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Selection Matrix: How to Pick the Right Department

Written by Ross Swope

Whether considering a lateral transfer between agencies or starting a career in law enforcement, you send out dozens of applications to various police agencies. You are so anxious to get away from the department you are with now, or to begin a new career, you are going to accept the first offer you get. Stop!

If you expect to have a long and rewarding career, considerable thought must be put into the selection of the department. Every department is different, some in very significant ways. The wrong selection can result in unfulfilled expectations and unexpected hardships, or it can turn into the best career anyone could ask for. The key is finding the right fit for you.

Police agencies are all engaged in the same primary responsibilities. With more than 18,000 city, county, state and federal police departments across the country, it may seem a daunting task to investigate them all. However, identifying the police department that fits your needs, wants, expectations and aspirations is still essential to your success and satisfaction as a police officer.

Compensation

This might appear simple—the department with the highest starting salary wins. But it is a little more complicated than that. Think about one, three and five years down the road. The frequency and amount of “within grade” increases can change the picture significantly. For example, department A may start at $40,000 a year and department B at $37,000. After three years on the job, department A and B could be equal at $42,000, and after five years, department A could be at $44,000 and department B at $47,000 because the pay increase at five years in department B is higher than the increase at five years at department A.

Also look at the time it takes to reach top pay at the officer level. For example, department X may take 10 years to reach the top step police officer pay of $62,000, while department Y may take 15 years to reach the top step of $62,000. That five- year difference will account for thousands of dollars of additional earnings for the officer.

Salary is not the only consideration. Especially during the economic times we are experiencing today, consider the vulnerability to furloughs. At least some jurisdictions are forcing all police officers to take two weeks of unpaid leave; this equates to a nearly 4 percent cut in salary. Another issue is reductions in force, which means police officers can be fired for budgetary reasons. The question to ask is whether the jurisdiction has a history of these actions in general, and in their police department specifically.

Other considerations on the compensation issue are the availability of overtime and the opportunities for off-duty employment, both of which can enhance your income. Some departments provide a take-home car that can be used to commute to and from work, and while off duty. This can be worth several thousands of dollars per year.

Probably the last thing an individual considering a police career looks at is retirement. Generally, police retirement is better than other public and private sector jobs, but there can be differences in comparing one department against another. The primary indices to view are the percentage of your pay you can take into retirement, how many years on the job are required before retirement, how old you must be to reach minimum retirement age and whether there are cost of living raises after you retire.

Another category related to wages is fringe benefits. Does the department contribute to your medical insurance? How many sick and annual leave days will you receive, and how may they accrue? What training opportunities are available, and is there a college reimbursement program? How many holidays are recognized?

Horizontal Mobility

When you’re entering a police career, or even sometime into the job, you may be interested in some aspect of police work other than patrol duty. Examples of these positions include detective, crime scene investigator, bomb technician, canine handler, firearms instructor, emergency response team member (SWAT), motorcycle officer, community officer, juvenile officer, drug enforcement investigator, intelligence officer and crime analysis officer.

How many different special assignments are there? How long must you be a member of a department before you are eligible for a special assignment? How often do they become available? If you don’t plan on being a patrol officer forever, you should look into this.

Vertical Mobility

Look into promotions to the next rank. How often are promotions made? How many members actually get promoted during a given period? Obviously, the larger the organization, the more promotions; thus, there’s more promotion potential. Look at the promotional process. Is the selection made from a list generated by a competitive examination process with civil service oversight? Or is it through appointment by the chief of police? Or some mixture of both? Is there a history of integrity? Or years of newspaper articles describing cheating and scandal?

Not so obvious are the demographics of a police department. If the average age of a police department is 44, retirement can take place at 50 and the average retirement age is 52, you can pretty much count on there being significant opportunities in the next eight to 10 years for your promotion. This may be a good timeline if you are considering a career with that department. Conversely, if the average age is 32, retirement cannot take place until age 55 and the average retirement age is 57, the opportunities will be fewer, all things being equal.

Quality of Life

Does the potential department provide stability? Reassignment to other locations across a particular state is nearly a guarantee at some point in your career. Consideration should be given to this issue because at some point in your life, children, home-ownership and a spouse’s employment may be involved.

Work hours and days off are a quality of life issue. Do the departments you are looking at rotate days off, rotate shifts, work five eight-hour days, or four ten-hour days? The bottom line here is your tolerance to or need for a routine. Your initial schedule will probably be the worst in terms of days off and hours, but that will change as you gain seniority.

