in: Career, Career & Wealth

• Last updated: May 30, 2021

So You Want My Job: Police Officer

Vintage Chicago police officer looking out from his car's window.

Image from Chicagos Finest

Once again we return to our So You Want My Job series, in which we interview men who are employed in desirable jobs and ask them about the reality of their work and for advice on how men can live their dream.

Today we hear from a man who works as a police officer in a specialized unit that does everything from undercover work to patrols in high crime areas. Because of the nature of his job, he asked to remain anonymous.

1. Tell us a little about yourself (Where are you from?How old are you? Where did you go to school? Describe your job and how long you’ve been at it, ect).

I’m from the Kansas City area. I’m 29. I went to school in the suburbs around here and college at a small school in southeastern Kansas. I’ve been on the department just short of 5 years. I’m married with no kids. I’m the first police officer in my family.

2. Why did you want to become a police officer?

I think it’s important to say that before people read my responses they understand that: 1. These are only my opinions, from my experiences. 2. I work in a high-crime urban area.

I used to have a desk job at an advertising agency. One day, I was sorting through all the minutiae of corporate nonsense and just decided that I was tired of having a “job,” and working for the weekend. All the things that were of grave importance in my life at that time-TPS reports, water cooler gossip, etc.-none of it mattered in the grand scheme of things to me. Taking all that into consideration, I looked at what I thought separated a “job” from a life’s work and used that to start looking for another career. In short, I wanted to find something that dealt with true human emotions. I wanted something that tested who I was.

Don’t get me wrong, I have complete respect for the guy who gets up every day and drives in the same traffic, to the same cube, to do the same thing, every day. That life just wasn’t for me.

3. If a man wishes to become a police officer, how should he best prepare?

I don’t really know how to best prepare.  I guess you’d have to ask yourself why you want to do it. If someone came up to me and said “Got any tips?” I’d probably tell them that knowing you do the best job you can is the only reward you should expect. If that’s ok, go apply. If you want parades, it might not be for you.

With that said, the things you would typically assume are pretty good places to start. A criminal justice degree couldn’t hurt. A lot of larger departments are looking for college-educated candidates. Having a job in a related field, like loss prevention, is also something a lot of folks do. I say this, but I never did any of it personally. I’d feel fraudulent saying they are necessary.

4. What is the process like of being accepted to a police academy? If you make it through the academy, are you guaranteed a job?

Basically the process of getting hired is like this: Apply, then wait to hear from them. A background investigator will dig around about you to your friends, family, employers, etc. If you check out OK then they’ll call. Next, go in and run a timed obstacle course (it’s a doozy), then wait to hear from them. Go in and take a polygraph based on your background investigation, then wait again. Go in for an oral interview, then wait again.  After awhile, they’ll call you and tell you if you’re hired. If so, you go into the academy. My “awhile” was almost two years.

A typical day may consist of studying constitutional law. Learning how to handcuff a combative person. Learning to shoot properly, i.e. moving and shooting, combat shooting. You may then have classes on dealing with death or cultural awareness for the end of the day.  They really cram a lot into the academy. I couldn’t begin to explain how taxing the process can be mentally and physically. It’s by design though, to inoculate people to stress.

Are you guaranteed a job? In these tough economic times, I’d have a hard time saying that you’re guaranteed a job. It used to be that you were hired if you made it through the process. That’s not really been the case recently. Our department did get a grant recently that allowed for the hiring of a few more people.

If and when you make it through the academy, you will begin what is called break-in. Break-in is where you ride with a field training officer (FTO). You and the training officer will then take all the “hot calls” in your division. A hot call is the really bad stuff like shootings, cuttings, rapes, etc. The purpose is to see how you respond in a real world setting. If you’re FTO feels like you’re not an idiot, and you’re not going to get yourself or anyone else hurt, you get released. After break-in, you just go out there and get to work.

5. Why did you want to join a specialized unit within the police department?

I was really interested in all of the facets of police work that this unit does. I can’t speak for all departments but it seems that on bigger departments, in urban areas, it’s better to be good at a lot of things versus great at a couple.

Our squad does all kinds of cool stuff. A typical week might consist of uniformed patrol of an area in response to a rash of shootings. The next day could be a prostitution decoy with our VICE squad. Then you may be in plain clothes doing surveillance on a person that has been identified as a high-profile criminal. Essentially, we are tasked with a problem and given the freedom to solve the problem within the policies of the department.

It’s a ton of fun, and I get to work with like-minded people.

6. What are the advantages to joining a specialized unit? Do you get extra pay? Do you find the assignments more interesting?

