Thinking of Becoming a Cop? Please, For the Love of God, Read This First
No, I’m not trying to convince you not to do it. I’ve been a cop 22 years, and have loved almost every minute of it. I want to see more good people apply to become cops, and I especially want to see more worthy veterans become cops. But before you apply, there are a few things you should know.
Before I became a cop, I heard a lot of bad advice. People who knew literally nothing about police hiring practices told me to do stupid things that would have kept me from getting hired if I had been dumb enough to listen. Today I’m intimately familiar with my department’s recruiting process, and I keep seeing applicants screw themselves by doing dumb things. So here’s advice for prospective police applicants who don’t want to ruin their chances of getting hired.
TIP 1: YOU DON’T NEED TO BE PERFECT TO BE A COP. FOR REAL, PLAYER.
If you’ve made mistakes and done dumb things in your past, guess what? So has everyone else. Don’t sweat it, and don’t lie about it.
We occasionally get applicants who are 100% morally pure. It’s rare, but it happens. Far more often, we get applicants who have past issues. And that’s okay. Because in most cases, past dumb mistakes make you a better cop, perfection not so much. If you get out of your car in a bad neighborhood in the middle of the night and your halo is so bright it blinds everyone for miles, nobody will talk to you. To be a good cop you have to be able to talk to everyone, and show them respect, no matter what you think of them. Past mistakes make that easier.
Imagine that you arrive on a shooting scene, and the only people around are a dead gangster and a transvestite crack addict prostitute. The prostitute is your only witness. If you look down on the prostitute so much that you can’t show respect, he/she won’t talk to you. And that means a murderer goes free. But if you’re able to show respect and empathy, you’ll usually get cooperation.
One of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a cop was transport a suspect who had just murdered an off-duty police officer. My partner was driving, and was silent as we headed toward Homicide Division. The suspect was a teenager, tatted up and muscular. He wasn’t saying much either. Of course, we were pissed; we cops tend to take murders of our brothers pretty hard.
Instead of blowing up, I turned to face the suspect. “Man, that’s a lot of tattoos,” I said. “You’re only 18, right? How’d you get that many already?”
That started a pleasant conversation about where and how he got all his tats, and about mine, and what some them meant. We kept talking the whole ride. When we got to Homicide I shook the suspect’s cuffed hand and wished him luck, and he thanked me. Then we turned him over to the investigators, and he confessed to capital murder.
Was he cooperative partly because I was friendly and respectful to him? I think so. Could I have been friendly and respectful if I considered myself perfect, and the suspect far beneath me? Probably not. At that moment, I had to remind myself that I’m flawed, so was he, and I had to see him as not much different than me.
So don’t worry about not being perfect. You don’t have to be perfect to be a cop. You just have to be a good person, and be honest.
TIP 2: DON’T LISTEN TO BARRACKS LAWYERS
When I was first thinking about applying, I heard nuggets of wisdom such as “If you’ve ever smoked weed or driven drunk, don’t admit it no matter what because you’ll never be a cop.” Well, here’s the reality: every agency has its own standards, but I’m not aware of any agency that would reject a 40 year old retired colonel because he smoked a joint once in high school. We don’t expect perfection. If we rejected anyone who ever smoked marijuana, cities like LA would have about three cops to patrol the whole city. No, you won’t be hired if you show up to your first interview high because you just burned one in the parking lot to calm your nerves. You probably won’t get hired if you hang out in head shops with potheads every weekend. But if you’re a normal guy or girl who experimented with marijuana long ago, or even did more than experimentation, you should be fine as long as you disclose it.
Same deal with driving drunk. Again, don’t drive drunk to your interview. But if you screwed up in the past and drove when you know you shouldn’t have, disclose it. Explain it, own it, get it in the open and move on. Most police departments aren’t going to kick you out and tell you to never come back if you honestly disclose past mistakes.
Way too many times, I’ve seen an otherwise good applicant ruin himself by lying about something that wouldn’t have disqualified him. But once the applicant starts lying, he’s done. Barracks lawyers are dangerous because they encourage applicants to unnecessarily lie, when the lies are almost always worse than what the applicants are lying about.
