One might think that it takes a degree in computer science, engineering, or forensic technology to become a cop these days. But in reality, the traits that made good street cops 50 years ago are the same ones that make a good street cop today.
If you were forced to name only one trait that is going to keep you safe on the street, it would have to be the ability to be able to think on your feet, right?
Above all else, the ability to think on your feet in the ever-changing environment in which we work in is the most valuable trait we have.
It doesn’t matter how big you are, how strong you are, or how smart you are — you have to be able to adapt and think through the fluid situations in which we find ourselves. This allows us to react quicker, which we all know is very important. Training, especially force-on-force training, can help you in being more prepared to handle various situations, subsequently allowing you to think more clearly under stressful situations.
Training also allows you to be able to handle stress better, both during the moment and afterwards. Having less stress during an incident allows you to think more clearly as to what your next move, or step, will be.
This is especially true of force-on-force training that puts officers through various situations. You get to have the experience of having been there before in training, and will know what your options are out on the street.
Studies have been conducted on officers who went through force-on-force training versus those who didn’t. The officers who went through the training said that time seemed to “slow down” for them during a crisis, while those who didn’t go through the training said that time “sped up.”
Think about that for a minute. Would it be easier to make life-or-death decisions when time seemed to be speeding up, or when time seemed to be slowing down?
Obviously, when time seemed to be slowing down — having time on our side is a good thing, even if it’s just the perception of time. The better equipped you are to handle stress during an incident, the better you’ll be able to cope with the stress after the incident.
Courage is right there at the top of the list too. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are, the toughest street cops out there are the ones with the biggest balls (so to speak).
And that has nothing to do with gender. I had the pleasure of working with some female MPs when I was in the Army in the late 1970s. They would knock a guy twice their size off of his feet before he even knew what hit him — sometimes before this rookie MP even knew what was going on.
Not because they had something to prove, but because they knew what had to be done and they weren’t afraid to do it. Hesitation can get an unprepared street cop hurt, or worse, killed.
That doesn’t mean you can’t be scared, because fear is a good thing — it’s Mother Nature’s way of telling you the poop is about to hit the paddles. Courage is the ability to overcome your fear and work through it.
Courage also allows you to be a more aggressive street cop. You can hide in the bushes and do your best to avoid work, or you can have the courage to go out there and make those drug interdiction stops or field interviews in dangerous neighborhoods — the choice is yours.
Having courage also gives you confidence: in your abilities as an officer, in your proficiency with your equipment, and in your department’s support.
What about honor? That’s pretty important too, right? This is an honorable profession and you need to act accordingly. Honor is about integrity, loyalty, honesty, and having pride in your profession and your department. Sure, we all bellyache from time to time — that’s what cops do — but take pride in the fact that not everyone can be a law enforcement officer.
You had to take a written test, pass a physical and psychological exam, take a PT test, and undergo a rigorous background check and for what? Bad pay and lousy hours, right?
But would you trade it for a nine-to-five desk job selling insurance? Take pride in the fact that not everyone can do what you do, or be who you are. You are among the few, the elite. The people have put their trust in you.
Are there bad apples out there in our profession? Unfortunately, as long as there have been cops there have been crooked ones, but they are far and few between. Why else would the news media sensationalize it so much? It makes the nightly news because bad cops are a very rare occurrence.
Family is very important to being a good street cop, both your immediate family and your extended family of brother and sister law enforcement officers. Like it or not, for better or for worse, just like your real family, we are all brothers and sisters in this fight against evil.
You may not like the person sitting next to you at roll call, but remember the bigger picture — we’re the sheep dogs and the flock is depending on us to go into harm’s way and do dangerous things on their behalf. Put the petty differences aside for the greater good.
Your immediate family is also vital to being a good street cop. Having family grounds you; it humbles you. It doesn’t matter if you ran into a burning building to save someone while at work — no matter what happened at work, it’s not as important as what’s going on at home.
The kid’s grades, who hit a home run in the game, or the stressful day your spouse had: all take precedence over anything you may have done at work today.
Sometimes it’s difficult to leave home at home and work at work, but you have to try. It’s the only way to keep the crazies at work from interfering with the harmony at home.
Last, but certainly not least, is faith. Whatever your faith is doesn’t matter, as long as you understand there is a higher power.
Having faith humbles you, it grounds you, it will help you through difficult times, it keeps you from getting an “us versus them” mentality. Remember, it’s not the sheepdogs against everyone else; it’s the sheepdogs protecting each other, and the flock, from the wolves in our society.
I’m sure we could come up with a hundred other traits that make a good street cop, but for now, take these few words of wisdom and be safe out there.