Starting a career as a police officer can be exciting, invigorating, and even a little bit intimidating. We reached out to existing police officers, including Dr. Patrick Calhoun who has 24 years experience with the Tulsa Police Department, and asked them what they thought is required to succeed in this profession. As you prepare for a meaningful career protecting the safety of others, consider how you can improve your skills and provide the best service possible.
Choosing to Become a Police Officer
When you chose to become a police officer, you likely had several considerations to make. What type of income did you need to support yourself and your family, what level of risk are you willing to place yourself in on a daily basis, and how can you best match your skills with the needs of the world? Choosing to become a police officer is a weighty decision because you not only take risks with your own safety, but also take responsibility for the safety of others.
Expectations of a Police Officer
Police officers often speak about the expectations placed upon them. Officers need to be clear-headed, quick on their feet, respectful, strong, and more. A police department may expect an officer to work irregular shifts, fill in on nights and weekends, or step in as needed during catastrophic events, even if off duty. Most of all, the community expects police officers to be excellent at their jobs in order to be ready to serve.
Qualities of a Good Police Officer
Certain characteristics are desirable in law enforcement professionals. These traits determine their level of professionalism, how safe others feel around them, how suspects interact with them, and even the future trajectory of their career. Some of the most important personal qualities, as described by existing police officers, are listed below.
While most popular shows and movies depict police work as active and exciting, there is also a very important element of communication involved. This includes writing thorough reports that are easy to read, communicating clearly with teammates, and even speaking with potential suspects. Here's what Calhoun had to say about communication:
"Emotional Quotient" is the ability to listen empathetically; speak in a manner that communicates the message you intend to communicate; write professionally, as if your writing will end up in front of the U.S. Supreme Court; and ensure that your body language is congruent with your intended message. It is also displaying a sense of "command presence." This is the first level of defense. Bad guys must know (or at least believe) that an officer is ready and able to handle any situation. A person with a high EQ will succeed in the criminal justice system if they are willing to possess the following qualifications.
“Integrity is being the person in private that your pastor thinks you are on Sunday morning,” Calhoun said.
Most people go into law enforcement for the service of others and it is impossible to do well in this role without a high level of integrity. Civilians need to know that they can trust you and that they are safe. Those who pose threats to others need to know that you will treat them with respect. Other officers on your team need to know that in intense situations, they can trust you to be safe and watch their backs.
“Integrity is also the essential ingredient in leading others,” Calhoun said. “As people in the criminal justice system, integrity is the difference between a just system and a corrupt one. Without integrity, you don’t have leadership, you have intimidation.”
Of course technical skills play a large part in the day-to-day duties of police officers. Some technical skills Calhoun shared are defensive driving, offensive driving, spatial awareness, defending yourself in a fight, and more.
“This requires continuous training and physical abilities,” Calhoun said. “The officers that are physically unfit are ill prepared for conflict. They also do not exhibit a sense of command presence.”
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In today's society, police officers need to have thick skin and a sense of resilience. Sometimes, you may be seen as the enemy, and it will be important to bounce back from those comments and understand your true worth and the importance of what you do. Calhoun said resilience can also help you face challenges that are sure to come up in a law enforcement career.
“It's the ability to determine truth even though your emotions or presuppositions conflict with the evidence. You have to be able to put your personal feelings aside and follow the evidence, regardless,” Calhoun said.
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“People seeking the purpose of serving others in the criminal justice system are not going to get rich (if they possess integrity) but they can retire comfortably,” Calhoun said. “They must learn how to manage their finances and plan for their future.”
When you’re young and working a high intensity job, retirement planning may not be the first thing on your mind. Follow the advice of experienced officers on this matter. Your future self will thank you.
How to Become a Police Officer
The steps to becoming a police officer can vary depending on your goals and desired lifestyle. However, there are a few milestones along the path. You will likely need to attend a police academy, earn some level of education, apply at a station and be hired. To learn more about becoming a police officer or how SNU's criminal justice program that’s designed for adult students can help you reach your career goals, click here.