Soon after leaving for college and beginning the journey of professional aspirations, I stumbled upon an important lesson. I had, like many young adults, heard through my childhood years many pearls of wisdom from my parents that went in one ear and out the other. Fortunately for me, a simple visit to a high end clothing store brought home the importance of what my parents taught me about how people perceive me influencing how I am treated.
I was attending college and looking to start developing my professional experience to be ready after graduation. In the 1980’s, “power dressing” was the big rage, so I decided to go to one of the higher end clothing stores on my way home from class. I was dressed in typical college student attire of ragged jeans and a t shirt. When I entered, I was watched with a hairy eyeball like a potential shoplifter. None of the clerks approached or offered assistance, so I left somewhat disgruntled, although I had seen some items I could afford that would fit my “power wardrobe”.
The lesson came when I returned. I had dressed up for another event and stopped by the clothing store to see if the clothing I had picked out was still there. The change in the attitude of the clerks completely surprised me. They immediately offered to help me find what I was looking for, smiling and friendly, seeming to welcome me with open arms. This lesson was further reinforced in the early years of my law enforcement career, well before the explosion of the internet and social media.
In the mid 80’s, it was still a challenge for women to enter into law enforcement, especially on patrol. On more than one occasion, some deputies accused me of getting my job “on my back”. One of my FTO’s going through a bitter divorce at the time, did all he could to set me up to fail in misplaced revenge. Part of the problem arose from a previous female deputy trading on her sexuality. I understood that I was going to have to work harder and prove that I earned my way through competence, not through favors.
Although I could have chosen to file complaints, in weighing the circumstances, for myself and those following me, I made the decision to work through it, rather than risk alienating the officers who weren’t engaged in such behavior. It meant being careful of how I conducted myself so it couldn’t be misconstrued. Rumors constantly swirled and had to be dealt with for simply walking past an investigator’s desk and saying good morning. Building over time, I developed sufficient professional credibility to gain the support and respect of most of my fellow officers. It also helped the female officers following in my footsteps as long as they conducted themselves professionally.
Sadly, in these days of social media and societal pressure for “tolerance”, especially in public schools and colleges, the message of personal freedom is left half undone. Generations since the 60’s were taught that whatever a person does, believes or how they appear should not affect how they are treated. They haven’t learned that while they have freedom” to be”, others also have freedom to accept or reject opinions, beliefs and conduct, especially when it concerns a contract for employment.
While laws are passed and lawsuits filed move boundaries around, there isn’t anything that completely negates the natural human tendency to make decisions about others based upon perceptions. Those perceptions affect whether we create smooth progress for ourselves or make things harder than they have to be. Tattoos, piercings, funky hair, suggestive clothing, social media and partying are cases in point. We have complete freedom to, but are we considering the consequences, especially long term and professionally. Is expressing your individuality worth more than gainful employment or professional advancement?
Fair or not, we are all measured by our appearance and conduct, especially in our professional lives. Our reputation is much like an interest bearing savings account in that regular, consistent deposits accrue over time and the interest is paid when we mess up. We are given the benefit of the doubt if we have built a consistent picture of good judgment, upright character and fulfilling the needs of our employer in the event of a momentary lapse in judgment that all humans are subject to. Trouble arises when off duty behavior completely empties that “savings account” for our professional lives thereby destroying the credibility that sustains and advances professional careers.
There are regularly stories of off duty conduct in every profession causing disciplinary action, including termination of employment. Recently, I’ve seen a report on a female Sergeant in a Texas police department suspended for posing in pornographic photos including bondage and nude pictures, as a side job. While she has retained her job at the S.O., she has destroyed her credibility in law enforcement probably permanently and worse, added to the obstacles faced by her fellow female officers being seen in a sexual, rather than professional light by both fellow officers, and those they deal with on the street.
Not to let the guys off, male officers and deputies in Socorro, New Mexico recently caused themselves grief by posting a photo of them displaying gestures that were construed as gang signs. As a result, the agencies have tightened policies on social media and dealing with a public relations problem for their departments and their fellow officers. Another New Mexico officer was fired for being caught on tape in a sexual encounter on duty, severely compromising his department’s efforts to improve its professional image. No, the public doesn’t view it as boys being boys!
Living in a hedonistic,” live for the moment” culture presents many temptations and distractions to the development of a good reputation, invaluable in our profession. In particular, younger officers and officers getting behind in the constant battle of stress management are particularly vulnerable to forgetting that it takes a thousand attaboys to make up for one screw up and don’t forget that what we do affects fellow officers. Do you want to be the one that causes removal of take home car privileges or other types of restrictions because of a lapse in judgment?
Social media and ubiquitous cell phone cameras makes the biggest cities like living in a small town where everyone knows what everyone else is doing. Even without cameras, people are still watching that can make or break your career or influence whether or not your department is approved for a pay raise. The decisions we make both on and off duty are best filtered through whether or not it could be used by a defense attorney to destroy our credibility on the stand or affect how the public perceives the next officer on a call for service. It means some sacrifice, but ones I found well worth the effort, both personally and professionally.
Juli Adcock began her career in law enforcement with the Escambia County Florida Sheriff’s Office as a patrol deputy until she was injured in a riot situation. She transferred to Judicial Security and retired in 1998. Juli pursued career advancement training with an emphasis on officer survival, interviews and interrogation. She worked with a local Rape Crisis Center and in victim’s advocacy, complementing her college course work in psychology. She currently resides in New Mexico and is an instructor with The Appleseed Project (www.appleseedinfo.org). The Appleseed Project is a rifle marksmanship clinic teaching the fundamentals of firing an accurate round downrange every 3 to 4 seconds, out to 500 yards, as well as American history. She has trained military personnel at White Sands Missile Range who are certifying as Squad Designated Marksmen. Juli instructs basic handgun skills to new gun owners in preparation for responsible personal gun ownership and the Concealed Carry class for the State of New Mexico. She can be reached at [email protected] or through Law Enforcement Today.