What cops would tell a rookie version of themselves
They say hindsight is 20/20
This article is being updated with suggestions from Police1 readers. Make sure to keep reading for top tips for rookies and to submit your own suggestions at the end of the article.
They say hindsight is 20/20. We’ve all learned lessons along the way in our careers – and this hard-won knowledge is sometimes just the thing a rookie needs to hear.
We asked our Police1 readers what they would tell a rookie version of themselves.
Here is a roundup of some of the best responses we received. Check them out and be sure to read P1 Columnist Tim Dees’ article that originally inspired the question.
- You get out of it what you put into it. And beware of the political games. It can be like a chess match. Unfortunately, that is the reality in some departments. – Antone Gutsfeld
- You’re not ready! Slow down and learn from your FTO, spend time as a back-up to learn from your shift partners, ask questions and don’t stop until you’re satisfied with the answers. Each shift will have the good and the bad. Ignore the bad and embrace the good. – Dan Grossi
- Get a degree you can fall back on, unrelated to LE, for a secondary career if you get hurt or burnt out. – Roman Herrera
- Your badge is not an invisible shield and it does not weigh nine pounds. It is merely a symbol. – Paul Sullivan
- Your job is to correct a behavior. You want to do that with the least amount of force necessary. Often with your mere presence alone. Not everyone needs a ticket or to go to jail. – William Holmes
- My motto used to be "talk ‘em into cuffs." I hated fighting with folks, so I avoided it as much as humanly possible. – Pete Henderson
- You will be let down by the prosecution/system more than you wish. Don't take it personally. – Ryann Hild
- Learn how to pick your battles, sometimes the juice isn’t worth the squeeze. – Barry Campbell
- Don’t eat that gas station burrito. – Sam Bradburn
- You get paid the same no matter how much work you do so no need to light the world on fire! – A A Ron Dohert
- Don’t take the job home. – Kevin Moore
- First week on the job my supervisor sat me down and basically ordered me to participate in the deferred comp program. That was 41 years ago, and I thank god he did. – Bruce Stedman
- Policing is what you do, not who you are! Keep the friends you had before the job and don't hang with mostly LEOs. – Dannae Pope
- Those "boring" department-mandated mental health, wellness, and PTSD for LE trainings are important so stop acting like you are invincible. Wake up, sit up and pay attention because it might just save your or a buddy’s life one day. – Ryan Bowlen
- Not every lesson has to be learned the hard way. – Bonsai Mike
- As my FTO told me and I didn’t quite take to heart, “It’s a career, not a crusade!” – Blair Powers
- Don't risk your life for a dime bag. – Richard Johnson
- Keep the humor because it is going to be a wild ride. – Rodney Scott
Police1 readers respond
Don’t be peer pressured into being “on duty” 24/7. Don’t eat, sleep and breath police work no matter what your peers think. There is more to life than cop stuff! This is your career, not your life! And most importantly, read Kevin Gilmartin’s book “Emotional Survival.”
This job will eat you up if you let it, it’s not a crime to take a minute for yourself, or a week if you need it, you have to stay mentally healthy, or you will not last! When you make a mistake, and we all do, give yourself some grace, but always learn from that mistake. Always give yourself an advantage in every situation, do what has to be done, and take care of yourself, your partner, other officers and the people you serve, but the goal at the end of the day is to make it home! Hold your family tight, and spend as much time with them as you can – working OT, or off duty is great, but you won’t get the time with your family back.
- Ask yourself these three questions regularly, and answer them with ruthless honesty: 1. What are my abilities and my limitations? They affect how I do my job. 2. What are my peers’ perceptions of my abilities and limitations? They affect how they do their job. 3. What is the public’s perception of how I am doing my job? It will determine their support for you when you need it most.
- Keep a journal. Write in it every single day. You have a front-row seat to the greatest show on Earth and it will all become a blur after the first few years. Use that journal for reflection and personal growth. Use it to memorialize leadership wins and failures. Use it to help you remember the victims and some of the funniest things you can imagine, and some that defy your imagination.
