Police Interview Newsletter - Police Academy Preparation
POLICE ACADEMY PREPARATION
You are scheduled to enter the police academy. You made it! After months, if not years of preparation, this law enforcement agency has decided that they want you on board. You have survived the tedious process of the written application, the physical agility test, the background investigation, the oral board grilling, and the dreaded polygraph examination. And, bottom line - you have been deemed worthy of the time, money, and manpower that will be applied to your training/education in the police academy. Congratulations!
In 1986 Lt. Phillip M. Satterfield, M.P.A. wrote a highly acclaimed book entitled The Police Academy-A Practical Approach. At that time, Lt. Satterfield worked with the Cypress Police Department and was serving as the Executive Training Advisor with the Golden West College Criminal Justice Training Center in Huntington Beach, California. In his book, Lt. Satterfield enumerates and discusses a number of considerations that the police academy participant needs to keep in mind. This book has become a classic in law enforcement circles and is clearly a must-read for all persons preparing for a law enforcement career.
This issue of Police Interview is dedicated to summarizing some major points from one of Lt. Satterfield's chapters entitled-”Academy Preparation Considerations.” The reader is strongly advised to buy his or her own copy of this book from one of the many online used book sellers.
As one looks forward to entering the police academy, there are many questions, concerns, and sources of anxiety. What will it be like? Can I cut it? What can I do to get ready?
“Academy Preparation Considerations”
In this chapter of his book, Lt. Satterfield discusses some very specific things that a law enforcement applicant can do to best prepare for the often grueling, demanding, and stressful police academy. What follows in this newsletter is a distillation of Lt. Satterfield's recommendations from chapter five of his book. Given the constraints of space, I have had to be very selective in choosing which key points and suggestions to highlight.
Financial difficulties have been identified as one of the major causes for academy recruits dropping out of the training process. Advance planning is essential to minimizing this source of stress and to insuring that the recruit has the necessary funding to complete the entire academy training process.
Lt. Satterfield makes a very helpful and immediate distinction. Some academy students are “sponsored” - meaning that they have already been hired by a law enforcement agency and will be in the training academy as part of their early employment. Other participants will be “non-sponsored” recruits-meaning that they have not yet been hired by a police organization but are electing to do the police academy training with hopes of securing employment at some point in the future. The financial implications for each of these two groups is huge! The “sponsored” recruits will in all likelihood be on the payroll, during training, and will receive regular pay checks from the law enforcement agency who hired them. The “non-sponsored” academy recruit, on the other hand, is generally self-supporting and can not expect to receive any compensation during his/her academy training-which as we know can be several months long.
Because a non-sponsored recruit must bear the entire cost of academy training, in addition to daily living expenses for several months (without the benefit of a paycheck), Lt. Satterfield recommends that these academy participants prepare a budget and financial plan that will enable them to be fully supported throughout the academy process and several months beyond. It would be a sad state of affairs to have to leave the academy training because your monies were depleted.
Sponsored recruits can expect to receive a regular pay check once they begin the academy. However, it is incumbent on the recruit to have a thorough knowledge of exactly how much she will be paid, on what schedule, and with what taxes removed. Lt. Satterfield suggests that the academy student make contact with the agency/office that actually computes one's total compensation to learn the specifics of pay and benefits. A naïve recruit might simply divide the advertised yearly salary for the police position and assume that he will receive a much higher pay check than is realistic.
Lt. Satterfield stresses that it is essential to have an informed, supportive family who is committed to and supportive of your academy training schedule and subsequent law enforcement career. Good communication and a constant flow of information is key. Demands on the recruit's time and attention are massive. Both the recruit and family members must be prepared and willing to make sacrifices. Different kinds of family support may be helpful at each stage of the process.
Pre-Academy Support-Open discussion with family members is essential from the very beginning, from the moment you decide to enter the law enforcement career. It's important to ask family members how they feel about your decision so that any negative opinions or feelings can be aired and discussed. Often, your loved ones will need more information before they understand enough to be supportive. Try your best to make it a joint venture-a shared decision.
