Lessons I Learned From My Career In Law Enforcement – Pick The Right Path

I spent 20 years in law enforcement. My career had its bumps and bruises, figuratively and literally, but I had an upward trajectory the entire time. I started as a patrolman like everyone else. I became an FTO. I made my way into the detective bureau. I was promoted to sergeant and ultimately lieutenant. I put in my time and I put in the work. During my career, I witnessed other officers that had a similar path as me. I also witnessed some that started out great, but went down some bad paths, which stunted their professional growth. I even witnessed some that could never really get their “you know what” together; thus, they had a bumpy career at best.

My observations led me to some analysis of what works and what does not, with respect to a joyous and positive law enforcement career. For purposes of this article, I am focusing on internal matters and decisions that officers make that influence their trajectory, which, I believe, is primarily what distinguishes one’s path. Thus, I will discuss my observations and what I feel are the best paths to follow, and of course the ones to avoid.

Path 1 – Focus on the Positives
Just as in life, you should do your best to focus on the positives. It is human nature to dwell and pay more attention to the negative things that happen to us. It takes effort to stop and actually look at what is going well in your life. Some people are better at it than others. The next time you have some bumps in your career, say you damaged a cruiser or the sergeant is kicking a lot of your reports back, before the negativity overwhelms you, take a moment to recount what is actually going well in your career. AND, if you think that there are no positives, you are not looking hard enough. You have a job, right? You more than likely have benefits and you have comrades, correct? Never lose sight of the positives in your life.

Path 2 – Run Your Race
I can remember being envious of other officers that seemed to be getting more positive attention due to what I considered luck. In other words, they responded to the call where they did something that got them positive attention or awards. What I was not looking at was what they actually did and I never considered that I may not have done the same thing if in the same situation. I once heard that envy is the art of counting someone else’s blessings. What I soon realized was that if I worked hard and did the best I could, the praise and awards came my way eventually. It all evens out in the end.

Stay focused on your career and not the career of your peers. I’m not saying to ignore them or to avoid helping them. I’m simply saying that you need to focus on doing your part and doing it to the very best that you possibly can. Instead of being jealous or threatened over someone else’s praise, congratulate them and truly feel joy for their accomplishments. This sentiment will be reciprocated in due time.

Path 3 – Be a Student of the Game
When I was a young patrolman, a coworker recommended that I purchase a Cabler Press book called “The Tactical Edge”. I actually purchased the three-book set. It was one of the best book purchases I ever made. At that point, I caught the police learning bug. I became a sponge and read other books. I was a student of the policing game. I later read books on interviewing, gangs, emotional survival and other police related material. I feel that by embracing learning more and more I became a better police officer. Never stop learning. The moment you feel you know everything is the moment you should step away. To quote Tony Robbins, “if you are not growing, you are dying”.

In our leadership course, we teach supervisors to embrace the rookie mindset. What that means is to always be curious and have a hunger to learn more. This curiosity will make you a better officer in the long run. We also teach leaders to avoid the comfort zone. You are probably thinking, why avoid comfort? Well, comfort is good when you are watching a movie, but it is not always good in your career. Let me explain.

When we start our careers, there is so much to learn. We are squarely in the “learning zone”. Eventually, we learn how to do our jobs. We then move into the comfort zone. We can handle most calls and issues with relative ease due to our experience. But when you think about it, your learning has almost ceased. Think about the amount of growth that occurred while in the learning zone. My point is, you should strive to always learn something new so that you grow. Stay curious and avoid the comfort zone as much as possible – the exception of course is when you are watching a movie with your significant other.

Here is a link to an article on this very topic:

[Learning Zone](http://sethsandler.com/productivity/3-zones/)

Path 4 – Stay Within the Lines
There probably is not a single police department out there that does not have polices, procedures, rules and regulations. I know that policies and procedures can seem like a hindrance, but they are protective tools. They protect the department and they protect you if you follow them. If your actions are within policy, you have protection. If the policy is found to be wrong, that’s on the department, not you. I’m getting a little off track here. My point is – follow the rules.

