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A week out of the police academy, Nicholas West flubbed it. He chased a suspicious vehicle but didn’t write down the license number. He didn’t turn on his flashing lights. He lost track of his location. And when the speeding vehicle finally pulled over, he parked too far away, making himself vulnerable.
“It didn’t go like we trained for,” said West, a former senior airman who left the Air Force in September 2011 after a terminal stint as a firefighter at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
West learned a lot from that experience: Keep calm. Follow the training. Take deep breaths. Most importantly, he came away smarter than before. “This job is very dynamic, so I feel like that is one of the big things you need to succeed. You need to be able to learn, and learn quickly,” he said.
So that’s one thing it takes to make a good cop — but it’s not the only important trait. For veterans looking to join the police, there’s a lot of natural crossover: discipline, integrity, ability to follow orders and a willingness to serve.
If you look in the mirror and see all those traits looking back, you may have what it takes to be a cop. But that doesn’t automatically mean you’ll get the job. It used to be that a military pedigree meant a sure place among the blue uniforms, but with budgets tight and the number of job-seekers high, that’s just not true anymore, said Tim Hardiman, a Marine veteran and director of law enforcement outreach at American Military University.
With competition for jobs on the force running high, Hardiman’s best advice is to keep your nose clean. “Stay out of trouble, because the littlest thing will knock you out,” he said.
Five ways to demonstrate that you have what it takes:
Successful police officers don’t stand around waiting to be told what to do. “Instead of being reactive, just responding when the radio calls you, the best cops take the initiative,” Hardiman said. “You get out there and shake the trees, seeing what falls out. You go out and look for the bad guys.”
Care for people
“We want people to be both task-oriented and people-oriented,” said Doreen Olko, police chief in Auburn Hills, Mich., where West serves. “We want them to do the mission, but at the same time we want them to be caring and compassionate. We see people at the worst times in their lives. They don’t invite us to their party, and what we do has tremendous ramifications on a person’s life. So we want our people to have a caring demeanor.”
It isn’t easy to command a tense situation. Some officers are too soft, merely asking for compliance. Some come on too heavy and end up sparking brawls. “Most of police work is getting other people to do what you want. So you want to have that self-confident, businesslike, nonconfrontational way about you,” Hardiman said. That may help veterans succeed. “You take a veteran, even in their early 20s, and they have already been in charge of somebody else. They know how to take charge.”
You arrive on the scene. What’s in your mind? Your own training, the chain of evidence, the Constitution, customary police procedure, your own safety and the immediate situation. A good cop can process all of that while still moving forward, addressing the needs of the moment. “You have to be able to sift through all those things very quickly in a fast-moving, sometimes violent situation,” Olko said.
Act on your own
“Just like in the military, a good leader in the police gives a subordinate a mission and supports them to carry it out, but they won’t tell them step by step what to do. And the subordinate doesn’t come back and ask for guidance at every stage of the mission,” Hardiman said. “You have to be able to act on your own, just because of the physical distance. If you are working in the office, how far do you have to go to see your boss, as opposed to when you are working in a precinct that is 5½ square miles? And the stakes are higher. This isn’t going to be just a matter of the copier being jammed.”