Monday, May 9, 2016

The Law Enforcement Hiring Process (Hint: You might not be cut out for this job)

I originally was intending to target this blog towards recruits who are in the academy. Since receiving countless emails from people seeking a career in law enforcement, I decided to write a post answering the most common question I receive - What is the hiring process like? Not only do I want to describe a basic hiring process, but I'd also like to take the opportunity to help the overwhelmed background investigators by convincing those who really aren't cut out for this job that they should not apply. Sound harsh? Maybe... but this isn't the type of job that we should allow people to have just because they have the desire and put an application in.

Listen, we have all heard the stereotypical theories as to why someone chose to become a cop. "They were all bullied in high school and became cops so they could feel the power trip." Or how about, "They couldn't get a job doing anything else so they became cops." When people hear either of these assumptions or ones like it, it starts to put in the minds of people that becoming a cop is an easy, fallback career. This could not be farther from the truth. If you aren't familiar with what an average law enforcement agency puts an applicant through to earn their badge, let me give you a glimpse into the process and let you decide if it's a career for idiots with low self-esteem.

Let's start with the basic of basics. If you have been convicted of a felony, snorted coke or smoked meth recently, have beaten your ex-girlfriend or a small child to a bloody pulp, or been a part of any similar everyone a favor and don't apply. It's a waste of your time, the police agency's time, and tax-payer's money. You're not going to get hired. I'm serious. If you're thinking to yourself that the agency might change their minds once you get a chance to tell your story, they're not going to change their minds. You are too much of a liability for a government agency to hand a gun and a badge to and send out to the streets of your city in a patrol car. I congratulate you if you feel like you have turned your life around, but you can't take back the bad decisions you have made. They are a part of your history. Put yourself in the shoes of the police agency you wish to apply for. If an agency hired a guy who committed a violent assault on his ex-girlfriend, and later is the subject of an excessive force complaint by a female, it's going to be a tough and expensive road for that agency when it is discovered they didn't screen him out of the application process for such a violent offense. Besides that, cops are being crucified in the media these days if you haven't noticed. They put a microscope onto any bad decision they can get their hands on and we all suffer from the undeserved bad image. We really don't want a partner who we have to worry about bringing more dirt into our house.

Now onto the application process. Check with the agency you want to apply for and find out what their education requirements are. Most agencies these days require at least some college units and prefer four-year degrees. There are some agencies that only require a high school diploma, but not many. Even if an agency only requires a high school degree and that's the extent of your education, you will still have college educated competition that will make you a tough sell. For many agencies, you can simply submit an application online. This initial application is your ticket into the hiring process. Remember, you will constantly be evaluated and can be disqualified at any step in the process, especially if you're caught lying about anything.

If you're application is accepted, you can expect to be invited to take a written exam and/or a physical agility test, and not necessarily in that order. The written exam will test your reading and writing ability. It is typically a multiple choice test. I'd like to say it's a basic exam, but it has been severely underestimated by many people. I've personally had conversations with college educated applicants whom I have told they wouldn't have to worry about the written exam. I have stopped telling people this after receiving a few phone calls from these college educated applicants telling me they failed and would not be moving on to the next stage of the process. On top of this, some agencies require a writing sample. This will be hand written, so if you've relied on spell-check your whole life, this will be magnified in this portion.

The physical agility exam is generally not a challenging portion, but agencies have the prerogative to raise the bar and make it tougher. If they stick to the basic state requirements, it is basically going to weed out those applicants who thought they could put down the bag of Doritos, turn the TV off, and show up for a few simple obstacles. The basic test is in no way indicative of what kind of physical shape you are in. Physical agility tests commonly consist of a simple obstacle course, wall climb, dummy drag, and a short run. As I mentioned earlier, agencies can add more events to this test, the most common being a mile and a half run. All of the events are timed. The faster you complete the event, the higher your score. You can complete every event and still look like an out of shape applicant on paper if you barely complete each event with slow times. Being in good physical shape is an important attribute to being a law enforcement officer, but it is not the most important. I say this because there are many applicants who work very hard to be in great shape and believe that because they are really strong or can fight, that they would make great cops. All cops should work to be in great shape, but it is only one aspect of the job.

After the agency has whittled the applicant pool down a little from those who failed the written or physical agility tests, the agency you're applying with might conduct an oral interview. Not all agencies do this. If the one you want to work for does, you can expect to sit across a table from both law enforcement and civilian representatives and be asked a series of questions. The questions will be designed to assess your life experience, your ability to problem solve, communication skills, level of motivation and interest, interpersonal skills, and your community involvement. It gives the agency the opportunity to get a feel for what type of person you are and how you handle the pressure of an oral panel.

