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The importance of self-evaluation when considering a lateral transfer

Considerations for assessing department culture and personal compatibility

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Photo/Westiminster PD

By Jesse Cohen

In my previous article, I discussed the importance of lateral transfer officers doing research before applying to work at a new police department. This is especially important if you are looking to lateral to an out-of-state agency. You need to see if the new department is a place where you can spend your career, and make sure you’re taking a step up in quality, not jumping to a department with the same issues as your old one. After collecting this data, it is now time for you to decide if you would be a good addition to that new department.

Character over credentials

If you have conducted thorough research, you will gain a general understanding of the type of officer the department employs, as well as its overall culture and vision. It is crucial to honestly assess whether you could thrive in that particular department.

When potential applicants ask me about the hiring process at the Westminster (Colorado) Police Department (or Westy as we’re known,) I use the following phrase: “Character over credentials.” This is relevant for new hires and laterals alike.

Character over credentials simply means that we are looking to hire quality people who will be successful Westminster officers. They need to pass our hiring process first, but we want officers who will easily become part of the Westy family we have built.

You may have a stack of credentials thicker than a “Game of Thrones” script, however, without substantial character, your chances of receiving a job offer are slim. We understand precisely the kind of individual we seek, having consistently hired people of high character for decades. Our hiring process works, and it is why we continue to be a successful destination department.

What defines a good officer at Westy? Essentially, it’s the same qualities that make anyone a good officer in any reputable department: Integrity, strong work ethic, humbleness, compassion, a desire to improve, decisiveness and strong leadership skills. While more attributes could be listed, the core message is clear. Through your research, you should have formed a solid understanding of your desired department. The next crucial step is introspection, to determine if you would genuinely be a suitable fit for the department.

Cultural fit and personal alignment

When engaging with potential recruits, particularly those considering lateral moves, I prioritize establishing a personal relationship either before they apply or in the initial phases of the hiring process. This approach serves a dual purpose.

Firstly, it aids in the early screening of applicants who may have conspicuous issues in their records. I aim to maintain transparency with candidates from the outset. Secondly, it enables me to understand them on a personal level, assessing their suitability for Westy. This is also an opportunity to educate them about Westminster, helping them determine if our department is the right fit for them, while they simultaneously demonstrate their potential to us throughout the recruitment process.

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Photo/Westminster PD

For instance, our department is constantly busy. Certainly, we experience slower days, but typically, if you’re on duty during daylight hours, you’re likely to be actively responding to calls most of the time. Additionally, we’re a proactive department. Officers are expected to engage in proactive policing, especially during quieter moments on patrol. This tends to be more feasible during night shifts, but we anticipate this approach in all shifts when time allows.

At this juncture, you should contemplate whether you’re comfortable with a high volume of calls during most of your shifts. Are you self-driven enough to seek out work during periods of lighter call loads or night shifts? If this resonates with you, then Westminster, or a department with a similar operational tempo, could be a suitable match.

Alternatively, if you prefer a slower pace with fewer calls, that’s perfectly respectable. However, it’s crucial to ensure that the departments you’re considering align with this preference. Ultimately, the responsibility to position yourself for success lies with you.

Understanding your reasons for moving

Another important factor to consider is your reason for leaving your current department or job. This is particularly crucial for lateral transfers.

The majority of lateral transfers occur for a range of reasons, with most individuals seeking better opportunities for their families and careers. It’s important to note that ‘families’ are mentioned first, emphasizing their priority. Often, officers may come from departments characterized by poor leadership, low morale, inadequate support, insufficient pay, and a lack of work-life balance. These are common issues we observe in lateral applicants.

A key factor attracting laterals to Westminster is our emphasis on work-life balance. We prioritize the principle that family comes first, which appeals greatly to officers from departments where family time is compromised due to heavy workloads or other organizational shortcomings.

Officers may transfer for various other reasons as well. It’s possible that you experienced unfair treatment at your previous department. While not widespread, such instances are not rare, particularly in recent years when many departments have faced historic staffing shortages. There have been cases where an officer, amid transferring, receives an unwarranted disciplinary action. This might be a strategic move, hoping that the discipline will hinder their chances of being hired elsewhere, thereby compelling them to remain at their current department and preventing further staff attrition.

Conversely, some officers have received justified discipline and are seeking to start over in a new environment. If you belong to either of these categories, it’s essential to be honest with yourself about why you’re leaving your current department and the type of department you aim to join. Some departments, often those facing severe staff shortages, are more lenient in their hiring processes. They might be primarily seeking to fill vacancies rather than focusing on candidate quality.

If you are someone who requires such a department for a fresh start or to rehabilitate your reputation, be prepared to experience a period of unsatisfying police work before considering a move to a more prestigious department like Westminster. On the other hand, if you’re determined to join only the best departments and are ready to elevate your career, it’s crucial to introspect and ensure you are prepared to invest the necessary work and effort. This commitment will facilitate a smoother adaptation to the environment and expectations of your new department.

The importance of self-reflection

Understanding your strengths and weaknesses can be challenging, as it’s often hard for people to acknowledge their shortcomings. To encourage recruits to embrace true self-awareness, I share a personal anecdote. I candidly admit to them that I am a terrible driver! I have dinged up (crashed) a few cars in my career (sorry, Chief!) and I’m usually near the bottom third of drivers during timed runs in our driving training, and I probably hold the record for most cones knocked over in each station. When our department opens up a position for a driving instructor, you definitely won’t see my name in that process. I’m aware of my driving skills — or lack thereof in this instance. I have no chance of being selected and would be of no benefit to the department working in this position.

I share this example to communicate the importance of recognizing a personality trait, strength, or weakness that could impact one’s career when selecting a department. Hard work and a willingness to improve will almost always pay off — though my driving skills are an exception. Applicants must understand that self-critique, devoid of ego, is a positive approach. Being self-aware of their personality traits and character is key in determining whether they are positioning themselves for success in a new department. This self-awareness allows them to align their abilities and values with the department’s expectations and culture, setting the stage for a fruitful career.

You can never be completely certain if you’ve made the correct decision in selecting your new (or first) department until you’ve spent a few months there. Initially, conduct thorough research. Reflect and be honest with yourself. This self-examination is crucial to ensure that your choice aligns with your personal and professional goals. Ask yourself:

  • Is this a place where you can fit in and be happy?
  • Do you have the character traits they are looking for to be successful?
  • Can you adapt to make yourself a good officer in this new department?

The entire department won’t adapt to accommodate one individual, so if you’re considering working there, particularly if it represents an advancement from your previous department, the onus is on you to decide whether you can adapt to the change. If, after your research and self-reflection, you feel you would be a good fit, then you’ve likely made the right choice. However, if you have done the necessary groundwork and still doubt your compatibility with the new department, it may be wise to reconsider before committing. If you continue to do the work, you’ll find a department that better fits YOU.
About the author

Jesse Cohen is an investigator at the Westminster (Colorado) Police Department, where he’s worked for 10 years. Prior to that, he worked as a sheriff’s deputy. At Westminster, he worked primarily in patrol as a senior police officer before transferring to professional services with a focus on recruiting, hiring, backgrounds and training. Cohen is also an instructor for Westminster’s arrest control and defensive tactics program. Contact him at jacohen@westminsterco.gov.

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