Policing, Promotion and Politics – The Burnout is Real

“On the level”. That’s a phrase you’ve likely heard thrown around as a punchline reaction to the posting of some promotional announcement. Even for a believer, trying to find any consistency or verifiable process in regards to promotions in the law enforcement world is akin to trying to find Big Foot.

Thinking back to the days of taking police test after police test, all I ever wanted to be was a cop. I never gave much thought to promotion or even how that process takes place. As I stood there being pinned with a silver shield, little did I know that the first shield was essentiality the ONLY shield a cop ever wears that he can reasonably say he earned.

Regardless of where you work, promotion can come via many roads. Some find themselves promoted based on their performance in a single critical incident. Some find themselves promoted for surviving a critical incident. Some posthumously. Many get the call because they can take tests. However, the vast majority of police promotions result from the age old traditions of politicking mixed with a mastery level of chess playing.

Change my mind.

The closest thing that any department can have to legitimacy is a ‘vertical list’, meaning promotions are initiated on rankings based on test scores; naturally highest to lowest. I say CLOSEST, because even that system can be rigged in the favor of the anointed. Whether it’s the “Rule of 3’s” you see with the NJ Civil Service process or subjective interviews, any system can be manipulated. However, at least with a vertical list, as a subordinate, you can take comfort in knowing that your boss likely knows the law, policies and procedures.

More often than not, the ones getting promoted are the ones who have had their eyes set on it from the gate. We could dissect the personality make-up that requires that mind set, but that’s a whole seven more articles. From the time they ‘hit the street’ (which usually lasts for a year or less for the chosen), the aspiring leaders pick and choose their exposure and involvement more carefully than Floyd Mayweather chose his opponents. Being a pro-active police officer has always involved a measure of recklessness. You rarely spend time worrying about your eight point hat when you are digging through cars looking for narcotics or weapons. Your fancy OSHA approved reflective vest isn’t a priority when you’re busy chasing stolen cars. Inevitably, this results in active, practiced, proficient police officers being exposed to mountains of petty discipline, while the house mice are spared. It’s hard to get written up for felony grouping if you’re never outside.

Now, before you get all twisted up, this is not saying that all bosses are do-nothings. This is simply saying that their proficiency as a police officer or their wealth of talent likely played the smallest part in their advancement. The best bosses I’ve ever worked for recognized the relativity of the system and were grateful for their good fortune. They maintained their sense of camaraderie and took care of the ones who they knew, in turn, would take care of them.

Then there’s the other guy.

The guy who likely spent an entire career mocking the promotional system in the same manner that I am now, laughing about the notion that everything was ‘on the level’. Yet, like magic, once THEY got that call, suddenly the process is miraculously merit based. It’s like they get hit with one of those Men in Black mind erasers and forgot that a lot of the cops they now supervise KNOW them.

Confused? Let me help you: If you find yourself signing a write-up for something that you did yourself (or worse), especially for someone who worked WITH you as a cop and KNOWS who you were/are, and defend your actions by saying, “I was a product of poor supervision”, you likely ARE that guy.

Now, some of you might dismiss my tale as the words of someone who couldn’t pass a test or failed interviews. Truth be told, I have never taken a promotional test, nor will I ever.

I come to work every day to be a police officer. I come to work every day to watch my back and to watch the back of the cops I work with. I do this with the same level of appreciation for the shield on my chest that I had the day I graduated. I also have maintained the same level of appreciation for the work that went into attaining it. I have never taken it for granted and I have never needed any more affirmation. I am comfortable in the fact that I have worked with some great cops…cops that you could put on any street in America. I am also realistic that their rank has never factored into their worth, nor mine.

If you find yourself wearing a police shield, I have news for you: You already won. This profession has a way of rewiring cops brains, making them chase the carrot of promotion and then feeling like they somehow failed if they don’t achieve it.

If the promotion game is for you, so be it. To each their own. To those I would say: rank will always be hollow (especially in retirement) if you don’t have the genuine respect of the men/women you supervise. Anyone can lead from behind a desk and mandate loyalty through paper and write-ups. That is not the kind of respect I am talking about. If I have to explain that to you, it would be wasted breath anyways.

To the rest: Keep your head up. Do your job. Always try to stay focused on all the reasons you got into this profession in the first place. We all have been blessed to be part of this family, whether we see it or not. We are doing something that only a small percentage of the population is capable of doing, let alone have the opportunity to do. Don’t ever take it for granted and don’t ever let the notion that you somehow fell short enter your head.

You’re good enough. You’re smart enough. And, doggone it, people like you.


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