The graduation ceremony for 10 new Lincoln police officers was held last night. For the past several years, I have had a personal talk with all the new officers about what's important in police work. I want them to hear it directly from me. I also give them this missive in writing. It's long, but I thought people who read this blog might be interested in the chief's wisdom, such as it is.
Congratulations. You are about to embark on an incredibly rewarding journey, an adventure and opportunity that very few people will have in their lifetimes. And you have a lot to be proud of. You were hired as one of 20 from among the 789 people who applied to be Lincoln police officers during 2006.
The next few months are going to be difficult, but we are convinced that you can succeed in field training just as you have in the academy. We would not be wasting our time if we felt otherwise. During the coming months you will be rotated among training officers working different shifts and areas. We will be evaluating your performance every day. You are going to be adapting to new experiences and some of the most difficult interpersonal and social problems imaginable. Despite the stress, you will look back upon this time fondly, so remember that you are having fun and doing justice. I want to give you some advice as a gift for graduation, a list of nine behaviors that will help you. Tonight, I will tell you about the tenth.
Focus on quality
This job is about quality much more than quantity—and sometimes the two do not go hand in hand. A handful of warnings and a couple officials for red light violations at an intersection with an accident problem are worth a lot more than a boatload of seven-over speeding tickets on Homestead Expressway. Recovering a stolen bike a few blocks away is good work. Getting an admission from a guy who’s been stalking his ex-wife is good work. Tracking down the person who bought the beer for the minors at the party is good work. And an artful interview of a suspect leading to a multiple clearance is good work—not handling more dispatches than anyone else on the squad. If the only fun in this job is driving fast, running on hot calls, and leaving the details behind in your wake, deliver Pizza. Otherwise, keep your focus on quality. Do not confuse doing more than your peers with being a better police officer.
Abiding by your oath
Every now and then, we all get a little frustrated. When that December mist starts to freeze, the wet pavement turns to ice suddenly in the late afternoon when the temperature falls a couple more degrees. Suddenly, people are crashing like mad at places like Interstate 180, the Harris Overpass, and 27th Street between Fair and Theresa. The elevated roadways get it first, but before long its everywhere, and the dispatcher is holding a screen full of accidents while you work your fourth of the day, only two hours into your shift. Just remember that it’s not that citizen’s fourth of the day, it’s her first—maybe the first in her life. And, yes, she pays your salary. Her accident is not an interruption to your day, it’s the purpose of your work. People are depending on us to treat them with dignity and respect, even when we are tired, angry, and overwhelmed. We all know that we aren’t paid enough—it is impossible to pay anyone enough to do this job—but we accepted this calling and swore this oath, and we need to remember our commitment.
Maintaining your ethics
Police officers confront difficult ethical decisions regularly. There are many temptations and frustrations as well. These will be a test of your character and your personal ethics. In many situations, you can cut corners, violate principals, do things that are illegal or violate department policy and nobody will know but you. At these moments, you will learn a lot about your character. Even the very best people do bad things from time to time. Remember the pit in your stomach when you came in for your polygraph appointment? But what defines your character is the pattern of your behavior and decision-making. We would not have hired you if we thought you were not a person of good character. Your challenge is to continue to meet that expectation. I have already given you this advice, but I want to reiterate this. I think it will help you to think about your Mom and Dad. What would your parents think if they were at your shoulder watching and listening? When they read about your actions in the paper, how will they feel? Get that image in your head. Remember that everything you do on duty and in uniform reflects on your coworkers, and on every other police officer in the United States.
Balance in your life
Work is only part of your life. Thinking and talking incessantly about your exploits at work is not only unhealthy to your psychological well-being, it will drive people away from you eventually. This does not mean that you should not be proud of your career, or should not tell others about your work, so long as you are not jeopardizing confidences. It is simply about balance—something police officers have a particular need to cultivate in their personal lives. When you find yourself talking to your friends in radio code, and answering your phone with “go ahead,” it’s time to think about balance. Seek relationships with a variety of friends, not just your coworkers, and find hobbies and activities that do not all involve paint balls, reloading, and night vision equipment. Healthy relationships with people you love, a spiritual life, and physical fitness are very important and all require effort to maintain. There are some things about police work that make all of these slightly more difficult to sustain, but certainly not impossible, and there are plenty of examples around here of people who have done so for decades.
