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Copyright Liz Claflin 2017

What I Learned from Being a Cop

May 3, 2017

 

I come from a long line of successful business men. Growing up, I wanted to be like them, except I wanted to be the first in my family to be a super successful business woman.  I wanted to follow in my ultra-successful dad's footsteps.  I wanted to be rich, for sure, but also a leader.  An executive.  I'm talking the President and CEO of  a major company. 

 

To that end, I went to college with those goals in mind.  I thumbed through college course books trying to find the easiest path to obtaining a degree that would set me up for success in the corporate world.  But, alas, I didn't particularly love school and wasn't interested in trying hard.  Math wasn't (and never will be) my strong suit, and so a business degree was out.  Computer science?  WAY too much math for me.  Even marketing had too many economics and statistics classes for my tastes.  

 

Then I found public relations and earned my degree in Communications with a major in corporate public relations.  Easy classes, right up my alley.  And I knew I could parlay this degree into an C-level career. 

 

Then I graduated and got my first "real" job, in a high-tech PR firm in Boston.  And my hopes and dreams smashed into the wall of reality.  9-to-5 work, sitting behind a desk, no glimpses of sunlight for days on end.  Schmoozing macho clients, cold-calling reporters to pitch crap I didn't care about and feeling tired and miserable five days a week.  I knew almost instantly it wasn't for me.

 

I didn't struggle with that whole 'What-will-I-do-next?'  I immediately decided I'd follow in my brother's footsteps and become and officer in the military.  I was accepted as a navigator in the Air Force and had roughly six months to wait around for Officer Candidate School (OCS) to start.  I was still living in Boston, dragging my miserable butt to the office each day, trying to pay off the credit card debt I had racked up while being a college kid having fun.

 

My parents, who had recently moved to California, came up with a plan: I'd move in with them, explore CA and work as a bartender in downtown Palo Alto to pay off debt until OCS started.  Ah...YES! I was on a plane in half a New York minute.

 

Within two months of moving across the country to CA, I had not only fallen in love with this amazingly gorgeous state, but I had also fallen in love with a man.  He was seven years older, and he was a real-life scientist working in the medical device research field.  We knew early on that it was the real-deal and I postponed my OCS start-date to see what would happen. Ultimately, he decided to become and officer's "wife" and go with me into military life.  He claimed he would be OK with the constant moving to random places and me being deployed repeatedly, but we both knew that his hard-won, beloved career path would be tough to maintain while constantly moving from state-to-state, country-to-country. Medical device research takes years, and the best companies tend to be located in major metropolitan areas.  Love, on the other hand, is blind.

 California is the place I was meant to be

 

So I pulled out of the Air Force (you can do that when you go in as an officer) and made plans to marry him.  But what about my career?

 

I went back into high tech PR temporarily, but I knew I couldn't handle the monotony for very long.  I looked into joining the Coast Guard because then I'd at least stay on U.S. soil, but during a random online job search I came across a listing for a police officer. I applied to the Mountain View (CA) Police Department and was 24 when they hired me.

 

Looking back, I didn't really have a grasp on WHY I didn't like traditional office work back then.  I didn't really even know what I wanted.  I just knew I didn't want to work behind a desk.  And after having my heart set on the military, law enforcement was a logical choice.

 

Being a police officer had a lot of perks for me and fulfilled me in many ways.  I got to work with all kinds of people, and mainly in the outdoors.  I enjoyed helping victims, especially female victims of domestic violence and sexual assault. I got some amount of joy from putting bad guys away and all of that. Police work gives you a unique perspective. There were always intriguing, exciting and unique situations, and I developed a profound love and admiration - and a deep, deep respect - for those who choose to put their lives on the line every single day.  My favorite part of being a police officer began the day I became a detective.  I really loved the critical thinking, learning enhanced skill-sets and interrogation tactics, and there was excitement from the accomplishments that come with working in a high-performing, deeply bonded team.

 

When my term in the detective unit was coming to a close and it was time to start thinking about going back to patrol, I began to feel nervous.  I didn't want to go back. I didn't want to work the streets again.  I realized, reluctantly and with quite a bit of silent shame, that I no longer wanted to experience the kind of fear that you feel when your work the streets.  I was afraid of getting assaulted. Afraid of getting ambushed.  Afraid of getting in a fight.  I was afraid to use my weapons, and then be judged for that use.  I was afraid of making a split-second decision that would be forever be second-guessed by the entire world.

 

I was afraid of being killed.

 

I felt weak because of this fear. I felt like I didn't deserve to be a cop if I didn't embrace the stresses that came with the job. While all cops experience fear pretty regularly, I was ashamed to admit to anyone, including myself, that I was afraid of the whole thing and maybe didn't even want to do it - at all - anymore.

Some of the weaponry required to do the job.

