Mark Twain has been quoted as saying, “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” For most cops, when asked, say they became a cop for two reasons: I always wanted to be a cop and I want to help people.

This is kind of their way of saying they know the “why” they were born – I was born to be a cop. I suggest there is a third most important day. Read on to find out, you might be surprised by the answer.

Somewhere along the way, something happens along the way that flies in the face of their “why”. Sure, they always wanted to be a cop, and achieved that dream on the day they graduated from the Academy. It is the “I want to help people” part that fades into the fog of broken promises and dreams. Why?

Part of the answer lies in the phases of a law enforcement career. Part of the answer lies in the culture of law enforcement itself. Both answers address the 800 pound gorilla in the room that nobody wants to admit is there. So, we are going to talk about what nobody wants to talk about.

The Phases of a Law Enforcement Career

 In, Danger, Duty and Disillusion: The Worldview of L.A. Police Officers, Joan C. Barker, Waveland Press, 1999 (reprinted with permission), there are 5 phases identified in a LEO career.

  1. Idealism
  2. Competence
  3. Disillusion
  4. Resolution
  5. Retirement

Each phase is categorized by both identifiable characteristics and a range of time, based on a 20 year career of a LAPD officer. I had a 26 year career on a large urban department and can tell you – these 5 phases were spot on, in my life and the lives of my fellow officers. Do you see yourself in what is about the follow?

Idealism phase: finally made it into the Academy; pursuing my dream of becoming a cop and helping people; graduated Academy – I’m now a real cop. Yes it has been structured – what, with all the classroom work, test and PT.

Report writing, firearms training, use of force training, Field Training period, probation period and performance evaluations. Man, why don’t the veteran officers treat me like one of them?

What do I have to do to prove I am one of them? Sense of isolation is creeping in – from peers, family and friends. This phase can last up to 2 years.

Competence phase: confidence; finally accepted by veterans,.   I have proven myself; I know my own niche of policing (traffic, dopers, gang bangers, etc..

I don’t seem to have many non-cop friends anymore, wonder why? My spouse and kids are starting to get on my nerves a little, don’t they get working midnights or 3-11 is tough? “The system” sucks! It is becoming an Us versus Them life. This phase is typically years 3-7.

Disillusion phase: spouse, kids – I’ve just about had enough, why can’t they straighten up? The court system is a joke – why do I even bother arresting people? Management really sucks, they had their spines removed when they got promoted! I really hate these idiots I am supposed to protect and serve. Us versus Them has completely set in.

Man, I need a drink. Why do I feel so out of shape? Boy, I’ve sure have packed on a few pounds since the Academy. Screw ‘em, I don’t care! This phase is typically @7 -11 years into career.

Resolution phase: Either I have got to renew my oath to protect and serve, and change my attitude – or, I am just going to become a ROD (retired on duty). I know myself, the job and my limitations; I am comfortable with my role as a police officer; I accept there are flaws, inadequacies in the criminal justice system and the department, and I can be more tolerant of them. I can do this, I’m a good cop. I want to protect and serve again. I want my family back.

Or, I can complain, gossip, just take my calls and talk about what I’m going to do when I get paroled from this miserable prison called work. Screw them, I’m done with this crap – can’t wait for pay day! (This phase is typically starts between years 10-13 and last until retirement)

Retirement phase: After 20-25 years on the job I can see a new life after law enforcement as a positive thing – or at least a relief from working in this crap hole. I have to start laying the ground work to separate from the department.

So, do you recognize yourself or other cops in the above depiction of the 5 phases of a LEO career? How did this happen? What can I do about it? When you answer the last question – you are at the third most important day in your life!

Before addressing the “what”, let’s look at the “how” question. How did this happen to me?

The Police Culture

Culture is defined as a shared set of beliefs, attitudes, and values – including how to think and behave. The culture in law enforcement is characterized by using time on the job as a gauge to define an officer’s abilities, competency, credibility and trustworthiness within the group.

These beliefs, attitudes, values, and behaviors (the police culture) extends towards:

  • Non-cops (family, friends, neighbors)
  • Citizens (including victims, witnesses, suspects)
  • Media
  • Management/labor
  • Peers

Members of the police society “educate” one another on the department’s culture by:

  • War stories
  • Acceptable stress relievers
  • Association off duty
  • Gossip
  • Union/Association activities and publications
  • Verbal and non-verbal communication conveying what is/not acceptable attitudes/actions

What Influences shape the police culture?

  • Cops see, hear and do things, repeatedly over 20-25 years, that no one else does
  • Cops have to document and testify about what they see, hear, and do
  • Cops get sued, disciplined, or commended for what they say and do
  • Cops have to protect themselves, physically and psychologically, from the above
  • Cops face changing or conflicting policies, procedures, case law and decisions
  • Cops face influences from citizens, politicians, special interest groups, media, legal community, and peers
  • Cops don’t know, understand, or support the Department’s Mission, Vision, and Values Statement – or they don’t even have one
  • Cops have sub-cultures within the department (shifts, seniority, age gaps, “real” cops, good/bad supervisor’s)

With this background, we get to the “what can I do” question – the third most important day in your life. Really, the question is – what will you do about it?

Well, you have two choices – something or nothing. Nothing is easy, just keep on doing what you are doing and nothing will change. Just mark that calendar with your KMA date and wait until it arrives.

The “something” is a process, not a date on your calendar. You can choose to change – yourself, squad, and department. There is a saying, “You are who you associate with.”

Look at the five people you spend the most time with. You are who you associate with. Are they gossipers, haters, complainers, blamers? Get the point?

Become a leader, not just a follower. Leadership is influence, nothing more, nothing less. Leadership does not develop overnight – especially in a police department. And I’m not talking simply about getting promoted. Become an influencer where you are right now, not just where you want to be a few years down the road.

Leadership is not a spectator sport. It also takes a lifetime to achieve. Leaders make and sustain changes in their homes, work and community. Leaders are constantly learning and failing. Leaders learn from their mistakes – not blame someone else.

Change how you think and you will change how you act. Find a leader to follow, learn from their example. Study other great leaders. Ask for help in your journey of becoming a leader – find a mentor.

You have two choices – nothing or something. Which one do you choose?

Pat Welsh is the Founder and President of PJ Welsh and Associates, LLC.  Mr. Welsh retired in April 2012, as Major, West Patrol Operations Division on the Dayton Police Department. He was recognized throughout his 26 year career in Patrol, Narcotics, and Investigations by such groups as the FBI, the United States Secret Service, the National Police Athletic League, and the Dayton Police Department. A graduate of the FBINA and Police Executive Leadership College, Mr. Welsh specializes in law enforcement training, keynote speaking and coaching services.  Mr. Welsh is also a Certified Team Member of the John C. Maxwell Group. Visit for more information or contact Mr. Welsh at [email protected].