Lessons from The Force


Police Car Lights courtesy of Scott Davidson


When most people learn that I formerly was a police officer, they raise their eyebrows and will usually say something like, “Really?  Why would you quit?”  To others, that information is met with suspicion - once a cop, always a cop they believe.

To most, the idea of being a police officer has an exotic feel to it.  It’s because they have envisioned the Hollywood cliché of law enforcement – heroic exploits of men and women in a daily struggle against crime and corruption.  While there are some of those moments on the street, that’s not what happens behind the scenes within the department.  Most of the stuff that happens is boring, day-to-day decisions just like you have at your job. 

- Who do I want to work with today? 
- Am I correctly filling out this new, department-mandated paperwork?
- What educational path should I pursue for my career?
- Where should I go to lunch?

Most of that’s not interesting to share.

However, why I got into law enforcement, what I learned about it and personal finance, and why I eventually left are things I believe are worth sharing.

Please realize that my opinion is based on being a police officer in Spokane, Washington, which I believe is a fairly squared-away department.  There are problems with any large organization, especially a government one, so please don’t throw negativity my direction if you don’t like Spokane, its police department, or the police in general.  If you don’t like law enforcement and you’ve found this article, I hope you'll read it with an open mind - this a personal development/personal finance related article, after all.

Chasing a Childhood Dream

I had recently passed my twenty-ninth birthday and felt stuck in my job as a residential property manager.  In my mind, I wasn’t going anywhere.  I’d been with a local real estate company for a couple years and I wanted a promotion to the commercial management side.  However, I worked in a family-owned business and promotions weren’t going to happen.  There wasn’t going to be a chance to switch into a new position nor get a big fancy title and that’s what mattered to me then.

While in a property manager’s meeting, I was reviewing an advertisement our company had placed in the local newspaper.  Another advertisement on the same page caught my eye.  The Spokane Police Department was looking to hire new officers.  The advertised third-year salary was almost twenty thousand higher than I was making as a property manager!  I stared at that income number for a few moments.  The advertisement’s fine print said there was only three days left to submit a hiring package which had to be picked up from city hall.

After the meeting, I went back to my desk and thought about that ad.  I couldn’t get it out of my head.  When I was a kid I wanted to be a police officer, but hadn’t given any real thought to it since then.  It really wasn't a dream of mine, but the more I thought about it, the more I convinced myself that it was what I really wanted to do.

The idea of being a police officer got to me that morning.  Plus, that third year salary really charged me up.  By the afternoon, it was all I could think about.  When I had a free moment, I slipped out of the office, went to city hall, and collected a hiring packet.  I filled it out that night and returned it the next day.

A few weeks later, I received a notice in the mail for the initial testing date.  When I reported to the convention center, roughly 350 other people were there.  At the test, it was announced the city wanted to higher six officers for the next academy which was starting later in the year.  Six from 350.  Not great odds, but I was happy to be sitting there just taking the test.  It felt like I was doing something for my future.  The test was basic reading, math, and comprehension skills. 

When the test results later came in, I was number three on the list.  I couldn’t believe it – I had a real shot at being a police officer.

The physical fitness test was scheduled next.  Of all the tests that might come my way, this was the one that I was worried about.  I had gotten sloppy after leaving the army.  I wasn’t working out and had put on a lot of weight.  I had recently returned to karate so there was some cardio occurring in my life, but not much.  In preparation for the fitness test, I started working out everyday. 

The day the physical fitness test arrived, I took it and passed.  I was still number three on the list.  Two tests in and my goal seemed more real.

Next up was the psychological profile.  I was sent a massive packet of questions to answer prior to my interview.  I immediately completed the questionnaire and sent it back in.  It had been exciting to run through the various questions.  After feeling stuck at my job, it felt great to reach for a new goal.  I soon met with a psychologist who reviewed my packet and asked follow-up questions.

Later, I received a notification that I was now number one on the list.  When that letter arrived in the mail, I stared at it with disbelief.

Only two hurdles remained, the polygraph (lie detector) and the panel interview.  The polygraph was the easiest test because I basically admitted every bad thing I had ever done.  They know you’re human, but they want to know if you’ll tell the truth when questioned.  It was embarrassing to admit some of the things I’d done in my life, but I did it.  They did ask some difficult follow-up questions, but I told the truth and moved on.

