Yesterday, today, tomorrow: Changes in police careers over the years

Editor's Note: Throughout December, we'll be featuring commentary and analysis that looks back at the past year and the past decade, or looks ahead to what's on the horizon for law enforcement. We've already presented columns from Terry Dwyer, Brian Willis, Dan MarcouDick Fairburn, Ken Wallentine, and Eddie Reyes — if you've missed those, be sure to check them out. Watch out for more from some of our top columnists in coming days.

As part of its collection of year-end columns for 2009, Police1 asked me to write an article about the differences and similarities between the career paths of people becoming police officers today as opposed to a decade ago. When he called to ask me about this, Senior Editor Doug Wyllie also posed an interesting question: What can we expect in the decade to come?

As the director of a college criminal justice program it’s easy for me to cite the advances that have been made in forensic science (DNA, fingerprinting) and computer technology (dispatching, databases) that have significantly changed the investigative and service delivery aspects of law enforcement. However, it seems to me that to understand the distinct difference of today as opposed to my era (1968-1991) we need to go a little further back than just a decade. The caveat is that my experiences are from a New England perspective and I have now been retired almost as long as I was a police officer. However, both as a college professor and a testing consultant I’m in daily contact with law enforcers from the officer to the Chief. It’s rare for me to speak with anyone with more than 25 years on the job and for the most part I’m finding today’s cop doesn’t have the historical framework to understand the police era that came before them.

Is a historical perspective of our rich heritage important? Absolutely! Let’s take a look at some of the differences between policing in my era compared to today.

Joining, Then
When I got out of the Air Force our country was at war. It was called Vietnam. I had enlisted at seventeen and turned eighteen during basic training. In those days no one wanted to be a cop and the federal government had a program which offered a three month “early out” to military police officers who joined a local department. So, I walked into the lobby of the Hartford Police Department in my Air Force Uniform and went up to the front desk.

A burly Sergeant with the stub of a cigar in his mouth reluctantly looked up from the newspaper he was reading and said, “What the f___k do you want?”

“I want to join the force”, I replied.

The Chief of Police happened to be walking by and said to me, “Can you handle a shotgun?”

“Yes Sir.”

The Chief said to the Sergeant and said, “Hire this kid.”

I started that night. Of course, I didn’t know the city was in the middle of riots or that a group called the “Black Panthers” were sniping at cops from the rooftops and entire neighborhoods were going up in flames. Nor did I know there was a city curfew and cops were working twelve-hour shifts. I was just happy to have a job! After about four weeks I was brought inside to attend a police academy, but it was cut short when the riots broke out again. Eventually there was some type of physical exam and in those days there was still a height requirement so I was told to stand on my tip toes. There were about 30 of us who joined the force that year — mostly of us just out of the service — and all of us had successful careers.

Joining, Now
Our country is involved in two wars. I have hundred of students in my criminal justice program — including military veterans — who want to be law enforcement officers. Police departments advertize for new recruits on the Internet. Applicants download an application form and, depending on the department, have to have pass a physical agility test from a private company in order to move forward in the process. There is often an application fee ranging from $25 to $75.

A testing consultant (like me) is hired to construct an entry-level examination or an examination is purchased from a company. Hundreds of applicants report to a high school gym to take a hundred question multiple choice test along with a writing sample. Those who score extremely high on the written exam may be invited to take an oral exam, psychological test, polygraph test, medical examination, and be subject to a background investigation.

Selected candidates then enter a police academy for up to twenty-six weeks and if they graduate get a “provisional police officer certification.” Candidates then go through an on-the-job-assessment with a Field Training Officer and if they pass that then they are one of us — at least on paper. Due to the length of time it takes a department to put candidates through this process it may take six to nine months in order to actually fill a vacancy. Although a college degree is not required in the vast majority of departments it has become rare for a candidate to receive a job offer who does not have at least an Associate Degree.

Is today’s entry level testing process producing better police officers than in my era? I don’t know and neither does anyone else. Certainly the case can be made that some different skill are required today, especially in the area of computers. However, human behavior hasn’t changed and today’s officer still has to be part social worker, priest, psychologist, care giver, and street fighter. Communications skills, common sense, the ability to prioritize, self discipline, personal integrity, courage, a sense of honor, compassion, and a willingness to step in harms way for the sake of others are very difficult traits to test for by using a paper and pencil examination.

It’s not unusual for police officers to retire after twenty years on one department (42 years old) and join another department. We now have Sergeants and above who are back to the officer level at another department working on a second pension. Since they are already “certified police officers” they don’t have to go back to the academy and can begin in a new department immediately after taking a modified entry level test. This saves the department a lot of time and money and the department gains an experienced police officer.

On the Job, Then
There were no 20- or even 25-year retirements when I came on the job. For the most part, cops served for life. So it wasn’t unusual to have an officer in his sixties still pounding a beat or driving a cruiser. Although most of them were not “book smart” they were “street smart” and each of us was provided a mentor who showed us the skills of the trade. The guy who broke me in as a Detective was seventy-two. I learned more from him in the first two weeks then I have learned since or through all of my academic “doctoral education.”

Anyone with stripes, bars, or stars was an ancient being. It was rare to see a female police officer that wasn’t assigned to “matron” duties in the female lock-up. Back then, the department I served on was predominantly Irish, Italian, and Polish. It was rare to serve with anyone who had taken a college course. All of them were part-time boxers, wrestlers, electricians, plumbers, etc.

You had to walk a beat for a year before you were eligible to get in a cruiser. You took the public bus out to your beat. For the most part only cruisers had radios. If you walked a beat you used a call box. I still have my call box key.

