This was originally published at The Bang Switch in July, 2014, but I have since had several people ask the same sort of questions that caused me to write this in the first place. Seeing as The Bang Switch is gone, I am republishing this here.
When I started writing here at TBS (The Bang Switch) just over a year ago, I started my related Facebook page so that I could interact with readers. Via that Facebook page, I have received a number of messages from folks considering a career in law enforcement, asking me questions about the career choice. I mentioned the thought of writing this up as an article to Tim and he told me to run with it, so here it is. This is not intended to be some sort of a recruiting tool or anything like that, but just in case there are other people out there considering law enforcement as a career, it might serve as some food for thought.
Most of the people who have asked me for my thoughts have been younger (young to me anyway, everything is relative) and still searching for their first career. While those folks still have some tough decisions to make, it was a person who recently asked me the same question, who was 41 years old with a wife and child, still working in a 20 year long career in the IT field, who made me sit down and write a much more in depth response.
For a younger person, which I was when I started this career, it is much easier to enter the academy, or even the job after the academy, and if it does not work out, move on to another career choice. As a younger adult, generally speaking, you have less to lose if you start this career and decide it is not for you, and that happens fairly frequently. But for someone with a family, already working in a well-paying career, it is a much more difficult decision. No matter your age, one of the most important things anyone needs is the backing of their family, and this man told me that his wife was supportive of him, no matter which way he chose to go.
What follows is my response to his questions (slightly edited to correct some typos and remove a few personal details):
It sounds like you have one of the most important hurdles already covered, and that is the support of your family. If your wife is behind it, that is a good thing. If you decide to do it, she needs to know in advance that the academy part of it is going to be very rough.
I suspect your training requirements in GA are not much different than ours here in CA. My academy was 6 months long, and I was gone from the house 5-6 days a week for 10-14 hours a day. Not only was it physically demanding (and I was much younger then), but for many people, the academic part was just as hard. I was lucky because I already had a degree in criminal justice when I started so the legal aspect of the academics was much easier for me. Still, the whole thing is rough on relationships. I would guess that more than half of the people that were married or in long term relationships at the start of the academy were no longer by three months after graduation. At the onset, I was living with a girl I had been dating for 3 years. She grew up in Brooklyn and like many from NYC, she was not a fan of the cops. She knew that was my career goal long before we started dating, but when it came down to it, she could not handle it. She refused to come to my academy graduation, which not surprisingly signaled the end of that relationship. However, that was for the better because 3 years later, I met my wife whom I’ve been married to 14 years and cannot imagine life without. But, in law enforcement, our relationship is an anomaly, not the norm. Law enforcement careers are very hard on relationships.
When I started the academy, I was 25 years old, and I was the 7th oldest person in my class of 65 (only 34 graduated). We did have 3 people who were in their 40’s, one of whom was 49 (he voluntarily dropped out the last week). The other two graduated and went on to work their second careers as cops. While youth is generally a benefit for the physical part of the academy, age and the life experience (and hopefully wisdom) that comes with it is likely a benefit for the academic part. My years of working this job have shown me that one skill is used more than any other, and that is the ability to talk with (not to or at) people. That skill alone has prevented more physical fights with suspects than any other. Back when I used to be a field training officer that was something I tried to hammer into my trainees. It is far easier, and we are far less likely to get hurt or hurt the bad guy, if we can talk them into the car instead of fight them into it. Granted, some people just will not go without a fight, and that is when all the other stuff you learn in the academy comes into play.
As for the career itself, it really is a doubled edged sword. It can be one of the most rewarding things you have ever done, but it can also destroy you. There is nothing that compares to the feeling of saving someone’s life, especially if that someone is a child. The look in the eyes of a victim, the look that says “thank God you’re here” as they see you arriving is hard to top. Stopping a crime in progress, although a rare occurrence, is the stuff you dream about, and it will happen a few times for just about everyone, and more for some others (some people just have a knack for being in the right place at the right time). Then there is the rare, but really fun stuff you get to do. The stuff you see on Cops.
That is the up side, but there is also a big downside. Nearly everyone you come into contact with is meeting you on their very worst day. Something horrible has happened to them and they called for you to come try and put their world back together. You see all the absolutely horrible things that humans do to one another, to their own loved ones, to their children. That shit eats at your soul, and those are the things that you don’t want to talk to your wife about because no one should have to think about those things. That leads to a very high occurrence of PTSD and suicide rate in cops. Cop suicide rates are second only to military combat vets. I’ve lost more than a few friends and coworkers to both suicide attempts and PTSD. In order to make it, you have to find a way to deal with the crap this job shoves at you, and for each person that coping method is different. The thing you cannot do is chose a coping mechanism like drinking, because does nothing but compound the problems. Not surprisingly, alcohol abuse is also very common in this career.
As for the calling to this career, some people get it very early on. Others feel it later in life, and others (and it sounds like you might be one of them) feel it early, but ignore it until later. It really is one of those jobs that, in my opinion, in order to be a truly good cop, you need to have the calling. I work with people for whom it is just a job, and honestly, they make shitty cops. I felt the calling very early in life. My mom is one of those moms that saved every scrap of homework. When I graduated the academy, she gave me a piece of homework from the 3rd grade. It was a drawing of a cop car with a little statement I wrote about why I wanted to be a cop. That homework is framed and hanging on the wall of my den.
I hope that helps, or at least gives you something to mull over. For all its ups and downs over my career, I would not change a thing.
One other thing that I failed to mention to him in my response, and this is something every gun owner should already be thinking about, is whether or not you think you can bring yourself to take another human being’s life. This is not something to be considered lightly, because any hesitation on your part can mean the difference between life or death for you or an innocent person you are there to protect. I think this is what caused the 49 year old guy in my academy to drop out so near the end. Even after 6 months of range training, I don’t think that had fully sunk in. The day before he dropped out, we were watching some videos of several hostage situations, and the last one we watched before going home was a police sniper taking the head off a guy who was holding a gun to a woman’s head. While we all hope to resolve every situation peacefully, that is not always an option, and as a cop, you have to be ready to act. That decision is one you need to make way in advance, like at the start of your career, because if you are trying to make that decision in a split second in the middle of an ugly situation, you are going to hesitate and get someone hurt or killed.
There are a few other things that I always suggest people considering this line of work should read, and I have two of them posted on my Facebook page in the “Notes” section. One is a short piece titled “Why Cops Are Pricks.”. It was written by a woman named Lea Anne Weil, who is the wife of a career cop, and the mother of a cop. The other is a piece titled “You’re Not A Cop Until You Taste Them” and it was written by Rick Monticello of Somersdale PD, New Jersey. Finally, there is a book called “Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement” written by Kevin M. Gilmartin, Ph.D. It is a good book for cops, people considering a career in law enforcement, and for their immediate families.
One last thing to consider, and it is something that I am sure will become obvious in the comment section in short order, no matter what you do, say or how you act, there will be always be a group of people that will absolutely hate you. Some of those people will take that hatred to the level that they will attack you, even ambushing you with firearms, for nothing other than the uniform you put on at the start of your work day.
If you are considering law enforcement as a career and have any questions, you can ask them here in the comments section or you can ask me directly via my Facebook page.