What it Takes: The Truth About Police Officers

 By T.B. Lefever:

I always love hearing the stereotypes people attribute to police officers.  You’ve heard them before.

“Cops are high school jocks that ran out of options”, “Cops become cops because they were bullied in high school”, “Cops are nobodies without that badge and gun”. 

I get why people feel negatively about us. For one, criminals and habitual rule breakers fear us because we are their natural enemy; the consequence to their way of life.  Ordinary citizens dread us because they just want to be left alone.  My feeling is that we are all rebellious teenagers at heart.  We’re Americans.  Personal freedoms and self-actualization are in our DNA. No one wants to be told what they can and cannot do when they generally identify themselves as a good and honest person.  In addition to that, a person that is going places knows that a run-in with police when they make that big mistake can close doors and avert dreams they may have had for their future.  Even cops don’t always like other cops.  Many cops armchair quarterback each other and could keep up in a gossiping contest with any school girl.  With that being said, cops are a heck of a lot more intricate than the stereotypical short sale that some people envision us to be.

I’d like to tackle these simplistic brandings given to us by explaining how hard it is to become a police officer in the first place.  In my personal experience, I could have gone through a far less rigorous examination of my past by applying to any number of respectable and higher paying positions.  Sure, we all know the story of the city councilman’s son who was a screw up his whole life and is somehow now pushing a black and white and pulling pretty girls over somewhere.  But the fact of the matter is that this is the exception, not the rule; and nepotism rears its ugly head in all occupations.  While it is possible for some less than stellar individuals to slip through the cracks, getting hired by a police department is almost never a last chance to have a decent job for people because of the stringent requirements most departments have in regards to hiring practices.  I know doctors, lawyers, CEO’s, and politicians all of whom have had those rebellious years and would be deemed unemployable in my profession.  For some, it may have been a stint with hard drugs in college.  Others may have been locked up at some point for a domestic violence dispute.  Some may have simply shoplifted or gotten a DUI.  I’ve even known departments to toss out the applications of those with poor driving records or a bad credit score.

Straight from the horse’s mouth, you can forget about being hired by a police department these days if you had a domestic violence conviction.  In terms of employability, you can consider your chances drastically lowered if you’ve had a history with drugs beyond “experimental use of marijuana”.  Whether you personally agree with it or not, the vast majority of those signing off on applicant files consider even experimental use of cocaine, pills, hallucinogens, etc. to represent a red flag for poor judgement and character.  Such an admission will more than likely get you screened out of the process fast when you admit to it on your 70 plus page background investigation packet.  With the use of polygraph testing increasing in popularity across the board, you can expect to be hooked up to a machine that measures your breathing, blood pressure, and perspiration while you are interrogated by a man or woman whose very livelihood hinges on determining whether you are showing signs of deception in your answers.  While the validity of these tests is often questioned, that is another article for another day.  The polygraph exam is no walk in the park.  Good luck beating one with lies.  To top it all off, background investigators paid visits to my neighbors, called all of my former employers, and even some former girlfriends to get the skinny on me in each hiring process I went through.  Had I shown some type of sustained pattern as a flaky employee, obnoxious neighbor, or terrible boyfriend I would assume that I’d be doing something else with my life as I sit here today.

To say that police officers do the job because they failed at everything else is even further disproved by the large numbers of former military veterans that occupy jobs in the law enforcement profession.  These are not people that ran out of options. Many of the officers I work alongside have honorable discharges from all branches and could have made a career out of being a soldier, sailor, or even a pilot had they stayed in. I would say that in many of these cases, becoming a police officer is the final destination for ambitious and professional Americans that want to continue a life of service to their country without continuing to be enlisted, sent on deployments, or viewed as a piece of owned property by their government.

Military or not, let’s say you have walked the path and avoided the pit falls that effectively screen out many applicants.  You’ve never stolen a thing, you’ve kept your body clean of narcotics your whole life, and you’ve had healthy relationships or knew when to walk away from a bad one before something that could get you in trouble could happen.  Be prepared to take a battery of cognitive, physical fitness, and psychological evaluations that you must score in the top percentile on in order to set yourself apart from the hundreds and sometimes thousands of applicants for a small department that may only be hiring five this year or a larger department that may be looking for one hundred.  You can’t forget about the all-important panel interview you will have with members of the police department you are applying with.  The key is to present yourself as the ideal police officer: a person who has followed this disciplined path I speak of but not be a “robot” incapable of empathizing and connecting with a greater society of people that have not followed the same path. There is a delicate balance to being a good cop. Be conscientious, ethical, and self-controlled but don’t be a choir boy or a drone.  Have a personality. Be a real person.  Does this sound like a high school jock with no other options or a kid who never got over the trauma of being bullied? Maybe. Maybe not. But I don’t think so.

For those that make the cut, their journey has just begun.  When I went through the Atlanta Police Academy in 2010, I saw plenty of good men and women fail to make the grade.  Some got dropped due to the firearms qualifications. Shooting a gun well isn’t easy. Some people just can’t hack it even in a controlled environment. Others get dropped when their emergency driving skills are not up to snuff. For others, their bodies broke down due to the intensity of the physical fitness regimen.

For those of us that made it to the street, we endured being tased and covered in O.C. spray, or what I more affectionately refer to as “devil’s piss”. We’ve learned to protect ourselves in hand to hand combat, gun fighting, and the art of verbal judo, or the ability to talk your way out of a fight.  A good cop has to be every bit a soldier as he or she does a shrink. Some that I went through it with have since gotten divorced, lost friends, or in other ways suffered in their personal lives because of their new life as a cop.  I maintain that it takes a special kind of person more complex than the high school jock stereotype to walk the blue line.  Every cop I know and respect is a somebody regardless of the gun and badge they carry.

T.B. Lefever is an OpsLens Contributor and active police officer in the Metro-Atlanta area. Throughout his career, Lefever has served as a SWAT Hostage Negotiator, a member of the Crime Suppression Unit, a School Resource Officer, and a Uniformed Patrol Officer. He has a BA in Criminal Justice and Sociology from Rutgers University.

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