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Advising youth on a career in law enforcement

What would you tell a young person who asked you, "I think I want to become a cop. Is it a good career choice?"

With rare exceptions, cops love being cops. In a recent PoliceOne poll, we asked the question, “If you could return to the day before entering the academy, and make that ‘go-no-go’ decision all over again, what would you do?” More than 1,600 members replied to the survey, and the overwhelming majority (71 percent) said, “I’d do it all over again!” Ten percent said they’d go to college instead and 18 percent said they’d do something else entirely. One percent of folks emailed me a clever (and all but unprintable) quip or joke.

So, about three-quarters of those who responded said they’d make the exact same career moves as that which they’d done “the first time around.” But I got to thinking that an even more telling indicator of police officers’ opinions of their profession would be how they’d respond to a hypothetical scenario. You’re on patrol near a high school and you’re approached by a young person. He addresses you with a smile and respectfully says, “I get good grades, I’m a two-sport athlete, and I’ve never been on the wrong side of the law. I think I want to become a cop. Is it a good career choice?”

I asked you to write me with how you’d reply to such an inquiry. Below is a collection of observations generated by my query last month. Add your own thoughts in the comments area below.

Get an Education
Ben Carroll, a 33-year law enforcement veteran, is currently the Emergency Planner for the Clay County (Fla.) Sheriff’s Office and has held practically every rank possible in a law enforcement agency, including Chief of Police and Special Agent in Charge. Today Carroll has a Bachelor’s degree in Criminal Management and I’m finishing my Masters in Public Administration but when he had started his career at 19 years of age, these degrees were not part of his resume.

Carroll says he would tell this young person to stay in school, earn a four-year college education, and possibly a Master’s degree. “Take some time after college and consider the military for experience, because in Federal Law enforcement, military time will transfer to his retirement. After spending time in the military, if he still would like to be a law enforcement officer, start by applying to Federal Agencies first. The pay is better and it takes fewer years to earn a retirement. Attempt to avoid, county and municipality law enforcement agencies. Politics often governs some portion of the advancement up the ranks, but if he does find himself in county or municipal service, his college and military will translate well, and help him with his career goals. I would remind him, wealth doesn’t follow public service. Sometimes the pay is adequate, other times a second and even third job is required to provide for your family. The public will love you and hate you at the same time, and they won’t even remember you during the violent times because they are under extreme stress. Keep doing good at school. I’m proud of you for your accomplishments this far. You are my future at it will be my honor to work with you someday.”

Bill Pringle is with the RCMP in Canada. Pringle says, “I would encourage the person to continue with their education, to keep doing community work and to keep themselves fit. I would help them with the application process and tell them about my great twenty five years in the police force. The experiences I have had, the love of the people I have served and now the joy I have in teaching younger officers.”

Captain J. T. Flanagan is with the Town of Tonawanda Police Department outside Buffalo, New York. Flanagan adds, “I would tell them what I have told my own son who just graduated w/honors and an associate degree. The local gig is a rotten deal these days, stay in school, get the four-year degree and try and go federal.”

Senior Officer Christopher Harris of the Colonial Heights (Va.) Police Department agrees. “I would tell him to go to college and get a degree first. I have been a police officer for seven and a half years and I am trying to obtain a degree while working on the night shift and I am married with two kids. I wish that I had taken college seriously when I was younger.”

Community Service, A Way of Life
Detective Sergeant Joshua Donovan is with the Shiloh (Ill.) Police Department would explain to this young person that becoming a police officer is not just a job but a way of life — that it is not something you start at nine in the morning and end at five in the evening. “You are a cop 24 hours a day. There are some sacrifices that go along with the badge, such as missing family functions, periods of not getting to see you loved ones much, lack of proper sleep, long hours of dealing with stress and sometimes the worst life has to offer. I would also tell them that the job has, in my opinion, more good than bad to offer, such as; the close knit relationships you develop with some of your co-workers/partners, the fulfillment you experience when you get a job well done, the challenges and lifelong learning, the little things, like when a small child approaches to shake your hand or salute, and of course I would admit to enjoying that little adrenalin dump every now and then, similar to that of winning a game.”

A female Sergeant from California who wished to remain anonymous said that she’d had that exact scenario happen to her recently. “I told him I still thought it was the greatest job in the world, because cops truly do make a difference in the lives of so many on a daily basis. I advised him to keep working with the public, because it’s great experience for handling citizens in the future. Plus, I suggested he take several English composition classes, including a creative writing class, to prepare himself for all the descriptive reports he will someday be writing. It always seems as if five minutes of fun translates into one hour of paperwork.”

Similarly, Officer Ken Frownfelter with the Rogue River (Ore.) Police Department had this very scenario happen to him just a couple of weeks ago. “The young lady told me she wanted to be a cop. I asked her why. She gave me the same answer everyone else always gives, ‘I want to help people.’ I replied to her, ‘Okay, you want to help people, but why do you want to help people?’ She couldn’t answer the question. She thought about it for a little bit and was unable to answer the question in any other way than ‘I don’t know.’ This young lady was 16. I told her she had a lot of time to think why. Is it because of something that happened when you were younger? Or, perhaps, a family member does it, or because of TV shows you’ve watched? She still wasn’t sure why, she said she just thought it was cool. I assured her it was, and is, cool. The coolest job there is, but if she wants to make this her career she should know why she wants to help people who don’t want her help, some of the time. I gave her some information that might be helpful. She said she was also wanting to go into the military and fly jets, but wasn’t sure which one she wanted to do. I told her the military is a good stepping stone and that she didn’t have to choose just one. She could join the military, get a degree, fly jets, then come and serve her community with the knowledge she gained from the military. She has a full life ahead of her, and provided she keeps her nose clean, she can do all/anything she wants. That young lady left our conversation with a big smile on her face as she did that little bouncy step as she left. Police work is sometimes very disheartening, but once in a while you get to help someone change their life, and maybe one day that someone will be your partner that saves yours.”