TIP 3: POLYGRAPHS WORK
Another bit of useless wisdom is, “There are ways to beat a polygraph, and if you fail it doesn’t matter because they’re not admissible in court.” NO, DUMBASS. A police application isn’t a court case, it’s an attempt to get a job. Let’s say an applicant struts into a polygraph exam, makes attempts to counter the machine (which are pretty obvious to an experienced examiner), and fails. Do you think he can just say, “Haha, copper, you have to hire me anyway because this isn’t admissible in court!” and we’d hire him? Of course not. People try to beat polygraphs because they have something to hide. If an applicant is trying to hide something, the last thing any department should do is put a badge on them.
There is a secret way to beat a polygraph: “tell the truth”. If you’re up front about your past mistakes and disclose everything as soon as you’re asked, you shouldn’t have any issue with a polygraph. If you walk in thinking, “Should I have told them about that night in Thailand?” or “Dear god, please don’t let them ask me about my bachelor party,” you’re going to have a problem. But if you walk in confident that you’ve been completely honest from day one of the application process, you should be fine.
TIP 4: FOLLOW FRIGGIN’ DIRECTIONS
Police applicants have to gather a lot of documents and provide a lot of information about themselves, references, employers, and relatives. The instructions for filling out the required documents say “Don’t leave blank spaces.” Yet when we review an applicant’s documents, especially in the sections about family members and references, we’ll often find blank spaces instead of addresses, dates of birth, names, dates, etc. When we ask why the required information isn’t there, they’ll say, “I didn’t think that was important.”
That also happens if, for example, an agency requires a credit report from one specific company. Applicants will bring in something they printed off the internet, and when asked why they don’t have the right document they’ll say, “I didn’t think it mattered.”
The question I always want to ask those applicants is, “Do the friggin’ directions say ‘only give us the information you think is important?’” No, it says “answer the damn questions so we can conduct a background investigation on you.” If we don’t have the info we need, we can’t investigate like we need to, and we can’t determine whether or not the applicant should get the job.
If you’re filling out one of those long, complicated personal history statements for an application, and at some point you decide, “Well, they’re asking for this one piece of information but I don’t think it’s important,” stop. Read the directions. And fill out everything. Everything we ask for has a purpose, and it’s all important.
TIP 5: WHEN WE ASK ABOUT PAST TICKETS OR ARRESTS, WE’RE NOT JUST ASKING WHAT’S ON YOUR RECORD.
If you’re applying to become a cop, here’s a conversation you don’t want to have.
Police recruiter: “So you’ve never been arrested?”
Applicant: “Nope, never.”
Police recruiter: “Then why does this say you got arrested five years ago?”
Applicant: “They said that was going to be expunged!”
When we ask if you’ve ever been arrested or gotten a ticket, we’re not asking whether or not it’s still on the record. We’ll check the records. Almost every ticket or arrest is recorded in multiple places, and we check those places. So if you think you’re being slick by lying about an arrest you’re just positive was removed from all records, chances are you’re going to be disappointed when we find it. And again, most applicants who lie to conceal past arrests and tickets usually would have been okay if they had just told the truth. Past tickets, and even past arrests, aren’t necessarily automatic disqualifiers. So disclose it all.
On a related note, you’ll also be asked if you’ve ever been detained by a police officer. A detention can be a traffic stop, getting run off from the school parking lot after a cop busted you in the back seat with your girlfriend/boyfriend, getting cuffed because you matched a suspect description but then getting released after you’re cleared, etc. Records of detentions, not just arrests, are out there, and we find them. So disclose detentions too.
TIP 6: DON’T WASTE OUR TIME BY NOT BOTHERING TO PREPARE FOR THE PHYSICAL FITNESS TEST
Police PT standards are usually pretty mild, probably too mild. Yet we regularly have applicants who show up unable to perform the basics. This even includes some military veterans. Some applicants quit after running less than half a mile. How do those applicants think they can survive on the street when they quit at the first sign of discomfort?
Before the run portion of our test, I tell applicants not to train themselves to quit. I remind them that they’re not just trying to get a job, they’re telling us they’re capable of handling the worst situations we cops find ourselves in. Yes, an applicant might struggle with running, pushups or whatever, but they shouldn’t quit because something’s hard. For some reason I’ll never understand, a lot of them just give up.