Next, you can expect to be moved on to the backgrounds portion of the process. This part can take a while. Usually the first thing you will be asked to do is fill out a personal history questionnaire (PHQ). What is in a PHQ? Well...everything. If it isn't in the PHQ, it will be in your backgrounds interview. "What is your full name? Where were you born? Give us your job history and contact information for your supervisors from each job. Now give us the names and contact information for all of your ex-girlfriends/boyfriends...all of them. Tell us about crimes you have committed, even if you haven't been caught. Have you ever had sex with an animal?" The questions run the gamut as you can see. Think about how many times you have had a conversation about a cop doing something bad where the question is asked, "How did that guy get through the background process? Don't they screen these people?" Yeah...we do, but as detailed as the background investigation is, a perfect process to weed out every person who could potentially make a bad decision as a cop simply does not exist. SO what do they do with this PHQ? Well, they read it. Then they call your friends, family, former lovers, roommates, coworkers, and landlords and ask them all about you. "What is John like when he gets angry? How many times have you seen him get angry? Is he dependable? How would you describe John? Why did you and John break up? Is he an honest person?" They gather a lot of information about you and then they call you in for an interview because they want to have a chat with you about what they learned. What is the chat like?

"Hi. Tell me about yourself. Where have you worked? Did you quit or were you fired? Why did you quit or why were you fired? Tell me about a time you got angry and how you handled the situation. Have you been in a physical fight before? How many times? When was the last fight? Why did the fight start? What was the outcome? Tell me about the tickets you have on your record. How about drugs? Which drug(s)? When did you take these drugs? How many times? How often? Who did you do these drugs with? Give us their full name and contact information so we can talk to them about your drug use. Why did you start? Why did you stop? When was the first time? When was the last time? Which racial slurs have you uttered in your life for any reason? So you're saying that a racial slur has never been spoken from your lips your entire life? Are you being honest? Because we did speak with all of your former roommates. Hmmm...interesting. Why did you say that racial slur? What about this other racial slur? Ever cheat on a test? Ever stolen anything from an employer? You mentioned in your PHQ that you once stole from a store. Let's talk about that." And it goes on and on and on. I hope you were honest in your PHQ, because when you're getting rapid fire questions, it sure would be difficult to remember which lies you documented in your PHQ.

So now that you have documented your personal history and endured a lengthy interview to find out more about the details of your life, if you weren't disqualified based on an unsavory event in your life, you might move on to the polygraph exam. You sit in a chair and get wired up to a machine that pays attention to your pulse rate, your body movement, and your pace of breathing so they can ask you questions and see how your body reacts. When people are lying, their bodies often tell on them through physiological responses. What questions do they ask? Well, it's different for everyone. They basically find some things in your PHQ and interview that they might not be so sure about and interrogate you about them. They often will tell you on the spot when they believe they have caught you in a lie. If you haven't figured it out by this point, the backgrounds process is much easier if you just don't lie. If you're thinking right now that there are some skeletons in your closet that could disqualify you, but you're pretty sure you could keep that closet door closed tight through the backgrounds process, you're the guy/girl I was talking about in the third paragraph who I said shouldn't apply. We don't want you and we don't need you. You aren't cut out for this job.

Did you pass the background investigation? Yes? Ok, now you will either move on to a medical exam or the psych exam. For the medical exam, they send you to a doctor for an overall health evaluation. Lots of health questions, they draw blood, you have to poop on a stick and give it to them, pee in a cup, run on a treadmill while hooked up to a machine, and then a doctor signs off on you or disqualifies you. Not really a way to study or prepare for the medical exam, and it's the same for the psych exam. If you don't have mental problems, you will feel like you do by the time you finish the test. It is over a thousand questions and you are asked many of the same questions worded slightly different each time. You get a score based off of the results and then you get an appointment with a psychologist or psychiatrist to talk about the results of the exam. Then the psych doctor either signs off on you or disqualifies you based on your score and their evaluation.

If you pass the medical and psych exams, congratulations, you are done with your part of the application process. Does this mean you're hired? No, my friend it does not. Your application file now gets reviewed by the agency for them to make a subjective decision on whether to hire you. They might decide that while you did pass everything, they just don't feel like you'd be a good fit. That's could potentially pass everything they throw at you and not get the call, and there's nothing you can do about it. Just because you passed, doesn't mean you have the right to the job.

