What I wished I had known before, during and near the end of my police career
You are not going to change or save the world, but you will make a difference in the lives of individuals who need you at a moment’s notice
By Randy Harris
It is 42 years since I started my law enforcement career in February 1979. In response to a recent question posed by the Police1 editors asking readers what they wished they had known before becoming a cop, I would like to share my thoughts about three periods:
- What I wish I had known before becoming a cop;
- What I wish I knew when I first started as a police officer;
- What cops should know when they near retirement.
Some of the things I wish I had known before I became a cop:
- Choose your friends carefully. Guilt by association may cause your application to be denied in the background investigation phase. Activities and bad associations may follow you for years and keep you out of a law enforcement career.
- You will lose friends and family members. People who were once friends will distance themselves from you and not trust you anymore. You will no longer be invited to participate in gatherings you once attended. Some of this may be good as it removes friends who are on the fringe. Look at it as a cleansing of things that may hamper your career. This will force you to make new friends. Do not limit the new friendships just to those in law enforcement, as it will cause you to be closed to the outside world.
- Be careful what you post on social media, it can be easily twisted as to your original meaning and come back to bite you.
- Don’t get so bogged down in the job that you lose track of who you are and who your family and true friends are. Take some time away from the job to be with those you love or you may end up losing them (this has happened to many an officer).
- You are not going to change or save the world. You will make a difference in the lives of individuals who need you at a moment’s notice and you are the most important person in their lives at that time, no matter how short it is. You will be able to make a difference in criminal trends and actions too, but you will never stop crime totally. A number of officers burn out quickly when they feel they aren’t making a big difference and fail to see that all the little differences in the lives of individuals add up to the big difference. That is the big picture.
- If you are married, seek counseling from a licensed counselor who has experience with law enforcement officers. Hopefully, they can help you avoid the unexpected land mines that come from being an officer's spouse. If you marry after becoming an officer, make sure your partner knows what they are getting into.
Some of the things I wish I had known when I first became a police officer:
- How the lack of a college degree stymied me in attempts to better myself in other agencies. You can rise in rank to command a large division in a police department without a college degree, but be unable to apply for a chief job you might be capable of performing because the minimum requirement is a college degree. I worked through the years and obtained my degree, but there are many other capable officers who have ambitions but do not know how to improve.
- The transferability of retirement systems within a given state. In Texas, for example, there are five government retirement systems that allow service time to be transferred between each other. For example, you could work 5 years for system one, 7 years for system two and 8 years for system three, which would add up to 20 years and make you retirement eligible. Vested money doesn’t transfer but time does. Had I known about that earlier, I may have changed agencies to better myself.
- Find a good financial advisor early and stick with one throughout your career so that you will have enough money to retire and meet your goals. Having no working knowledge of your own retirement system and other options can have a huge impact on your financial future and retirement days.
- Attend as much police training as is available. You will never know it all and will need a refresher on what you do know. You need to stay on top of your game. As a training officer told me, “If you go through a day without learning something, you have wasted that day."
Things to ponder later in your career:
- Are you where you wanted to be 5, 10, 15, 20 years ago? If not, then it is time to reflect on why and maybe refocus your goals for the next 5 years. Be realistic so that you will be able to achieve them.
- Do you have an exit plan? What are you going to do once you leave where you are now whether by choice or not? Some officers may have this figured out simply because they have a good financial advisor and they can walk out and do what they wish. Others may not be ready to retire but are ready for a change of pace. This is something that does not happen overnight. Some officers change law enforcement hats and will go into the training field to share the vast knowledge they gained over the years, while others may go to an active LE job that they are still quite capable of handling. Others may take on an occupation in a totally different field that they are interested in. Regardless of what the choice is, you must carefully plan and possibly train for the next move in your life.
- Know when it’s time to retire. This is probably the hardest question any officer has to answer as it is unique to each individual. I’ve heard different tales from retirees. When you hate to put the uniform on every day, it’s time. When you can’t take the supervisor’s nonsense anymore, it’s time. When you can make ends meet on the retirement plan, it’s time. When you want to spend more time with the grandkids, it’s time. The list can go on and on. Hopefully, you get to make that choice rather than age, infirmity, or administration.
If you are reading this article and considering embarking on or have embarked on a career of serving others, hopefully, you will find law enforcement as rewarding as I have. It has taken me on many adventures with hardly ever a dull moment. These adventures have provided challenges that have allowed me to use my experience to solve problems while helping me continually learn better ways of policing. I have met a lot of good people along the way. Some of those I have encountered have become lifelong friends.
Don't get discouraged by what you read in the media, follow your heart, do what is right and don't lose your integrity over anything or anyone. Focus on the good and you will have a long, happy and successful career.
About the author
Randy Harris is the constable for Precinct 4 in Tom Green County, Texas, where his duties include civil law/process and law enforcement. His broad experience in law enforcement began in 1979 and includes five command positions as a chief law enforcement officer. He holds Master Peace Officer, Instructor and Crime Prevention Inspector Certifications with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement (TCOLE) and has a Bachelor of Science Degree in Criminal Justice Administration.
During his law enforcement tenure, Randy has more than 30 years of experience in court security operations at the federal and local levels. This experience includes the participation in planning and operations of the first post- 9/11 terrorist trial of the Holy Land Foundation in Dallas, Texas, and more recently the Warren Jeffs FLDS trials held in San Angelo, Texas.