So you want to be a police officer — do you have what it takes?

Published 12:06 am Sunday, September 4, 2022

SALISBURY — In a world of online living, where more and more jobs involve an online application, followed many times by an online interview, it might be easy to think that getting a job as a police officer could be as simple.

It is not.

To become a Salisbury Police officer is a multi-layered process, with good reason, and new or “rookie” officers should understand there is about a six-month period, including five months of intense, required training they must pass, before they ever hit the streets.

For those who are committed, the job is incredibly rewarding, but it does take commitment, as well as a clear understanding that “this is a profession where you are going to be held to a higher standard, even when you are not in uniform,” according Daniel Harless, newly appointed director of law enforcement training at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College. “Citizens expect police officers to do what is right, regardless. They are going to call you on what is one of the worst days of their life, and they need someone to show up who looks capable of and who has the training and ability to handle their problem. It’s a lot to ask, so it’s important to be prepared for that from the start.”

Once you decide it is a career you would like to pursue, it does begin with an online application. But that is as far as the similarity to most other job applications goes. You must be at least 20 years old, have a valid driver’s license in good standing, have a high school diploma or GED, and have no felony convictions. Even certain misdemeanors can be disqualifying.

Initial screening

If your online application is chosen, you receive paperwork, including a polygraph questionnaire, and then will be scheduled for a polygraph. The biggest thing to adhere to in that polygraph is to tell the truth.

“A lot of things that people lie about are things that might not disqualify them,” said Lt. Justin Crews, who has been a part of the hiring team and who currently is an instructor at RCCC under Harless. “Lying is a major issue, because if you will lie on the polygraph, what will you do if you are accused of excessive force, or some other inappropriate behavior? No, lying is not going to get you through.”

Passing the polygraph is just one part of checking a person’s moral fiber to see if it is strong enough for the job. There is an extensive background check, and the state requires interviews with a spouse if you are married, along with adult children over 18, and if you are not married, interviews with parents. A home visit is essential.

“If we get to the home and there are certain types of flag flying, or indications of particular positions, that raises alarm bells,” said Crews. “We will drive by kids’ houses, just the outside, because the kids learn from their parents. We check social media profiles, too. You have to pass a medical exam. We want to talk to your previous employers. Bear in mind, yes, you are allowed to have personal opinions on things, but for instance, on Facebook, it’s one thing to post a political comment, but another thing entirely if you are posting something like ‘the president should be shot.’ ”

Crews said that if there are serious red flags, the department may dig deeper before making a decision.

If you have made it this far in the process, you will be invited to sit down for an interview with a panel consisting of Police Chief Jerry Stokes and, most likely, the major and two captains. If they agree you are a good candidate, you will be given what is known as a conditional offer. Because you are not done yet, not by a long shot.

Basic training

You will have to submit to a psychological test and in-person evaluation, and pass a drug test. Next on the agenda is Basic Law Enforcement Training or BLET. While a few select cities run their own classes, most do what Salisbury does and take advantage of the programs offered through the community colleges in their respective counties. RCCC has been the school of choice for the city, and Harless said the program works hard to meet the needs of the towns with whom they partner.

“There are actually two ways you can come to the BLET program,” said Harless. “You can come because you are hired by an agency, or you can come because you are being sponsored by an agency. For those who are hired, we hold two sessions a year, and the classes are during the day and run for about five months. For those who are sponsored, our classes are at night and run closer to nine months.” The difference is if you have received a conditional offer from a town, the town pays not only for the BLET, but for your salary while in training. If you are sponsored, it means a town has indicated they are interested in hiring you, but for a variety of reasons that has not happened yet, so you are required to pay for BLET yourself. Which is why, Harless said, classes are at night, because sponsored students still have to have an income.

“People can be sponsored for a number of reasons,” he said. “In many cases, people have another career, and they are not in a position to leave while the initial process is underway. It may be that they are not entirely sure, so they keep their current job while taking the training classes to be sure this is a change they want to make.” And sometimes a student who has been hired but who had to drop out of  BLET still wants to pursue a police career, so they come back to the program as a sponsored student to see if they can be successful. Students can have to drop out of BLET or can be dropped from the program for several reasons. If a crisis occurs (death in the family, illness or other dramatic situation that would require a student to change focus), it may prompt someone to step out, because “you cannot miss more than five percent of classes and the ones you do miss, you are required to make up,” Harless said. In addition, some may not make it through because of grades. “You cannot have more than four failing grades as you go along,” he added. Harless did say he and instructors pay attention and if they see a student struggling, they will reach out to try to help. But if a student cannot overcome the problem, they will be released from the program. Then they can return as a sponsored student if a department still believes they are a good candidate who deserves a second chance.

