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Teach Off-duty Behavior

Written by Tom Wetzel

My old chief used to say that when he was hired, they gave him a gun and a stick and told him to go out and look for trouble. There was probably more to his training than that, but his point was well taken. Since then, training for officers has made significant advances. Police academies have expanded their curriculum, and field training programs are good follow-ups to prepare recruits for the demands of police work. The hours and weeks to complete the academy in my state have increased since the time I attended.

However, with all the time we spend teaching our recruits how to do the job, it seems that we overlook one area that can help the officer have a long and productive career. That concept is how to behave—on duty, but especially off duty. Whether we have heard about it or observed it ourselves, many of us have watched officers make dumb mistakes that seemed preventable. The majority of these problems involve guns, alcohol or relationships. Consequences can include damaged reputations, suspensions or job losses.

The head scratching reaction for many is to wonder, “What were they thinking?” And being the flawed characters that we are, we have probably asked ourselves a similar question of “What was I thinking?” after we conducted irresponsible behavior that could have gotten or did get us in trouble.

Learning the hard way may have its place in personal growth, but some simple advice taught early on can prevent a lot of problems. If an officer has a conscientious mentor who imparts wisdom to him, he is blessed. But not every officer gets that opportunity. This is why a formal course of instruction can be valuable.

By being provided a half-day training block on personal responsibility as a recruit, then periodically in-service, officers would be instructed in what behavior works and what actions can lead to problems. It is basically a “best practices” program that includes risk management concepts. Even though it may seem like a “what not to do” course, it is essentially a program for their long term success.

Much of what would be taught may seem like common sense, but it is important to recognize that many recruits are young people with limited life experience. Add that to an entitlement mentality for some, along with limited personal discipline for others, and you see that what seems obvious to some, may not be obvious to everyone.

The lesson plan should have a theme that encourages officers to understand that their actions have an impact on them, their agencies and the communities they serve. For example, you should not drive drunk or speed with the expectation that you will be cut a break. You may not. And these actions can cause injuries or worse.

Don’t engage in affairs with married people. It can result in the breakup of a family. Do report income earned on side jobs for tax purposes. An unfavorable audit can be embarrassing. Don’t go to bars known for fights. You may get in one and cause injury that results in charges against you.

Take great care to secure your handgun. The loss of your weapon can be costly. Spend responsibly so you are not forced to overwork to pay bills. Exercise regularly. A good heart is vital in more than just a physical way. Take your spirituality seriously. Attending church or temple will strengthen you to avoid temptations.

The list can go on, but what is taught may help a recruit when faced with decisions, on or off duty. It may not help until years later, but advice offered in this class may come to mind at a time when the officer could use some wisdom. This type of training is an investment in an officer’s future. By learning early, they can develop habits to keep them out of trouble while they are looking for it.

Tom Wetzel is a northeast Ohio suburban police lieutenant, SWAT officer, trainer and certified law enforcement executive. He holds a black belt in Goshin Jujitsu. He can be reached at wetzelfamily05@sbcglobal.net.

Published in Law and Order, Jun 2010

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