Respect your predecessors
Your supervisors all did exactly the police work that you are doing. The difference is that they have done it longer, more consistently, and better than most. Well enough to rise to the top in an incredibly competitive pool of excellent police officers. It’s been thirty seven years since a Lincoln police officer carrying a five-shot revolver was shot by an escaped convict in a stolen car on O Street. Your supervisors faced and continue to face the same risks you face—in some ways under even more difficult circumstances. Officers thirty seven years ago did this work in much more difficult circumstances—without portable radios, without mobile data computers, without NCIC, without body armor, without training, with a 30% annual turnover rate, and when the department was even more understaffed. The number of officers killed in the United States has fallen like a rock since the 1970’s. In a 14-month period in the late 1960s, three Lincoln police officers were killed in the line of duty—at a time when the department was less than half its present size. Imagine what that was like. Your sergeant, captain, assistant chief and chief have been second-guessed, spit on, and sworn at just like you will be. They have endured intense, unjustified public criticism at times—the likes of which we have not seen here in over a decade. They have been subjected to discipline for not wearing their hats. And they formed the union that represents you and helps protect you from a few of their common experiences: like carrying a non-functioning war surplus .38 revolver, buying their own uniforms, mandatory unpaid overtime, split days off, forced contributions to the chief’s favorite charity, a work schedule with two or three shifts during the same week. They deserve your respect. Hundreds upon hundreds of Lincoln police officers who passed before you and served with distinction are depending upon you to uphold the honor of this department.
Don't be a report-taker
We expect you to investigate crimes and to solve problems, not just take reports. If our job was to take reports, we would hire the type of work crew that telemarketers employ. We expect you to do quality interviews, get detailed descriptions, check every combination of the partial license plate numbers, cruise the neighborhood looking for the car with matching damage, check the pawn records, interview the residents next door, track down the suspect, look in the dumpster down the block. And we expect you to document your work with concise, thorough, well-written reports. Nobody expects you to spend the rest of your career following-up on a vandalism to a porch light, but it is flat unacceptable to make a broadcast for a known suspect with a local address, and then forget about the case until someone else does your job. Decent follow-up on serious incidents like missing persons, burglaries, sexual assaults, and protection order violations is mandatory. And we expect it on runaways, hit and runs, larcenies from autos, gas drive-offs and more minor incidents as time and resources allow. If you don’t like working cases from beginning to end, and would prefer to be a report-taker who hands over anything more complex than on on-view misdemeanor to a detective, there are hundreds of departments in the United States that still follow this practice, and they are looking for bright, well-educated, highly trained recruits like you. Given your abilities, I can be reasonably certain you will soon be disenchanted, grumbling that the detectives are getting all the rewards, having all the fun, doing the “real” police work, and that you are being oppressed by management which fails to recognize your capability or trust you with anything more serious than a bar fight.
