Force Science News #150:

What do you wish you’d known when you started in law enforcement?

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What do you wish you’d known when you started in law enforcement?


Reflecting on your career in police training, force assessment, or street ops, what is one thing you know now that you wish you’d known when you were fresh on the job?


Former sergeant Brian Willis, the well-known motivational trainer and certified Force Science Analyst, put that question to a wide cross-section of North American law enforcement professionals, ranging from members of major urban departments to obscure rural agencies. From the responses of 35, including other FSAs and Force Science advisors, he has fashioned a compelling new book, If I Knew Then: Life Lessons from Cops on the Street.


Interestingly, few of the contributors offer practical tactical tips that might have sooner advanced their careers or helped them better work the street, although a number are clearly survivors of violent narrow-misses. Instead the vast majority cites hard-earned insights about mind-set, emotional openness, and personal balance that may, in less tangible ways, be the most life-affirming of qualities.


“I believe this reflects the realities—and the disturbing pathologies—of police work,” observes Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute. “Although we justifiably focus much training and attention on surviving deadly encounters with suspects, only a relatively small percentage of officers will end up in a gunfight during their careers.


“Statistically, the risk is much greater that their lives will be seriously impacted by chronic stress, ‘suicide by inches’ from persistent frustration and bad habits, ethics issues, cynicism, marital strife and divorce, anger and resentment toward their department, and other common erosions of happiness and fulfillment. So it’s understandable that officers’ honest reflections would center on ‘lessons learned’ that are more philosophical in nature.”


Collectively, Willis’ contributors represent more than 500 years of law enforcement experience. As one reviewer has put it, their thoughts, war stories, and lodestar principles are relevant and valuable for “the greenest rookie” looking for guidance on “how to thrive in the often harsh world of policing” to the retiree willing to “ponder about the past, and every cop in between.”


Here are small excerpts from an expansive treasure-trove of knowledge that police professionals say they’d most like to share from their years behind the badge:


• Rule of 5. “When something bothers me, I use a Rule of 5 to determine how big of a deal it really is. I ask myself, ‘Will this thing really matter in 5 days?’ If so, I ask, ‘Will it matter in 5 months?’ If so, I ask, ‘Will it matter in 5 years?” Most things fail at question 1. Some things—career, family—make it to question 2. Almost nothing, except some family stuff, makes it to question 3. So don’t sweat the small stuff—which is most things.


“Stay young at heart, active, healthy, and positive. Choose your attitude every day when your feet hit the floor. You cannot choose what’s going to happen to you, but you can choose how you are going to handle it…how you are going to let it affect you. Your attitude is probably the most important choice you will ever make because it influences everything in you life all the time and it will absolutely mean the world to you, your family, and your workmates for your entire life.”


—Gary Stoney, Sr. Sniper, Calgary (Alberta) Police Service Tactical Unit


• Being there. “Finding balance in your life requires that you be present in the moment—not somewhere else. This vicious cycle of wishing you were off while at work and wishing you were at work while you’re at home means you’re never ‘there,’ never in the moment. You’re never truly living.


“You must learn that the Police Department is not a furry dog that will meet you at the door when you get home. It is not a living entity and not capable of love. You can love fellow officers, but the agency is a machine…cold and sometimes callous. It will not sustain or fulfill you. In your darkest days (and there will indeed be some in law enforcement) it is those you’ve loved and love you that will strengthen, sustain, and see you through life’s ‘bumps in the road.’ ”


—Training Dir. Kevin R. Davis, Akron (OH) PD


• Power of compassion. One of Willis’ contributors vividly describes a fight for his life with a prisoner who attacked him en route to a cellblock. Among other serious injuries, “he stuck his finger into my eye socket with enough force that I could hear skin tissue separating behind my eye….


“I was off work for 6 weeks. I was angry and scared that I might not ever be an operational policeman again. After awhile, though, I knew I could choose to be bitter and angry at my attacker or I could choose to be compassionate and have hope for the future.


“For me to leave this incident behind and move forward with my life, it was important for me to forgive my attacker. At the sentencing hearing, I explained to him that he needed to take full advantage of the addictions counseling and educational opportunities while in jail; he needed to be a good father to his children and a productive member of his community; and then I would forgive him.


“He was sentenced to 3 years. Officers who currently work in his community tell me he is a model citizen. The lessons I learned from this incident will stay with me forever. Learn the power of compassion for your own benefit and for the benefit of the community you police.”