- Having good supportive leadership and administration in your agency is more important than high pay, technology and fancy gadgets.
- Although most senior officers and supervisors mean well, they aren’t always right. Read and be able to explain case law and code. Don’t be afraid to speak up when you know something is being done wrong even if “that’s how we’ve always done it.”
- Never forget the night before your first day. Never forget your first time in uniform and the awkward bulkiness. Never forget your awkward and bulky ride to work. Never forget your first time in briefing. Never forget your first time in the car trying to figure out where to put your stuff while listening to a radio with 5 different channels and 20 different voices all while trying to remember all the faces, cars and storefronts that pass you all while listening to some person you just met telling you how a mistake out here can cost you or someone their life. Never forget those 14 weeks in the car. Never forget your first arrest, report, scuffle, or ass-chewing. Never forget your first death. Never forget your first life. Never forget the first day in that same cop car alone and how everything looked foreign, people looked twice as big and you don't know how but some smart ass was able to move all the streets around from where they were last week and now you're lost. Never forget that first year. Never forget the next 20 years. Never forget the first day of the new guy, that was you, trust me. Never forget standing in the street with the heat, dust, rain and snow. Never forget the 3 a.m. BS sessions in the darkest part of town. Never forget when you make admin how you said you were gonna change things. Never forget the family dinners and school plays you missed. Never forget to be a father, mother, husband, wife or friend. Never forget the people you met along the way. And at the end of it all.....never forget any of it, because it was one hell of a ride!
- Don’t waste your early years trying to prove the type of officer you want to be. Work the streets, answer your calls, make your arrests and let the career lead you in the beginning.
- No matter how good the money looks, do something else. Drive trucks, create a trucking company, get any other license you can get. But if you still decide to be a cop, it's a unique and good job, but expect yourself to change. You won’t see the best in people, and your mental health suffers at times. But it can still be very rewarding. Look out for yourself.
- Understand the purposes of your department's policies and procedures.
- Eat right, pack healthy lunches and snacks. Limit drinking and unwind at the gym. Get sleep.
- Teach yourself basic case law. It’s good to know why you can legally do something.
- No one calls the police to celebrate good things. The 5% of the population that you meet is not reflective of society as a whole. The majority of people are still good human beings.
- Don’t see the world as you see it on duty. Always remember, the people that call you, are having one of the worse days of their life. Also, don’t forget who you were before LE. Do not lose yourself over this profession. Don’t be a robot at home. Leave work at work.
- Slow down, it’s your scene and you’re in control. The time will come (and you’ll know) when you can’t slow down and you have to act.
- People will try to get under your skin repeatedly. Sometimes they might succeed, but regardless, try to keep a level head and maintain the level of professionalism that you would expect your mother to receive.
- The badge doesn’t earn respect, your actions do. Most people you encounter are good people having a bad day.
- FTO training is hard and long for a reason. If it was easy, there would not be a need for it. The point is to teach you the job and how to do it. The academy teaches you how to pass a test and gives you a general understanding of the job, but not how to do what your department wants and how to go home every night. Look, listen and understand.
- Treat the people you contact the way you would like to be treated under the same circumstance. the badge is not a shield of protection, it is for recognition as a law enforcement official not a person of punishment. It is to help and problem-solve for the calls you respond to. After the call is completed critique yourself. You represent your organization and sometimes you are the only contact the public will have with local government and that is how you and your organization will be remembered by that contact, whether good or bad. When I was an Alaska State Trooper, if you did not have the village behind you, you would not be able to do your job because there was no backup. Be aware of your surroundings and do not get in over your head.
- It is easier to talk to someone for 2 hours than fight them for 2 minutes.
- Treat everyone with respect. It will pay off greatly in the current situation and even years later. You will be remembered by all involved by the way you treat people. The motto of police work is to “Serve and Protect,” but that is a fancy way of saying “I’m here to help.”
