A Letter to a New Captain

A few days ago, news broke that a new captain had been hired in Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania. The sheriff, Jonathan Held, hired 23 year-old Travis Day to fill his second-in-command position. It was said that Day’s resume surpassed six others to lead in the 54 full-time and 19 part-time department. Day had applied to the agency for the position of deputy sheriff with no law enforcement experience.

new captain

Travis Day, 23, was appointed captain of the Westmoreland County Sheriff’s Office, Pennsylvania. (Westmoreland County)

An article by TribeLive, posted Thursday, stated that Travis Day graduated last year from Waynesburg University with a master’s degree in Criminal Investigation and has been working since December at Hollister Co. as a manager. On Monday, he started as a captain with the Westmoreland Sheriff’s Office. This decision is unique, coming from a sheriff’s office already embattled in controversy. The following is a word of advice passed on from an experienced law enforcement officer to a new member of the profession.

Dear Captain Day, 

I usually have this conversation with rookie officers, but since you’re skipping a few levels in your first week, I’m breaking the chain of command to pass along a few words. Law enforcement is a profession unlike any other. The combination of heartache and challenge that you will face in your career will be, at times, daunting and crushing. When you see the things people do to each other, you’ll question the meaning of humanity. People can be ugly. You’ve chosen to serve all of them. One day, you’ll be chasing a drug dealer down an alley and the next, coming to his aid. It’s a weird job. The children made victims by parents and strangers alike can break your soul. The pay and benefits are negligible. You’ll be overworked, underpaid, in fact, even replaceable in a heartbeat should something happen to you. You see, the job of a police officer is like that of a farmer. Day in and day out, you’ll be subjected to conditions making you question whether any of it is worthwhile but, like the farmer, you’ll lay your head down every day knowing that you made a difference in the lives of your fellow Americans in a job steeped in tradition. Usually, those in supervisory roles join the ranks after having years of weathering in the streets. However, you’re bypassing that all together. Most police officers will never be commanders. The job takes a little bit more from you at each level and some of those with the most admin potential will never attain the level because they don’t want to give up that much more. You’ve been hired at the top and will now have an incredible responsibility. You’re now going to have to advise those multiple years your senior in life and law enforcement experience. I wish you the best of success. Remember each day that a small decision you make can have drastic consequences. The most trivial administrative decision can land you in jail, civil court, or even lead your Deputies into deadly situations where their loved ones will be forced to live with the consequences. You will too.

It goes without saying, you’ll be entering into a hostile work environment. Please know that it comes from a place of true concern. As line officers, we depend on administrators to have the knowledge and skill to guide us when we run into challenges ourselves. I came to the job with a Master’s of Conflict Management. Still, I was not prepared for Day 1 of being a police officer and it took months and months before I had an idea of what I was doing without asking for help from those my senior. This is the truth of being a law enforcement officer. Schools and academies give you knowledge. Experience gives you skills. In the job, you’ll need both. 

That said, for your own well-being, the safety of your Deputies, and the overall health of your community, I hope that you’ll be honest with yourself and seek experience to guide your decisions. Sometimes the best thing you can do is ask for help and the worst thing you can do is not. Show up, don’t lie, follow the constitution, be human, give second chances to some people, watch the hands, don’t trust the words of a stranger when his freedom is at stake, use discretion, and don’t tell someone to do something you wouldn’t do yourself. The shoe often finds its way to the other foot so, if you kicked someone, know that you’ve probably got a kick coming. Be safe. Go home. Be ready to lay your life down so that others may do the same.

Above all, don’t forget that the job is about service over self. Good luck.

Patrick W. Shaver

Patrick W. Shaver is a police officer in the State of South Carolina and the filmmaker behind the groundbreaking documentary “Officer Involved” as well as forthcoming film, “Dinkheller.” He has his bachelor’s degree in Sociology from the University at Buffalo (UB) and master’s of Conflict Management from Kennesaw State University in Georgia. He is a certified law enforcement instructor and hostage negotiator.