For some officers, use of the phrase “old school” can be confusing. To begin with, it does not have anything to do with how long an officer has been on the department. When someone has been a police officer for a long time, they may be referred to as an “old head.” These two terms are not the same. Just because an officer is very senior to other officers does not automatically make them “old school,” a much higher standard to uphold. The ideals of what this term represents are timeless and yet what “old school” exemplifies can be overshadowed with less honorable traits. It is important, especially for the new officer, to have a concrete understanding of this term as it will guide them during difficult periods and help them to have a more fulfilling career.

If you ask a group of officers who of their colleagues they respect the most, you will likely find a small number of individuals mentioned. We seem to be able to recognize people who earn our respect by what I call “old school” traits. The specific attributes of what garners this respect are rarely openly discussed, but I want to list what I see as the traits commonly possessed by these individuals.

  • Having consistency.

Although it is not required to be a senior officer to exemplify the ideals of being “old school,” you do need some consistency. It is only after you have maintained a high standard of performance for a while that you will set yourself apart from the average.

  • Doing the good with the bad.

Police work is a dirty job. You are not usually dealing with people at their best. Officers who are “old school” do not avoid or ignore those aspects of the job, i.e., filth, danger, paperwork, belligerent people, etc. They simply take it in stride and carry on without a fuss.

  • Being a problem solver.

Some people are always looking for excuses why they can or should not do something. Those who are “old school” approach problems not from a CYA approach, but from doing what is the best thing for the situation.

  • Being thorough.

Some officers make the mistake of associating certain circumstances with a predetermined resolution. An “old school” police officer always approaches every scene with fresh eyes and ears. Sometimes this may require taking a little extra time, but it is important to make sure the problem is understood to determine the best course of action.

  • Doing what the law allows.

I once had an “old school” trainer that I presented a complicated scenario to. Then I asked him what he would do. His response was simple “… you can only respond within the boundaries of what the law allows.”

  • Having pride in your profession.

Even in the most abusive of circumstances, “old school” officers maintain a professional demeanor. Having pride in your profession can help you get through difficult situations. Take what you represent as a police officer seriously and devote yourself to upholding those ideals even in the most difficult of circumstances.

  • Becoming an expert in your field.

Even after you have been on the department for 30 years or more, there is always room for improvement. The officers who are “old school” never stop learning. This goes along with the low-key approach that most of the “old school” officers possess.

The criteria to earn the title of “old school” is not something that can be bestowed by the person it is intended to describe, but instead by other people who work with them. No officer I have ever met has been perfect, but over the years I have seen many whom I associate with having great policing qualities. Some of the ideals seem to be inherent; others are learned along the way. Regardless of what stage you are in becoming an “old school” officer, my best wishes to you in your career.

gear bag

Photo credit: Heikelr

Erick Richards has more than twenty years of experience responding to situations as a police officer. He is currently assigned as a patrol supervisor for the Dallas Police Department. You can find him at

(File photo)