30 Years In Law Enforcement: Lessons Learned
What Would You Tell Yourself On Day 1?
Today marks my 30th year in law enforcement. For anyone that has been here, they would likely agree that it is both a surreal and improbable feeling. While it feels like yesterday I was a 21 year old recruit, the experiences I have had the blessing to experience are far more than I could have ever imagined.
I spent much of my career looking forward. Whether it was that assignment I wanted or promotion I sought, I spent a couple decades going as fast as I could to the next accomplishment without much thought to the finite time each of us have in the profession.
I’ve spent the last few years looking back.
On this thirtieth anniversary, I am realist. I am fortunate to have made it past what most don’t and I have a much shorter time left than the masses still wearing the badge. In looking back, it seems prudent to discuss the good and the bad over the last three decades.
Focus on Legacy
I spent a lot of time and energy trying to leave a legacy behind but far too often, that focus was near sighted. A glass case is situated in our main precinct and it honors some of our former officers that accomplished great things. Chief Clinton Riggs invented the yield sign and his portrait spoke to me on many occasions as he’s shaking hands with former presidents.
I worked tirelessly with the thought that I could actually end up in that glass case. I spent years diving into projects, developing programs and pushing ideas. I developed policy, training, patches, badges, coins and cars and while I’m proud of those accomplishments, it’s all temporary. That youth program that I built has already gone away. That policy, training, website and countless other projects have been replaced with something much better. While some things remain, time will one day make them disappear and even today, few would even know my involvement.
I have discovered that true legacy isn’t in the fancy gadgets but rather the people.
Each of us stand on the shoulders of great men and women before us and we must realize that to ensure that this great profession continues at a high level, we must invest our time and resources into our officers. That is much more time consuming than some project but the payoff is everything.
We must model, mentor, and teach those around us what greatness looks like and what it is. The investment in people ensures a legacy that can last generations. Everything else is either temporary or easily forgotten.
To be honest, after a few years as a cop, you’ve pretty much seen and done just about everything to be successful in this career. It’s easy to ignore new training or get comfortable in one assignment rather than taking a risk at doing something else. My parents instilled in me the importance of education and I have been fortunate to maintain that throughout my career. The day you think you know it all is the day you need to hang it up and I’m not ready to hang it up. I received my masters and doctorate degree while on the department and while it was by no means easy, it was worth it. One day I will no longer be a police officer but the education, experience, and any expertise built on the job goes with me.
Not Everything Is A Fight
I’m a fighter by nature but not everything is a fight. This career is a marathon, with many ups and downs. There were certainly fights that were right that I would fight again any day and any time. But there were other fights I fought that simply weren’t my fight to pick. Every man and woman should know what hill they will die on and pick those fights alone. Regardless of the fight or reasons, you will get bruised even if you win and even if you are right. It takes a toll so just make sure it’s worth it.
This is not a career of us vs. them but rather everyone. Most criminals I dealt with weren’t bad people but people in bad situations. Just like I had no control over the environment in life that gave me an opportunity for success, many people we would call suspects or criminals, had no control of their situation. There’s no excuse for victimizing others but there’s also no excuse for us to judge others based on one decision they made. It took far too long for me to realize this but once I did, I became a better person and a better cop.
It’s Not About Money
Law enforcement is a job and a job pays the bills but it’s important to never let the money of policing become more important than the calling of your life. Overtime and extra jobs are easy to get but time with family and friends is not. Your wife, your kids and even your health are all temporary. I couldn’t tell you where most of that extra money I made went but I can recite every family event I had to miss.
Enjoy your job but embrace every opportunity and moment that you can get with your family and always understand what the priority is. On the last day of your life, those extra jobs, nice cars, and all your co-workers will not matter or be present. It will be your family, so invest the most important thing you can in them…your time.
Turn Disappointments Into Opportunities
No one escapes this career without a few disappointments but it’s how you react to those disappointments that matter. Whether it was just missing a promotion or not being selected for an assignment, I spent too many days pissed off and that was just in the first five years of my career.
