Reality Check: Lessons Learned in a Police Career
By Tim Dees
Even though 61 years of life experience has taught me that movies and TV bear little resemblance to reality, I’ve always related those same experiences to what I’ve seen on the screen. I think it makes it easier to explain situations to other people if they can relate it to a common understanding.
The movie The New Centurions came out while I was in college. Based on a Joseph Wambaugh novel, it follows the first few years of several rookie cops on the LAPD. Stacy Keach played a rookie named Roy Fehler. His field training officer, Kilvinsky, played by George C. Scott, was nearing retirement. When I first saw that movie, I had no intention of becoming a cop, but seven years later, I had a shiny new badge and close to no idea what I was doing. Back then, I saw myself as Fehler. Today, I’m a lot more like Kilvinsky.
I put myself through college as an ambulance EMT, and later as a dispatcher for the small police department at my college. The cops I met on those jobs were mostly people I liked and admired. They were funny and irreverent, but knew when it was time to get down to business. The cops I most wanted to emulate saw the job as a calling, a way of life. That they got a paycheck out of it was icing on the cake.
Like many people, I more or less assumed that advancement and promotion in law enforcement agencies was based on merit. Promotions came by competitive testing; assignments to specialized jobs like detective and tactical teams were for people who demonstrated aptitude and expertise for those jobs. Everyone had to spend their first few years in uniformed patrol, performing and learning the basic mission, building seniority, and generally making their bones.
Reality check: it is often nothing like this.
My academy class of 33 recruits (all white, all male—political correctness had not yet asserted itself there) was an odd mix of personalities. One was kind of a larger-than-life character who could talk like Sly Stallone without sounding cheesy or ironic. Although he had to have started in patrol with the rest of us when we graduated, I can’t remember ever seeing him there. Within a few months, he was working in narcotics, then in street crimes, and went from one preferential assignment to another for his whole career, getting steadily promoted along the way. He got every specialized training opportunity there was, and seldom had to attend on his own time or money. He was a good cop, but not nearly so good as to go to the head of every line when others were waiting for a turn. Despite an embarrassing number of misconduct episodes, nothing ever stuck to him. He was a golden boy. He made it all the way to Chief of Police.
Another classmate was the son of the county sheriff. This might have been regarded as a handicap, as it was common knowledge that the chief of police and the sheriff hated each other. It didn’t seem to hurt him much. He was in patrol for about a month before he was assigned to ride a motorcycle in the traffic division. He stayed there until he had two years in, the minimum necessary to take the sergeant’s test. He came in number one on that test; was promptly promoted, and was a captain inside of seven years, a deputy chief in ten.
Not everyone wanted to be a supervisor. Some officers sought to be detectives, but the path to get there was less than clear. A friend of mine from a later recruit class became a fraud detective when he happened to be walking past the watch commander’s office as the detective commander was visiting to say he needed to replace a guy out on extended medical leave. “Hey, Murphy—you want to be a detective for a while? Fine. Report on Monday.” That happened to work out well for him. He turned out to be an excellent financial crimes investigator, got noticed by a bank security manager who was about to retire, went to work for the bank, and a few years later was the VP of security for the western states. He did that until he decided he had made enough money, and he went back to what he did before he was a cop: teaching the fourth grade. Other people who acquired special training or had expertise that would be valuable to an investigator were never able to get that assignment.
I came to notice something about our executives and middle managers. Very few of them had any significant police experience, that is, police experience doing what most people think cops do. They stayed in uniformed patrol for as brief a time as possible before gravitating to traffic, or administration, or some other special slot where they handled few incidents, made few arrests, and were not chasing the radio, running from one call to another, and experiencing the frustration and anger that patrol cops deal with every day.
It was no wonder that those managers—I won’t call them leaders, as they exhibited no leadership traits—had so much difficulty relating to us. We had an episode where our portable radio batteries were going dead a few hours into a shift. You would be on a building search or refereeing a domestic quarrel when keying the radio produced dead silence, and you were suddenly very alone and unable to call for help. I did some research, and found that the batteries were long past their expected duty lives, and needed to be replaced. No one had seen this coming. I presented the problem to a captain (one who could always find money to fly himself to conferences and seminars), and was told there just wasn’t funding for this, but maybe next year they could do something. The urgency and threat to officer safety made no impression on him at all. I found myself saying out loud, “This would be so easy to explain if I was talking to a policeman!” That was one of my many career-limiting conversations.
This problem may have been aggravated at my employer, but in my travels I’ve found that it’s hardly unique. Law enforcement is a stressful line of work, but any cop will tell you that the lion’s share of that stress comes from within the agency, in dealing with unrealistic expectations created by people who may be wearing the costume, but have not learned the part.
Doing these things would result in everyone knowing what being a cop is about, ensure that people understand all the aspects of the work their subordinates perform, and keep leaders from losing their grasp of what is reasonable and what isn’t.
If you saw The New Centurions, you know that Kilvinsky ate his gun when he realized he had no life outside of policing, and that he had left it behind him. My police days are behind me, too, but I’m hoping to avoid Kilvinsky’s end by trying to change the system for the new centurions to come.
Tim Dees is a retired police officer who writes and consults on technology applications in criminal justice. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.