The hardest part of the whole process ended up being the last segment – the panel interview.  There were three men on the panel – a career patrol officer, a sergeant, and a lieutenant.  The patrol officer chewed on me the entire time because I wanted to leave the corporate world.  He couldn’t understand my thinking and really gave it to me.  I stood my ground and when it was done, I thought I’d failed the board.

Two days later I was notified that I’d passed.  I was headed to the academy.

The Best Job Ever

Being a patrol officer was a great experience.  There were days of flat-out excitement.  I was once in a 45-minute vehicle pursuit that left Spokane County, went through two other counties, before being taken over by Washington State Patrol.  A woman had been kidnapped and she had a live connection with dispatch so there was no way the administration was terminating the pursuit.  We caught the guy, by the way.

There was one early morning (roughly 3 A.M.) when I was sitting in my car next to another officer who was also in his car.  We noticed a nearby garage was on fire.  As we got to the garage, it had caught the adjoining house on fire.  We raced to the front door and banged on it.  No one answered.  Fearing the occupants were asleep, we kicked the door in.  The house was now fully engulfed in flames.  A mentally-challenged man stood in the hallway, afraid of us suddenly being inside his house.  We entered the house, grabbed him, and pulled him to safety.

There were foot pursuits, fights, and tackles on a semi-regular basis.  Gun calls that would make your hair stand up on the back of your neck.  All the testosterone-pumping, heart-pounding, good-stuff.

However, there’s also the ugly stuff that you can’t escape. 

There were domestic violence calls where women tell you they deserve the beatings they took because they upset their husbands.

There were victimized children.  I hate thinking about those.

I can’t tell you how many drunks (both men and women) said I shouldn’t arrest them for drunk driving because their taxes paid my salary.

All of it was worth it, though, because I believed I was helping people and it was a great job with awesome benefits.

At the end of every shift, I went home proud of what I did.

When I Stopped Loving the Job

My third year in the department, I took a plain clothes position as a liaison with the liquor control board, gambling commission, and city hall.  It was a great gig and I loved it.  While on patrol, a few of the guys had teased me about being a businessman with a gun.  I didn’t take offense to it, even though I think they were trying to get under my skin.  The liaison assignment only furthered their assertions. 

While in the new position, it allowed me to meet more officers throughout the department.  I was approached by a few guys to get involved with the guild’s (union) budget committee.  They had never had a budget and a few of the guys thought it would be a good idea to get one started.   I agreed and jumped on board.

I had not gone to the union meetings before and soon attended the monthly assemblies while working on the budget.  It reminded me of my property management roots and I was having fun playing with numbers again.

A couple months later we presented the budget to the union leadership and they approved.  The next step was to present it in the open meeting, get a vote on it, and move forward.  During this period, there was a fair amount of dissension among the union membership.  Some guys wanted a stronger resistance to anything the administration was doing while others wanted to keep the ship pointed in the same direction.

At one cantankerous meeting, our committee presented the budget and it passed.  The next order of business was from a group of officers who wanted to buy a $4,000 treadmill for the department’s gym.

“That will blow up the budget,” I said, upset that they’d just heard the budget presentation and were clearly ignoring it.  “Let’s put aside some money for a bit and then we can buy it.”

“We want it now,” the dissenters said.

And like that, a vote was called and the dissenting group won.  They had stacked the monthly meeting with their friends to get their way.

I should have seen the writing on the wall, but I didn’t.  No one really wanted the budget, and most didn’t like the idea of ever being reeled in.

Put My Money Where My Mouth Is

A friend of mine approached a couple months later.   He had represented the group that had asked me to get involved with the budget process.

“We want you to run for guild president,” he said.  The president of the guild was retiring from the department at the end of his term. 

“I’ve only been on the department for a little more than four years,” I responded.

He argued it made sense for me to run with my business background.  It would also give a different voice to the younger/newer officers.  It was flattering and the idea of running for office felt like a new challenge and an opportunity for personal growth.

I accepted the invitation and soon was campaigning against the current guild VP and a well-respected sergeant.  I stopped by every roll call and visited the various segments to deliver my message.  My main argument was this – We don’t work for the guild; the guild works for us.  It’s time to take back control of the organization.