 

An opportunity presented itself, and I snatched it up REAL fast!  No hesitation. It was my out.  My police department had created a brand new Community Relations Manager position and the move would be a pretty big promotion for me on the city's org chart.  I would work directly for the chief of police and have a seat at the department's weekly executive leadership meetings.  It was a civilian position, so I would have to give up the gun and badge. I pretended to hem and haw, but immediately knew this was my way out of being a cop.

 

Long story short, I held that position for five years before moving on.  In total, I spent ten years working for the Mountain View Police Department, and I wouldn't give any of it up for all the money in the world.

 

My experiences in law enforcement have shaped who I am today.  The lessons I learned about myself and others still assist me in my daily life.  I take my experiences, both good and bad, with me everywhere I go.

 

With this in mind, here are the top five lessons I learned from working in law enforcement:

 

I Am Very Strong and More than Capable

Becoming a cop is tough work; being a cop is even tougher!  The police academy and ongoing training - no joke.  You get beat up and beat down and, as a woman, you always have to prove you have what it takes.  I had never shot a handgun before, much less an AR-15 assault rifle.  I had never had to fight anyone, ever (except for my brother growing up). But I learned how.  I was young and female and wasn't used to ordering convicted felons around, but I got that part down, too.  I learned to fight, to defend myself and to use the myriad of weapons cops carry.  I was pepper sprayed, gassed and tasered during trainings. I faced death and violence in a variety of forms. I survived it all and exceeded my own expectations.  I was selected to be a detective earlier than any other officer in my department's history due to my hard work, aptitude and dedication.  I learned that I can be BAD ASS! And yet still be a woman.  Still be nurturing, empathetic, caring and kind.

 

I Can Do Anything I Want - With Hard Work

Not many women want to be cops.  Not many women who decide to become cops actually make it through the rigors of schooling and training. Usually only senior officers are selected to be detectives, not newer officers like I was.  But I accomplished all these things, all of which I had never imagined for myself growing up.  I was a rising star.  I set my mind toward accomplishing my goals, and then I put in the hard work and dedication needed to achieve those goals.  At each point in the process, I knew the odds were technically against me, but I persevered because I believed in myself, made my objectives clear to anyone who cared to listen and pushed myself to do the best I could do.  I couldn't necessarily control the outcome, but I could definitely try harder than the next person.

 

Seek Others' Help to Accomplish Your Goals

I couldn't have achieved these types of accomplishments during my law enforcement career without trusted mentors by my side along the way.  Early on, I identified senior cops who I wanted to be like. They were people of integrity who exhibited all the best qualities of those who chose this profession.  I modeled myself in their image and aligned myself with them. They became my mentors and my advocates, as well as my friends.  They helped me accomplish my goals by not only giving me sound advice, but also by advocating for me. They showed me the path, and then helped me find my own way.

 

Be True to Yourself and to Hell with what Others Think

I'm not sure where my life would be if I had stayed a sworn police officer and had rotated back to the streets as planned. I don't like to play the "what if" game, but in this situation I'm glad I listened to my inner voice, even if I didn't like what that voice was saying and didn't fully understand what was going on in my own brain.  I am now willing to admit out loud what I didn't like about law enforcement.  I didn't like the feeling that I might die. It's as simple as that.  The fear of death haunted me at times, and I hid that.  I know a lot of cops who feel the same way as I did.  I can see it in their actions (or lack thereof), and some have confessed it to me.  I'm so thankful I listened to my gut and didn't force myself to stick with police work out of shame and fear of what others would think. Like I had worried about, I did get judged for becoming a civilian; I still do sometimes when I meet a cop and he or she hears my story.  Still, I know I would have been profoundly unhappy and stressed out if I had stuck with it.  I embraced the new opportunity when it arose and focused on the actions I could take to make it my new reality.

 

Change, and How We Handle It

One benefit of working in law enforcement is the ability to have many sub-jobs and new experiences.  In ten years, I was on the bike patrol; I worked the streets; I was a detective; I worked on an internal sex offender committee; I learned how to investigate homicides and collect evidence; I learned how to successfully interview and interrogate suspects; I wrote policies and procedures; I taught scores of community members crime prevention techniques; I worked with businesses, both large and small, on physical security; I completed threat assessments as part of a post-9/11 Homeland Security gig; I was on TV and radio more times than I can count; I did press conferences and conducted media interviews with the Today Show and CNN.  All of these new experiences required some level of learning, not to mention getting over one kind of fear or another. All of them involved changing the status quo and embracing something unfamiliar.  All of them helped to not only further my career, but make me a stronger, more diverse individual with a broad array of skills and experiences.  Constant change required a dynamic mindset, and an open heart and mind.  These are useful skills I carry with me now and will always be able to call on in the future.  Change=growth.

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