Finding success as a lateral officer
Step in the door on day one with humility and an attitude that convinces your new agency you have the intent to learn and work hard
By Andrew Heuett
All of us, I hope, enter the field of law enforcement excited for the possibilities at the agency where we begin. Some of us are fortunate enough to land in the right spot and remain for an entire police career. The rest of us come to realize after a period of time that it’s not the right fit. This may be due to a lack of assignment opportunities, structure of work, or organizational issues that are outside your ability to change. It might also have nothing to do with your department and may be motivated by personal reasons like wanting to move closer to family.
Whatever the reason for the change, you want the members of your new agency to be satisfied with their new officer, not shaking their heads and giving each other looks. To be successful, you need to have all your technical job skills on point – be knowledgeable on criminal law, sharp on criminal procedure, practice safe patrol procedures, have an ability to build rapport, demonstrate firearm performance that doesn’t keep your range master up at night, and much more. If any of this is a surprise, get ready for a rough transition to your new agency.
Most of us don’t need to read an article restating the obvious. Instead, allow me to draw your attention to some less obvious pointers to help you find resounding success at your new agency:
Be professional from day one
First impressions are important and will influence a reputation long after they are made. I have yet to find a profession that remembers initial impressions and holds people to them like law enforcement.
As a lateral officer, you must step in the door on day one with humility and an attitude that convinces your new agency you have the intent to learn and work hard. A humble officer with good performance is better received than an uncoachable officer with otherwise excellent performance.
take advantage of the Opportunity for improvement
Arriving at a new agency is an opportunity to receive coaching that would never happen at your previous agency. No one enjoys being evaluated day in and day out during the FTO or PTO process, but when else will you get one-on-one coaching and feedback for improvement specific to your needs and performance? Are you slamming your door on traffic stops? Are you turning your head away from suspects when you provide names to dispatch? In a profession with so many moving pieces, there is a huge potential for making unnecessary and dangerous mistakes. You are probably not aware of these mistakes, but a dangerous suspect looking for an opportunity might be. Coaching from a good field training officer can help you go home safe for the rest of your career.
get up to speed on Geography
Most lateral officers rely on their solid base of technical skills. The greatest challenge is with the skill that does not translate – geography.
Unless you have already spent a lot of time living or working in your new jurisdiction, expect geography to be your biggest hurdle. Spend some time studying maps, making up mnemonic devices, or even driving the area on your day off if necessary.
If you cannot figure out where to go, expect a rocky training process. When your focus is consumed by navigating your environment, your ability to see the big picture will diminish. Extra effort spent learning geography will also prove to your agency that you are self-sufficient and take your new position seriously.
limit References to your previous agency
“Well, at my last agency.” No. Stop it.
One of the most common mistakes lateral officers make starts with the above. There are legitimate reasons to reference your previous agency – explaining an arrest decision, trying to understand the reason for an operating procedure, or just helping your training officer understand the paradigm you formerly operated under. If you have a productive purpose in mind before you begin, then by all means, make that reference. What you want to avoid is droning on about how things were done at your last agency because this quickly becomes exhausting for everyone around you.
don't air grievances
Every lateral officer has complaints about his or her previous agency or at least the general challenges of the career and many of them are valid. However, the worst place to air those grievances is at your new agency. As a new lateral, you need to convince your department that the move was for the purpose of arriving at the new agency, not escaping the old one.
Think of the person we all know who spends his time talking trash and not a word of compliment. During each tirade, you consider how often your name comes up when you are not in the room. If you make a habit of bitter complaint sessions about your previous agency, your new co-workers know it is only a matter of time until the new workplace is the worst room full of idiots you have ever had the displeasure of being stuck in. Instead, show them what kind of attitude you will have during your next rough patch. Your professional conduct on your first day is important, but a good reputation will not last if it was just polish that rubs off after the first few weeks.
Law enforcement can be a challenging career and working in a place that does not meet your needs makes it worse. If you have gone through the rigors of finding a new department, dressing sharp for the oral board and passing all the tests, it was probably for a good reason. I hope the change is positive. Please take this pivotal transition in your career and make the best of it. Putting in effort now can pay dividends in available opportunities and the satisfaction you find in your work.
About the author
Andrew Heuett has been a police officer since 2006 and started with the Port of Seattle Police Department in 2016. He became a defensive tactics instructor in 2009 and received his Defensive Tactics Master Instructor Certification in 2012. His DT experience includes instruction at the Washington State Basic Law Enforcement Academy. He has branched out as an instructor for his department for TASER and reality-based scenario training, and is very active as a PTO.