When the academy training begins, the rubber hits the road. Unless the recruit can meet the intensive demands of the academy, he will not have a police career. It is important that recruits do their best to maintain involvement with their families. Conversely, it is crucial that spouses and families accept that relationships can become strained as the recruit's time and availability will become much more limited. Lt. Satterfield recommends that recruits give family members copies of the training schedule, as well as advance notification (write it on the family calendar) of potential scheduling conflicts. If family support programs exist in your department, please encourage your loved ones to visit the training facility, volunteer to help, and/or look for ways to get involved with other police families. Remember your family members at academy graduation time. They lent their support to help insure your success.
After graduation from the training academy, Lt. Satterfield observes that family members often assume that “the family unit can return to a normal existence” (p.70). However, this is clearly not the case. The new officer's Field Training program begins on the very first day of the job post-academy, and can easily last for 6 to 12 months. In all likelihood, the new officer will be working a lot of nighttime and weekend shifts for the first several years of his employment-and perhaps much longer. In addition to regular work hours, a police officer is required to participate in “outside functions” such as training schools, court appearances, firing range practice, and special police gatherings. These realities can obviously be stressful and damaging to an officer's home life. Lt. Satterfield insists that good communication among family members is “the most critical element necessary” to managing these challenges. Officers need to constantly inform loved ones about their schedules and responsibilities, include them in the planning process when they can, and prepare them ahead of time where possible. When family members understand the big picture they are more able to provide the much-needed support for the officer.
Lt. Satterfield reminds us that the majority of academy time is devoted to academic instruction in the classroom setting. Hundreds of hours of classroom instruction are scheduled to provide the recruits with the skills and knowledge required to be effective law enforcement officers. The volume of new information to be mastered can be overwhelming for many, especially those who have been out of school for a time. Unlike the relatively relaxed pace of most high school or college classrooms, the academy setting is face-paced and highly demanding. The recruit must quickly learn vast amounts of information, score well on daily exams, and be prepared to demonstrate his understanding of the concepts in practical problem-solving scenarios. If the student fails to master new material on a daily basis, he quickly falls behind and is at risk of failing out of the academy.
Lt. Satterfield states that “organization is the key.” It is crucial that recruits: (1) establish effective study habits, (2) take clear and well-organized classroom notes, and (3) identify a comfortable and quiet study environment which is consistently available to them.
“It is no secret that a lot of academy time is directed towards physical fitness. This is based on police officer functions requiring physical activity performance in order to do their job. Such areas as lifting people from vehicles, chasing suspects, running upstairs, walking foot beats and restraining individuals, all require forms of physical ability. The recruit who cannot perform these and other physical activities will not pass the minimum acceptance standards for employment as a peace officer.” p.74, The Police Academy)
Lt. Satterfield emphasizes that the recruit's physical fitness goals should involve a slow physical conditioning process that allows him to get into shape, then maintain that good physical condition by exercising on a regular basis. Crash courses on physical conditioning should be avoided! After months if not years of doing little or nothing physically, it is a very bad idea to try to whip yourself into shape just prior to the academy training.
It is imperative that a medical doctor be consulted in regard to the best and safest ways to initiate an exercise program. What works for one person may be dangerous for another. Recruits who are significantly overweight will be at a distinct disadvantage during the academy. Once again, seek your physician's input to learn about safe and effective ways to drop the extra pounds.
To successfully complete the academy training and to subsequently work as an effective police officer, one must be highly motivated. It is not enough to be in good physical shape and to be fascinated with the idea of becoming a police officer. Much hard work, struggle, and sacrifice are required.
Lt. Satterfield observes that many young people are lacking in the basic life experiences necessary for life success. Specifically, some have never encountered challenging and demanding circumstances. They may have accomplished very little in way of work or academic achievement. Self discipline may be lacking - physically, emotionally, and mentally. And, the idea of taking orders from an authority figure in a highly structured setting may be quite foreign.