Learn from your mistakes
Beginning tomorrow, you are going to make many mistakes. We are more prepared for these than you are. You are used to success and achievement, and it can be daunting to be confronted with a misstep, and poor performance, a bad daily observation report. You have to put these behind you quickly, and to learn from the mistakes. When you obsess about your errors and poor performances, this usually compounds the problem. Field training officers even have a word to describe this process: snowballing. Devote your best efforts to learning from these mistakes, avoiding repeatedly committing the same errors, and getting consistently better. As long as we see improvement over time and honest effort, we are stuck to you like glue. It is our job to help you become successful, not to weed you out, and that’s where our focus will be. Mistakes and errors will occur throughout your career. The quickest way to avoid any trouble in police work is to do nothing. You can avoid work and avoid conflict. If you put your mind to it, you can never get assaulted, never have a complaint lodged, never lose a case in court, and never have a traffic accident. Some officers are able to make a career of ducking calls, blowing off follow-up, and avoiding arrests. To avoid confrontation is to allow evildoers to victimize the citizens who depend on you for protection and safety. It is in the nature of good police work that conflict must inevitably be encountered and overcome. Accidents will happen and mistakes will be made. Nobody expects perfection, but no one tolerates intentional or repeated malfeasance. The difference is pretty obvious. Honest mistakes and poor judgments are tolerated pretty well around here and usually met with mild reproof. This is difficult and stressful work, and we are all imperfect. We expect you to feel bad when you have messed up, made a rotten decision, or acted boorishly. Unless it becomes a habit, or it is so corrupt as to be intolerable, you can expect to suffer the consequences and move on without the discipline becoming the Scarlet Letter for the next 20 years.
Concentrate on personal communication
The primary reason we rotate new officers to several field training officers is to expose you to different personal styles of policing. We are hoping that you will find models of interaction that fit with your personality, disposition, and skills. There are different ways to accomplish the same tasks, and we want you to see alternatives. We are not trying to produce officers in the same mold. The most successful officers on this department, however, seem to have a common thread. They cultivate strong personal relationships. They talk to people of all stations in life well. They are not officious or overbearing. They empathize with victims, and build trust with suspects. This personal approach is an incredible asset. It helps you do better interviews, get admissions, cultivate information sources. If you make a concerted effort to meet and talk to people every day, it will pay big dividends. Stop in businesses, introduce yourself at the schools on your beat, pull over and chat with people working in their yard. When you arrest someone, talk with them. Always introduce yourself, leave your business card whenever possible. I talk to people regularly who ask me if I can say hello to Al Maxey, want to know how Joe Buda is doing, where Rollie Weisser is now, or ask if I know Bill Fitl. These officers have been gone for decades, but they left an impression on thousands and thousands of people. Your first name is not “officer.” It makes a tremendous difference when people look past your name plate and realize that you are a real human being. One of the best cops I have ever known, Paul Jacobson, gave me some great advice when I was 21 and he was 49. Jake was so good at building rapport that he could get a tree to confess to issuing a bad check. “Casady,” he said, “you should get rid of those mirrored sunglasses; people can’t see your eyes.”
Discover if you have the passion for policing
Police work is the most stressful occupation extant. The psychological toll of this job can be extreme. Police officers must deal with the very worst human beings can dish up to one another and the good people on their worst days. Shift work is tough. It stresses personal relationships, and fouls up the natural human rest and work rhythms. The workload can be great, and expectations high—some errors have serious consequences, and lots of second guessing goes with the territory. The intellectual component of this job is underestimated by almost everyone, and your brain will hurt. But despite all of this, it is an unparalleled gift to have a calling in life that provides the opportunity every day to do something socially significant. You will have accomplished great things in a year that most people won’t be able to claim in their entire life. And it’s fun. But it’s not for everyone, and if the passion isn’t there, it does not mean that you are a failure. It is normal to experience periods of doubt. We all have bad days, weeks, even months. But if you have sustained negative feelings about work over a long period of time, you need to think about your future. Seek some professional help from the employee assistance program, and don’t make a rash decision. But do not waste the best years of your life doing work that makes you feel bad rather than giving you a sense of reward. Take the training and experience you have received here as a valuable asset and find your calling wherever it may lie without any acrimony or regret. Do not let this work damage irreparably your family, your mental health, or your physical well-being.
I hope you save this letter somewhere. You may need to pull it out on one of those bad days. You might want to push it across the table someday to remind me what I told you was important. I hope that thirty-five years from now, we run into each other at the retirees’ annual get-together (I’ll be 88), and you hand it back to me with a sly smile.
Best wishes for a great career.
Thomas K. Casady
Chief of Police