I’ve written a lot about the Old West, and some about Old West lawmen. In the closing chapter of The Judas Tree, Detective Will Diaz reads an article comparing him to Wyatt Earp and Jonesy to Bass Reeves.
Will isn’t flattered, though he holds Bass Reeves in high regard.
Back in the day, being a lawman in the Old West involved standards weren’t always that high. Back then, the basic requirements seemed to be that your were tough and knew how to use a gun. Truth be told, there was many an old time marshal or deputy that went through their whole careers without once drawing their gun. The Old West was a lot tamer than most would think, contrary to old time westerns.
A lot of the old time lawmen could barely read or write. Their understanding of the law was whatever they understood it to be. To make matters worse, they oftentimes straddled the fence and might be an outlaw in another state. They’d cross the border and get a job as a lawman. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that many were the muscle behind some seedy dealings.
I’m sure I worked with one of two of the old time lawmen. I had a chief who could read or write on a third grade level. Many a time an officer had to fill out a ticket for him.
Thank God, times have changed.
I’ve gone through the whole process listed below, but when I was hired for my first department, someone told me that the reason they hired me was I’d fit the uniforms of the guys who just left.
I sometimes think they weren’t joking!
But I digress.
Today, in order to be a Police Officer there’s some minimum standards. They include that the applicant has at least a high school diploma or GED. Some college is a good thing. Something a fair number of Junior Colleges are offering these days, is an Associates of Arts or Sciences in Law Enforcement. Most states insist that an officer be “Certified.” That means they meet certain state approved standards, and the courses will provide for certification.
In departments like this, especially small departments, one thing that caused us a lot of grief was that we’d hire an officer (according to state law they had to be certified within one year of hire), and then send that person to the Police Academy. This represents an investment of time and money. The individual graduates, comes back, and is gone within six months because a metro police force pays better.
Hiring someone already certified saves time and money, and if all that person wants is a notch on a resume and leaves, then the department isn’t out money invested into that person.
In the departments I’ve been in, some of us had degrees. Most were in psychology or sociology. Mine was in Astro-Physics. JR has a degree in Spanish and teaching. So most of us weren’t knuckle draggers.
Most departments require that you take a test designed not only to test general knowledge, but help eliminate those who don’t meet standards. The test covers general knowledge such as math, reading, some writing (a good officer will be writing a lot of reports and must have a good command of the English language), history, and such. It also deals with interpretation of the law. An example is given, you read a law associated with it, and then determine if it applies to the case.
The test is much easier that the ACT or SAT, but more difficult that say the Military Aptitude Test.
Then there’s a seemingly endless round of interviews, all of which could lead to your elimination for consideration. The first might be with an officer or HR type. It might even be a local commander depending on the position and department. You might also face a larger board consisting of officers, HR, and others.
Assuming you make it that far (and this might be done before you ever talk to anyone), you need to face a background check. This can be anything to include a simple criminal history check. It might include a full credit history workup, and even sending people around to ask friends and neighbors about you. Fingerprints are usually taken and submitted to the FBI to ensure you are who you think you are.
There might be a psych evaluation. Not a bad idea. It’s mostly getting a feel for what kind of person you are. What they’re trying to weed out is people who might crack under pressure, are prejudiced, and such. It doesn’t always work, but often times it does.
The questions can be entertaining. I had a lot of fun with the last one I took. The doctor asked me if I was one of those people ever who had strange things happen to him. I got this dreamy eyed look and said, “Well, that flying saucer isn’t landing in my backyard anymore, and my dog stopped talking to me. He’s upset because I changed his dog food, you see. But did you know the guard downstairs is Elvis in disguise!” The shrink smiled, called me a “smart ass,” and signed off on the eval, no doubt figuring this is just the kind of guy we’re been looking for.
So you get that far. Some departments will have a PT test. How many push-ups and situps can you do. How about your run? Some add in some agility testing. Blow the PT test, and you might have to start all over again.
A word on the PT test. Once you can pass it, keep it up. Police work can be physically demanding. And just being in shape can help save you from even minor injuries.
There may be a polygraph test (always fun). As I pointed out in another blog post, a polygraph test in an exercise in boredom. Before you’re ever strapped into the machine, you and the Polygrapher go over the questions he’ll ask. There are NO surprise questions. If you don’t understand a question, then it’s explained or reworded so you do.
Then the test occurs. It happens in a comfortable, very quiet room. It’s such a nice room and so comfortable, you may be asked to stay awake. Rarely is it more than just you and the Polygrapher so the standard movie scene of the guy in the chair and a dozen chain-smoking, grizzled cops firing off questions just doesn’t meet with reality. Questions are asked, not in any specific order. The Polygrapher maintains such a calming, neutral voice, you’d half expect that he or she doubles as a DJ at a classical music FM station.
Then maybe there’s a final interview.
Depending on the department, there may be variations, and some stuff might not even be done (such as a polygraph, and maybe even a visit to the psychologist).
Then, you might be hired. It all depends on openings, and such.
One thing I’ve always counseled people who want a career in Law Enforcement is to find out if you like it first. This is a place where being in the military helps. While the military likes to keep their MPs, LEs, and such focused on combat, there’s also garrison duties that include busting the occasional DUI, arresting those who have broken the UCMJ, and long boring hours. If it doesn’t suit you, you finish your enlistment, and go figure something else out.
I’m glad to see more women and minorities coming into the ranks because that makes for better departments.
So if you think being a police officer is a good fit for you, go for it, and good luck.