- Dissect all calls you go to, know about and hear about. Monday night quarterback everything you do to find your mistakes and fix them. You’ll never be perfect, but perfection is something to strive for. Once you leave work, leave the work at work.
A senior officer told me this when I got into law enforcement: "Kid, don't be greedy, find your niche. Do not try to take the whole 'pie' at once. Throughout your career, take just a small piece of the 'pie.' Eventually, you will have the whole 'pie' and your career will be winding down. You will leave the table happy and full." I took this advice seriously and I spent a wonderful 31+ years in law enforcement.
As James Bond says, "Always have an escape plan." Don't be afraid to walk away from this job if you're not happy. This job isn't for everyone; better to move on than make a bad decision and end up in jail or the unemployment line.
Once you hit the top pay step, max out deferred comp and get a Roth IRA too. Don't work overtime to buy toys – save that money and invest it, or go to school on your time off and learn something other than law enforcement. Everyone around you is forming an opinion about you – they will impact your career progression, so keep in mind how you make co-workers feel. Don't ever marry someone who knew/knows you as a cop, and don't get married to anyone without an ironclad prenup.
Read books on being a good police officer, take more time to interact with the people in the community, don't fall into the trap of disliking all attorneys and mental health workers – some are actually good people. It's not all about the sheepdog and sheep – we need to get away from that sometimes. Lastly, don't sacrifice family for the job. The job was there before you and will be there after you – you only get one chance with your family. I'm sure the rookie version of me would want to dismiss all of this, but if a little stuck it would have been a much better career.
Remember that today’s suspect is tomorrow’s witness. How you treat him today will dictate how much cooperation he gives you tomorrow.
Before you go toe to toe with someone, in a stand-up argument, always remember this one thing, in ALL your interactions with people – whether they are suspects, witnesses, victims, or colleagues – each and every person’s perception is THEIR reality. It may not be logical, reasonable, fathomable to you, or even right, but it IS their reality. If you think this before you speak, it will inform both your actions and words.
Start planning for retirement NOW, and commit to saving at least 25% of all raises, overtime and off-duty job income.
Find yourself a good psychologist immediately and start seeing them right away to discuss what you have seen and experienced. Don’t let the trauma build up. You get your car maintained regularly, and you have to do the same for yourself because when your car is on fire on the side of the road, it’s too late at that point.
Always be mindful of how you drive. A person may not ever come face to face with a police officer, but everyone has seen a police cruiser driving on the streets. They will develop ideas about you and our profession based on your driving. You can add to a positive image, or add to a negative image just based on how you drive. Also, get out of your car and talk to people. Do not hibernate in your vehicle with the exceptions of lunch and calls. You will be amazed how many people appreciate you just being sociable.
You'll be surprised how many people will become calmer, & cooperate more when you show you are actually LISTENING to them and look them in the eyes.
I would tell a rookie version of myself several important things they don't teach you in the academy. Even though it is beat into you during the academy that integrity and professionalism are the cornerstones to good policing, it doesn't hit home until you are on the streets. I would tell myself to ALWAYS act professional and never give up your integrity for anything. The second part, which builds upon my first point, is that no administration, no supervisor, no co-worker and no so-called "friends" will have your back when push comes to shove. Unfortunately, the thin blue line gets thinner every day. Cops, especially administration, will throw their officers under the bus to save their own skins. When promotion time comes, forget about it. It's every man and woman for themselves. I would tell a younger version of myself to always act within policy, follow the rules, but don't sell yourself short and don't do anything involving politics or nepotism. It runs rampant in police work.
Be understanding. One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was, "Everybody has a story to tell, it isn't going to hurt you to listen to it." People will tell you if they are good or bad if you just listen.
The job will wear you out if you let it, take your days off, use your vacation and PTO time. Say no every now and then when they call you to come in...you can’t do this job and not take time for yourself.
Be the same man “in and out” of uniform. Don’t be a tough guy behind the shield because the bad actors out there will sense it. Stand in front of your shield and others will respect you for it.
