An unreal portrayal: COPS: Real-life police work demands characteristics different from those seen on TV cop shows
By Ruth Planey
(Riverside, CA) - Real police work is a far cry from what you see in the movies or on television. It requires someone who takes charge instantly -- but is not overly aggressive -- and thinks fast on their feet. You have to be comfortable making life-and-death decisions.
A mature and stable temperament and good communication skills come in handy when someone is screaming in your face. It's not like "NYPD Blue" -- a good police officer doesn't scream back.
If you don't mind putting yourself in harm's way to help a complete stranger, law enforcement might be up your alley. Of course you also have to let the jokes and jibes about flatfoots, doughnuts and worse roll off your back.
After eight years in uniform, Murrieta police officer Julie Hoxmeier still handles the stress and pressure of making quick judgment calls.
"Being a police officer requires personal integrity," said Hoxmeier. "You have to do what's right. You can't think about it. It should be innate."
There is more to law enforcement than memorizing the penal code. During an 8- to 12-hour shift, police draw on their training and experience to deal with petty theft, stolen and unregistered cars, collecting evidence, testifying in court and dealing with different types of people who are having a bad day.
"Each case is different so you need to be flexible," said Hoxmeier. "Suicides are the most volatile, because they have nothing to lose. Domestic disputes are also bad. Sometimes the people who call for help turn on you."
Police are supposed to remain calm and compassionate yet knowledgeable and professional as they serve as counselor, friend, victim's advocate, or whatever is needed to help solve the problem.
"When there is a fatality or an incident involving children it is very hard on the family," said Hoxmeier, who has a daughter. "Initially, a murder scene is overwhelming, but you learn to deal with it."
Hoxmeier investigated her chosen career by talking with friends on the force. "Join the military after high school, get some training and go to college," Hoxmeier recommended. "In the military you mature and learn discipline."
To qualify as a California police officer or sheriff's deputy, you need a high school diploma or G.E.D. equivalent, and you must be at least 21 years old, a U.S. citizen, and have no felony convictions.
There are plenty of jobs available, but the path to them is rocky. Hundreds of applicants try to make it through about six months of rigorous testing and thorough background checks to qualify for a police academy. Only 6 to 7 percent make it into an academy.
Those interested in a career in law enforcement should to get an agency such as the sheriff's department, the state park system or a police department to hire you as a trainee, send you to an academy, and pay your tuition, fees, and books, which run about $ 3,000 to $ 3,500. The Riverside County and San Bernardino County sheriff's departments conduct academies that are affiliated with Riverside Community College and San Bernardino Valley College, respectively. The academies run 22-25 weeks, eight hours a day, Monday-Friday.
Riverside Community College also offers an Extended Basic Academy geared toward people with full-time jobs. Classes are held Tuesday and Thursday nights and all day Sunday for 48 weeks. These students are not affiliated with a law enforcement agency and pay their own way. Students carry a full college load plus police training classes.
Academy classes are intense. The paramilitary structure helps students learn about the chain of command. Recruiters show up the first day of class hoping to capture the best and the brightest. "The academy trains you to do the job, but you need personal fortitude to make it through the academy and to succeed on the job," Hoxmeier said.
"About 85 percent of those who start the academy graduate," said Sergeant Barbara Ferguson, employee resources supervisor for the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department Training Academy. "The majority (of those who quit) drop out on their own."
While you're trying to get an agency to send you through the academy at their expense there are a gauntlet of tests to run. The first is a basic reading and comprehension test. It knocks out half the applicants. Taking an English grammar or writing course beforehand may increase your odds of passing.
"We're looking for basic English punctuation and writing skills, which are so important for writing reports," said Sergeant Mike Talarico, the Riverside County Sheriff's Academy coordinator.
Those who pass the written test advance to the physical agility portion. Applicants run, maneuver around an obstacle course, climb walls and chain-link fences, and drag 165 pounds of dead weight 20 to 25 feet.
Hoxmeier looks the part of a police officer, with her dark brown hair pulled back in a sleek ponytail, a bulletproof vest, and a gun belt that weighs as much as a briefcase. Still, it's hard to picture her dragging a sand-filled dummy that outweighs her by at least 30 pounds.
"It's not that hard," Hoxmeier said with a mischievous smile. "It's all in the technique."
The next big hurdles include a background check, medical exam, psychological testing and a polygraph. No stone is left unturned. Everything about your life is dredged up, so you'd better come clean and confess. Past jobs, family, friends and credit are checked. Only about 20 percent have a clean record.
"Most of the people don't make it through the background check because they lie about something in their past," said Bob Peebles, personnel sergeant in charge of background investigations for the Riverside County Sheriff's Department. "If they tell us up front it might not be important, but if they lie -- they're out."
If you've held up this far you're one of the few to sit for the final interview.
After graduation a deputy sheriff begins at a jail, on patrol or working in the courts. It may take a few years to be promoted to another department. Hoxmeier started at the Southwest Detention Center in Temecula. After working for the Riverside County Sheriff's Department, she went to the Fontana Police Department for five years before moving to Murrieta a year ago with her family.
She hopes to be a detective within 10 years.
"Learn about the community where you want to work and how you can be an asset," Hoxmeier advised. "Patrol is where the rubber meets the road and that's where it all happens."
On this day, Hoxmeier's 12-hour shift starts with a briefing at sunrise. A dozen radio calls, written reports, a trip to the jail and 150 miles in the squad car round out an unpredictable day.
Hoxmeier squeezes in a few moments for a late lunch, but grabbing a quick bite is anything but simple when you're a cop. Cruising the parking lot, she checks for suspicious activity. As she slowly circles the restaurant, she looks inside, making sure the front-counter employees are smiling and acting naturally.
She savors the first bite of the burrito, listens to the radio clipped to her jacket and begins a conversation. Her half-finished meal is left behind as she rolls on yet another call.
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