You’ve always enjoyed the thought of helping others by serving your community and keeping dangerous criminals off the street. You’ve considered becoming a police officer, but you want to be sure you’ve got what it takes to succeed in such an important career.
When asked about the qualities of a police officer, most people will list adjectives such as strong, brave or heroic. These qualities are definitely in the job description, but there are several less-prominent traits that the best police officers possess.
We spoke with seasoned law enforcement professionals to help understand some of the overlooked abilities that distinguish an average officer from a great one. You may be surprised to learn you already possess some of the most important qualities of a police officer.
8 Surprising qualities of a successful police officer
1. Communication skills
You’re always extremely thorough when writing letters or emails. And when you relay a story, you’re sure to not leave out any important details—painting a vivid and accurate account of what occurred. You’ll be happy to hear that these communication skills can be leveraged in a law enforcement career. In fact, they can be completely vital on the job.
“When you write a report, your specific wording can be the difference between something usable in court and something that gets thrown out,” says Brian McKenna, a retired Lieutenant with over 30 years of law enforcement experience under his belt. “You have to be very exact, and you have to know the laws that impact your reports.”
That attention to detail your friends tease you for may finally come in handy. Additionally, your ability to communicate clearly will help you earn the trust of the community in which you’re serving.
“Interpersonal communication skills are important because they allow officers to develop a good rapport with the community, with fellow officers and with those from diverse cultures,” says Eileen Carlin, state program coordinator for the Rasmussen College School of Justice Studies.
“People don’t realize how often officers need to patiently listen,” McKenna says. “Officers who take the time to really hear what people are saying and who ask questions with real curiosity are going to get better results.” McKenna explains that when citizens feel like officers care, they cooperate, offer more information and often help law enforcement get to the bottom of an issue.
2. Empathy and compassion
In the past, you may have considered a compassionate personality a drawback, or at best a neutral attribute, when it comes to pursuing the tough work of being a police officer. You’ve learned when to show empathy and when to provide tough love with your children, siblings or friends. What you may not have considered is that much of an officer’s work requires the ability to relate to those going through incredible hardships and show compassion, while still remaining professional.
“You will find yourself inserted into the most tragic and chaotic moments of people’s lives,” says Charles Redlinger, former officer and co-founder of MissionX. “Their world will be upside down, and you will need to be a compassionate, strong authority figure. You will be the symbol of both calm and sympathy.”
"You have to hang onto your compassion without letting things get to you."
Not only will your empathetic personality help you relate to the public, but it can also become the driving force behind your work. Redlinger recalls his years as a homicide detective, saying the compassion he felt for the victims’ families helped motivate him to solve the crime and bring them closure.
“This is a tough balance,” McKenna says. “You have to hang onto your compassion without letting things get to you.” McKenna recalls when he first started working in law enforcement and was called to the scene of a suicide. “I made myself see the body,” McKenna says. “It disturbs you, and it can really get to you over time. But I thought, someday I’ll see a scene like this and the person might still be alive. I might have to try to save them. I can’t lose my composure.”
McKenna has seen officers with lots of empathy struggle against the harsh realities they see on the job. “I think having a belief-system or faith really helps with this,” McKenna says. “Your instinct is to detach. You start thinking of your loved ones in those scenes, and it’s tougher than people understand. But if you can keep your compassion without carrying everything home with you, that’s a really valuable quality.”
If you’re a person who always follows through, performing top-quality work whether or not a superior is present, then you already possess one trait that officers cannot be without: integrity.
“Integrity is a fundamental trait required for police work and quite possibly the most important,” says Redlinger. He believes this is what allows the public to put their trust and confidence in their law enforcement officers.
“An officer who really goes above and beyond, who hustles, doesn’t necessarily get rewarded,” McKenna says. “You can sit back and try to minimize risk as much as possible—and still earn a paycheck.” But McKenna emphasizes that while engaging the community and actively investigating can open you to more risk, it also results in better trust with the community and more results against crime.
Why do citizens allow officers into their homes as strangers? Why do they feel safe stopping their car for an officer in a dark alley? Why are officers given the benefit of the doubt when testifying in court? Redlinger says it all comes down to one quality—integrity.
