I've been honored several times in the past couple of years to have my advice solicited by several young folks (under 25) who were considering pursuing a career in law enforcement. Another couple of them have asked my guidance or opinion as they considered a military career. Advice can take many forms and one can offer guidance in many ways. As I look back at the advice I've given and the advice I'd give today, I realize that any advice given must address that which is most essential at the core of a career in uniform: it's not a part-time job. It's not something you can do "on duty" only. It's not for the faint of heart and it's certainly not for those who want to delude themselves about their most basic nature. Be sure of who you are and what you want before you pursue the career, because your decision will determine how you live your life and will impact everyone you welcome into it.
What do I mean? Let me explain...
I wanted to be a police officer as far back as I can remember. I was adopted at the age of 4 and even then the adoption agency paperwork documented my stated desire to be a police officer when I grew up. The court records indicated that same desire when I was asked. I don't ever remember a time when I didn't want to become a law enforcement professional. Of course, at that young age I had no idea what I really wanted or what being a police officer actually meant. At that age I probably simply meant that I thought Sheriff Taylor was cool and I wanted to be the Sheriff of Mayberry when I grew up.
Still, I remained focused on my goal and when I graduated from high school I enlisted in the Army to be a Military Police Officer. Not only did it allow me to start working in law enforcement at 19, but it would give me three years of law enforcement experience, thereby giving me a leg up on the competition when I started applying for law enforcement jobs when I got out. Thirty years later I look back and I can clearly see one thing: being a police officer, if you do it with sufficient commitment, is a lifestyle--not just a job. It's 24/7/365, not eight or ten hours per day. And it affects everything you do and those around you.
Now I'm retired from one agency, the training commander for another agency, and I'm (full time) the editorial director for Cygnus Law Enforcement Media, overseeing our work to serve the law enforcement community through our two magazines and this website. For all that, how do you think people identify me first and foremost? That's right: as a police officer. No matter how I'm dressed, no matter what I'm going out to do...even when I'm hanging out at the local cigar shop, for whatever reason, people identify me as a cop first, a decent guy second (hopefully) and an editor third (husband and father get worked in there someplace too).
Have you ever been out, off-duty, dressed casually, and had someone who doesn't know you ask you for directions or information? Have you ever wondered why they singled you out to ask? It's probably because of your relatively clean cut appearance and your confident, aware attitude. That appearance and attitude are common to law enforcement professionals. They are two of the largest obstacles undercover officers have to overcome. But they mark you as what you are 24/7/365--a law enforcement professional. Why is that?
It's because you've embraced who you are and what you choose to do with it. Sure, there are plenty of officers who took the job because they passed a civil service exam and that was what they were offered. There are those who took the job because times are tight and they couldn't find any other employment. There are those who took the job because it's what generations of their family did before them and they couldn't imagine doing anything else. Some of those in that last group, and a great many of those not otherwise listed, pursued law enforcement because it was a profession that allowed them to be who they are in the first place: a warrior, a non-victim, a sheepdog (according to LtCol Dave Grossman's definition) and they are driven to answer the call of their personality, character and values by protecting and serving those who simply won't or can't stand up to the wolves in our world.
As he looked out over the field of battle centuries ago, Heraclitus said, "Where do we find such men? Out of every one hundred men, ten shouldn't even be there, eighty are just targets, nine are the real fighters, and we are lucky to have them, for they make the battle. Ah, but the one, one is a warrior, and he will bring the others back."
I submit to you that similar numbers could probably be applied to law enforcement. Ten percent probably don't even belong and we all know them: they're the ones who last less than five years in the work and they move on because "this just isn't for them." Eighty percent do a good job and perform to standard, but are not the cream of the crop and are never going to do anything earth shaking. Nine percent are the motivated, energetic, intelligent, confident officers who grow into fine leaders and become well known both within their agencies and within their communities for the service they provide. Ah, but the one...that one out of every hundred officers who has grown into the perfect mix of competence, confidence, humility, courage, commitment, leadership, empathy and sacrifice. He (or she) is the bright shining example of what every officer hopes to attain and the golden star that the agency is delighted to show off within the community.
I guarantee you that when that one looks in the mirror, he/she doesn't see an individual who is employed as a law enforcement professional. He/she sees a warrior/sheepdog who is lucky enough to have found employment doing what they love and what they'd have found a way to do otherwise, even if they weren't getting paid.
So, my question to you is this: what do YOU see when you look in the mirror?