The No-Nonsense Guide to What Makes a Good Police Officer
So you’re ready to take the next step in life. You know the one. The step that will help open those pesky doors to the career you really want. No more working 9-to-5, or even longer, in a job you have just to get by. It’s just not working anymore; it’s time for a change.
That next step? You’re ready to earn a degree so you can gain the knowledge and skills you need to be a top-notch cop with a satisfying career.
Being a police officer does take training, and there’s a lot to learn. It’s a pretty important job, after all. But cops need more than good training to get by. What makes a good police officer? We asked two former law enforcement officials for their thoughts so you can get a better idea—straight from the people who have been where you want to be.
Qualities every police officer should have
Let’s not beat around the bush. There’s a seemingly never-ending list of skills police officers need, but these are the qualities our experts say make good cops great:
- A sense of humor
- Attention to detail
- Ethical and professional responsibility
- Self-reflection abilities
- Verbal and non-verbal communication skills
- The ability to think critically
- A sense of teamwork
Some, like communication skills, creativity and critical thinking, likely speak for themselves, but others require a bit more explanation.
Charles Redlinger of MissionX, a former U.S. Marine and DeKalb County, Georgia, police officer with 10 years’ experience, says that, hopefully, every officer’s compassion is driving them into this field to begin with. He says it’s important throughout an officer’s career, and not just in the beginning.
“As a police officer, you will find yourself inserted into the most tragic and chaotic moments of people’s lives,” Redlinger says. “They will be victims of violent crimes, they will be people who have just lost a loved one in a tragic event … the situations are endless. In short, 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.”
Additionally, Redlinger says that compassion can help drive an officer’s need to solve a crime—you want to be able to solve it and give the victims’ families the closure they’re seeking.
Sense of humor
Cops aren’t necessarily known for kidding around, right? And it makes sense, since they’re the ones with guns and authority. You might be surprised to know that a good sense of humor is essential to the job, according to Dr. Currie Myers, a retired Kansas sheriff and current dean of the Justice Studies program at Rasmussen College.
"You have to be able to make light of the work you do and how you do it."
During his 24-year-career in law enforcement, Myers said he found that some cops have a better sense of humor than others.
“You have to be able to make light of the work you do and how you do it,” Myers says. “If you internalize things too much it could lead to other issues, personally and professionally.”
Ethical & professional responsibility
Myers and Redlinger both agree that police officers need to use their actions to set a good example for others.
“As a police officer, you have a responsibility to provide a positive image whether it is to a motorist on a traffic stop or a juror during a murder trial,” Redlinger says. “Having a reputation as this kind of officer will always afford you the benefit of the doubt.”
Myers believes that minimalism plays a big part in how an officer should act. “Do what you need to do but have the least impact because over enforcement can cause a lot of problems and reactions as well,” he says.
A sense of team work
Cops are always part of a team, whether it’s just them and a fellow officer in a car or whether they’re representing the whole police force. Myers said he found that one of the most important traits a fellow officer can have is a sense of teamwork. He says future officer need to realize that they’re not an individual and they will indeed be serving with a team.
Attention to detail
Real life isn’t like a crime TV show, where the camera zooms in on the important details right away. As such, Redlinger says that attention to detail is “the hallmark of good police work,” no matter what type of officer you are.
Cops always need to be ready to think on their feet and able to observe five things at once. Whether they’re just pulling someone over or they’re checking out a crime scene, every little detail might lead to something important.
“As a detective, attention to detail is a necessity,” he says. “From crime scenes to suspect and witness interviews to courtroom testimony, demonstrating attention to detail will result in closing cases and successful prosecutions.”
Get the police officer qualities you need
While all the qualities mentioned here are essential to becoming a good police officer, no one expects you to have them right now. Is it helpful if you have a ton of compassion or are a creative problem-solver? Of course. But what about the ones you need to brush up on?
Earning your degree should help you develop those essential traits you need, Myers says. He also mentions the need to behave professionally now; there’s no need to wait until you actually become a police officer.
“Try to behave in an ethical and professional way in whatever work that you’re doing presently,” he says. “I think setting a standard for yourself in terms of what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it is extremely important.”
And of course, like with anything in life, some of these traits will come to you more quickly than others, he says. Just embrace the learning curve and be patient.
Are you ready?
The basics of what make a good police officer aren’t hard to understand. So, that next step we talked about earlier? Are you ready for it now? If you pay attention to every single detail, have a good sense of humor and think you know a thing about teamwork, you might just be.