"Looking forward may be the best insurance we have against being blind-sided by the unexpected. This is especially true in love and in police work," says Ellen Kirschman in I Love a Cop. Many people have tried to figure out what makes a good law enforcement officer and what about law enforcement makes it a good occupation. Often a young person states from the beginning of his or her career, "I've always wanted to be a cop," or "It's a calling."
Anyone who has stood with applicants taking the written test, or at the academy on the first day of classes, can attest to the palpable excitement and energy. So why do people become officers and how do they maintain that fire when the realities of police work sink in? What happens when the dreams of youth evolve into the often jaded wisdom of experience? What can officers do to continue loving their jobs when time has taken a bit of shine out of their badge? How can families help support them? With a bit of awareness and reparation, it can be done.
Why I became a Cop
"I grew up watching the Andy Griffith Show and the common sense displayed and how often Sheriff Taylor could help folks was my motivation," says a 24-year veteran of a suburban Maryland department. His determination started before that. As a very young child he is reported to have told his family, "I'm going to be a policeman and actually help people." One of the most reported reasons for joining the police force and one of the motivations attacked by the realities of the job is the desire to help. A 14-year veteran of a suburban Illinois department states his motivation, "It was the desire to help people and be 'the good guy' who protected society."
Another motivation for many who enter law enforcement is the desire for excitement. A 24-year east coast veteran says, "I wanted a job that wasn't routine. I wanted excitement." Of course, like helping people, this motivation can be quickly challenged. When asked how the reality of the streets changed his motivation, he replied, "The old police saying of police work is 7 hours and 50 minutes of sheer boredom followed by 10 minutes of pure terror. I never thought people would bother the police with such mundane complaints nor how much time was wasted answering calls over nonsense."
Doing a job with great value is also a dominate motivation. Even though she believes an officer cannot maintain their original enthusiasm for police work, a 17-year veteran of a metropolitan Texas department states, "One has to do the job simply because one believes that it is 'the right thing to do.'" Law enforcement has a long history of being an honorable and valued profession.
Between the Pinning on and the Taking off of the Badge
Many things occur between the time a person receives the call they've made it through the process and are now able to become a police officer and the moment they shut the station door behind themselves for the last time. In her book, Kirschman describes four post-academy phases:
1) The Honeymoon
The Honeymoon incorporates the early years following training when an officer encounters a large amount of learning. New opportunities present themselves and the authority and responsibilities of wearing a badge become apparent. Kirschman describes, "new officers feel invincible, as though they are fulfilling a kind of hero role - protector; rescuer; powerful, brave defender of justice." Most are consumed by police work. They talk about it non-stop and probably dream about it most nights.
2) Settling Down
No longer the rookie, an officer moves into this phase which is defined by competence and confidence in his or her street skills. Realism begins to temper many motivational fantasies. Many times, at this stage, officers begin to look for promotional opportunities. Unfortunately, this is also the time when the reality of internal politics begins to color his or her experience.