A long time ago, in a place far away one of my brothers called me and said, “I’ve been asked to test for sergeant. Do you think I should?”
SOME BACKGROUND The caller’s name was Mark. He and I went through the academy together. Within a short time, Mark was hired into a full-time public safety position (police, fire and emergency medical). He went to work in a very small, old-line community that, over time, has become surrounded by Greater Metropolitan Detroit.
It is a small crew. Mark is a very conscientious guy. Shortly after his probation ended, one of the high-ranking administrators specifically asked Mark if he would test for an upcoming sergeant opening.
Mark caught me off-guard. After some thought, I asked him if he had a pretty good grasp of what his workdays would be like in the sergeant’s job.
I continued with a few examples to help him better understand my question.
- Will you be a patrol sergeant, supervising your current peers?
- Could you end up at a desk in charge of the records bureau?
- Is there any chance you might find yourself assigned to the property room?
- Of course, there’s always the possibility that you will become the gopher for the chief and his deputy.
I urged Mark to sleep on that. Would he be filling an existing job currently held by someone else? What could he learn?
I then acknowledged that it is a head-swelling event to have a top-level boss ask him to apply for a promotion. But, this is the time to be careful.
First, by most measures, you’re young cop. There is a universe of experiences to have and learn from on the street.
We’ve all run into the lieutenant (or higher) who got hired and before he needed to polish his collar brass for the first time, he was put in some off-the-street job. After spending time moving around ‘inside,’ suddenly he finds himself in charge of a group of patrol officers – a job he knows absolutely nothing about (other than what he has overheard in the locker room).
His crew doesn’t respect him. He is unqualified to lead, mentor or guide any of their daily activities because he has never done them himself. He is miserable and so are those under his command.
The other example I made to Mark: think of the cops that you know who promoted as often as they could in their career. They ultimately find themselves in a role that bears absolutely no resemblance to the job they wanted when they originally became a cop. They are counting the days and hours until they can retire.
In sum, I suggested that Mark carefully consider what the new job would be like if he moved into that role. The question he must answer for himself: “Does the new role take me closer to or push me further away from the work I wanted when I busted my butt to become a cop?”
THAT IS THE $64,000 QUESTION.
Mark expressed thanks for the offer, but declined, citing what he saw as his need to become a better and more-experienced street cop before moving up.
You may be wondering, “So why is this story relevant to me?” As one surveys the cop landscape, look at those who have 20-ish years on the job. What percentage of them have remained a grunt-cop, working patrol (as I did)?
There are those who look these guys and think of them as losers who either lacked the drive or the ability to promote to a higher rank. Maybe. I have a different take. These grunts might have stayed in patrol throughout their career because it is where they wanted to be.
Look at the guys who have made it to lieutenant, captain or maybe deputy chief. How many of them are marking time until they can retire? It’s sad to say: too many of them. They are doing work for which they weren’t trained and truly didn’t want or seek. Too often, they must rub elbows with the local politicians and kiss their collective asses.
They are about as much a cop as a mailman is.
I am not condemning or short-changing the process of moving up the ranks, taking on new responsibilities and authorities and the pay increases that come with it. There are many who thrive in it.
But, it’s not for everyone, and don’t let your ego lead you into a trap you will hate.
THERE’S A TIME FOR EVERY SEASON
Before jumping at the first (or any) opportunity to promote, ask yourself a few questions: (I suggest you jot some notes with your answers for later reference)
- Why did I become a cop?
- Before I was actually on-the-job, what did I fantasize I would be doing once I got here?
Then, just as I suggested to Mark: think real hard about what the new job will entail. How does it fit with your answers to the questions above.
Now, let’s take a walk down memory lane.
Do you remember your time in the academy? You probably busted your ass. Clean and ironed uniform each day. Classroom lectures – some of which were so boring, it took everything you had to stay awake. Of course, some of the written exams were a bitch. The P.T. could sometimes could be a killer. How about the other recruits – will you ever forget them? Their memory will be with you – always.
After a month (or so) on the street, in the FTO program, you realized that 99.9% of what you needed to know as a cop would be learned on the street from other, more seasoned, officers.
Of course, we cannot forget getting yourself hired. Chances are, you completed more than one application. There were oral boards, and finally the chief’s interview when you finally made it into a department.
Let’s think about some of the “firsts” you’ve lived through:
- Remember when the badge was first pinned on your chest? Almost brings tears to your eyes, doesn’t it?
- Of course, there was the day you got your final D.O.R. and successfully made it through the FTO program.
- Do you remember making it to the end of probation?
- Do you remember your first arrest?
- How about the first time you saved someone’s life?
- There was that sad day when you first watched – or held someone – as they died. Pretty damned profound moment, eh?
- Remember the first holiday (Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc.) when you had to work while your family was at home without you?
These are all “firsts” which you will carry with you for the rest of your life. These events are probably what you were thinking about when you thought about becoming a cop.
Now, get a mental picture: think of your parents, your spouse, your children or a sibling when they introduce you to a friend as, “my son … he’s a cop.” Unlike having a job as a carpenter, being a cop isn’t what we DO, it’s who we ARE. And, our family is damned proud of us for having made the grade.
WHAT WILL THE FUTURE HOLD?
You must be ready to LEAD. That’s not to be confused with managing. (See my article: Are You Being Followed?) You will no longer be a full-time player on the field. In your new role, you will be the team coach. It’s almost like being the parent of an adult child. You can guide, mentor and suggest. But the team members must be willing to follow your lead.
- Your life circumstances may/will change
- You may have “regular” hours and only work Monday-Friday.
- You will probably get a pay increase.
- You won’t be pushing a squad around fighting traffic and the weather.
- You will have added authorities AND added responsibilities.
- You will be responsible for the well-being of others.
- There will be a certain amount of prestige with the new job.
- You will likely be buried under and avalanche of new paperwork.
- The activity of planning future events will take on a whole new role in life.
You will also find other impacts which are less measurable. A guy named John is often at the gym when I workout. He’s on the command staff of the local sheriff’s office. He carries TWO cell phones with him and he spends about 75% of his gym time either talking or texting on one / both of the phones. <yechh!> The job will go with you – everywhere.
Then, there are the less frequent items to consider in the new job:
- You will undoubtedly be closer to the politicians.
- You may have constant contact with the chief and other administrators.
- You may be forced to deal with the media.
- Employee evaluations will become one of your favorite (?) functions.
- When you make a mistake, EVERYONE will notice and have a comment. Your boo-boos in the new role will go over like a chocolate-covered turd.
Now, stop and think. Mentally compare your new work life with the answers to the first questions about why you became a cop.
How does the prospect of a promotion look now? Think long and hard about your answer.
Once you’ve reached a decision, then commit to it 100%.
In closing, think of these two items:
- There will always be an opportunity to test at a later date.
- If you take a promotion and don’t like it, it is VERY difficult to demote and return from whence you came.
Just a thought.
At the bottom line, it’s all about saving just ONE life.
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Thank you for taking the time to read this message and allowing me to share my story with you. I can be contacted with questions or input: jim@CopBlueblog.com