—Cpl. Paul Fuhr, firearms instructor and police medic, RCMP


• Free university. “Thirty years ago I walked into a police station as a new officer and had absolutely no clue of what I was getting myself into. I had no idea I had enrolled in the Open Police University. Even when I was performing what I believed at the time to be the most boring of duties, I had the opportunity to gain valuable, directly applicable lessons, the likes of which cannot be replicated in any classroom. All I had to do was accept that I was a student in the school, pay attention, and then ask myself what I might be learning.


“The Open Police University has many courses you can take, tuition is free, and the education you can receive is invaluable. Similar to a traditional university, no one cares whether you attend classes or learn from your opportunities. The only one who will benefit or suffer from you actions is you.”


—Chris Lawrence, Force Science Analysis certification instructor


• Self-management. “The things I know now that I wish I knew at the beginning of my career apply to any walk of life: fitness and health management, family management, time management, and financial management. There is so much you have no control over so take control of the things you can.”


—Det. (ret.) George Demetriou, NYPD


• Debrief your priorities. “Just as it is important to debrief training or real life situations, it is important to debrief aspects of our lives.


“Determine what is important to you by looking at the various dimensions of your life. These may include spirituality, culture or ethnicity, hobbies and interests, friends, family, goals.


“Define these dimensions, make a list, and prioritize them.


“Let that list of priorities (your core values) become your compass.


“Review them occasionally. As you make decisions, you will not have to think too hard about the right thing to do. Since you already have your values prioritized, you will remain grounded and on track; you are ready to ‘enjoy the ride.’ ”


—Ofcr. Mark Zbojniewicz, Tucson (AZ) PD, Arizona POST training specialist


• Work at marriage. “I wish I’d known earlier that it was worth all the work to keep your marriage together. To avoid the kicked-in-the-guts raw emotions that surface when a home breaks up in divorce.”


—Sgt. (ret.) Rocky Warren, Placer County (CA) SD


• Lethal cocktail. “It’s sad but there are officers who have lost focus on the positives and are squarely fixated on the negatives. They will hold court with anyone who will listen, attempting to spin their conspiracy theories and hatred of everyone and everything. A lot suffer from ‘suspicious intent,’ where they become suspicious of the ‘hidden motives’ of every individual.


“Learn to recognize these officers and avoid them like a cancerous plague. To listen to them can become a lethal cocktail to your career and your life. One of the most dangerous threats to your enjoyment in police work is when you lose a positive mind-set.”


—Sgt. Jeff Quail, Winnipeg (Manitoba) Police Service tactical team


• Making a difference. “Staying positive in law enforcement is in itself a discipline. Law enforcement will invite you to become as negative as the world that the dispatcher sends you into call after call.


“Any number of old-timers told me over and over and over again to ‘slow down—you know you can’t make a difference.’ But I chose to try to make a difference on every call, contact, or assignment.


“I did not know that the path I had chosen was the right path until I reached the end of my career. I did not know at the beginning that it would enhance my ability to make a difference, one call at a time, in the lives of the people on my beat, the people I arrested, the recruits, veterans and supervisors I trained, as well as my wife and family who stood by me through it all.”


—Lt. (ret.) Dan Marcou, La Crosse (WI) PD SWAT


• Different voices. “Have people within your circle who do not completely agree with you on all things. It is good practice to learn how to explain your ideas to people who think differently than you.”


—Sgt. (ret.) Craig Stapp, Tempe (AZ) PD firearms instructor and Force Science advisor


• Are you listening? “One thing they don’t teach you in police recruit school is how to listen. I found out that listening is probably the single greatest attribute a police officer can have. I have often asked myself why it took me so long to understand the wisdom of that.”


—Spcl. Agt. Jim Smith, unit training officer, CSXT Railroad (NY)


• W.I.N. Willis offers the acronym W.I.N. as his personal “wish I’d known then.” It stands for What’s Important Now, the signature theme of his Winning Mind Training organization.


“In our personal and professional lives, we are faced with a number of choices and decisions every day—some more critical than others,” he writes. “If we are to achieve excellence in our lives, we must ask ourselves this simple but powerful question throughout every day: What’s Important Now? Doing so forces us to prioritize our options and focus on what is important.


“If I had understood the power of that one question early in my career, it would have helped me be a better father, a better son, a better husband, a better cop, and a better trainer. I believe it is life’s most powerful question.”


[For more information about If I Knew Then, see . Also be sure to click here for information on “Legacy of Excellence,” the annual law enforcement training conference organized by Brian Willis. This popular event, conducted Sept. 7-10 in Calgary will include a daylong Force Science Seminar featuring Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute.]


Written by Force Science Institute

May 21st, 2010 at 4:37 pm

© 2017 Force Science Institute Ltd.