Thirty years ago, I was a cadet in the police academy, anxiously anticipating my graduation day—and by that I mean it couldn’t come quick enough. In 1989, to become a certified California police officer, a candidate had to attend a criminal justice training center and successfully complete 852 hours of specialized training. Looking back, the lessons that truly stuck with me were often learned outside the classroom.
I attended a stress academy, which is law enforcement’s version of boot camp, complete with humorless TAC officers. For the most part, the TACs stayed out of the classroom when instructors were teaching, but outside that room, cadets were fair game. No infraction was too small to be remarked upon. Especially egregious errors resulted in the cadet being swarmed by all four TACs giving contradictory orders until it was almost a relief when one of them finally yelled “Drop and give me twenty!” Or thirty. The numbers grew as the academy progressed. The takeaway?
Pushups build character
I didn’t get dropped for pushups any more than anyone else, but as a class we pumped out more pushups than I ever thought possible. A speck on your uniform during inspection? Drop. Forgot the penal code section for burglary? Drop. We were dropped for
pushups as individuals, as a group—or worse yet, not dropped at all while the rest of the class grunted out, “One for Smith, two for Smith…” while Smith pondered the error of his (or her) ways. I may not have reached any epiphanies while I repeatedly lowered and raised my body, but I sure the heck learned the penal code section for burglary and a whole host of other things the TACs wanted us to remember. With the proper motivation, it’s amazing what a person can accomplish. Upper body strength was just a bonus.
Dress for success
I like to joke that I chose to work for a police department rather than a sheriff’s office because I wanted to wear a blue uniform. My cadet uniform was a special shade of tan that made me appear jaundiced and was sized for a man. In the academy, they talked about “command presence” which is all about how others perceived us. Put two officers together—one in a pressed uniform and one wearing clothes that look like they were balled up in the bottom of a locker—and well, assumptions will be made. I learned that a good tailor can work miracles, but how you carry yourself is even more important.
This is the ol’ say what you mean and mean what you say doctrine. It seems obvious, but bluffing in police work often gets someone hurt. False bravado is the antithesis of command presence. If you tell a person to do something or he’s going to jail, you better have the legal authority and the wherewithal to arrest him if he fails to comply. And trust me, whether it’s a TAC officer testing your knowledge or a parolee who’s sizing you up, threatening to do something you don’t have the ability to enforce will end badly.
Obstacles are rarely insurmountable
One of the things we had to master in the academy was scaling a six-foot wall. I knew this prior to the academy, so I practiced. My early attempts looked eerily similar to a bug hitting a windshield. But I’m stubborn, and as my frustration grew, I gritted my teeth, sprinted toward the wall, planted a foot, and launched. My hands grabbed the top of the fence and momentum carried me over (pushups helped, but physics was the real hero in this effort). Running full speed toward a wall is counter-intuitive, but it was that all-in mindset that worked. Half-hearted attempts won’t get you to the other side.
Calm down are two words that shouldn’t be linked together
The volume at which one tells someone to calm down is inversely proportional to the effectiveness of the request. Even spoken quietly, it doesn’t work. What should you do? Take a breath and listen.
The academy was one of most challenging periods of my life. Sure there were fun times (pursuit driving, anyone?), yet there were also moments when I questioned how badly I wanted to be a police officer. But as the weeks passed, the cadets who were going to wash out disappeared. We all survived getting gassed and pepper sprayed. I learned how to take a punch in the boxing ring, and how to handle a patrol car in a four-wheel drift. A bruised bicep reinforced how important it was to snug a shotgun stock tight into the pocket of my shoulder joint. By the end of the academy, I’d learned as much about myself as I had about law enforcement.
Which brings me to my final lesson:
Never give up.