"Looking forward may be the best insurance we have against being blind-sided by the unexpected. This is especially true in love and in police work," says Ellen Kirschman in I Love a Cop. Many people have tried to figure out what makes a good law enforcement officer and what about law enforcement makes it a good occupation. Often a young person states from the beginning of his or her career, "I've always wanted to be a cop," or "It's a calling."
Anyone who has stood with applicants taking the written test, or at the academy on the first day of classes, can attest to the palpable excitement and energy. So why do people become officers and how do they maintain that fire when the realities of police work sink in? What happens when the dreams of youth evolve into the often jaded wisdom of experience? What can officers do to continue loving their jobs when time has taken a bit of shine out of their badge? How can families help support them? With a bit of awareness and reparation, it can be done.
Why I became a Cop
"I grew up watching the Andy Griffith Show and the common sense displayed and how often Sheriff Taylor could help folks was my motivation," says a 24-year veteran of a suburban Maryland department. His determination started before that. As a very young child he is reported to have told his family, "I'm going to be a policeman and actually help people." One of the most reported reasons for joining the police force and one of the motivations attacked by the realities of the job is the desire to help. A 14-year veteran of a suburban Illinois department states his motivation, "It was the desire to help people and be 'the good guy' who protected society."
Another motivation for many who enter law enforcement is the desire for excitement. A 24-year east coast veteran says, "I wanted a job that wasn't routine. I wanted excitement." Of course, like helping people, this motivation can be quickly challenged. When asked how the reality of the streets changed his motivation, he replied, "The old police saying of police work is 7 hours and 50 minutes of sheer boredom followed by 10 minutes of pure terror. I never thought people would bother the police with such mundane complaints nor how much time was wasted answering calls over nonsense."
Doing a job with great value is also a dominate motivation. Even though she believes an officer cannot maintain their original enthusiasm for police work, a 17-year veteran of a metropolitan Texas department states, "One has to do the job simply because one believes that it is 'the right thing to do.'" Law enforcement has a long history of being an honorable and valued profession.
Between the Pinning on and the Taking off of the Badge
Many things occur between the time a person receives the call they've made it through the process and are now able to become a police officer and the moment they shut the station door behind themselves for the last time. In her book, Kirschman describes four post-academy phases:
1) The Honeymoon
The Honeymoon incorporates the early years following training when an officer encounters a large amount of learning. New opportunities present themselves and the authority and responsibilities of wearing a badge become apparent. Kirschman describes, "new officers feel invincible, as though they are fulfilling a kind of hero role - protector; rescuer; powerful, brave defender of justice." Most are consumed by police work. They talk about it non-stop and probably dream about it most nights.
2) Settling Down
No longer the rookie, an officer moves into this phase which is defined by competence and confidence in his or her street skills. Realism begins to temper many motivational fantasies. Many times, at this stage, officers begin to look for promotional opportunities. Unfortunately, this is also the time when the reality of internal politics begins to color his or her experience.
3) Dealing with Disillusionment
Kirschman describes officers in this phase as no longer "idealistic supercop(s) out to solve crime and make this a better world." Now he or she is intent on just doing their best to "maintain order and hold the line". Stress due to internal and external situations beyond their control becomes an increased part of the officer's professional life and this seeps into their personal life as well. Cynicism is rampant at this stage as well as feelings of helplessness and frustration.
My colleagues indicated several categories of disillusionment:
3a) Sheer Volume of Work
"Quite often now, especially in urban areas, being able to help people takes a backseat to call response," says the veteran Maryland officer. "The crime rates in certain urban areas is so bad that officers go into their shift with a list of calls on hold, waiting for their attention. I could only answer calls as fast as I could and hope I'd get a chance to eat dinner."
3b) Human Nature
"People want law enforcement's help but on their terms and they often become angry or contemptuous when our realities confront their expectations," explains the Illinois veteran. He was grateful he came into law enforcement a little older (30 years old) and from a social service background. "That had already tempered any unrealistic romantic notions about human nature," he explains. "You have to realistically know that most civilians hate you (unless you save their lives)," adds the Texas veteran.
Much of the disillusionment of law enforcement comes from within. "I'm not intuitively political and don't know if knowing this early on would have made a difference in my career, but I came to see how politics can poison the morale of a department," says the Illinois veteran. He added how he wished he had known that "internal politics infect everything" and how "self-serving some people are."
4) Coming to a Crossroad
The final phase, officers who weather the disillusionment stage often find themselves at a crossroads where they need to find a way to renew their interests at work and at home. Without this renewal, they will fall into indifference and apathy. Focusing on retirement becomes a theme as well. An essential part of this phase is consideration of his or her legacy.
How to Maintain the Fire
Although maintaining the idealism of youth is often impossible, law enforcement officers and their families are not doomed to continually having their dreams and initial motivations crushed by life. Several steps can be taken to tether the optimism of youth with the forged reality of life on the streets.
Staying positive is important. "Recognize what is the arcane BS of the job and refuse to get caught up too much in it," advises the Illinois veteran. He also adds staying focused on what you can do is helpful. "It is a matter of looking for the good that can be done each day I show up to work, noticing what good I do, trying to actually HELP people and make them see me and my profession in a positive light, and not dwelling on the downsides that kill morale," he states.
Awareness is also key. "The only thing I wish knew before I began working in law enforcement was the extraordinarily long hours and moving around the country, losing the family support system each time we moved," explains a veteran FBI agent. "I most likely would have still chosen the career but I would have been better prepared for the challenge."
A final way is to make sure you continue to find other ways to satisfy personal goals. Don't allow yourself or your spouse to define themselves solely on the job they perform. Continue to pursue personal interests, participate in hobbies and have friends away from the police department. Time adds realism to the idealistic motivations most young officers have and most cause conflict. Without an understanding of how doing the work affects an officer's worldview, these changes can make doing the job unbearable and the officer can become extremely jaded, unhappy and unpleasant at work and at home. Try to hold on to a positive view of your work and you can leave a legacy that makes you proud whatever the phase of your career.