During my rookie year, I experienced a feeling of intimidation, concern, and self-doubt.  I never foresaw these feelings emerging as I sought to reach my goal. I considered it an honor and privilege to be appointed a police officer. As a rookie, my desires were the same as many new LEOs. I wanted to serve my community and make a difference in the quality of life. That is the right mindset, but saying the right thing is far different from doing the right thing.

If an officer simply says the right thing, there are no consequences. Everyone in a police environment will agree with the right thing in a statement.   However, often when an LEO acts in the lawful performance of his or her duty, such as arresting an individual or using force, the LEO’s actions are second guessed and challenged.  I didn’t realize as a rookie that my true concerns would involve being second guessed and criticized.

The true test of all LEOs’ is their commitment to policing has to do with their ability do that right thing knowing that questions will be raised regarding his or her conduct. An LEO demonstrates his or her value by conduct under a myriad of circumstances. All eyes are on a police officer both on duty and off. All officers must understand at the authority each possesses is the very means by which society will hold LEOs accountable in their conduct. Professionalism is developed by the commitment to the exemplary performance of duty, rather than commitment to oneself.

Positive reinforcement transforms LEOs from insecurity to functioning at their personal best. One’s personal best is synonymous with professionalism. An officer personal best doesn’t have to do with promotion.   LEOs of all ranks can demonstrate professionalism when they maintain or restore order. Those officers who conduct themselves according to policy and procedure demonstrate professional ethics. These officers are known as the “informal leaders” who function as role models.  Recognition of the value of these “informal leaders” led to the creation of the Field Training Officer (FTO). Each rookie is introduced to their responsibilities by the FTO who, although equal in rank, functions at a higher level.

As police executive, I am keenly aware of the bonding which develops between a rookie and the FTO. Once a rookie is cleared to work independently of the FTO. I assign the officer to the FTO’s squad. This maintains open lines of communication between these new officers while each is assigned their own post. Although the rookie now has an independent assignment, the communication remains with other squad members. It is imperative to place an FTO with less experienced officers as well as rookies. I have taken the time to place an FTO on each squad assigned to a central post which places the FTO as the backup officer. Taking the time to create a positive work environment pays dividends.

LEOs are comfortable discussing cases and other tasks with the FTO. Officers are not intimidated by the FTO as they are by a supervisor. The key here is that the FTO will guide an officer in how to brief a supervisor regarding the circumstances. I realized from my rookie experiences that the FTO was there to assist with my continued professional growth. The goal is that each LEO will return home to the family at the end of the shift.

Any officer can fall prey to peer pressure.   Maintaining open lines of communication with the FTO and the line supervisor helps counteract peer pressure when a new officer is working independently. This positive reinforcement needs to be continuous. FTO’s shape the next generation’s role models. Insight, experience, and leadership skills develop an officer’s command presence. The FTOs of today will be tomorrow’s heroes. My heroes led by example. These officers made me want to function as they did.

If you ask an LEO who had the most profound effect on their career, you will hear about another group of heroes. The names change, but the feelings are the same. The role models of the past were not formally recognized as they are today.  But we know who they are. Ask any LEO why he dedicated his life to policing and you will hear a similar story. The circumstances which caused these officers to become “role models” may be different, but the result is the same. Officers who develop self-confidence, a sense of purpose, and pride are the building blocks of police professionalism.

Practicing professional ethics is the straw that stirs the drink. None of my heroes are still a part of my life. I was a young, naïve officer.  Now I am a seasoned police lieutenant. These officers nevertheless are a part of who I am today, as well as who I will continue to be. I am no different than other officers who had the opportunity to be surrounded by role models. Most of these officers never made rank, but each was a leader in the street. Patrol is recognized as the backbone of policing. Patrol is the mainstay of law enforcement where you will find informal leaders, role models, and FTOs.

Along with the reinforcement I received early in my career, I had the opportunity to meet Detective Sergeant Harry O’Reilly (retired) when he spoke at John Jay in New York City. I attended many presentations conducted by this professional. He wrote an article titled ‘Only A Cop.” It is written in his unique style, yet it provided me with food for thought. I am fortunate to have met him. I am no different today as a lieutenant than I was as a rookie. I am only a cop. That is how policing begins and ends when leaders pass the torch to the next in line.

This is commitment. This is professionalism. The price is high.  Leaders will sacrifice popularity to maintain professional ethics. This is the very reason these officers tend to go unrecognized.

Jim Gaffney, MPA is Law Enforcement Today’s risk management /police administration contributor. He has served with a metro-New York police department for over 25 years in varying capacities, culminating with Executive Officer and PIO. He is a member of ILEETA, IACP, IACSP, and FBI – LEEDA. Jim is a Certified Force Science Analyst. He mentors law enforcement’s next generation as an adjunct criminal justice professor in the New York City area. Jim brings the street into the classroom to prepare students today for their roles as police officers tomorrow.  He is CEO of Bright Line Consulting and can be reached via www.brightlinepoliceconsulting.com.

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