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Police leaders can train discipline, but must hire character

When we hire an officer we are making an investment that will hopefully last 30, or more years... we have to get it right

Editor’s Note: This week’s PoliceOne First Person essay is from PoliceOne Member Sam Preston. In PoliceOne "First Person" essays, our Members and Columnists candidly share their own unique view of the world. This is a platform from which individual officers can share their own personal insights on issues confronting cops today, as well as opinions, observations, and advice on living life behind the thin blue line. If you want to share your own perspective with other P1 Members, simply send us an email with your story.

By Lt. Sam Preston, Vanderburgh County Sheriff's Office

My dad — who just passed away last month — said countless times during my youth: “You can’t polish a turd.”

He was generally talking about a piece of farm machinery that continually broke down and was basically a lemon. Unfortunately, this phrase — while inelegant — also describes a small handful of people in our profession. 

While we’re talking about a very, very small segment of the law enforcement ranks, it is unfortunately these people who get the most media attention. They often become the most dominant — even sole — image the public attaches to our agencies.

You Can’t Teach Character
With ever-growing demands, our men and women are required to be experts in multiple disciplines and must constantly do more with less. Everyone seems to be watching us, videotaping us, and judging our every move. 

The fishbowl we used to work in is now a full-blown aquarium. 

With these obstacles in front of us it is paramount that agencies hire and retain the best of the best. 

It is also incumbent for the wellbeing of our profession that proper supervision, discipline, training, and documentation are in place to identify those who do not meet the standard. 

We can no longer ignore the problem child or hide them within. 

As an instructor and former Field Training Coordinator, I know the importance of training. FTOs and instructors can instill confidence, improve decision-making, and sharpen skills. 

Reaction time can be improved, and thanks to ever-improving technology, we can train more realistically and induce stress in a controlled environment. 

We can educate about diversity, ethics, decision-making, and discretion. 

But we cannot teach character. 

We have to hire it.

Improving Our Recruiting
With shrinking budgets, each slice of the pie within an agency gets progressively smaller. And while we can cut corners in some areas, we cannot afford to do so in proper recruitment and retention.

I once attended a course on internal investigations and heard countless stories about problematic officers. My first thought was, “Why in the hell did you hire them to begin with?”

The reasons vary. In some cases it was a small applicant pool. Occasionally it was pressure to fill empty positions. Sometimes the municipal or agency head are trying to “change the face” of their law enforcement.

We have to reluctantly admit that sometimes poor hiring is the product of the buddy system, nepotism, or political pressure from above.

What alarmed me the most was that many of these “turds” were retained against the recommendation of their FTOs. In most states, once an officer’s probationary period is over it becomes even more difficult to sever their employment. These are the officers who spend their career sucking the life out of the agency and are constantly bounced from supervisor to supervisor in hopes that they will change.

A mistake we make too often is that we settle. I remember a friend of mine saying about his spouse: “She is the perfect wife, if I could only change this, this, and that...”

We all know how this story ended — well, at least those of who’ve been married know. Getting into a relationship with hopes of changing someone will never work. So why do we think such a strategy will succeed in our hiring process? 

A Serious Investment
When we hire an officer we are making an investment that will hopefully last 30, or more years. We have to get it right. To get it right we have to find ways to identify and recruit premier applicants. 

We must also ensure that our investigators are trained to look for the red flags and are conducting comprehensive backgrounds. Just because someone is a good criminal investigator doesn’t mean they excel at this type of work. 

Our written and psychological testing must be specific to our jobs and we must give our Field Training Officers the reassurance that we support their recommendations. In addition we need to work with our merit boards, unions, city or county councils etc. to develop clear and concise guidelines that allow for prompt removal for officers whose actions warrant dismissal. 

This, of course, should be accompanied with proper checks and balances to ensure that rights are protected.

Having the best policies in place and the best training in the world is not always enough. There will one day be a situation no one envisioned. There won’t be a SOP in place. There will have been no training for this scenario. 

It is in these times — in the absence of policy and training — that it comes down to good people making good decisions. 

You can’t train that. 

You must hire that.

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