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5 lessons for rookies not taught in the police academy

A letter to new police officers just beginning their probationary period

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A very important part of this job is how you control it, not how it controls you.


What is the best piece of advice you received when you were a rookie? Email to share.

By Jim Hatcher

Dear Rookie (and that is said with respect and a little envy),

Congratulations on completing your academic preparation, your academy experience and surviving your field training officers. You are finally out there on your own and by yourself in your squad. You are now a cop with all of the responsibility and authority that is bestowed upon you by your training and your Oath of Office.

Your desire to “help people” and “serve and protect” rest squarely on your shoulders. How you handle yourself and the judgments and decisions you must make are now solely yours. So, what have you not been taught that you can only learn from experience and great mentors?

Here are five big lessons:

1. Attitude counts

Your attitude or “mindset” is a critical factor for a successful law enforcement career. How you treat civilians will define the kind of cop you will become. Treat civilians as you would like to be treated. It is not “us vs. them.” Respect is earned over time. How you talk to all people, whether in a calm or stressful situation, will determine how those people respect you.

On patrol, get to know the businesses in your beat. Business owners can be your best friend in many circumstances. Go to homeowner meetings, work the subdivisions, and stop and visit with young people. Get out of that squad and talk to people. It is amazing what you can learn if you learn to listen well.

These lessons are cumulative and will serve you well over time. Building “trust” is the basis for future needs that you don’t yet foresee. A highly respected retired tactical and influential leader told me, “You don’t ‘work’ for your department, that’s your employer; you ‘work’ for the people.”

2. Never compromise your values

Work for a department that expects and rewards professionalism. Your personal character and your integrity define you as a person and as a cop. Never compromise your values. If you make a mistake, and you will, own up to it. Learn to use discretion in your job and in the enforcement of the laws that you took an oath to uphold.

Seek as much training as you can in all phases of police work. Initially seek training in those areas that will make you a better street cop. You will very quickly become aware of some weaknesses. Fix that! As your confidence grows, expand your requests for training in areas that will broaden your background and possibly enhance your promotional potential in due time.

Learn to challenge yourself. Growth in your profession will only come when you push yourself out of your comfort zone. You cannot be over trained in police work because the mastery of skills at every level is a requisite for promotion to a next level.

3. Be prepared

Being a law enforcement officer will test you both physically and mentally over and over. Stay fit, know your department’s use of force policies and continually work on the skills you hope to never have to use.

“Be prepared” is more than a Boy Scout motto. Awareness and preparation are the key factors in you returning home to your family at the end of every shift. Complacency leads to catastrophic events. Rehearse your skills!

Remember that in all likelihood, no matter your skills learned to date, they are “entry level.” Repeat this mantra: “PRACTICE DOES NOT MAKE PERFECT, PERFECT PRACTICE MAKES PERFECT.” Watch and learn from experienced officers, copy what works and reject what doesn’t work or is not quite right for you.

4. Develop an on/off switch

Build friendships outside of the “blue family.” Hanging with other cops is easier and you share experiences that others will never understand, but those very experiences will make you different, more difficult to live with, and will separate you from living a happy and fulfilling personal life.

A very important part of this job is how you control it, not how it controls you. You need to develop an off/on switch without losing your sense of awareness. You need fulfilment in your personal life, as well as your career. This will not be easy, but it will be your responsibility. Be aware of your mental health and your perspective on life. If it begins to drift, and it will, get it fixed.

5. Respect yourself, the profession and your family

Above all, respect yourself, respect your profession and respect your family. ESPECIALLY YOUR FAMILY. They are your first-line support system. Trust them, confide in them and remember to not be a “cop” at home. At home you are a spouse and a loving parent. Respect is not given; it is earned every day in every action taken and it is solely your responsibility.

I used the word “envy” in the beginning with a purpose. You have the opportunity to reinvent yourself often with many years ahead in your career, the older men and women who have earned their retirement and contributed to this article often learned the above without the benefit of mentors. The path that you have chosen is a noble one, currently in tough times. Heed the good advice that is given, think about it carefully, and pick and choose what to build into your career, but start now. As one respected retiree said to me without prompting: “My career was filled with the best memories. People, places, things. Some were hard to deal with. Some will never leave me. Would I do it all over again? Hell, yes I would.”

Be safe, rookie!

NEXT: 8 things rookie cops can do to improve their safety

About the author
Jim Hatcher is a retired company president whose law enforcement experience includes 27 years as a volunteer at the DuPage County Sheriff’s Office in Illinois. Additionally, he worked 15 summers as a reserve deputy sheriff for a small department in Northern Michigan. He has served as a TASER Instructor and most recently has taken on the arduous task of preparing individual officers and command staff for the responsibilities associated with a line of duty death.