Agency-Specific Procedures and Policies
No matter what you might read about the similarities between the way departments and agencies operate, all procedures and policies are specific to the department in question. The procedures that surround initial training are classic examples of this. Some departments demand completion of academy training before allowing new personnel to undertake law enforcement duties. In fact, this practice is mandated in many places, including the federal agencies.
Other departments assign a rookie to a field training officer (FTO) who guides them through some of the basics to see what the rookie officer is made of. The theory in these cases is that rookies will be better able to ask intelligent questions once they are at the academy. Both methods of initial exposure have advantages and disadvantages, and neither is better than the other. What works for the department or agency in question is what matters, and successful candidates need to be accepting of whatever method their department employs.
Almost without regard to the type of agency involved, the initial part of law enforcement training involves understanding three things:
The surroundings—getting to know where the work is done
The people—developing a relationship with coworkers and meeting the public
The equipment—becoming familiar with various pieces of equipment that are essential to performing the job
By being observant during your first year, you will be able to learn more about each of these things than you would in a classroom.
Learning the Lay of the Land
For federal law enforcement officers, the turf in question is usually pretty large. Sometimes it means the entire country, but usually it consists of a smaller regional area that is known as a district or a territory. With these agencies, a good Rand McNally map is probably the best way to visualize the area covered. Although the district may be large in scope, the primary area of focus for most agencies centers around major cities within the district. Getting to these hubs and knowing how to find the offices located within them will occupy much of the new agent's time.
Rookie law enforcement agents must keep in mind that policy is made by those higher in authority, and implemented by the lower ranks. The lowest-ranking individual in any agency is the rookie; therefore, new recruits should not try to change the system until they are in a position to run it.
For non-federal agencies the reach might be smaller, but the demand is the same. State police and county sheriffs routinely need to have a grasp of the entire state in which they have jurisdiction, plus a working knowledge of the states that immediately border theirs. The map they utilize might be smaller in size, but it must be larger in scale to include much more of the details within their area of operation.
The local law enforcement officer needs to know her community by heart. In addition, she will need to know the general area for roughly thirty to fifty miles in any direction, contingent upon the type of terrain. In areas like the southwestern states, fifty miles might not get you to the county line. In areas like New England, a fifty-mile radius could easily incorporate several states.
You should know the basics like the major cities within the immediate area, the regional interstate highway system, and the major state highways that are nearby when you show up for work the first day. Learning the details takes time, so geography is the one area where learning the big picture first and the details second is the method of choice.
Getting to Know the Team
Getting to know the people with whom you work can be an uphill struggle. The law enforcement family is often highly skeptical of newcomers and not quick to accept them. It takes time to become a trusted member of the organization, and rookies often make the mistake of pressing too hard and too fast for acceptance.
The best way for you to win over experienced law enforcement officers is to try to listen more than you speak, soaking up knowledge by observing those people who are experienced in the field. Of course, you should ask questions when you have them, but make sure you're doing your best to look, listen, and learn first.
Take your time and work on cementing friendships with your colleagues by talking about their experience and learning from what they have been through. Perhaps they will share with you what their first years in law enforcement were like, or one person that you feel comfortable around and respect will become a mentor to you.
Anyone who is not a coworker of yours is part of the constituency. These people are shopkeepers, businesspersons, schoolteachers, children, and anyone else who is not affiliated with law enforcement.
An understanding that violators come in all shapes and sizes, and that virtually anyone is capable of breaking a law, is useful. Walking into the world of law enforcement with the jaundiced view that everyone is corrupt is not good, but recognizing that anyone can potentially break the law helps you keep your senses sharp and be more observant of those in your community.
Learning the Equipment
Learning to master the tools of the trade is difficult in any profession, but such a wide array of equipment is used throughout law enforcement that it is difficult to master it all. New personnel need to concern themselves with learning how to employ the basic equipment they will need to do their daily work; learning all of the other stuff will come in time.
As noted in Chapter 2, members of the law enforcement community today use the computer as their primary piece of equipment. Police reports are filed by computer; complaints, warrants, and affidavits are drawn up on computers; and learning the specific computer programs necessary for reporting activity is among the first priorities for a new officer. Understanding the basic functions of computers, and having the ability to work with a standard word processor and spreadsheet, are highly prized capabilities.
Learning how to properly roll fingerprints onto a card, operating a mug-shot camera, driving a three-wheel Cushman vehicle, or operating a flat-bottomed air boat over swampy terrain all come with time. Proficiency with a firearm has evolved into somewhat of a universal standard for law enforcement at all levels, and many people believe that this is the most important part of the job. It is true that it can easily become the deadliest part of the job, and it is also true that it is a part of the job that requires extensive training and regular practice, but the number of law enforcement officers who use a firearm in the line of duty even once during the course of a twenty-year career is very small when compared to the number who don't.