Officer M. Soldano is a cop in the Village of Spring Valley, New York. Soldano adds, “Oddly enough, I have been in that situation before. I made my response simple. I told the student that it is a great career with many challenges, excitement, and opportunity. However, being a LEO for almost 11 years and enduring the patrol of high risk/crime areas as well as the political plight, my advice was a bit opposite of my true disposition. Truth is, nobody (and I stress nobody) especially the general public, could be prepared for the real definition of this job in words alone. If I was to really explain our profession to this young mind, they would be certain to change course. But, in the spirit of good PR, I stated my words of support in an emphatic yet reserved tone. Shortly thereafter, the conversation was cut short as I raced to the call of a large fight involving weapons. After driving against traffic in the rain only to find out it was a hoax, I returned to HQ to finish paperwork before the end of my second double in two days, only to be back in eight hours for more! How do you explain that as part of a normal day? Man, guess I really do love this career after all.”

David Wallace is with the Modesto Police Department in Modesto, California. “I would strongly encourage this young person to explore a career in LE,” Wallace says. “We need bright young people with common sense and a willingness to serve. I would tell them that the best thing about it is that each day is a new canvas and you don't quite know how it's going to fill up. After 20+ years I still enjoy hunting for bad guys, solving peoples problems, and the constantly changing environment we do it in. It sure beats sharpening pencils for 30+ years. It comes with its frustrations and sometimes heartache, but overall it's been a great ride. Bottom line is I wouldn't want to do anything else...”

Hank Fahnert, who is with the La Vernia Police Department in Texas, would tell this young person, “It’s the best job in the world, and you get to make a difference in peoples lives. You can do so many things in law enforcement — you’ll never be bored and always be learning. And most of all it makes you think about situations and allows you to be creative.”

Detective Carl Spriegel of the San Marcos (Texas) Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division agrees. “I admire that you would be interested in a career of service to the community,” Spriegel would tell this young person. “I believe it is a great occupation with many rewards and opportunity for personal accomplishments. Good grades are a great start but you also need to possess good morals and values. You have to know right from wrong and have the personal resolve to enforce the law even when you don’t agree. You have to know in your heart that you are helping people even when they cuss, beg, and plead with you. You have to accept that you will receive far less recognition for what you do well and very few thanks from those you help. Despite this you will gain a perspective few understand, you will be able to see things others don’t, you will become part of a brotherhood that is unlike any other, and you will gain lifelong friends who will depend on you and place their own lives in your hands.”

Eugene Rhodes retired from the Detroit (Mich.) Police Department after a 27-year career in which he met many men and women from all walks of life. Rhodes says he would tell this young person — or anyone else with qualification and an interest in law enforcement — “You have lived a lifestyle that provides a future for you to become what ever you what to be! Come and visit with me and some of my fellow officers and supervisors were you can ask questions and see them in action!”

Don Burcham retired from the Richardson (Texas) Police Department and is now a Reserve for the Whitesboro (Texas) Police Department. Burcham says, “Get involved in an Explorer Post if available, continue with the good work and finish High School and consider college classes until a decision is made. My experience as a full time Police Officer for 25 years in a medium size Department and currently a Reserve Officer in a small Department has been very rewarding during my life. I don't know what other occupation that I could have chosen that would have been as self satisfying as this job. There are very few occupations that the employees actually look forward to going to work every day. The friends that you make as co-workers are life long friends. I am still connected through Facebook and Email with Officers that I have known for nearly 1/2 century now.”

Two Dissenting Views
Stanley Nyland retired from law enforcement work in 1995 and is now CEO of a private company called Georgia Executive Protection Division in Atlanta. “I would tell him to go get a better paying career where he could support his family better and if he is really interested in Law Enforcement then apply for a Reserve position. This way he has a stable financial job and testing what it’s like to be a Police Officer. He could always go full time later in his career after he has a stable family life.”

Finally, one PoliceOne Member submitted the following comment on the promise I’d keep their identity anonymous. “No, it is not a good career choice. It is a necessary job and a noble endeavor but it will change you forever if you do it for very long and not necessarily for the better. You will face danger every day and every night you go to work just because of who you are and what you represent. Your decisions and actions will constantly be questioned by society as well as your administrators... and necessarily so. You will subject yourself to the ugliest part of humanity along with a steady diet of sleep deprivation and stress that will undoubtedly shorten your life. Your family will wonder if you are coming home in the morning every time you walk out the door to go to work. You will miss birthdays, Christmas, ballgames, and a whole lot of other important days because you will be working. People — even your friends before you became a cop — will treat you differently. You will never be rich but if you are frugal, you might be able to put your kid through college one day. There are good people out there who do need your help and if you are willing to sacrifice your life for them...they may or may not appreciate it. Being a cop is a calling, it is not a career. Think about that long and hard before you decide to put on a badge. There is no shame in realizing it isn't for you and deciding to do something else, there are many other career paths that will be healthier for you and that you'll make more money at. If after careful self examination you think being a cop is still for you, I’ll do everything in my power to make sure you become a good one.”

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