Do whatever you can to remain with a good supervisor and mentor. If they change assignments or days off, apply for re-assignment to stay with them. Good supervisors can absolutely enhance your career just as much as a bad one can derail it. Stick with people who challenge you and make you a better cop.
Slow down when rolling to a hot call. You are of no use if you’re in a car accident. And wear your seatbelt.
If possible, achieve two degrees: A master's in law enforcement and another in business administration. Once you get above sergeant, law enforcement becomes a business, with decisions to be made about budgets, equipment purchases, assisting in human resources and training. One should always try to advance their positions but more importantly, give back. Pass your knowledge on to others.
Change is inevitable, so be fluid and flexible. The more adaptive you are to a situation the longer you'll last in your career.
Believe it or not, you’re going to want to retire one day. Plan accordingly. Watch your money the way you watch a suspect's hands.
If the court system fails the community, it doesn’t mean you failed the community. Make every decision on the street with the victims in mind and don’t forget why we do this job. We do it for the people who depend on us.
1. Don't limit your social circles to cops only. Maintain friendships outside the job. 2. If you are or get married, stay faithful and loyal to your bride. Far too many law enforcement marriages end in divorce and as a result, many lives are destroyed.
My FTO once told me, ”Just remember, if you get into this career for money it’s the wrong career. This career is to help people and make a difference one day.”
When you are not working, find a hobby or skill outside of law enforcement that you can enjoy and unwind. That hobby or skill can be something to do after retirement.
Always try to start with Plan A. That's the nice, cordial officer. The other party will dictate when you switch to Plan B, the forceful, stern, deadly serious officer. Yes, some people are already on Plan B before you get out of the car. But whenever possible, use Plan A first.
Slowing down and breathing are your friends. Don’t ignore them.
You can’t save everyone and not everyone can be helped. Reality isn’t what you think it is. Don’t get discouraged when things go wrong.
1. Crime doesn’t happen at the speed limit. 2. Make your own police work, don’t wait for the radio. 3. Always have fun.
Keep in mind that every decision you make becomes part of the legacy you leave. Keep honesty and integrity at the forefront all the time. The result is that after you are retired, it's a satisfaction looking in the mirror and knowing you gave it your all, every day, every call, to make a difference in people's lives.
Keep an open mind no matter how many times you deal with the same people. Remember, bad guys also have bad days and are still victims of crimes.
Don’t be afraid to promote. You’re not selling out your brother and sister officers. If you have a level head, you will give them a chance to have a fair and decent mentor.
Make time and force yourself to exercise. You'll get out of shape quickly and the older you get, the harder it will get.
You've chosen one of the hardest jobs in the world, physically and emotionally, you just don't know it yet. There are going to be a lot of hard days to come, but don't let them take away from the good ones too. Remember the good you do for people along with the funny, outrageous, silly and downright weird stuff you will see and do. Retirement comes sooner than you think it will!
I was an airline pilot for 25+ years, 10 years a military pilot before I got into LE as a reserve deputy. Aviation parallels LE in many ways. Three steps I learned from day one in a two-seat Cessna: Maintain control, analyze the situation and take proper action. This works every time, whether you're flying a plane or pulling up on a chaotic scene as an LEO.
If you plan to go out and socialize with coworkers, always call and check in at home so that your better half is not worried. I did that and I am celebrating my 50th wedding anniversary.
- I have been a reserve police officer for close to 13 yrs. Remember, you're out there to "serve and protect." That means for everyone. Always be respectful to all you encounter. If the department is having training on how to jump from trees, be there. Learn all you can, for your safety, your partner's safety and the safety of the citizens you serve.
- Don’t forget that every time you wear the uniform, somebody daily thinks about killing you. You don’t know who it is so make officer safety a way of thinking. Be constantly aware.
- Keep working hard...you may not see the results but they’re there.
- When you are making stops or handling calls, make sure to watch those hands, control your suspects at all times, and no backpedaling. Remember: Time, distance and cover are your friends.
- True happiness is found at home, not on the clock, one day you will retire so invest in your happiness.