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A word to the rookies: Stay humble, stay hungry

The job isn’t what it once was. Police officers with anywhere from three to 30 years on the job will cite the myriad of differences from when they started in law enforcement to policing today:

  • “Testing used to be a real process – a gauntlet.”

  •  “Academy used to be harder.”

  • “Public scrutiny has never been higher.”

  • “It’s never been more dangerous out there.”

  • “It’s never been more litigious out there. Who would want to be a cop anymore? No wonder we’re short-staffed. If I could do it all over again, I wouldn’t.”

We’ve heard these voices. Every organization in every region has them. And once newly hired officers hit the streets, those voices kick up again:

  • “This generation is soft."

  • "The new generation is entitled."

  • "These applicants don’t have any life experience."

  • "These recruits can’t communicate."

  • There’s no loyalty – a few years in this job and they’re onto the next department, the next thing.”

Much can be said about generational differences. The understanding of generational themes and dynamics should be of strong relevance to any effective organizational leader. However, this article’s focus isn’t to analyze differences, but to focus on similarities.

I started my career over 15 years ago, but perhaps ironically, I could have picked up this very article and it would have been accurate and helpful to me back then. I was 21 years old when I was hired, but these comments weren’t just about me and my “millennial” generation. My whole recruit class was painted with the same broad stroke – from the 10-year Army veteran to the middle-aged small-town firefighter making the jump to the other side. 

Every statement about the job and new class of recruits was said about my class and continued to echo several years later when I was a Field Training Officer. And years after that, I was prepping to be a new patrol sergeant and still hearing the same voices from the senior officers about the newest crop of rookies, saying exactly what was said of them.

While there are undoubtedly many challenges that have shaped law enforcement as of late, the longer we entertain the echo chamber, the more likely we are to become a part of it. At a certain point, those voices become the peanut gallery, a toxic, cynical place that doesn’t build collaboration.

As a cop who could be labeled mid-career, here are some ways to help rookie officers navigate the most tumultuous of careers and not become part of the negative echo chamber. These concepts will help you continue to grow and excel, despite your loudest critics, and help prevent you from becoming a critic yourself.

Here’s what is true now, was true decades ago when I started, and (from talking to my old mentors) has been true even long before that:

The job is hard. It always has been, and always will be. Don’t allow the dwellers of the past to tell you how you have it easy or that you can’t do what you ought to do. Acknowledge the landscape, roll up your sleeves and get to work.

The work is hard, but it is meaningful. We might have our hands tied and there might be many more obstacles and challenges to how we do our job but if we only focus on what we can’t do, it is easy to forget what we can do. We still have myriad opportunities to directly help and protect people on a daily basis – often in life-changing, significant ways. You can do more in this job to help others than most people can dream of in their day-to-day lives.

Police work is an accelerant. It is likely to underline the best and worst traits you have. If you are a strong team player, the job will make you an integral lynchpin to your unit. If you have trouble balancing home and work, it will likely not be easier. It will strain you and force you to work out that dynamic or suffer the effects.

In this job, you become a subject matter expert on life and death and trauma of all types. With the right frame of mind and balance, this will help you appreciate life’s fragility and the simple things.

With a perpetual cynicism, it may turn dismal.

Recognizing that you alone hold the power to control your mindset is critical. Learning that the company you keep (or distance from) guides your mindset is a game-changer. Iron sharpens iron. Positivity is contagious. Find those partners and peers and keep them close!

You determine your legacy. I can reflect on the officers who have retired from my agency or the surrounding area over my career. When I think of the names, I immediately picture several with smiles on their faces. They left on good terms and recognized the good they were responsible for and the service they provided. Many say they would have kept at it if they could.

Others left bitter and dejected about one thing or another. It is hard to reflect on other memories, as oftentimes the final image is the most lasting. How you interact with others, with those you work with or mentor is completely up to you.

Stay humble and stay hungry. Whether it is day one or day 10,000, our unchecked egos will be our downfall. Whether we are talking about officer safety or professional judgment issues, pride and complacency can jeopardize everything.

Keep a small chip on your shoulder to fuel you. Prove your doubters and silence your critics. You aren’t just a body, a number. You aren’t from a poor applicant pool. You deserve your spot and your badge. Remember your oath to serve and lean in with conviction.

Many speak about finding or remembering “your why” or purpose. This is a frequent conversation in my roles in recruiting, training and community engagement. My larger “whys” remained constant, but I had to adapt and evolve them. Initially, it was about self-challenge and growth. Then it was about contributing to my crew and department. As I gained tenure and became a supervisor, my purpose was governed by how I could be of best use to my officers and help them accomplish their goals and helping them stay safe.

By being and staying humble students, we can best prepare an attitude of learning and growth. By being engaged as a developing individual, being an asset to our team and agency, and being a pillar in the community, we may best prepare for a full, meaningful career of service. We can receive the opportunities we have and pay them forward in paramount ways.

Some things never change and negative attitudes may always be there. By focusing on the positive, you can let the critics’ voices fuel your resolve and lead to meaningful results. Or better yet, let your actions speak louder than their words, which will undoubtedly fade into the abyss.

Published on Police 1:

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