This was still the era of residency requirements, but even if it wasn’t required just about everyone on the job lived in the city. They grew up in the city, attended city schools, raised their kids in the city, and often lived in the same neighborhood they patrolled. This was the type of community-oriented policing departments are trying get to today.

Promotions to higher rank were based on ones ability to catch crooks, not pencil and paper tests. Everyone wanted to be a Detective because of the type of class individuals who were detectives. Honor, integrity, pride in being a cop, and total support for one another and the department were traits one was judged on. There were no “appointments” to ranks (Deputy Chief, etc). There was no bid shift, four/ten work weeks, or calling in sick. If you got hurt on the job you reported for work. You just stood in the back row at roll call with someone propping you up. All of us liked being cops and didn’t want to miss work.

There was no EAP (Employee Assistance Program) or acknowledgement of post traumatic stress syndrome. All the divorced and alcoholic cops lived in trailers in the back lot of the department. The extension cords from the trailers used to go through the back door of the station into the men’s room electrical outlets. The trailer area was off limits to Sergeants and above unless you were living there.

Sergeants totally ran the department. I never heard the words “democratic or participative leadership” until I went to college. We didn’t have S.W.A.T. teams back then. We kind of formed up and took care of business. We didn’t care about seatbelts, emission stickers, illegal parking, and stuff like that. We were too busy dealing with people who were hurting other people.

We didn’t engage in high speed pursuits because our police cars couldn’t be driven over forty miles an hour. The engine would seize up. There was no air conditioning or heat in the patrol cars we had. The floor boards were all rotted out and you could see the pavement coming up towards you from below. All the cruisers had metal cages around the outside of the cruisers because of the rocks and bottles. We had six shot revolvers, a black jack, thumb screws, handcuffs and each other for weapons. Your career path consisted of your badge number — the lower the number the better the assignment. It was a big deal when I got below badge number 200. Officers with badges lower than 100 were demigods.

All of this changed within my first ten years on the job. If I could set the clock back I would gladly do it all again. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the “old timers” I served with were magnificent men and part of an era we will never see again.

On the Job, Now
We slowly changed from a requirement that police officers live in the city to a rule that one had to live within a 10-mile radius of the city. Eventually it didn’t matter how far away you lived. So we now have officers who live in Massachusetts commuting to our inner cities here in Connecticut. Does it matter? I like to think it does, but there is no hard evidence or research I can point to indicating residency reduces crime or increases citizen satisfaction with delivery of police services.

Almost everyone seeking higher rank has at least a bachelor degree now. Civil service testing changed the dynamics of promotion and we now use assessment centers, written exams, oral and situational exams to promote officers to Sergeant and above. Many departments “appoint” officers to detective while others use paper and pencil testing.

Today’s police officers are much higher educated and better academically trained than those in my era. However, in my biased opinion, if my granddaughter was kidnapped give me the old timer with the egg on his tie and disheveled appearance that lives in the city and knows everyone any day of the week.

When I administer promotional exams many officers decline to take them because they will lose money (road jobs, private duty work) at the Sergeant level or above. Sick time has become just another day off. Officers now have 401Ks, bid shifts, four ten-hour work days, and cruisers with GPS guidance systems that can travel at the speed of light. They have video cameras, and laptop computers that instantly provide information that used to take hours and sometimes days in my era.

Today’s law enforcement officer has an automatic weapon, stun gun, chemical sprays, and shotguns with rubber bullets and bean bags. The list goes on and on. Supervisors are now educated about stress and officers have access to the best physical and psychological care on the planet. Specialization has had a dramatic effect on everything from accident investigation to crime scene processing. Cops now have cell phones which can be used in myriad ways.

Drugs and violence have increased and my instinct tells me the job has become more dangerous. Women now make up about twelve (12 percent) of local departments and perform all the duties men do. What hasn’t changed is that today’s law enforcement officer may be called upon to run up the stairs, swing a sledge hammer, throw a flash bang, and take down the bad guy just like we always have.

The Future
This may sound like science fiction, but are some of the things I see coming in the next decade.

1. The polygraph will morph into a true lie detector with the same accuracy as fingerprints and DNA. The courts will rule that because it would instantly set an innocent person free it is an exception to the fourth amendment. Cops will carry lie detector units the size of cell phones and use them the same way we use “Stop and Frisk.”
2. Computerized Droids will process all of our crime scenes and be able to instantly analyze DNA and ballistics. Robots will also be used for forced, high risk, entry.
3. We will use military type drones for surveillance and all activity in public will be videotaped.
4. All handguns will be illegal except for the military and the police. People will be allowed to keep their shotguns and rifles. No private ownership of automatic weapons will be allowed.
5. Babies born after 2020 will have a computer chip imbedded under their skin. All medical and criminal records will be on the chip. The government will be able to scan the imbedded chips and add information, such as the fact the person is wanted for a crime. Police officers will use scanners when stopping people to determine if they are wanted for a crime. A black market will develop to mask scanner readings.
6. Local police departments will slowly be merged into larger and larger organizations until there is a national police department.
7. The death penalty will be abolished in favor of a mind-sweeping technique that eradicates criminal behavior. Eventually it will be used on all violent felons.
8. All drugs will be decriminalized. The addicted will be reprogrammed.
9. The police will driver hover vehicles having the same capability as helicopters, but closer to the ground. Surveillance devices will penetrate walls.
10. United States military forces will have law enforcement powers in our major cities and it may become difficult to distinguish between police officers and soldiers.

I don’t know if this is good stuff.  Most of it scares the hell out of me!

Larry the Jet

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