Why I want to be a police officer: New recruits open up
While numbers of new police recruits may be down, men and women in police academies nationwide long to realize their dream of becoming a great cop
There is much talk about the diminishing numbers of police recruits these days. To gain some insight as to why the numbers of those seeking a career in law enforcement are down, but also why those entering the profession are not deterred, I talked with a group of recruits who attended my recruit alma-mater, the Public Safety Training Center of Western Technical College in La Crosse, Wisconsin.
Here are some questions I posed and their summarized responses.
Why do you want to be a police officer?
All shared a sincere desire to serve their community and make a difference in a positive way.
The military veterans agreed with a fellow veteran, who had seen action in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They all looked at law enforcement as a way to continue to serve “every day.”
One recruit saw the career of a police officer as a necessary stepping stone to becoming a forensic investigator.
Another said that as a child she lived in a neighborhood that needed the police badly, but the police were not a very visible presence. She said, “I want to be a highly visible police officer that makes a community a better place to live.”
Did your college professors encourage you or discourage you about your career choice?
Recruits differentiated between criminal justice professors and general education professors when answering this question. Criminal justice instructors often emphasized that law enforcement was a challenging, yet honorable profession, and encouraged them in their pursuit of becoming an officer.
On the other hand, some “gen-ed” professors were negative about law enforcement even beyond the point of bias.
What do you think about the media portrayal of the police?
All strongly believe that when it comes to media coverage of law enforcement, the work of good police officers is regularly ignored. Negative reporting on police did not deter them from pursuing this career, but they believe it most certainly has deterred others.
One recruit said that when people find out he is pursuing a career in law enforcement they often say, “Well, don’t shoot me.”
What have you done to prepare for your career?
Three out of the five served in the military, all attended college, and all but one attended the academy on their own time on their own dime.
The entire class confirmed that they realize the job is physical and they are involved in an active personal fitness program.
One recruit declared he has prepared emotionally by sharing everything about this journey with his wife. He felt that spouses are very much a part of a police officer’s success and should be kept emotionally involved.
How do you plan on staying excited about your career and avoiding cynicism and complacency?
The recruits clearly had given this a great deal of thought because their instructors had identified it as a survival issue and stated they would:
- Avoid, even fight, the urge to perceive anything as routine;
- Train continuously to maintain an edge;
- Try to learn from every call and get better on every shift.
What makes you most apprehensive about law enforcement?
The entire class agreed their number one fear was to have to use justifiable force, but that before all the facts would be released they would be convicted in the court of public opinion. One recruit said he feared there would be an “overblown reaction, creating a cloud over my whole life and career.”
They believe this fear is shared by many of those considering law enforcement as a career so subsequently they choose another path.
What can police agencies do to draw more recruits to law enforcement and specifically to their agency?
These recruits indicated that agencies wanting to expand their recruit pools should:
- Send officers into schools to share with students the importance and excitement of a career in law enforcement;
- Counter aggressively the negative narrative attacking law enforcement by promoting positive truths about policing;
- Regularly maintain and update an interesting Facebook page;
- Provide internship opportunities and ride-along programs.
How do you hope to see yourself in 30 years looking back at your career?
The students indicated they want to be able to say:
- “I am happy I made the choice to be a police officer.”
- “I made an impact in my community that was a change for the better.”
- “I earned a few thankyous along the way.”
- “I will be missed by my agency when I retire.”
One of the recruits quite poignantly explained that when it is all said and done, and his career is at an end, “I want to be my son’s hero.”
Quality vs. quantity
As I look at the photo of my 1974 academy class at Western Technical College and compare it with the photo I took of the 2018 Summer Academy there clearly is not the same quantity of recruits now as then. However, I can happily report that I met recruits who long to realize their dream of becoming a great cop, possess the qualities to achieve that dream and they will not be deterred in their mission.