You would join a specialized unit because it’s an area that interests you. SWAT guys want to be SWAT guys for example. However, there can be benefits that stem from the training you receive. For example, an officer who has been trained in accident reconstruction can then consult with insurance companies and bring in additional income that way.

It is also gratifying to make it to a specialized unit. Most of them have some sort of testing process, usually both mental and physical.  Extra pay isn’t generally a benefit. It can come in other ways like overtime. Some squads will work a lot more overtime because of the nature of their position. A homicide detective has to work a murder when it happens. If it’s at the end of their shift, that’s just how it goes.

A comment about pay: In this job, you don’t get bonuses for putting “x” number of murderers in jail or anything like that. The same goes for speeding tickets. You get paid on a tenure scale. A lazy slug of an officer with 6 years on gets the same as a go-getter with 6 years on. At least that’s how it is for us.

7. Are there any drawbacks to joining a specialized unit?

Sure, there can be. Your days on and hours get moved around, so it can be tough to plan a social life.  It’s also easy to lose certain skills that are essential to some areas of the job. For example, if you buy dope as an undercover for five years, you’re probably going to be behind the curve on writing certain reports or changes in basic procedures if you go back to the field.

8. What is the hierarchy like both in the police department in general, and within a specialized unit? How do you get promoted?

Ours consists of the following ranks in order: Officer, Sergeant, Captain, Major, Colonel or Deputy Chief, then Chief. You promote by testing and meeting certain criteria. A sergeant must have five years in the field and so many hours of college credit. You work your way up the ladder and the amount of education also increases. Some ranks require a master’s degree.

A specialized unit will usually require “x” number of officers to make up a squad. A sergeant will supervise the squad. A captain supervises each line element. A Major oversees whole divisions. A Colonel oversees an entire discipline like patrol or investigations. It’s complicated. Essentially, the higher you go the less time you spend getting in foot chases and wrestling with bad guys. The higher you go, though, the more money you make.

9. What is the work/family/life balance like?

Hard. It ends relationships. You just do the best you can, that’s really all anyone can ask of you.  More importantly, that’s all you can expect of yourself. You will miss a lot of birthdays and holidays. The people around you don’t understand why because they all work 9-5. Your loved ones will resent your job. It’s isolating.

It can be tough to relate to regular people. Sometimes, when someone complains about how hard work is, you want to ask them if they’ve ever held a dying baby or been spit on. It’s easy to develop that f-you attitude.

Fortunately, I have an awesome wife who gets it. That’s rare though.

10. What is the best part of your job?

It can be a lot of fun if you want it to be. If you do it the right way, you really do contribute to a greater good. You will have experiences at work that put everything about life into perspective.

11. What is the worst part of your job?

The human animal. You see the worst in people. You will be asked to do what other people are too unskilled, unwilling, or afraid to do themselves. They will be happy to judge how you do it, or criticize your decision though. It can be very easy to develop a general disdain for people, or groups of people.

Another issue is the constant judgment. Don’t get me wrong, there certainly are some officers that do wrong. They are a lot more that don’t though. Once you put that uniform on people associate you with their past experiences and assumptions.

12. What is the biggest misconception people have about your job?

People that aren’t cops think they know what cops do. It’s natural to quantify someone based on a role. It’s human nature to judge, so you become whatever that person perceives a “cop” to be.  In the average persons head a baker bakes, and a bricklayer lays bricks. So, it’s only logical that a cop does cop stuff. All they know cop stuff to be is a combination of their own interactions with the police and what they see on T.V.

For example, people will ask me questions about a speeding ticket they got and have no idea that I’ve never written a speeding ticket. I don’t know how to use a radar gun, and I have no desire to learn. That’s just not what I want to do.

13. Any other advice, tips, or anecdotes you’d like to share?

Just take a moment and thank someone who does a job that you won’t do, that you benefit from. It doesn’t have to be a police officer. Thank your mailman. Thank a schoolteacher. There are a lot of good people who do tough jobs. It’s nice to hear that people appreciate it.

Also, people ask how to get out of a ticket a lot. There is no fail-safe way. I can tell you these things though that can help:

When you see the flashing lights, pull off the road to the right. If there’s an outlet off the roadway within sight, pull off there. This is so we don’t get run over.

Put your hands on the wheel and roll your window down. You know that you’re not a maniac with a gun. We don’t though. If it’s night-time, turn on your dome light.

Be polite and honest. You don’t have to incriminate yourself, but own what you did if you know you did it. If there’s a good reason for it, explain yourself. Understand that if you’ve been stopped for it, that officer has decided that they will swear under oath that you did it. Being truthful is respectable and that goes a long way.

Thanks for the opportunity to share a bit!

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