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What it’s really like being a 21st century police officer

A career in law enforcement requires incredible versatility and the ability to handle being under the public’s microscope

In a few weeks, I’ll celebrate my 23rd anniversary in law enforcement. As I sit back and reflect on my career, I’m amazed at the changes that have occurred in our profession in just a few short decades.

When I started, law enforcement was making strides in policies and procedures, technology, new weapons and so on. However, basic policing was much the same as the way the “old guys” did it when they were rookies, 20 or so years before I began.

Because of technology and more liberal views of how police should operate, aspiring men and women who think they want to become police officer have to ask themselves if they are willing to be put under a microscope for the next 20 to 30 years of their lives. If the only reason they want to get into law enforcement is because they think it will be cool to wear a badge and have a gun, they may want to reconsider their career choice before they even embark on this journey.

Times have changed

Years ago, officers rarely had complaints filed against them. When they did, those complaints didn’t get very far. Most of the time, the brass and the general public took an officer’s word as truth.

Nowadays, the general public has much easier access to file a complaint on an officer. Cops are recorded on cell phone cameras and the footage is posted to social media. Frequently, those recordings are edited — showing only an officer’s strike to a suspect’s ribs, but somehow the part when the suspect’s reaching for the cop’s gun or spitting in their face has been mysteriously deleted.

Are you ready to be possibly indicted when the bad guy running from you collides with another car and kills someone? Because nowadays, it will have been your fault, because you were trying to arrest him.

Are you ready to possibly be arrested for having to use deadly force? Are you prepared for the stress of a month-long internal affairs investigation because someone has accused you of stealing, assault or harassment?

This is all in addition to the stress of working the streets, shift work, your own personal problems at home, attending college, raising kids and moonlighting as security just to make ends meet.

Service changes you

A lifelong buddy of mine and I were sitting around last weekend exchanging life stories. We had both tested to become a police officer in our early 20’s. I was hired; he didn’t make the cut, so he went onto the corporate world.

He said to me, “Not getting hired was the best thing that ever happened to me. I look at you now, and what you have gone through the past 20 years, and I would have never made it. I don’t want to be like you, or have the jaded view of the world like you do.”

He’s right. Cops don’t see things the way civilians do. We’ve seen the worst of the worst. We have to live through more crap in a week than most civilians will ever see in a lifetime.

Civilians watch the news and say, “That was a terrible story.” We watch the news and hope we’re not on it.

So, if you think you have the ethical integrity to be a cop, the attrition to be a cop and the guts to be a cop, sign up. Then get ready for the ride of your life.

Lt. Hawkes is a 23-year police veteran. In addition to his years of highway drug interdiction, Lt. Hawkes has worked in patrol, K9, investigations, narcotics, and administration. He holds a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Dallas Baptist University and is a graduate of the Law Enforcement Management Institute of Texas. He is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Justice Leadership and Administration from the University of Texas at Dallas. He has been the recipient of both State and Local awards, including the Medal of Valor. His book, Secrets of Successful Highway Interdiction, which can be purchased here, contains eleven chapters on Highway Drug Interdiction.