Then I tried something different. I decided to actually believe what my faith says.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose (Romans 8:28).
I looked at disappointments differently. When I didn’t get picked for my dream assignment, K-9, I took a promotional test instead…and became a first line supervisor a few months later.
When I was removed from leading the EVOC Unit after a decade of sweat, I decided to take those concepts and package it together into a program now called Below 100. Through the efforts of many, that program has reached thousands across the globe and is mandatory training in several states.
When I was removed as a commander from a patrol assignment with 140 officers, an assignment I loved but took every moment day and night to do right, I found myself with more time and decided to go back to school.
The disappointments were nothing more than an opportunity that I had no idea was possible.
Without the disappointments, I would not be a commander today and have the opportunity to lead divisions.
Without the disappointments, Below 100 would have never existed and that vital training would not have been exposed to thousands of officers across the globe.
Without the disappointments, I would have never obtained a doctorate degree which has provided opportunities that would have never been possible.
It’s vital to understand that disappointments and bad days are part of every job. If this didn’t exist, going to work would be called vacation. What matters is not the bad times but how you deal with them.
When I started law enforcement, I enjoyed many hobbies but I used the job as an excuse to ignore what I enjoyed. For far too long, I made the job my hobby but the job is not required to give you the same joy (and relaxation) as a hobby. If you love the job too much and treat it like a hobby, it will be both dysfunctional and frustrating and simply won’t end well.
I made a commitment a few years ago to place a priority on activities away from the job. Whether it’s alone playing my vinyl collection, poorly playing my guitar or on the golf course, I have discovered what I desperately needed for the last three decades…relaxation and enjoyment. That has made me better a better cop, father, and husband (as long as I don’t golf every Sunday).
It’s easy to buy into the culture of the profession and most of us get out of the academy in the best shape of our life to never finding it again. There is nothing cool or macho about staying up all night, eating fast food to get to that next call or throwing down beer with the guys after work.
It catches up with everyone…eventually.
You will never enjoy your life, family and even the job to the fullest without your health. I discovered this truth several years ago after decades of abuse. This morning I put on the same shirt that I wore as a rookie but it can’t stop today and it won’t. Your health is the umbrella over everything in your life. Literally, nothing else matters without it so do whatever it takes to regain it or keep it.
Build A Skill
They tell you in the academy that the pension is great and you can even retire in 20 years but 19 years later you figure out that wasn't true. I’ve seen too many cops leave the job with no additional skills than they received in the police academy and that should never happen. There are opportunities in this profession to build skills that can significantly help after this career.
Not only will the department pay for much of this training but a well trained police officer that has transferable skills outside of law enforcement is a commodity that many employers want.
I know a former public information officer that went into politics.
A former trainer in wellness I know owns his own health and wellness clinic.
I know a great detective that went to work for an insurance company.
And I even know a former officer with great communication skills that became an airline stewardess.
Each of these former police officers didn’t buy into the lie that police work is all they could do. They did the job for a few decades and used the skills they built combined with their interests to move seamlessly into their next career.
Within a few years, that is exactly what I will be doing. I don’t know what I’m going to do but my ideas center around the skillset I built doing police work and it’s never too late to start this journey.
I want to close with what I recently told a class in a Courageous Leadership Seminar. I find it encouraging and maybe it can help you.
Success does not come instantly. Like anything, true success is only found in consistency, dedication, attitude, and hard work.
You show up…You are present…You work hard…You fail…You get better…You grow…You face challenges…You doubt yourself…You want to quit- but don’t…You never have it all figured out but you keep trying…You treat others right and you fight for what’s right…
You repeat all this and you keep going.
Dr. Travis Yates is a commander with a large municipal police department and author of “The Courageous Police Leader: A Survival Guide for Combating Cowards, Chaos & Lies.” His risk management and leadership seminars have been taught to thousands of professionals across the world. He is a graduate of the FBI National Academy with a Doctorate Degree in Strategic Leadership and the CEO of the Courageous Police Leadership Alliance.