Perhaps you’ve talked a friend or your own child “off the ledge” by helping them find solutions instead of simply reacting. You have a way with talking your way through a problem and convincing others to act appropriately. These skills would fall under the umbrella of negotiation—one of the vital qualities of a police officer.
Redlinger adds that negotiation skills not only protect the general public, but other officers involved as well. “Officers working patrol duties are constantly responding to 911 calls for service. It is in these vital moments upon the first officer arriving that negotiations skills will prove useful.”
When a friend needs help moving boxes, you’re there. When someone is struggling with groceries, you’re there. You really see the people in your community, and you find it very natural to assist a stranger when you can be useful.
According to McKenna, being service-oriented is an important trait in the best police officers. “You have to actually like people,” McKenna says. “Looking back on my career, what I most miss is helping people. Every day. When they really needed help, they called the police—that’s you.”
6. Love of learning
Do you love gaining new skills? Are you naturally curious and eager to improve your knowledge and abilities? Do you try new things and dig into research when you are wondering about something? This is an important trait for police officers who want to excel.
“One of the things people don’t realize about police work is that you have to be a jack-of-all-trades,” McKenna says. “Expectations for officers are really high, and new things are always getting added to their plates.” McKenna says back when he started as an officer, they had a radio. “We would radio something in, and dispatch took care of things.” Now, police cars are equipped with computers. Officers became responsible to learn the technology and the job that used to fall to someone else.
McKinnon says the equipment officers carry now is twice as extensive as in prior years. “Additionally, there are more drugs on the market than ever, and laws change and update. Departments don’t always have the funding to make sure everyone gets the training they need.”
McKinnon adds that he took classes throughout his career and taught himself the different skillsets and laws he needed. “Lots of police officers attend conferences and classes on the side of their jobs.”
7. Physical & mental fitness
If you’re someone who enjoys hitting the gym, that’s a good sign you care about your overall well-being, another essential aspect of being a police officer.
“As an officer, you will have to chase people on foot, you will have to climb over fences, you will get into car crashes and you will have to restrain people,” says Redlinger. Needless to say, staying physically fit is important.
Redlinger also emphasizes that police officers need to be mentally fit as well. The nature of the job can cause a lot of stress and negative emotions to build up and keeping them pent up can be hazardous. He recommends getting in the habit of “opening up” to colleagues, family members or even professionals to avoid burnout.
8. Mental agility
You might not have had the best grades in class, but you’ve always had plenty of common sense. You know how to “read the room” and adjust your conversation or your attitude, as circumstances require. Where some people have a hard time adjusting when their plans are disrupted, you have no problem adapting and are always open to new information. This mental agility can be a life-saving skill on the job according to McKenna.
"You go into so many scenarios expecting one thing, when something completely different happens. You might only have seconds to react."
“You go into so many scenarios expecting one thing, when something completely different happens. You might only have seconds to react.” McKenna explains that officers who have mental agility can switch their mindset instantly without losing composure. “You have to be able to remain calm when things don’t go as planned. Twice, I pulled a gun on another police officer in the confusion of a situation, but I had the presence of mind not to pull the trigger.”
You can see how mental flexibility can be a lifesaving skill, for officers and for those they encounter, but it’s also vital when pursuing an investigation. “We had a saying, ‘The one who did it is never the one you expect,’” McKenna says. “Officers who go into a situation with preconceived ideas, who don’t carefully observe and adjust their expectations are going to get it wrong.”
McKenna emphasizes that this is a skill you can practice—to hone your ability to adapt under stress. “There’s a very subtle difference you can observe between someone reaching for a gun and someone reaching for a wallet,” McKenna offers as an example. “It’s hard to spot, but if you know what to look for, you’ll be able to read warning signs.”
Are you up to the task?
“Honestly assess yourself,” McKenna says. “Ask friends and family about these qualities—if they see them in you.” It’s important for you to evaluate your specific traits and challenges on the front end of the job to make sure you will be up for a career in law enforcement.
There’s no question about it, police officers face challenges in their careers that demand specific skills in response. “But we desperately need good police officers,” McKenna says. “Now, more than ever. We need people who care about the job and will build rapport with the public.” If you have some of these lesser-known qualities of a police officer, your municipality could really use your help on the force.
All you’re really missing now is the tactical knowledge and training that will get you started. Learn how the Rasmussen College Criminal Justice Program can prepare you to start employing your great qualities for the greater good of your community.