Advice from an old guy – lessons learned from a career in policing
I spent 36 years of my life as a police officer, at all ranks and in many different areas of the organization. I served in uniform, investigations, intelligence, tactical, command and more. I certainly do not profess to know it all – much to the contrary, but I did learn some valuable lessons along my incredible journey that are worth sharing with current LEOs.
Wellness is critical – both physically and mentally, and they are interconnected. Physical health is key from personal and public safety perspectives. You won’t be able to run, climb, dive, pull your partner out of the line of fire or save a member of the public in a difficult situation if you aren’t reasonably fit. Those situations don’t happen daily, but you’ll need every ounce of strength within you when they do. Long working hours wearing a vest and a belt load of personal safety equipment isn’t for the physically weak either. There are inherent linkages between fitness and stress management and you will look/feel better as well.
The personal toll of traumatic incidents – either a single horrific event or a series of cumulative experiences over several years, can be devastating. Thankfully there is now broad recognition that Operational Stress Injuries are a reality in first responder agencies and excellent programs currently exist. Affected personnel deserve proper support and care, rather than suffering in silence and risking their health, family and career.
As a human being with a difficult job, you will make mistakes. Honest errors with no intent or malice are going to occur. Some people try so hard to cover them up that they lie and misrepresent to the point that they turn a minor mistake into an indictable and career-ending mess. If you screw up – fess up. Do the requisite damage control and move forward with your head held high.
It is not an “us against them” world. You were sworn to protect the community – not just yourself, and they must always come first. If it was all about you, you’d never leave the station. You wouldn’t chase bad guys or run into danger while others flee in fear. You run those risks for the public you so proudly serve.
You can’t survive without community trust. Become part of the community. Get to know people through clubs, volunteering, coaching – not just when you’re in an enforcement role. Build trust by being friendly, open and professional, and committed to excellence. The personal and professional benefits that will flow from that will be endless.
Don’t let the minority of people that don’t like police jade you, because the majority of people love their police and they need you. You will undoubtedly see the best and the worst in people over your career. Never forget that even bad people are somebody’s son, father, brother, mother etc., and they didn’t start their lives out intending to be bad. You can and must do your job with a level of compassion and treat even the worst people politely. Treat community members like you’d like your own mother be treated – even though you likely haven’t arrested and handcuffed your mom!
You will laugh and you will cry. You’ll meet wonderful, helpful and appreciative people. You’ll also meet some very bad folks. Protect the good from the bad but treat them all professionally.
The vast majority of your fellow officers remain honest, committed and hardworking people. The odd police officer should never have been hired or has become someone who shouldn’t be a police officer. Don’t ruin your own career, reputation and life by trying to protect the bad ones.
Treat civilian police personnel with respect. They are a critical part of the overall policing team and often get overlooked by those that carry guns.
Arrive safely at all your calls or you won’t be of help to anyone. You won’t be there for your colleague that requests backup; the store owner being robbed or the victim suffering at the hands of a violent spouse if you drive like an idiot and end up in a ditch or worse. More cops get hurt or killed in traffic collision deaths than by acts of violence, and most of those collisions were preventable.
Policing isn’t for everyone. But when you’ve had a bad week or month – either through difficult calls or working conditions and you think about quitting, remember why you started. No matter how bad things get at times, whether you are short staffed, overworked or seeing some awful things, none of it changes who you are or what you were sworn to do. You’re a police officer and you took an oath to protect the public. You will have bad days, but the good days will outnumber the bad over the long run. If that isn’t the case, then look at different career options.
And lastly, always go home safe to your family at the end of the shift. Your spouse/partner, parents and children deserve that, as do you. There are inherent dangers that come with the job, as there are in many civilian jobs. You’re well paid, trained, equipped and hopefully effectively led. Use all of that to your advantage safely and effectively and be smart in the process.
I hope you enjoy a long, wonderful, safe and fulfilling career. I know I wouldn’t change a thing about mine.
Chris D. Lewis retired from the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) in 2014, following 36 years of service in the OPP across Ontario, including four years as Commissioner of the 9,000 person organization. He continues to lecture on leadership and policing issues, across North America, and has authored numerous articles. In 2016 he published a book on leadership, entitled: Never Stop on a Hill, the profits from which are entirely committed to Special Olympics. He is currently the Public Safety Analyst for the CTV Television Network, appearing regularly in local and national news stories on both television and radio.