This article is for the rookies. Congratulations! You’ve made it past swearing-in day. The academy is behind you, the hiring process is completed and you’ve atoned for all of the sins of your past life in the background checks. The chief handed you a shiny new badge, carrying with it the authority to sally forth and enforce the laws of your county, state or municipality.
If your agency is larger than 10 or 20 people you likely are staring down the barrel of a months-long training program. Some agencies call it FTO, PTO or New Officer Training. There are agencies in my home state who train new deputies for a week or less before sending them out on solo patrol. Regardless, it feels as though the journey to your new career is over.
I submit to you: The hardest part has only begun.
Earning Your Place
You’ve only earned your chance to try up to this point. At my agency it’s not uncommon for a recruit (that’s what we call officers in the training program) to fail the program and resign or be dismissed. The recruit class before mine had several officers resign in the program and one resign for a career change shortly thereafter.
Now you have to earn your seat at the table. At my agency, a municipal agency of about 170 sworn officers, we have a 20-week program that’s broken up into four phases. In the middle is a one-week evaluation, and the end the evaluation is two weeks.
After the midterm evaluation, the officer spends a week on day hours in what we call “non-traditional week.” That’s a day each with narcotics(pulling trash and maybe executing a search warrant), investigations (tagging along with personal and property crimes detectives), evidence, and a split day with records and dispatch. Recruits are friends with recruits. Yes, you build the foundations of later friendships with other officers. But there is no seat at the table with your name on it.
When I was assigned to the night shift for half of my training, I would eat at a cubicle working on reports, learning projects (required each phase for recruits, like a research paper), or reading department policies. The officers out of training would eat lunch at a table together in the break room before coming out to the cubicles. You are a part of the team, but not all at the same time. You take more reports out of your assigned beat or district to gain experience, and you take the lead on calls more often that an officer normally would outside of his or her assigned beat.
Graduation from the program and assignment to solo patrol was one of my proudest moments. I could eat at the table and made friends quickly with the other officers assigned to my shift. I made traffic stops when I wanted to make them, ate when I was hungry, and stopped for a soda or the bathroom when I wanted to—calls allowing.
It was a quick transition. A shade under two weeks after my coming out of the program, along with the other five guys from my class, my agency lost its first officers in the line of duty in more than 130 years.
I was one of the initial responders to the domestic disturbance that turned into a suspect shooting more than 50 rounds at us from a concealed position and killing a beloved officer from my shift before being shot twice by a SWAT sniper. The murderer ultimately shot himself during the standoff. This standoff ultimately involved agencies from two states, two counties, federal agencies and two SWAT teams. To top it off, it occurred over an eight hour span in North Dakota in February (hint: cold).
Within the first few months on my own, I’ve responded to a welfare check-turned homicide, investigated human trafficking and horrible child sex crimes and fresh child pornography creation cases on top of all the other “normal” calls for service this job entails. I am thankful to be assigned to the highest call-volume shift at my agency, so the experience is accumulating swiftly. In a ten-hour shift in our busy season I typically see more than 20 calls, on top of traffic stops and other officer-initiated activity.
That said, I’m still the new guy. My place here will be earned, and, if I’m lucky, the experience I’m gaining now will serve me, my team, and this community for the remainder of a long career.