By Dr. Joel F. Shults
Chief, Adams State College Police Department
After the half century mark one tends to wax nostalgic especially at this time of year. Since most of my colleagues in law enforcement are now younger than I, perhaps my best gift to the profession is a dose of perspective. I spent my early high school years planning on a career as a psychologist but a chance ride-along with a local cop changed my life forever. Riding around with that crusty midnight veteran was a trip through the looking glass into a world I didn’t know existed. I’ve lived in that world ever since and couldn’t be more grateful for the privilege. Here are a few thoughts to ponder about that world for the New Year:
1) Passion for the job is good! The experts say not to invest too much of yourself in the profession. Obviously balance is important, and chronic neglect of family is unforgivable, but if police work is what are you and not merely what you do, embrace it.
2) Police work is police work. I’ve carried commissions from more than a dozen agencies and I’ve done observational ride-alongs with from LAPD to NYPD and nearly 60 police departments in between. There are only two main differences from one agency to another: one is the frequency of calls and the other is the culture of the department. When you’re making a decision about where to work, my advice is to look at the department culture. I didn’t see anything in those huge police agencies that I hadn’t seen working for a 25 officer department.
If you want to arrest bad guys and do good deeds you can do that anywhere. If you want a place that’s fun to work, co-workers who care about you, and leadership that is inspired, demanding, and supportive, you’ll have to do some real homework to find a place to work that suits you.
3) It is OK to leave law enforcement. Men and women with two or three years of military service get to claim veteran status for life but that amount of police work gets you branded as somebody that can’t handle the job. Let’s be realistic - law enforcement is a lifestyle that’s not suited for everybody. I stepped out to be a teacher for a while, keeping a reserve status to stay current and get some street time. I took a demanding police executive position only after my kids were in college.
My police experience helped my civilian jobs and my civilian jobs helped me be a better cop. If the work is killing your soul, breaking your family, and getting you depressed then step back. There’s no shame in it.
4) Be a lifelong learner. Please don’t ever allow yourself to believe you know all there is to know. I got my bachelor’s and master’s degrees while working midnights. I finished my doctorate after I was fifty years old. I just published my first book and I’m beginning a new research project on violence against police officers. Take chances to be reinvented, renewed, and reinvigorated.
5) Keep fit. If you did a third of what you know to do in regards to healthy living you’d make major improvements in your life. Even a brisk walk a few times a week, cutting back a few bites per meal, making better financial decisions, finding a faith group to engage with, and turning off the television a few hours a week will pay off in a healthier, happier life.
Make 2009 a year to redefine and realign your career!
Chief Shults currently serves with the Adams State College Police Department in Colorado. He can be reached through his web site.