Ready to move on? Here are five things to look for in a new police department
If you’re ready to change jobs, make sure the place you’re moving to is really better
By Jesse Cohen
I see it all too frequently: at trainings, at recruiting events, on calls, at the gym – the list goes on. Good cops are stuck at struggling departments. Even worse, some leave the profession completely, so disgruntled that the only option in their eyes is to quit.
When I talk to these officers, I always get the same response. They feel helpless and hopeless and believe all departments face the same struggles as theirs. While I agree policing has changed and we are still slowly repairing the damage done by the civil unrest of 2020, this article is to reassure these types of officers that there are still plenty of great departments all over the country. My goal is to provide some tips on what lateral officers should look for in a department when looking to transfer.
Like a lot of officers here at the Westminster (Colorado) Police Department – or “Westy,” as we’re known in the area – I am a lateral. My first department had a great history but had experienced a lot of growing pains in the years before I was hired. During my first few months, somewhere around 30 officers left. Morale was bad, and as staffing numbers dropped, it became even worse. I found myself thinking and talking like a salty, disgruntled veteran cop after just a few months on the job.
I knew I needed to make a change soon. I applied to a few respected departments in the state but knew in my heart the only place I wanted to work was Westminster. I felt like everyone wanted to work for Westy. They had tradition, a respected history, great morale and they were cops. While I received offers from a few other departments, once I got the offer from Westy, it was over for me. I accepted the offer and started working, and my attitude immediately changed. I knew Westy was better than my old department, but I didn’t realize the differences would be so drastic until I started working here.
If you fit into this category of officer – the one who maybe feels stuck or wants to quit, or maybe you did quit a struggling department but still have a passion for the job – know there are plenty of amazing departments where you can work. Just do your research before applying anywhere. I’ve created a list of five components I think you should examine with each department before deciding.
1. Culture and morale
If you prioritize these topics, this should be the most important. A department’s culture and morale can tell you almost everything you need to know.
You can only find this out firsthand. Do a ride-along. Ask for a tour of the station. Get an opinion from an officer you trust. Observe interactions outside the normal day-to-day operations. Do officers get along? How is shift camaraderie? What is the interaction like between supervisors and line-level officers? What is the reputation of the department in the area? How do the officers interact with citizens, and how do the citizens of the city/county feel about the department?
If you’re lateraling from a department in the same state, this is usually pretty easy. I knew I wanted to work at Westy. I remember thinking the Westy cops almost had an aura about them. I went to some trainings and saw them on a handful of calls. They were so efficient in the way they worked, it was almost intimidating. I always heard the same positive comments about Westy from everyone in the state.
I did a ride-along and a tour of the PD and saw the way the officers interacted with each other. They were all family. I spoke to Westminster citizens, and all of them spoke highly of the department and felt safe living in the city. It was amazing to see. And these cops seemed to enjoy going to work; I spoke to numerous Westy officers, and they were nothing but positive about the department.
I recently spoke to an applicant who did a ride-along with another area department. The officers he rode with did nothing but talk about how much they hated their department. He told me everyone seemed disgruntled, and it showed in their work. This is a department that needs officers, and he wound up pulling his application. I can’t say I blame him. You’re looking at leaving a department and spending the next few decades at a new place in a job that can be stressful and dark. Stress in police work is inevitable. When you get stressed, it should come from the job itself, not the department. Departments should provide positive morale, overall culture and history. Put in the work in this area before you decide to apply.
Every department trains. We are required to by law. As a lateral you know each officer has to have a minimum amount of training each year. You need to ask yourself, though, do you want to work for a department that does the minimum amount of training? I know I don’t.
We’ve all probably seen the quote “You can never train enough for a job that can kill you.” I couldn’t agree more. You want to look at both the quality and frequency of training. This also can tie in with step No. 1: If a department has a good reputation and does good-quality work, it’s a good assumption they have quality training. At Westminster we’ve set our schedules so each patrol shift gets a “common day,” or an overlap day between shifts. The shifts alternate common days each week, so one week one shift works a beat while the other shift trains, and vice versa the following week. Each discipline is taught by experts in that field hand-picked by the PD, be it firearms, arrest control, tactics, first aid, investigation and so on.
Don’t be afraid to ask departments you’re considering about training requirements, styles and frequency. If you’ve been performing a skill one way for a decade, you can’t expect to learn your new department’s way of doing that skill if you’re only doing a few reps of it one time a year. A good department will have numerous opportunities for you to train each skill multiple times a year, work with you individually at any time to help you improve or correct bad habits, and have instructors who are competent in their field of expertise.
