7 steps to becoming an expert in your field of law enforcement
From SWAT to narcotics, becoming an expert is a lot of hard work. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would be an expert
At some point in your career you will find a specialty you are good at and love doing. You may be a new traffic collision investigator, detective or a SWAT team member and are at the point where you are ready to become an expert in that field.
For me, it was drug enforcement. After becoming a drug recognition expert, I became a narcotics detective and fell in love with that aspect of policing. That was 25 years ago. Now I travel internationally teaching others about drugs and drug enforcement and often testify throughout the U.S. as an expert in drug-related matters, as well as narcotic unit operations.
How did I become an expert in drug enforcement? It was a lot of hard work and dedication, but I also took advantage of opportunities as they arose. Another narc asked me how to become an expert, so I put pen to paper and came up with the seven things that helped my police career.
1. Read everything on your specialty
You have to start somewhere and reading books is a great place, but you don’t want to read books just written by cops. Criminals write books and so do people who are neither cops nor criminals. It’s important to read everyone’s view.
I frequently read books written by drug users and drug advocates. I don’t agree with their point of view, but it is important for me to read what they have to say because their arguments on legalization constantly come up in my work. I can now predict their talking points and quickly counteract them. As an example, it is important for use-of-force experts to read books on the militarization of the police or police excessive force to understand and counteract the arguments they will face in court or from the public.
2. Take every class you can
If you are going to become an expert in your field, you need to attend training regularly. How regularly? At least two classes a year to start. Your agency may not send you to this training, so if you want to be an expert, you will need to send yourself.
Fortunately, I have not had to pay for many classes. After sending myself to a few classes, I joined my state’s narcotics officers association and got on the regional board. As a board member, I was able to attend training for free. My agency also let me attend board business on duty because it benefited the agency, including attending the free classes. Later, when I became an instructor, I was able to attend classes for free because I taught for the association.
Attending courses not only increases the knowledge you’ll need to be considered an expert, but can assist you when testifying in court. It’s also important if you start a business where you use your expertise. Your clients want to see a hardy education if they are going to pay for your experience.
3. Testify as an expert
Nothing says “expert” like having a long list of court appearances as an expert witness. When I got enough experience to qualify as an expert, I testified as much as I could. I let my subpoena clerk know to send the expert witness subpoenas to me and let the DA know I wanted to testify as an expert. I got a lot of overtime and a lot of experience testifying.
Now I can say I’ve testified as an expert in all major drug categories, as well as sales, influence and trafficking. I get paid to testify for what I used to do as part of my job and it’s not just in criminal court. There is a large market on the civil side of law for police officer expert witnesses.
4. Land special assignments
You’re going to need special assignments to become an expert. If you didn’t do the job, then you won’t become an expert. These assignments can be very competitive to land. Meet with the supervisor of the job you want and ask how to make yourself the best candidate. Then meet with the people doing the job and ask them how you can help them.
When I was in narcotics, cops who wanted to learn more about drug enforcement often met with my unit for advice. I would give them drug tips that my unit couldn’t get to. If they followed up on those tips, we always used them as the uniform for our investigations. We also gave them tips knowing they would take action. We had a good helper and the officers were able to get a lot of experience they wouldn’t have if they didn’t come and ask for help.
5. Be a teacher
You get better at your job if you start teaching others in a formal setting as you have to know every minute detail of your specialty. This knowledge also helps when you are consulting or testifying. Repeatedly explaining the same process of your job will come up again in a consulting job or in court. It also looks good to others that hire you for any post-law enforcement positions.
6. Write articles
I write articles so that people see my name. I recently attended a national drug conference and was stopped several times by people who had read my work. Not only does it feel good to pass on knowledge to others, your name becomes a brand and you are seen as an expert.
Writing is also a great way to pass on your knowledge. Whenever someone asks me a question I think others would want to know the answer to, I write a blog post or I write an article for PoliceOne. That’s how this article came to be: A detective simply wanted advice on how to become an expert.
7. Obtain a degree
Degrees matter. Maybe not to you, but they do matter to people who hire you when your career as a cop is over or when you testify. You’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree is highly desirable. I recently obtained my Master’s degree. I have been using it consulting with attorneys in civil cases while writing reports and using academic studies to support my point of view. When you testify in front of a jury in civil cases, a degree conveys experience and knowledge that others don’t have. Obviously, this is a long-term goal. I didn’t get my degree until the end of my 29-year law enforcement career.
Becoming an expert in your field is a lot of hard work. If it wasn’t hard, everyone would be an expert. For me, after working as a police officer for 29 years, I now have a lucrative second career consulting and teaching others. You have a roadmap to reach your goals; it’s up to you if you want to follow it.