What Is It Like After You Graduate the Police Academy and Become a Real Cop?

This question originally appeared on Quora.

Answer by Tim Dees, retired cop and criminal justice professor, Reno Police Department, Reno Municipal Court, and Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribal Police Department:

Like any other challenging course, it’s a relief to be done and exciting to move on to the real thing. The elation is short-lived, however.

Despite having learned a lot about a topic that most people don’t understand well (even though many think they do), the real-world task of applying that knowledge to practical situations can be bewildering.

I had a similar experience when I became an EMT. I thought I had learned everything I needed to know, but the first time I was confronted with a real-live patient who was expecting me to do something for them, I couldn’t decide where to start.

Rookie cops get considerable help early in the job.

Photo by Kayana Szymczak/Getty Images

The first time you walk into the police station as a new rookie officer, you feel like you belong anywhere but there. Everyone around you is relaxed and confident. You don’t know what to say, where to stand or sit, what you’re supposed to do first or next. Your gunleather creaks every time you move because it’s stiff and hasn’t broken in yet.

This is where your field training officer (FTO, called a coach or mentor in some places) can make life easy or hard for you. He can leave you to fend for yourself and not tell you what you’re supposed to do, or, worse yet, he can call you something derogatory like “boot” or “rookie” and make you feel like an idiot. When I became an FTO, years later, and I saw my new trainee looking especially lost in the briefing room, I’d try and pick out the oldest, saltiest, most senior cop in the room and point him out to the trainee. “See that guy? He also had a first day.”

How your first few days go depends, again, on the FTO. Some FTOs put the rookie behind the wheel of the car right away. My first FTO didn’t let me drive the entire time I was with him. My second (and last) FTO split the driving with me 50-50. He would ask me at the start of the watch, “Do you want to drive first or last?” At the midpoint of the watch, he would tell me it was time to switch.

My first assignment was in the drunk wagon, patrolling downtown. There was always at least one wagon on duty (we had two), and it was arguably the busiest unit in patrol. Even on a slow shift, the wagon team would make at least ten arrests, and three times that number was not unheard of. Most of the cases were simple ones – drunk in public and other “quality of life” issues – but there were a lot of searches of people, handcuffing, and trips to the jail.

My policy as an FTO, learned from other FTOs I had the opportunity to watch and learn from, was that I did the first one of everything: the first traffic stop, the first crime report, the first field interview, etc. If the task was a complex one, like a DUI arrest, I might do the first three or five. As each of the three four-week training phases progress, the FTO is supposed to shift more and more of the workload to the trainee. In the FTO program model, my department used (by the time I was an FTO, but the one I trained under was far less structured and formal), called the “San Jose model,” there were three four-week phases, each on a different shift and under a different FTO. This was followed by a fourth phase with the original FTO, sometimes called the “ghost” or “shadow” phase. In this two-week period, the FTO works in street clothes, with the trainee in uniform. The FTO is there only as an observer (unless something goes really, really wrong), reporting on the trainee’s activities.

During the FTO program, the FTO writes an evaluation on the trainee every day. The trainee is rated on about 20 different categories, such as personal appearance, knowledge of the law, patrol car operation, interviewing skill, defensive tactics, report writing, etc. The number and types of categories vary from one agency to the next. Each category is rated on a scale of one to seven, with anything below a “4” as “below standard.” Any rating of 1, 2, 6, or 7 has to be documented in the narrative portion of the evaluation. A recap, summary evaluation is written every two weeks. As you might expect, quite a bit of paperwork is involved in this process. Most agencies do it electronically now (This company: Law Enforcement Public Safety Documentation Software produces the software that manages this process).

Now that concealed weapon permits are somewhat more common, carrying an off-duty gun may not be a new experience for the novice officer. When I was a rookie, carrying a gun off-duty was almost exclusively something that cops did, and most new cops can’t wait to do it. Academy students are told to keep the guns concealed, but few newbie cops can resist showing off the hardware now and then. It’s something that most cops, fortunately, grow out of as they mature in the job.

The field training program is the first exposure to actual police work, but I know the first time I really felt like a cop was the day I got into the car alone for the first time. It’s still bewildering. I wound up calling a sergeant for advice on my very first call for service. I was supposed to take a report on a stolen car, and when I arrived and spoke to the complainant, I found he was drunk. We weren’t supposed to take reports from drunks, but at the same time I didn’t want to have someone make a complaint against me for refusing to take the report. The sergeant told me to write an incident report documenting the circumstances, and that took care of it.

I don’t think there are very many jobs that have as much of a learning curve as policing. It’s not only a knowledge challenge, but also an intense socialization. Just about every aspect of your life changes. The job is difficult to acclimate to, and just as difficult to make the adjustment when you leave.

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