“We do have people who don’t make it to the end, but it’s not a huge number,” said Harless. “I would encourage anyone interested in becoming an officer, who is looking for advice on how to prepare, to be aware that while you are in BLET, it has to be your priority. For everyone else, life will go on, but for these few months you are in class, you need to make this the top thing in your life. Make time to study, and maybe understand you need to put some other things aside for that short period of time. I tell students to look at this as a bump in the road. It will pass quickly, but you need to really pay attention while it’s happening.”

And just what are the classes like? They incorporate everything from constitutional law to arrest, search and seizure, and elements of criminal law — all the information you will need to have a solid, basic understanding of constitutional rights and laws. The information, noted Harless, comes fast and is intense, and explains his insistence that students be ready to study, hard. In addition, about half of the classes involve practical applications of what is being taught. There are firearm training classes for handguns and rifles and they include situational tests as well as target tests, where you must determine whether there is a threat or not, or you must address a threat that is using an innocent bystander as a shield.

Physical training

“That incorporates stress into the situation, because we know that as stress goes up, accuracy goes down,” said Crews, who is one of the program’s physical agility instructors who prepares students for what is called POPAT, or the Police Officer Physical Agility Test, yet another piece of the training puzzle. The POPAT puts candidates through a fairly rigorous physical training and test, and Crews points out that applicants need to be in fairly decent physical shape from the outset.

“Start working on getting in decent shape before you get to BLET,” agreed Harless. More than 20 years ago, there was more emphasis on cardiovascular stamina, but these days, there is more of a need for upper body strength.” Because foot chases, while they still happen, were far more common two decades ago than today, where, unfortunately, officers can find themselves more often in situations with citizens who, rather than run, resist complying.

The agility consists of, for lack of a clearer term, an obstacle course. Participants must be able to drag a dummy that weighs about 175 pounds, must be able to do a “low crawl” under an obstacle, must manage things like a certain number of push-ups and steps on a step-up box, rolling with a weighted bag, and clearing a four-foot wall. (Just an editorial note: this reporter can attest to the fact that this test is nowhere near as easy as it sounds in writing.)

There is a driving course, including maneuvering around cones or through a designated pattern, in which you learn defensive driving for pursuits and for rapid response.

And you have to take it all in well enough to pass each test, each part of the class, including the POPAT, in order to graduate.

And if you thought that the day after graduation, you’d be ready at last to be a full-fledged, certified officer, well, not quite.

Field training

“Then you have a 12-week field training program here with our department,” said Crews. “When you start, phase one, there are things that we don’t expect you to know. But there is a progression in the learning over the weeks, and by phase three, there are some things we will expect you to know, and if you don’t, we will try to figure out why not, and how to help.” On rare occasions, candidates can get all the way to actual field training before it becomes clear they and the job are not a good fit, and in those moments, Crews said, “we part ways.”

It is also during this time that officers are taught things like expandable-baton training and “you are exposed to pepper spray, because when you use it, everyone within range will be exposed to it, and you don’t want an officer surprised by the effects. And you get Tased because again, you need to know how it affects you. And we expose them to gas — basically we make sure officers are as prepared as possible for anything they might face.”

(A last editor’s note: There is no good choice between pepper spray and Taser. If you are pepper sprayed, your best friends will be a bucket of water and bottle of milk, and you likely won’t have a sinus infection for a year. If you are Tasered, all control is lost. You cannot stand up, you cannot control any part of your body, and it is not a pleasant sensation. In fact, this reporter will tell you — it downright hurts. And you can expect to be sore for about a week. I was.)

Once you have completed your field training, it is official. You have been trained, educated, tested, certified, given some final on-the-job training, and it is now time for you to head out on your own.

But after anywhere between six months and a year of just essentially proving you are qualified for and up to the job, alongside others who are joining your profession (and in some cases, your department), you have begun to realize that this job is not just a job. It is a career that revolves around putting everyone else first. It is about making sure the citizens you have sworn to protect and serve have the best quality of life, many times by putting yourself at risk.

“It is important to remember that this job is not 9 to 5,” said Crews. “Having a spouse or partner that understands is essential, and having a family that understands that holidays, birthdays, graduations — all the days that other people can take a day off for with no issues, are not the same on this job. Dinners, sleep, days off can all be interrupted on a moment’s notice. But if you are meant for this job, the trade off — helping others live safer, happier, better lives — is worth it.”

If, having read all the details, you are still interested (or newly intrigued) the department is currently hiring.

Elisabeth Strillacci is news editor of the Salisbury Post.