Law Enforcement Leadership September October 2017

Mike Carpenter

Moving Up the Ladder

What does it take to build a successful career in law enforcement?  The answer to that has changed in recent years.

“Moving up the ladder” may have a different meaning to different people, but, regardless of your rank or your future aspirations, there are some basic guidelines for reaching your future goals. In the past, good common sense was thought to be the number one attribute necessary for success in policing at any rank. Good common sense is still important, but knowledge of ever increasingly complex laws, understanding personnel policies and litigation prevention tactics are all just as necessary.

So, whether you want to go from sergeant to lieutenant, detective to chief investigator, or chief of a small department to chief of a larger department, heed the following words of advice: Progressive and upwardly mobile police officers need to reach out and take charge of their careers. They recognize that the minimal training they may receive may result in minimal performance, and that is not good enough.  They want a successful career with progressively more responsibility, increasing self-actualization and more professional challenges. They want a career which serves them well for 20 or 30 years, and then provides them with an opportunity for perhaps a high paying second career as they steer towards a financially secure retirement.

These progressive officers look to a well-balanced career development plan to set themselves apart from their peers. They are preparing themselves for success, now and in the future, and will be ready when opportunities arise. This balanced approach involves focusing on specific keys to success.

Grow in Your Job

Regardless of the position you now hold, you can effectively grow in your job.  First, learn everything you can about your current job. Become the best that you can be in that position. In doing so, you will become the standard for that position and be recognized as such by your subordinates, peers and those of higher rank.

Then, be inquisitive enough to know and understand the jobs of others, both below and above you in rank. Learn their duties and responsibilities. Knowing and understanding their jobs, and their relationship to your current job, will help you understand the relationship between various ranks and their relationships to the department.

Broaden Your Experience

Upwardly mobile officers are seldom career specialists. To move up the ranks, you need broad based experience within your agency. To gain this experience, you should make every effort to rotate between various assignments, such as uniform, detective and administrative assignments. You may also want to volunteer for “special assignments” within your current area to learn the special and unique organizational skills associated with such assignments. The experience and insight gained in such assignments can be of great value as you embark on future “special assignments” of your own.

Further Your Education

The trend is clear regarding formal education in law enforcement.  More and more police and sheriff’s departments are either encouraging, or requiring, college degrees or some level of college credits for entry level personnel. Additionally, some police organizations require a two- or four-year degree for candidates to be promoted.  Some departments offer bonus points on promotional exams for two- or four-year degrees.

Formal education can help officers to communicate better, both orally and in writing – skills which make the jobs of patrol officer through chief much easier. Learning about the criminal justice system in an academic setting can also help officers to better understand their job in context with the other agencies of government and society as a whole. In short, formal education can provide an intellectual framework into which you can put all of your other criminal justice training and experience. Given that trend, it is only logical that those who supervise those college educated police officers should be college educated themselves. Therefore, when you go up for promotion, you may be facing candidates who have two- or four-year degrees in criminal justice or a related field.

Despite your extensive practical experience, you may not make the final cut in the competition for that higher rank or new job unless you have the appropriate college degrees.

Your future is up to you on this issue. Spend some of your off-duty hours watching sitcoms on TV or spend them in a classroom.

Get Specialized Training

Being upwardly mobile can mean a variety of things, but certain specialized training can set you apart from the crowd. For example, at some level in your agency, you’ll need training in budget preparation. After all, when you are competing for municipal funds, you are pitting your budget justifications against those of other municipal agencies. So, would it make sense to see what continuing education classes your local college might offer in budgeting or financial management now?

Other specialized training which can be of great value in setting you apart includes specialty training in human resources management; tactical team management; hostage negotiations; media relations training; and, of course, all aspects of police administration.

Each class you attend will help you build up your law enforcement résumé and that can make you better qualified and more confident when being screened, tested or interviewed for promotions.

And, of course, while attending those classes, you will be meeting progressive and upwardly mobile officers from other units within your agency or from other agencies. That can be as valuable as the training, since you will repeatedly run into those old friends as you climb the various career ladders in your respective departments. You never know who among your past classmates might be looking for an upwardly mobile person for a new opportunity.

Prepare for Promotion

From years of observation, it is clear that those who prepare for promotion are the most likely to succeed at getting promoted. Years ago, there were very few programs or products for helping you get promoted. Today, there are books, videos and courses to help you out prepare your competition for promotional exams, oral boards and assessment centers. It is just plain common sense that those officers who take advantage of such resources are much more likely to get promoted in professional departments than those who sit back and do nothing.


The amount of experience an officer has is not solely a function of how long they have on the job. The types of experience they gain will vary from individual to individual.  In many departments, the length and type of experience you gain is something you can control, at least to some degree.

Choosing to work a busy area as a patrol officer or a supervisor can help you quickly gain valuable experience. It can also help you to learn from the failures and successes of the people you work with in such a busy area. Don’t hesitate to get involved and ask questions. It’s better that you learn from someone else’s mistake than your own. Other officers who choose to work in less active areas or take “easy” assignments will never gain the experience you will get.

If you want to go up through the ranks of your department, be sure you get diversified experience. Don’t spend too much time in any particular specialty area. If you get the opportunity to be a K-9 officer, that’s great. Do it for a few years and move on to some other aspect of the job, such as investigations or training or planning and research. When looking for command level personnel, top administrators want someone with a diversified background, since those positions often require oversight and understanding of several types of units. Overspecialization has been the downfall for many upwardly mobile candidates, particularly when “no suitable replacement” is available for their current highly specialized assignment.

Promote Yourself

Let it be known that you are interested in “moving up the ladder.” Confide in your supervisor that you are interested in developing a plan for “upward mobility.” If you are already in a command position, let it be known that you are interested in becoming more “upwardly mobile.”

Mentors and supporters are only interested in officers who show the motivation, commitment and desire to move forward. They will not waste their time, nor their political capital, in supporting someone who is not committed or “iffy” about their professional aspirations.

Become an asset to your agency; become respected by your peers and superiors; and work diligently to continually advance your career.

Network, Network, Network

Law enforcement is, and will continue to be, a person-to-person business. That same person-to-person premise will also help you to get promoted within your agency and beyond it.

In order to network, you must be a part of your local constituency, as well as a member of a larger law enforcement community. Your reputation and standing in the law enforcement community is critical to your success in getting promoted. The way you are perceived by your peers and subordinates bears directly upon how you are perceived by your superiors and others in a position to promote you.

To that end, promote yourself professionally. Join professional associations, offer to teach at the academy, continue your college efforts, offer to speak to local and civic groups as a representative of your agency and as a professional law enforcement officer.  Become an organizational leader, writer and speaker. Such actions will set you apart from your peers and enhance your image as a police leader.

Okay, so you agree that getting your college degrees, going to all kinds of training classes and getting diversified experiences is the way to a successful career.  Now, you ask, “Where do I get the time for all this and still do my job?”

Here is where the commonsense answer has to prevail. First, building a successful career IS your job. Second, start now! We have heard too many people over the years say things like, “I’m gonna go back to school maybe next year” or “I guess I should’ve studied a little more for the promotion test” or “I should’ve gotten that special assignment, but some young kid with a college degree got it.” You’ve got 20-30 years to get all the education, training and experience you can handle, but do not procrastinate.  You don’t need it all “right away”… you can get it “on your way.”

Note: Police Management Services, LLC is pleased to announce to the readers of P&SN that it is offering a new online supervisory training program. This online training is the equivalent of a four day training program at an academy. Please check their Web page at For more information, you can reach them by E-mail at or by phone at (518)761-9708. Also, see their ad in this edition of P&SN.