During the campaign, another friend stopped by my house.  This was an officer I held in extremely high regard.  He looked me in the eye and said, “You don’t want this.”

“Yeah, I do,” I said.  The campaigning felt like it was going well, and my ego was swelling.

My friend shook his head.  “You’re an idealist.  If you get involved with the guild leadership, it will ruin the way you look at law enforcement.”

I didn’t listen when I should have.

Two weeks later, the vote was taken.  With three applicants running, we split the vote and I won – an officer with only four years of experience was now going to lead the guild.

Soon, I was having one-on-one meetings with the Chief of Police and having breakfast with the Mayor.  Suddenly, I was one of the people in the know.  It was a heady experience to say the least.

Then some of my friends started to turn on me.

“What’s going on with so-and-so?” they would ask.

“I can’t tell you.  It’s confidential,” I’d respond.  I had a duty to keep certain things quiet.

“But I voted for you.  You owe me.”

The amount of gossip I was approached for was astounding.  No one liked being told no and when I did I soon lost several so-called friends.  A close group of friends understood what I was going through and I was grateful for them.  However, I soon felt like a man on an island. 

- The city leadership didn’t trust me – I was the guild president;
- The old guard didn’t trust me – my ideas were against how they wanted the guild to run;
- The new guard wanted me to show them that I could deliver on their vote;
- Everyone was watching me, waiting to see how I would respond.

I was unprepared for the prevalent nature of the “you owe me” mentality.  Not everyone felt that way, but that outlook was obvious between those who believed in an “Us vs Them” mentality and a “They are Us” mindset. 

When someone got jammed up for behavior which would get a “real world” employee fired or counseled, the guild was immediately expected to step in and defend them.  I don’t know if this happens in other unions, but it happened in ours.  As a person who had never experienced the inside of a union – it was a shock to my belief system.

I couldn’t even workout in the department’s gym without guys hunting me down to complain about some perceived slight by the administration or some other officer.  At times, I would be completely dismayed by their complaints.  These were similar to the petty grievances we would be called out on as patrol officers, yet here we were dealing with them inside the organization.

As guild president, I had to be available all hours to the Chief, the Mayor and the department.  Almost overnight, being a police officer went from being the greatest job in the world to the worst.

Nine months after winning the election to guild president, I had become miserable in my job.  A friend of mine offered me a position with a national mall developer and I took it.  I sent a letter to the department announcing my decision, basing it on the idea that it was too good to pass up.

While the mall developer’s offer was good, I was so unhappy that if anyone had tossed me a lifeline I probably would have taken it just to leave the job that I once loved.


Be Aware of the Ladder You’re Trying to Climb

Jumping at the opportunity to lead the guild was something I hadn’t thought deeply about.  I was flattered by the attention paid to me by the other officers and I wanted a new challenge.  However, I did not consider the direction that winning would take me in.

Looking back, I wasn’t sure I could win.  I was going up against two senior officers – one was the sitting vice-president of the guild and the other was a very likable sergeant.  I was the dark horse of the group.  Had there only been two of us running for that honor (regardless of the VP or the sergeant), I’m sure that I would have lost by a large margin.

My friend’s advice that “this will change how you view law enforcement” was correct.  It tainted my impression for many years.  I resented what had happened and blamed the agency, other officers, and the profession in general. 

A close friend would repeatedly point out my distorted point of view.  He’d say things like, “you sound very anti-police” now.  I would get defensive and say that I wasn’t.  Unfortunately, he was right.  I was getting mad at someone else for something I did.  I was deflecting my anger, but it was my fault.  I chose to run for that office because I liked the attention from some guys who thought I would be capable of doing it. 

The resulting issues were not anyone’s fault but mine.  When I finally admitted the truth many years later, my impression of the department and the overall profession improved to where it was originally when I first wanted to be a police officer. 

A Great Job is Still a J-O-B

Being a police officer was the best job I ever had.  Realize I said “job,” because I fully believe that being a real estate broker is the best opportunity I’ve ever had. 

A police officer gave me tremendous benefits and opportunities to do different things.  I left the job too early to try all these things, but officers can try out for Tactical and SWAT teams, they can be hostage negotiators or dog handlers.  They can test for promotions to detective, corporal, sergeant, and higher.  They can specialize in narcotics, autos, or anything else they find an interest in.