Police applicants and academy recruits must be deadly honest with themselves. They must count the cost and sacrifice involved in pursuing a law enforcement career before waiting into the deep end of the pool. The swim is a long and challenging one. Only the highly motivated recruits will succeed.
Lt. Satterfield states that, “Teamwork is the hallmark of law enforcement, regardless of agency or level of law enforcement services provided.”…” It is the duty of every class member to help those who are lacking in a given area to reach a better understanding of the subject matter.” (p.77) The police recruit needs to balance his competitive drive to be the very best he can with an over-arching concern for each and every one of his fellow academy classmates. There is no room for the solo performer in a police academy. Look for ways to support and encourage your academy cohorts. And remember, it may be you who needs the assistance tomorrow, or next week, or next year.
Lt. Satterfield warns that if at any time during the academy evaluation process a recruit receives feedback from the training staff that he/she is being perceived as a non-team player, the recruit better act immediately to correct the problem. Clint Eastwood-like independence plays well in the movies but can quickly become your ticket out of the police academy.
How are your people skills? Chances are they are pretty good already. Your academy training will focus on developing them further. Think about it. A police officer's ability to relate clearly and effectively to a wide variety of individuals in a wide range of situations is essential. The police academy will help to train recruits to deal with law breakers and the criminal element. However, many more police officer interactions will be with ordinary citizens who have not broken the law but simply need some assistance or law enforcement service. In effect, the police officer needs to size up a situation and shift interpersonal gears as needed. Unfortunately, some officers seem to adopt an “us” versus “them” mindset that may come across as too aggressive and distrusting with the average law-abiding citizen. When this starts to occur, citizen complaints quickly follow.
Lt. Satterfield makes it clear that there is no room for personal bias in the way that police officers perform their duties. When racial, sexual, political, or any other kind of bias shows up on the job, the law enforcement officer is no longer an asset to the department.
Lt. Satterfield reminds us that personal maturity is a central aspect of good interpersonal skills. The mature officer uses good common sense, good manners, and a respectful tone in all of his contacts-whether on or off-duty. There is no room for childish conduct, abusive language, or unprofessional behavior.
One's personal appearance is an extremely important aspect of interpersonal behavior and presentation. It is said that police officers are probably judged more on their physical appearance and neatness than on anything else. To quote Lt. Satterfield, “the police officer who is neat in appearance can be one hundred percent more effective than as officer who has a dirty uniform and who has not shaved in two days. Keep this thought in mind; it has been said by suspects that they did not take action against a police officer simply due to the fact that the officer was neat in appearance. They felt the officer was capable of handling himself in any situation because the officer projected this image, based solely on appearance.” (p.80)
Doctor, lawyer, Indian Chief. What are your associations to each of these careers? Depending upon your personal experiences with people from each profession, they may be very positive or quite negative. Policing is no different in that respect. However, police officers have a very “special” status-states Lt. Satterfield. In what other profession do individuals have the right to use deadly force in the course of discharging their duties? This special status can be experienced as a positive or a negative thing.
Negative aspects of being a police officer can include: being blamed and negatively regarded because of the actions of a few bad cops, negative comments directed at your family members-especially towards your children by other children, and the social isolation that results when your former friends and associates now reject you because you have become a law enforcement officer. Let's face it, there is a lot of negative press in the media these days involving questionable police officer behavior. This can reflect poorly on all law enforcement personnel. Lt. Satterfield advises that recruits and police officers try very hard to not be affected by this negativity, but to continue to be who they are as upstanding professionals treating people fairly and compassionately.
Given all the negativity that can exist in the community, it is very easy for officers to take a “inward approach” to social activities by deciding to relate only to other police officers. This is a bad idea. It is much healthier to maintain your contacts with old friends and family members while striving to make new friends both in and away from the police department. This approach and openness to a wide range of relationships can help to combat that “us” versus “them” mentality for the officer.
Note: The reader is strongly advised to get a copy of Dr. Satterfield's book, The Police Academy - A Practical Approach from one of the many online used-book sellers. The other chapters in his book are equally helpful to preparing the recruit for the academy challenges.
Malcolm M. Hart, Ph.D.
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