It always intrigued me when officers would violate policy or intentionally steer outside the lines and then complain when they were caught. They knew going in what the rules were; thus, it should have been no surprise that they found themselves in trouble for violating said rules – duh!

This one is a no-brainer. keep your nose clean. Don’t violate department policy and your days will be much easier. If the rules are too much for you, maybe seek another job. Policing is fraught with liability. Policies are pretty much mandatory.

Path 5 – Admit Your Mistakes & Learn From Them
It is cowardice to make a mistake and then not own up to it. And yes, I admit that I have done it. And yes, it was cowardice. As a supervisor, I used to see this issue with minor cruiser damage. A real man or woman admits when they are wrong and they admit their mistakes. NO ONE IS PERFECT. We all make mistakes. I have made PLENTY of them. But at the end of the day, when you do mess up, you have to have the courage to admit it. Put your pride in your back pocket and step up – own it! That’s the first step.

The second step is learning from it. Not learning how to do it again and get away with it, but learning why it was a mistake and take steps to not repeat it. That is how we grow to be better officers and better people.

Path 6 – Avoid Complaining
I’m sure you all know people, at work and in your personal lives, that complain all of the time. Now, there are times when issues and problems need to be discussed. I’m not talking about that. I’m talking about the negative people that CONSTANTLY complain about _everything_. These people are toxic. They are draining on our psyche. Now that I’ve illuminated these people, avoid being one of them. I used to steer clear of these people because they annoyed me. If you find that people do not want to be around you, you may be a complainer. Or, if you find that every conversation you have with a coworker is to complain and crap on the agency where you work, then you are a complainer.

I worked for a Master Diver in the Navy that had the best advice. He said, “if you come to me with a problem and no solution suggested, then I see it as nothing more than bitching!” That advice resonated with me and I have carried that advice with me to this day. I used it as a tool, with positive effect, as a police leader. The best way to avoid the complaining bug is to stay optimistic. Winston Churchill once said that optimists find solutions to problems while pessimists find problems with the solutions. I had a friend and coworker, Sgt. Jason Breen (now Lieutenant), that called the complainers “boo-birds”. What a fitting title.


Path 7 – Have Fun
Not much to say here. Try to find the positive and joy in what you do. I know there are stressful times. I know there are terrifying times. I know that you see people at their worst. But there are good people out there too. Don’t miss an opportunity to make someone smile. Have a little fun.

Path 8 – Embrace Your Time Off
Everyone needs a break from work. That’s why there are days off. If you fill your days off with overtime and/or details, then you do not get time off. Yes, I have been there. I know that finances can be tight for some families and extra work helps to ease the burden of bills. But if you are always at work, you risk losing your family in a sense that they only see snapshots of you before and after work (when you are tired and grumpy). Your family needs you and they need quality time with you.

If you are single, use your days off to get errands done AND to have some fun. Go to the beach, visit family, catch a movie. Something besides work. It will help you decompress and you will be more refreshed when do return to work.

Path 9 – Stay Healthy
I’m not beating around the bush here. Move your body. Exercise routinely. I have read from many sources about the physical and mental benefits of exercise. Pick your poison – running or strong (person) competitions – do something. Also, by staying physically fit, you have less risk of common injuries, such as slips and falls, combative suspects, training injuries, etc., etc. Get out there and exercise. Your mind and body will thank you.

Path 10 – Love
I recently attended the retirement ceremony of my former agency’s Deputy Chief, Gerard Dussault. Gerry is a good friend and mentor. Gerry served for 33 years. In his closing remarks, he gave all of the officers there some advice. He said that to have a happy and healthy career, you have to love – love what you do, love the community you serve, love your coworkers and embrace & reciprocate the love from your family. I couldn’t have said it better myself Gerry.