Residency requirements should also be considered. Is it mandatory for officers to live in the jurisdiction covered by the department where they are working? Also, affordable housing may only be available in areas where you may not want to live, to say nothing of the quality of the schools in those locations.

The political environment of a jurisdiction can also affect an officer’s quality of life. While more common in small agencies, the reach and depth of political “advice” can influence an officer’s assignment or affect him indirectly with the change of a police chief following an election.

Tolerance of Traumatic Stress

Depending on your choice of department, your level of exposure to traumatic stress can vary widely. In general, police departments in larger cities with a low socio-economic status and a high crime rate will expose their police officers to higher levels of traumatic stress. This stress generating action can take the form of accidental or intentional injury to you, injury or death of a partner or close associate, and injury or death of members of the public.

Department by department, you will witness first-hand more or fewer incidents of child abuse, stabbings, shootings and blunt force trauma. Be realistic in answering how comfortable with or averse to these types of occurences you are. If these are the types of events that are going to cause you unacceptable levels of traumatic stress, maybe you’d be more comfortable in a smaller police department with low crime and a population with a high socio-economic status.

Tolerance of danger follows a parallel path. Large city departments in neighborhoods with high crime rates and low socio-economic status result in a police environment with higher risk and more danger. You will be assigned dangerous calls more frequently and face higher risk in this type of department. While fear is appropriate at times, you cannot survive a tour of duty, day after day, with high levels of anxiety.

“Man with a gun,” “robbery in progress,” “woman screaming for help” radio calls and felony high speed vehicle pursuits are all assignments fraught with risk. You must be realistic in gauging your tolerance for danger and how much stress and discomfort it is going to cause you. A smaller department with a high socio-economic status and a low crime rate may provide a better fit for your career as a police officer.
Task Variety

Some jurisdictions possess characteristics that make them unique from other departments of the same size and makeup. These characteristics generate special tasks. The level and number of special tasks may be of interest to some seeking a police career. For example, Washington, D.C., experiences more major demonstrations, parades and celebrations than any other city. Because of this fact, its special task is effectively dealing with these events. In fact, its full-time Special Events Unit and part-time Civil Disturbance Unit are specially trained for these events. New York City remains a terrorist target. The New York City Police Department has the special task of anti-terrorism. Many jurisdictions in Florida and other states with many navigable waterways are tasked with marine enforcement and safety.

Police Activity Level

What is your need for speed? You should be able to decide between high and low levels. Police activity is usually self-generated by the officer, assigned by a police official or received via radio. An officer controls the self-generated activity, while the police radio dominates his assignments. The more calls for service a department receives, the more assignments that are dispatched.

Generally, higher levels of calls for service parallel higher crime jurisdictions on a per capita basis. Jurisdictions with high levels of police activity mean more expedited assignments, pursuits, risk intense assignments, arrest situations and interesting encounters. You need to consider if completing 20 radio assignments on the 4:00-to-midnight shift on Saturday night is your cup of tea. What pace of police activity meets your comfort level?

Status of Department

The primary determinants of the status of a particular police department are the public’s perceived risk to the officer, the department’s reputation and the level of professionalism of the department. When the public sees a police department frequently dealing with violent crime, it confers on members of that department a higher status because of the perceived risk to the officer. Police departments with a history of brutality, corruption investigations or negative media attention have their status diminished. Those under Justice Department oversight suffer a similar fate.

Those police departments seen as highly professional have a high status. An officer’s behavior, demeanor, appearance and leadership determine the level of professionalism. Nearly all state police agencies are seen as very professional organizations for just this reason. Police departments of all shapes and sizes are considered to have a high status.

Small, low-crime jurisdictions can have a high status because they have a good reputation of providing a high level of service to the community and are considered very professional. Big, high-crime cities can have a high status because of the risk officers face. Most officers want to be part of an organization they can take pride in. A Web-based search on the departments you may be interested in can provide you with the information needed to get a fix on the above characteristics.

The level of analysis you wish to engage in can run the gamut from simple prioritizing and/or assigning a weight to each characteristic, to the creating of a complex matrix. Your primary goal should be to take emotion out of the equation as much as possible. Whatever level of research you perform, whatever amount of information you gather and whatever level of analysis you do, you will be in a better position to choose the department that provides you a career filled with personal and professional accomplishment.

Ross E. Swope is a retired commander with the Metropolitan Police Department in Washington, D.C.

Photos courtesy of Mark C. Ide.

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2010

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