It was also exciting at times as I mentioned above.  There were also some periods of boredom – snowy Christmas days were very quiet. 

At the end of the day, though, it’s a j-o-b and there are others who are going to control your destiny.  You must put in a request each year for the shift you want to be on.  If you don’t have high enough seniority you can get bumped.  You must test and interview for a promotion.  While that sounds great in the idea of fairness, you better hope you don’t have a bad morning on either of those days.  If you do, you’re waiting another couple years.  That can be extremely disheartening.

No Matter Your Job, You Can Get Out of Debt

While I was on the department, there was an officer named Gabe (not his real name) who was dating Shelly (not her real name either), also a fellow officer.  Both officers were on the Dave Ramsey program and talked about it at team get-togethers or before roll call briefings.

I’d never heard of Dave Ramsey, so it sounded like a foreign language they were speaking.  They were aggressively working to pay down their debts.

At this point in my life, I had a ton of debt – almost $50,000 but I didn’t know what to do about it except make minimum payments.  My finances were totally f'd up, yet I was asked to helm the Guild's budget committee.  Talk about irony.

Anyway, Gabe and Shelly would later marry, have kids, and she would leave the department to raise the little ones.  All because they got out of debt.

How they lived on a single officer’s salary seemed really wild to me.  Until I followed their example, followed Dave’s envelope system, got out of debt, learned how money works, and got myself under control.

Challenges Can Keep You Motivated

I felt stuck at my previous job.  When the opportunity to try out for the police department first appeared, I became excited.  I filled out the paperwork and completed all the tests.  Each successive stage added a new thrill – one step closer to reaching a new goal.

When I finally reached that accomplishment, of being hired, there was a great relief, but I knew new challenges lay ahead.

In the academy, each day presented the opportunity to learn something new – it was like a condensed version of college.  After graduation, I entered a four-month period of riding with Field Training Officers (FTO) who monitored everything I did.  Basically, I had a personal teacher in the passenger seat.

After passing the FTO period, I was on my own.  It took some time but being on patrol developed its own rhythm.

Rotating into the liaison position added a new slew of challenges.  Suddenly, I had to learn about liquor and gambling laws.  Those were things not covered while in the academy.  I acted as a liaison to city hall on security matters.  Again, new training opportunities awaited.  It also gave me the opportunity to meet the mayor, city council members, and department heads.  The experience was great for me.

Even the guild opportunity was an opportunity to learn.  The laws surrounding collective bargaining alone were enough to make my eyes cross.

Robert Kiosayki, the author of Rich Dad, Poor Dad, has said to not take a job for the money, but to take it for the opportunity to learn.  I didn’t realize it then, but there was huge opportunity to learn within the police department. 

I may have taken the job for the paycheck, but there were a lot of things I learned while there.  I’ll never regret that.

It’s Okay to Say, “This Isn’t What I Want”

When I was approached to run for guild president, I let me ego make the decision for me.  I’m sure we’ve all done that at some point in time.  Whether it’s work-related, school-related, or in some relationship, we’ve found ourselves saying ‘yes’ to something because it feed our ego only to regret it later.

As I grew to regret my decision, I could have stepped up at any time and said, “This isn’t what I want.”  It would have required a lot of guts to say that and even more courage to deal with the later fall-out.  Looking back, I’m sure the fall-out would have been short-lived.  The VP would have filled the vacated president position and a board vote would have filled the vacated VP position.  The hurt feelings other officers may have felt for me would have dissipated over time.  I didn’t believe it then and jumped at the opportunity to run away to another job.

Saying “This isn’t what I want” is one of the hardest things for some of us to do in our lives.  If we would be more honest with ourselves and others we could avoid a lot of wasted time and lost opportunities. 

-        We go to horrible jobs because we don’t want to say, “This isn’t what I want” and deal with the crappy work that will come after; 
-        We live in terrible marriages because we are afraid to tell our partner, “This isn’t what I want”;
-        We remain overweight and unhappy because we won’t say, “This isn’t what I want,” and force ourselves to make the tough changes to behaviors; 
-        We continue to live broke and unhappy because we won’t tell ourselves, “This isn’t what I want” and make the hard choices to get what we truly want.

Making this change in my life has been hard and I’m still working on it today.  Being honest with both what I want and what I don’t want is helping to waste less time and seize more opportunities.