If an applicant makes it through the academy and onto the street, there will be a time they find themselves frantically sprinting through an apartment complex, trying to find an officer who’s getting his ass kicked and screaming for help. That officer won’t want his backup to quit because they’re tired. And there may be a time the applicant is the one screaming for help. They probably don’t want their backup to quit because they’re tired either.
Not only that, I’d bet every large department in the country (and most small ones) asks applicants to physically assess themselves before they apply. My department sure does. Every last applicant walks in the door with a piece of paper assuring us they can easily pass our standards. Then a lot of them go down in flames on the test. It’s one thing to see an applicant try their hardest and fail; I really want those applicants to hang in there and try again. But it’s completely different to have someone make almost no effort. Those applicants might want to reconsider their career choice.
TIP 7: BEING IN THE MILITARY DOESN’T MEAN WE’LL HIRE YOU
One of my goals is to bring qualified vets into the department. I’ve helped quite a few get hired. But we all know military guys who should never have been allowed to put on cammies and carry an M4 under close supervision, much less wear a badge and carry a gun unsupervised in public. An honorable discharge is a plus, but isn’t a guarantee that you’re qualified. Unfortunately, plenty of vets have financial delinquencies or collections, a crappy work history, alcohol problems, domestic violence, etc. If you’re military and want to become a cop, I and every other cop will do all we can to help get you hired if you’re qualified. If you’re not, we can’t help.
Also, having a security clearance doesn’t mean we don’t have to do a background check on you. Police departments don’t have access to JPAS. Everyone gets a background check, even if it’s a Delta Force Intel officer. Oh, and for god’s sake, do not lie about your military background. We don’t hire posers. Posers have applied for my agency, and been caught, and have no business ever being police officers.
One more thing. When you’re trying to become a cop, there is no such thing as a dead hooker waiver. Sorry, infantry.
TIP 8: GETTING REJECTED DOESN’T MEAN YOU’LL NEVER BE A COP
There are some people who obviously should never be cops. If you’re upset that you were rejected just because you have a few severed heads in the trunk of your car, you shouldn’t be a cop. If you like torturing small animals and setting fires to neighbors’ homes, you shouldn’t be a cop. Don’t apply to be a cop if you’re clearly not suited for it.
But most police applicants are good people with good intentions. If you’re one of those, and you don’t make it on your first try, that doesn’t mean you won’t make it on your second. Plenty of people didn’t get hired their first try, including me. If you apply and get rejected, the rejection will probably only be for a specific length of time. If you wait that length of time and apply again, you won’t be rejected again for the same thing (although you might get rejected for something else). There are issues in our past we need time and distance from before we can become cops; in other words, some people would make great cops, but not right now. If that applies to you, no worries. Apply again when your issues are far enough in your past that they don’t matter anymore.
And if you should get a “don’t come back” letter from a police department, you can apply somewhere else. As I said earlier, different agencies have different standards. It is entirely possible to disclose past mistakes to one agency, get rejected, go to another agency, disclose the exact same things, and get hired. But DO NOT conceal past applications, or change information from one application to the next. Disclose everything, every time.
I’ll end with this: the goal of police recruiting is to get you in, not keep you out. But you have to be right for this job. If you’re right, not perfect but right, we want you. So please apply, be honest, do your best, and hopefully I’ll see you in a uniform and police car someday.
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Chris Hernandez Mad Duo Chris, seen here on patrol in Afghanistan, may just be the crustiest member of the eeeee-LITE writin’ team here at Breach-Bang-Clear. He is a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army National Guard who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is also a veteran police officer of two decades who spent a long (and eye-opening) deployment as part of a UN police mission in Kosovo. He is the author of White Flags & Dropped Rifles – the Real Truth About Working With the French Army and The Military Within the Military as well as the modern military fiction novels Line in the Valley, Proof of Our Resolve and Safe From the War. When he isn’t groaning about a change in the weather and snacking on Osteo Bi-Flex he writes on his own blog. You can find his author page here on Tactical 16.