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6 Tips for Veterans Seeking a Police Career

By Andrew Bell
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice

and Bruce Razey
35-Year Police Veteran

After both of us completed our enlisted tours in the military, we spent much of our lives in law enforcement. However, the transition was not without its challenges and sacrifice.

Becoming a police officer is much like joining the military. There are tests, tests and more tests. Just learning that these tests will take time, maybe even more than a year, can help you cope with the stress of not knowing the results until the end. Also, the testing is both mental and physical.

But from our experience in making the transition from the military to law enforcement and undergoing the challenges of that transition, we learned several lessons. Here are some tips to help make your transition a success.

Tip 1: Take a Ride-Along Before Deciding to Become an Officer

Most departments have a program that allows individuals to ride a shift with a patrol officer. We recommend the evening shift, as it is usually one of the busiest. You’ll get to see parts of the day and night action.

While you are riding with the officer, ask what that officer went through to get hired and ask for any do’s and don’ts. Keep in mind that the standards and process may have changed since the officer joined the field of law enforcement, so do your own research and call human resources to see what tests are required to help you prepare to become an officer.

Once you decide to pursue a career in law enforcement and you are hired by an agency, know that there’s a lot of training ahead of you, just like the military. You could be in training for more than half a year and on probationary status for an entire year or longer.

Tip 2: Have the Right Attitude about Training

When you are in training, don’t just learn how to do a task. Learn why you do it.

In other words, learn the spirit of the law and not just the letter of the law. It will help you explain to others when things go wrong, and you’ll become part of something bigger.

For example, an officer at a traffic stop may be asked by the citizen, “So you only stopped me because you have a quota?” Officer: “No, sir, we stop people so that we may attempt to gain voluntary compliance from the general public.”

Also, understand that ethics will continue to be a big part of your career in law enforcement, just like it was in the military. For example, in the military, you are not in until you take the “oath of office.” In policing, you are not officially a police officer until you finish the academy and take the police officer’s oath of office during a ceremony where you receive your badge.

Your first days on the job as a police officer may feel eerily the same as when you were in the military. As the police profession is a quasi-military organization, there are uniforms, a chain of command, and rules and regulations to follow.

However, there are some drastic differences from the military. While the police, like the military, is a uniform organization, the daily activities of police are far from uniform.

When military servicemembers train for war, part of that training is understanding and following orders without question from superior officers who usually fight at their side. But for police, that chain of command will likely not be there when the fighting starts.

Police are trained to operate and think independently, and they have vast discretion in accomplishing their tasks. During training, police learn the basic rules like when to relinquish command to their supervisors, which is reinforced in police operations. In mass shootings, for instance, the first officers on the scene take action, but then they obey the supervisor who arrives and assists in coordinating activities as directed.

Tip 3: Change Your Way of Thinking About Who Is in Charge

The military chain of command starts with the President of the United States giving military officers the authority to lead. We like to think of police authority as coming from the people we protect.

Robert Peel, who was thought to be one of the founding fathers of modern policing, put it best. He once said, “To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

Both the military and police are one of the few careers that authorize the use of physical and even deadly force when necessary. However, there is a big difference between the type and extent of force used by the police – once authorized, police use only the force required to overcome resistance to make arrests.

In addition, the use of force by police is much more specific regarding an individual threat and on a person-by-person basis. In contrast, the military uses more general terms like “fire” zones, fields of fire and enemy targets.

Tip 4: Understand Use of Force Powers

We strongly recommend that prospective officers take a long look at Peel’s principle for applying force: “To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice, and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public cooperation to an extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.”

Stressors in policing can be similar to the military. Police work is challenging both mentally and physically, and some officers will feel it is hard from the very beginning.

Due to the nature of policing, even minor errors can often be unforgivable. There is not a cop we know who has not had a hardship due to policing at some point in their career.

As we see today, stress can come from inside and outside the police department. There is stress that comes from peers and supervisors, changing shifts, extended work hours, additional training, and even potential discipline. Other pressure can come from citizens, courts, and Congress through lawsuits, anti-police movements, and changing laws.

At any moment, some policy, procedure, or action that cops routinely took in the past that was acceptable at the time could now be wrong. Some cops put on a hard skin, and you need that sometimes in police work. However, like the military, police departments have come a long way in understanding human psychology and the need to have professionals available to assist officers. 

Tip 5: Understand Your Limitations

It’s important for trainee officers to realize that they are not invincible (another military trait common with police). Ask for help if you need it. Find others to engage in social activities that relieve stress in a positive way, such as physical fitness. Accept help when you need it.

The treatment of military and police has ebbed and waned over the years. Few in the military today remember the Vietnam-era treatment of returning veterans, but we remember it well. There was an air of disdain for the military and servicemembers that lasted well into the 1970s.

Today, that has changed, and now military servicemembers are in public favor. However, while military members are greeted today with “Thank you for your service,” police have been greeted in the last few years by angry mobs chanting, “Defund the police.”

Tip 6: Know Your Work Will Be Scrutinized

Understand that public reaction can change in an instant. Unlike the military, police primarily work alone. When stuff hits the fan, they have mere seconds to react.

That reaction will be publicly viewed, recorded by many onlookers, and scrutinized by witnesses and the evening news. We told our police officers always to act as if the chief were watching.

Clearly, military personnel transitioning to a police department will find similarities between serving in the military and working in law enforcement. But it is also critical to learn the many differences that can help prepare you for one of the most challenging careers available.

There are many other commonalities between police and the military. For more information, read this article on how the military and police are merging in the fight against terror. Also, be sure to visit our website or Edge to see all of our articles.

About the Authors

Andrew Bell has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and 25 years in the U.S. military and civilian service. He served as a patrol officer, detective, patrol sergeant, community-policing supervisor, school resource supervisor and detective supervisor. He was called to active duty with U.S. Army Reserve after 9/11 and completed a tour in Afghanistan. He was part of the Army Logistics Corps and worked in various positions in operations, planning, and various leadership positions.

Andrew also worked for the U.S. federal government in Army intelligence, Army capabilities unit and emergency operations. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor of science degree with a concentration in criminal justice. Andrew has been a faculty member of the University since 2004. Andrew has authored and co-authored many published police and military articles that focus on prominent police issues like use of force, de-escalation, investigations, strategies, and riots and protests. He is also the co-author of the fiction series, “Cops of Acadia.”

Bruce Razey began his law enforcement career in 1975. During his 35-year career, he worked for three diverse police departments. Bruce served in patrol operations, special operations and the investigative division. His assignments included field training officer, air unit coordinator/observer, field training supervisor, community policing supervisor, detective supervisor and committee chairman for internal affairs review unit. He served on numerous hiring and promotional boards; authored and co-authored policies and procedures; created lesson plans to instruct new and veteran officers in a variety of topics; and established policy and guidelines for an improved method of conducting police lineups and eye-witness testimony.Bruce holds a bachelor of science degree in criminology from the University of Saint Leo, Florida. He graduated number one from the Regional Police Academy and from the West Point Leadership & Management Training Course. Bruce has co-authored many published police articles that focus on prominent police issues like use of force, de-escalation, investigations, strategies, and riots and protests. He is also the co-author of the fiction series, “Cops of Acadia.”

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