Success in the law enforcement profession requires a variety of personal and professional characteristics. Police officers, sheriff’s deputies, special agents and other investigators need to be devoted to physical training and weapons mastery.
Officers also must be able to manage stress and know how to handle difficult situations in a calm and controlled manner.
But as the new millennium continues to present evolving challenges for law enforcement agencies – from cyber crime to terrorism and social media – it has become increasingly important for the nation’s crime-fighters to develop a set of core attributes.
“Tactical skills are important, but attitude, tolerance, and interpersonal skills are equally so,” The President’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing noted in its 2015 report. “And to be effective in an ever-changing world, training must continue throughout an officer’s career.”
Let’s take a closer look at some of the key qualities for law enforcement professionals.
Honesty, Integrity and Ethics
Law enforcement personnel must commit to certain principles and values, and use them to guide their actions. Striving to behave with honesty and integrity, police offers must not succumb to the pressure of behaving immorally in difficult situations. From taking cash from a scene to removing evidence, officers are faced daily with temptations large and small.
Fellsmere (Florida) Chief of Police Keith Touchberry, an adjunct professor in Florida Tech’s online BA in Criminal Justice program, said police officers must “exercise personal and peer accountability at all times.”
That includes setting high expectations for each other and helping colleagues to follow protocol in their daily actions.
Otherwise, “when officers make decisions that favor their relationships over their agency they jeopardize the public trust and make their organizations vulnerable,” said Touchberry, who teaches a course on Criminal Justice Ethics.
Law enforcement officers must be able to speak face-to-face with a wide range of people, including witnesses, suspects, complainants, prosecutors, medical personnel and 911 dispatchers. That means written and verbal communication skills are essential components of policing.
Providing clear instructions, answers and information is required in a variety of situations, from testifying in court to negotiating with suspects, and effective communication can be a difference-maker in peacefully resolving a potential crisis.
Empathy and Kindness
Law enforcement professionals must be able to listen with empathy, and communicate with kindness, tolerance, consideration and understanding. In addition to fostering community relations, such an approach also benefits the work of police officers. For example, the International Association of Chiefs of Police notes that victims will be more inclined to help investigators if they believe they have been “treated with compassion, fairness and respect.”
Open-Mindedness and Diversity
The nation’s police departments have become increasingly diverse in recent decades, with minority officers now representing almost 30% of sworn personnel, federal statistics show. The President’s Task Force, meanwhile, has spotlighted the value of attracting officers from a range of cultural backgrounds.
It’s also important that law enforcement professionals represent a diversity of life experiences, said Dallas (Texas) Police Lt. Mark Stallo, an adjunct professor in Florida Tech’s Criminal Justice program. That can incorporate “something that they have learned outside of the home, something that’s unique,” such as attending college or serving in the military.
Police officers need to be “open-minded and serve a multitude of different types of people; serve them all equally and fairly,” Stallo said.
Decision Making and Collaboration
Should an officer pursue a red light runner? Is there enough probable cause to arrest a suspect? In a developing situation, when is the right time to call for backup? Law enforcement officers are called upon daily to make decisions quickly and confidently, and must remain level-headed under intense conditions.
Additionally, whether it’s walking the beat with a patrol partner or working an accident scene with paramedics, sheriff’s deputies and police officers must collaborate with a range of team members in order to effectively carry out their duties.
Multi-agency investigations also are becoming more prevalent as the digital age clears obstacles to the sharing of information, and homeland security and cyber threats span jurisdictions. That places a premium on the ability of officers and investigators to work with peers from local, state, federal and, in some cases, international law enforcement agencies.
Similarly, a series of high-profile shootings have refocused attention on community partnerships and other collaborative initiatives.
“Effective partnerships between law enforcement and community stakeholders are essential to public safety,” the federal Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS Office) notes on its website.
Continuous Learning and Improving
Advances in technology and crime analysis are among the many factors changing the face of modern policing. Combined with the shifting nature of threats to public safety, legislative mandates and judicial rulings can also bring substantive changes to common police practices.
This means that law enforcement officers must constantly seek new training and knowledge to keep pace.
Nationally, police departments are increasing their education requirements for new recruits, with almost one-third of agencies calling for at least an undergraduate degree or a specified amount of college credit.
As of 2013, about 1 in 4 police officers were employed by agencies that required an associate’s degree or higher for entry-level positions, according to U.S. Department of Justice statistics.
Chief Touchberry, of the Fellsmere Police Department, said officers must be “willing to learn so they can continue to grow and develop as public servants.”