I was originally going to title this section “salary and benefits,” but in our region, most departments offer similar salaries and benefits. The 10 top-paying departments in our metro area all pay within a few thousand dollars of each other. The difference is usually not enough to even notice on your paycheck. Most also have similar benefits packages.
Pay is great for entry-level applicants. Younger generations see dollar signs and run toward the money. As a lateral, you need to look at the bigger picture. What is the pay scale compression? Does it take you years to top out in salary, or will you be at top pay within a year or two? What is the retirement plan? Do they have a 401K or a vested retirement with a good pension, defined benefits, deferred retirement option plan (DROP) and other packages that can help you plan the best future at the end of your career? You can actually talk to the cities or counties of the department you’re researching for this information. Look at the entire financial and legal package they offer and be sure it makes sense for you and your family’s present and future.
Staffing could probably be a subsection of “culture and morale,” but you’ll need to do your research on this as well. A short-staffed department will likely lead to morale issues. Reach out to officers and detectives if you can. Are they constantly working with skeleton crews? Is there mandatory overtime to cover patrol? Are detectives getting unreasonable caseloads? These issues can lead to disgruntled officers, causing more to leave, thus furthering the issues of staffing and negative morale.
Most important, a poorly staffed department will have safety issues. Training will suffer as it becomes harder to pull officers from the street, and overall officer safety will suffer with a lack of cover and officer presence. Remember, you’re leaving your department for a better opportunity and quality of life. Don’t make the mistake of leaving your current department if you know you’ll encounter the same issues at your new one.
“The leader is truly and ultimately responsible for everything,” says leadership expert Jocko Willink. Leadership within departments will determine their successes and failures. I’m not talking about the police chief or sheriff alone. Look at leadership in its entirety.
For example, at Westminster, officers and detectives have the support of the city leaders, the chief and command staff. Our job is to make decisions, and we are trusted to make the correct ones, as that’s what we train for. Our command staff consists of all former officers. They have worked their way up the ladder and earned their positions. When you’re looking at your potential new department, find out about the leadership. Are line-level employees supported? How did the command staff get their positions? Did they earn their stars, or were they placed there for other reasons? If they had leadership problems in the past, did they address them, or are they still following the same protocols? My guess is the department you’re leaving probably has some leadership issues. Look for a department where you will be supported, treated fairly and led by example.
Sometimes the grass is greener
Westminster has long been a “destination” department for both in-state and out-of-state applicants. I asked one of our recent lateral hires from out of state why he chose Westy. Being from out of state, he didn’t know the difference between us and any other department in the state. But he did his research prior to moving and decided on us. Based on his quote below, he and his family know he made the right decision. He improved their quality of life just by doing some research to find a place where he actually enjoys going to work. This officer said:
“What I looked for in a department was an agency that was decent size but not too large. Also an agency that had several units, such as SWAT, K9, motors, investigations, negotiations and so on. I’ve worked in a 20–30-staffed department and a 300–400-staffed department, and I understand the importance of working for an agency that allows for growth and longevity over the course of your career, such as with specialty units.
“I also looked for an agency that had good traditions and high standards. Westminster has both of these, and it means a lot to me that we have them, especially in this day in age where that can get lost in translation.
“Other big points I really value here are the common day trainings we do. They help build camaraderie among the teams and add tremendous value as things constantly change with laws and regulations.”
I’m glad this officer works for us now. He is a great cop and a great person. More than that, I’m happy we were able to give him a great place to work. His old department was experiencing some challenges, but he was able to do his research and make a change for the better.
If you take away anything from this article, know that sometimes the grass is greener on the other side of the fence. You just need to put in the work to figure out which fence you’re going to jump over.
The Westminster Police Department is offering a $10,000 hiring bonus for all newly hired police officers including trainees, certified and lateral officers. For more information, click here. Watch author Jesse Cohen and his colleagues discuss recruitment at the Westminster Police Department here:
About the author
Jesse Cohen is an investigator at the Westminster (Colorado) Police Department, where he’s worked for 10 years. Prior to that, he worked as a sheriff’s deputy. At Westminster, he worked primarily in patrol as a senior police officer before transferring to professional services with a focus on recruiting, hiring, backgrounds and training. Cohen is also an instructor for Westminster’s arrest control and defensive tactics program. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.