advice many years ago and found it to be so very true.” — Paul Verrecchia, Chief of Police/Director of Public Safety at College of Charleston

3. Protect Your Rep!

This one is simple and encompasses all aspects of life both on and off duty; do the right thing.

“Stay out of trouble! There are no secrets in law enforcement.” — Phillip Patterson, Captain at Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Office

“Departments will forgive crashed cars, misused sick time, late reports or reports you kissed off and should have taken. They will even assist you should you become dependent on alcohol or prescription drugs. You may not get a paycheck for a long time because you are on unpaid leave or suspension, you may have to go through a rough patch in life, you may even get scrutinized over and over...but you will still have a job and a chance to make that up and redeem yourself. If however, you lie...which is a specific intent "crime," you will certainly be fired, and deservedly so. I would rather work with a dumb ass or someone who has less than a stellar reputation, than someone that will lie about things.” — Michael Walker, Executive Director of Central Coast Gang Investigator Association

4. Your Duty, Off Duty

Above all else, take care. It’s easy to let the stress of life on the force creep into your home life. At the end of the day, it’s time to count your blessings and be grateful for what matters most, your loved ones. A surefire way to achieve success is by taking care of your mental and physical well-being. So eat right, get enough sleep, and be available and present with your family. Keeping a healthy balance at home will translate in to your effectiveness as a law enforcement leader.

“If you are married, make sure you spend quality time with your family, because you cannot focus on your job if you have problems at home.” — Phillip Patterson, Captain at Cabarrus County Sheriff’s Office

“Don’t forget to enjoy your experience as a police officer. Once you begin the rise through the ranks, if you have not been fully satisfied at the prior level, you will long for what you’ve left behind. Once you have satisfied your basic needs as a police officer you can set your site on promotion.” — Joe Solomon, Chief of Police at City of Methuen

This article, originally published January 2011, has been updated.

Next: What cops would tell a rookie version of themselves

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