“Forget all that crap they taught you in the academy. I’ll teach you how to do real police work.” Yep; many of us who graduated from a police academy in the last century heard that. I’m sure plenty of young officers still hear it today. It’s both good and bad to hear it. The good part is that you have a training/senior officer who is going to watch out for you some. The bad news is that you have a training officer who has voiced his outlook that all your academic learning was wasted. The truth and reality are somewhere in between.
Let’s be honest: In today’s law enforcement professional world, you simply can’t get ahead (or sometimes even hired) without a decent education. You MUST have a high school diploma and a growing number of agencies are requiring a college degree – even if it’s only a two year degree. That said, let’s recognize the other side of the coin: no successful cop today survives a career based purely on academic learning. Officer survival combines knowledge, skill and tactics. Officer effectiveness combines knowledge, motivation, communication and professionalism. Look at all those performance characteristics and you realize that what you learn in the academy (if it’s decent) is knowledge, skill and tactics. You may learn how to improve your communication skills and you may learn how to behave in a more professional manner but what truly delivered and measured is knowledge, skill and tactics.
When you “hit the street,” your training/senior officer is supposed to fine tune how you apply all that. What he teaches you is improvised application: how to apply what you’ve learned in a flexible manner that fits the circumstances you face. NONE of that should ever involve, “Forget(ting) all that crap they taught you in the academy.” I’m here to tell you that a complete career involves both academic learning (but that doesn’t necessarily mean an educational institution) AND learning good “street” tactics and application.
Let’s start out with the need for academic learning. Being brutally honest, let’s recognize one simple fact: there is no replacement for a good basic education. There simply isn’t. What you learned from kindergarten through the ninth grade was (hopefully) good basic education. It’s simple learning to provide you basic information. In high school you (hopefully) learned more information that was based and built upon that which you had previously learned; however, without even realizing it (probably), you were also learning how to learn independent of an instructor. You learned research skills, analysis skills, organizational skills and more, all of which empowered you to learn on your own… if you are motivated to do so.
I’m here to tell you that independent learning is your life line to a healthy and productive career. In a profession where you work odd hours, shuffling shifts, evenings, nights, weekend, holidays and in unexpected emergencies, a continuing structured education is often difficult to juggle at best. At worst, you sign up for classes, get more than half way through them and then have to drop them because you’ve missed so much due to work that there’s simply no way you can catch up.
Now, irregular work hours is a limited excuse in today’s world of nearly unrestricted Internet-based education. Still, when you work yourself to near exhaustion and often have court time added onto work time, and then you throw in some mandatory training hours… it can honestly get overwhelming. ONE of the things your training/senior officer ought to be teaching you is how to prioritize. If (s)he’s not, then you have to learn it on your own.
In fact, that’s kind of the whole theme of this blog: It’s YOUR knowledge. No matter the source you get it from or the schedule you absorb it on, YOU are responsible for growing it. Some of it will undoubtedly come from “the street.” Some of it will come from senior/veteran officers. Some of it will come from lessons learned in court. Some of it will come from in-service and other training. That’s all good stuff, but recognize that some of it will come from the effort(s) YOU make to learn outside of all those venues. What makes it good is that what YOU choose to learn about doesn’t necessarily have to be work related. The even better news is that no matter what YOU choose to learn about, you may well end up using it in your law enforcement career.
It’s easy to see how learning about white water rafting might be applied to search and rescue work. It’s easy to see how learning how to rappel might be applied to special operations (SWAT) work. It’s not necessarily as easy to make the connection between an interest in modern art, classic literature, architecture or some other seemingly abstract topic and a segment of law enforcement. Let me tell you though, I can give you an example of how each of those items popped up in police work and that same piece of seemingly disconnected knowledge became invaluable.
The bottom line is this: Learn something new every day. Pick a topic you have a vested interest in and study it as a hobby. Make it something you enjoy and master it to the best of your ability. There may come a day when you use it in connection with your law enforcement duties; there may not; however, pursuing it will help you manage stress, distract you from “the job” every now and then, and help you become a more well-rounded individual. Pursue an expansion of your education both in a structured (as required or manageable) fashion and a completely flexible fashion. The acquisition of new knowledge is one of the sure signs of life and improvement. Keep it as a part of yours.