Recruiting Second-Career Officers

By Byrne, Edward C. | Law & Order, October 1998 | Go to article overview
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Recruiting Second-Career Officers

Byrne, Edward C., Law & Order

When NASCAR driver Dick Trickle finally hit the Winston Cup circuit, he was considered a rookie. But he was a 47-year old rookie, the oldest rookie on the left-turnonly circuit. The Appleton, Wisconsin Police Department isn't going that far in recruiting rookie officers, but the department is actively recruiting new officers from other professions and the program is working well.

"What's the most important skill a contemporary police officer can have?" Appleton police chief Richard Myers asked. "It's not how well he can shoot a gun, how well he can write a report or write a ticket, or how well he can drive a squad car.

"Those are valid qualifications, but the most important skills are 'people' skills - how well the person relates with people. How does he relate to a diverse group of people? Can he manage conflict?

"And what's most important - is he a problem solvers? Does he understand what it means to be a problem solver -- helping people to come to terms with problems with long-term solutions??"

Chief Myers said it is difficult to train people in the interpersonal skills required of police officers. "The better job we do in recruiting people who are strong in this area, the more likely they will fit with the style of policing the agency has as a priority, and that they will succeed," he said. Among the recent rookie classes, those that joined the Appleton department were a former school teacher, a nurse, a dental technician, an assistant district attorney, a juvenile counselor, a paramedic, a car salesman and businessman.

For years, churches have recruited candidates into the ministry or priesthood "as a second career," with great success. The same model is being used successfully by the Appleton Police Department.

"Seasoned police administrators hate interviewing candidates for policing who say, 'I want to get into police work because I care about people.' We often sense that they're saying that because they think that's what we want to hear," Myers said. "However, if someone has dedicated a significant amount of their life in a helping profession and can still talk enthusiastically about making a difference in people's lives, and has a track record to prove that, there's a strong likelihood that they're going to enjoy that aspect of policing as well."

Another reason that Appleton likes recruiting people into police work as a second career is the maturity and stability they bring with them. The older recruits have generally developed a level of maturity that is seldom seen in 21-year old rookies right out of college, who have little experience outside of a classroom setting.

"When someone who just stepped out of a classroom and has had no real life experience tells you they want to make a difference and help people, and then they tell you their image of policing comes from watching COPS, I'm a bit skeptical," Myers said. "I enjoy watching NYPD Blue, too, because it's a good story. But it bears no semblance whatsoever to policing here in Appleton."

Myers makes it very clear that his department does hire new officers who are recent college graduates, and also hires a significant number of new of ficers who have experience working for other, usually smaller, police departments. The chief sees value in having a rookie class that includes both new officers right out of college and second-career officers who are a decade or more older.

"I am impressed with the caliber of the people working (as police officers) right out of college," Myers said. "They're probably the brightest people who have ever gotten into our profession. When you blend them with someone making a career change and having life experience and maturity in dealing with people, it is a fantastic combination. The common bond that connects them is their status as rookies. They can connect with each other, support each other and share perceptions that they have in dealing with things out on the street.

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