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What does it mean for an officer to act professionally?

A professional puts others at ease, and does not compete for the title of who is the smartest person in the room

You probably have a policy that requires that you act professionally at all times. But what does that mean?

According to the dictionary, a profession is an occupation requiring rigorous training and formal qualification. OK.

Some say professional is simply a contrast to an amateur. None of that helps the officer who is being told to “be more professional.”

So what does it mean for an officer to act professionally?

A professional holds knowledge that is not known by the general public. They are stewards of that knowledge, but in humility. They don’t disparage others for not knowing what they know. Professionals don’t shake their heads that the secrets of the law and human behavior are still a mystery to the public we serve. They calmly help educate and explain to the lay person things beyond their experience.

A profession engenders trust. Our fellow citizens will necessarily judge us by the way we look, walk, speak, and conduct ourselves. It isn’t always fair that they do so, but that’s the way humans work. Their ideal template of a professional peace officer is one who is fit, stands tall regardless of their stature, and gives them due attention.

Being a professional sometimes creates distance from others. Blood pressure goes up in the doctor’s office, people stumble over their words talking to a professor of English, and some try to show how much they know by telling about their experience or using our jargon. A professional puts others at ease, and does not compete for the title of who is the smartest person in the room.

A professional engenders confidence that everything is under control. Of all the skills they possess, the skill of appearing to know what’s going on is paramount.

Not fearless, but courageous
Not pondering, but thoughtful
Not cocky, but confident

Others look to the police officer in times of chaos and we must not fail them in those moments. A professional is always a leader, even at the lowest rank in the organization.

A professional is a person that others aspire to be. They are a model of what one can accomplish with dedication, hard work, and mental fortitude. They are not perfect, but make perfection a goal in their craft, their conduct, and their relationships. For some, being a role model is thrust upon them. For others, it is happenstance. For the police officer, it is an occupational imperative.

A professional does excellent work all the time. We don’t want a physician taking shortcuts, a pharmacist doing guesswork, or a lawyer hoping nobody notices what she left out the contract. A professional meets the standards every time, exceeds the standards frequently, and takes pride in her work.

A professional knows the demands of their occupation well enough to know their own weaknesses and strengths. They know when to seek help and when to help others. They are self-aware and, though driven, do not ignore their need for balance in their lives in order to be at their best.

A professional knows that very few others know what it feels like to do the kind of work they do. They know that critics are many. They know that mistakes can cost in lives and lawsuits. Professionals are typically rewarded well by the satisfaction of their high calling, their respect in the community, and excellent compensation. In the law officer’s case, it may be only one of those and seldom all of them.

A professional never stops learning. He or she is open to new methods and new knowledge. They learn from their colleagues and share information. They take self-improvement as a discipline and don’t rely on being coerced to attend training, even if it is a review of the most basic skills.

Only one person can look directly in a mirror and meet their own eyes. The professional may see fatigue and frustration in those eyes, but takes comfort in knowing that the people who depended on him that day saw a true professional at work.

Joel Shults retired as Chief of Police in Colorado. Over his 30-year career in uniformed law enforcement and criminal justice education, Joel served in a variety of roles: academy instructor, police chaplain, deputy coroner, investigator, community relations officer, college professor and police chief, among others. Shults earned his doctorate in Educational Leadership and Policy Analysis from the University of Missouri, with a graduate degree in Public Services Administration and a bachelor degree in Criminal Justice Administration from the University of Central Missouri. In addition to service with the U.S. Army military police and CID, Shults has done observational studies with over 50 police agencies across the country. He has served on a number of advisory and advocacy boards, including the Colorado POST curriculum committee, as a subject matter expert.