If they do decide to hire you, congratulations! It would be a pretty good feeling right? Well it is, but remember that you weren't hired as a law enforcement officer at this point. You were hired to be a recruit. What does that mean? It means get ready to attend the police academy. Now, I can spend hours writing about what the academy is like, and you can read some of my other posts for more on the subject, but I will give a general overview here. You will spend an average of 6-months, full-time, attending the academy. You will be tested academically, mentally, and physically. You will attend lectures, take written tests, scenario-based performance tests, physical fitness tests, firearms tests, driving tests, complete never ending homework assignments, write memos for messing up, get yelled at by recruit training officers, interview mock victims and suspects, learn agency policies, memorize the code of ethics, learn how to properly and safely apply handcuffs, fight a big guy in a protective suit with a useless foam baton, learn ground fighting, how to verbally de-escalate a tense situation, learn first aid, how to identify illegal drugs, how to deal with mentally ill people, how to identify illegal weapons, learn the laws governing search and seizure, laws of arrest, how to write a ticket, and countless other subjects. Not only that, but you only get two chances to pass any of these tests. If you fail it once, you get one chance at a retest. Fail a second time and your shot at becoming a law enforcement officer has just come to an end. No, there are no exceptions. If you still want to pursue this career after failing out, you will have to go back up to paragraph four and resubmit an application to begin the process again. The academy is not an easy step for most people and many people fail out at average rates of up to 30%. The worst part is, you might pass the academy and still not find yourself with a badge at the end. An agency might pay you for 6-months, and decide at the end that even though you passed, they really didn't like your attitude. Maybe they thought you were late too many times or didn't like that you failed to notify them when you failed a test. Whatever the reason may be, the agency can say, "Thank you for being a recruit for us, but we are not going to hire you as an officer. Good day." It's true that you now have a certificate of completion of the basic police academy, but you don't have a job. Head back up to paragraph four and start by submitting an application somewhere else to begin the process. The good part is if you get through it all again, you shouldn't have to attend the academy again provided your certificate is still valid. Then again, an agency might have the policy that they like to evaluate their applicants in an academy and have you attend again. It happens.

So you got through hiring, passed the academy, and were offered a job as a law enforcement officer. Congratulations! Here's your badge, gun, and a load of responsibility. Free and clear right? Nope... Your next step is a field training program. Now it doesn't sound like much of an obstacle since you're already a cop and it's just training right? That's not exactly true. Depending on the agency, you will now be spending the next 3-5 months under the close observation of multiple training officers who teach you how to apply what you have learned to this point, and provide daily, detailed evaluations of your performance to the agency. Not everyone who passes an academy is cut out for this job. Sometimes the decision is made by the rookie officer and sometimes the agency doesn't like what they see. There is not just one reason someone might fail out of the training program. It could be that your report writing is terrible, your officer safety is poor, you freeze up during contentious situations, you don't know how to read a map and navigate to calls, you're rude to citizens or partners, you don't remember the law well enough and violate people's rights, you fail a test (the tests do not end after the academy), you wreck a patrol car one too many times, you cave under the stress of driving fast with your lights and sirens on, or maybe you get caught lying. In any case, you might not find out that you aren't cut out for this job until you have your badge and are driving in a patrol car responding to calls.

The next step after passing the field training program is getting through your probationary period, which varies from department to department. During a probationary period you can be released at the agency's discretion. You will be under the watchful eye of your sergeant and senior officers as you handle completely unpredictable situations, many of which you just can't prepare yourself for. You will be making split decisions with the life of another human being at stake, deciding whether to arrest someone and strip them of their freedom, be a counselor to little kids and crying victims, comfort the loved ones of deceased people, be yelled at by the citizen who ran a red light because you're writing them a ticket, listen to two sides of a story where neither person is telling the whole truth and try to figure out what happened, respond to traffic accidents and discover dead bodies at the scene, fight with a violent criminal to place them in handcuffs so you can take them to jail, point your gun at people who are posing a threat to you or someone else, search a building you have never been in for a person you have never seen, scour a city trying to find a lost elderly woman with dementia who went missing, deliver the news to a mother that her child was shot and killed, give CPR to a man while his children watch you with tears and hope in their eyes, put a tourniquet on a victim bleeding out from a stab wound, try to convince a suicidal person that putting the knife down and coming with you in handcuffs to the hospital is better than taking their own life, shoot a deer who was struck by a vehicle to put it out of its misery, give stickers to little kids who still think cops are heroes, speak at neighborhood meetings and field questions about how you and your partners are going to stop their residential burglary problem, have dinner with and laugh with your partner and then 30-minutes later respond to their desperate call for help over the radio as they are in a fight for their life, explain to a 5-year-old why taking their mother to jail and sending them to a children's shelter is the best decision for them. Do all that and more and then go home each night and try to forget about the things you have seen and be the best father, mother, wife, or husband that you can be. Don't turn on the TV either. It's better to avoid the anger that builds up when you hear some news reporter who found the one cop in America that night who made a stupid mistake and paint the entire profession with that broad brush of incompetent or racist cops.

Sound like something you want to take on? If so, then by all means give it a go. If you are cut out for this job, you will love every minute of it. If you aren't cut out for this job, don't take it personal. It doesn't mean you aren't a good person or a hard worker. There are plenty of good, smart, hard workers in the world who just wouldn't make great cops. It doesn't mean you are a failure. It just means you found out that being a cop is not the right fit for you. Be grateful for that.

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