We all know from TV and movies what the police do — tell bad guys they have the right to remain silent, pull you over if you drive too fast, analyze data and make maps.
"There's a very stereotypical perspective that people have" about law enforcement work, said Officer Alexandra Rambaran of the Tucson Police Department in Arizona. But "there are so many jobs within a law enforcement agency that you could be doing."
Rambaran, who is also an Air Force Reserve staff sergeant, started on patrol. But now she works for the department's research and analysis division, mapping crime hotspots, finding stats and coordinating with other agencies.
"I actually really enjoy it. It coincides with a lot of the stuff I do in the military," Rambaran said.
Capt. JT Turner said Tucson officers do everything from research to flying the department’s helicopters to working with dogs as part of K9 units to in-depth investigative work to, yes, the sort of patrol and community policing that you’ll see portrayed on television.
"It really runs the full spectrum," Turner said, adding that the department can often match its veteran and reservist officers up with police department jobs directly related to their military occupations.
"There’s really a job that fits most, if not all, of those."
Turner’s department was among the top finishers in Military Times’ Best for Vets: Law Enforcement 2017 rankings. Others include the Cincinnati Police Department, Denver Police Department, Harris County Sheriff’s Office in Texas, Henrico County Police Division in Virginia and Orange County Sheriff’s Office in Florida.
Service members and veterans accounted for nearly one in five sworn officers at agencies and departments responding to our survey. Nearly every agency reported having a current or former service member or military spouse as a senior leader.
On average, for every $10 departments spent on recruiting, nearly $1 was dedicated to military and veteran candidates. More than 70 percent of responding agencies reported attending military-specific job fairs in the past year, with an average of about 11 per agency.
Roughly half of the agencies have a veteran hiring preference, through extra points on entry exams or other means.
Harris County, Texas, Deputy Ruth Recio receives care packages in Afghanistan.
Photo Credit: Harris County Sheriff's Office
About six in 10 responding agencies have signed on with the Defense Department’s Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, and a similar number have instituted training to teach their departments about military career paths, culture and other issues. Vets can count their time serving in the military toward their police retirement at nearly two-thirds of agencies, but they must purchase this credit at almost every agency that offers the option.
All but one agency that made the Best for Vets: Law Enforcement 2017 list told us they are hiring right now, and the other one told us it expects to start hiring soon.
There are many similarities between police work and military service. Both have tightly regimented structures, can involve high-pressure situations and are focused on serving the public.
"It was just another uniform that I could put on, and it wasn’t a complete lifestyle change from being in the military," said Samuel Edwards, a recruit with the Henrico County Police Division.
Edwards, a Virginia Army National Guard second lieutenant, added that the first couple of months he’s spent at the police academy so far haven’t represented a big transition.
"I would say that my military training certainly has prepared me for it."
Henrico Sgt. Edward Ross said the division’s military and veteran recruits are typically "ahead of the curve" and immediately take on leadership roles.
"They take what they’ve learned [in the military] and do it on a local level," Ross said. "Their deployment is whatever shift they’re working each day, and they’re home each night."
Tucson Police Department military members Officer Eddie Valenzuela, Officer Alexandra Rambaran, Detective Chris Goins, Officer Mendall Edwards, Crime Analyst Sean Rambaran, Bicycle Officer Brian Harwood, Officer Nicolo Solarino and Officer Jason Hollander.
Photo Credit: Steve Agan
Joanne Stanley, a Navy veteran and current recruit with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, said joining the force gave her back something she lost when she medically retired in 2015: "I just like feeling like I’m a part of something."
Stanley agreed that the military was excellent preparation for joining the police, particularly with regard to the paramilitary structure, but she also warned fellow vets not to go to police academy thinking they’ll just waltz through.
"It’s not as easy as I thought it was going to be," Stanley said, highlighting the agency’s rigorous physical training, or PT, standards. "I was in the Navy. I never went into combat, so PT wasn’t a big thing for me."
In the spotlight
A recent rash of high-profile incidents, in which officers shot unarmed suspects, has put the spotlight on police departments throughout the country. Todd Gardiner, captain over the Orange County Sheriff’s Office Training Section, said in an email that "preventing a lethal force response is a high priority for our agency. ... Some of the principles we prioritize are valuing the sanctity of human life, de-escalation and development of policies that go beyond the national standard in regard to use of force."
For the many officers who remain members of the National Guard and reserves during their police careers, the challenges go well beyond PT.
Maj. Denise Demps of the Orange County Sheriff’s Office has juggled both responsibilities for well over two decades, joining the Army Reserve in 1988 and the sheriff’s office in 1991.
"I’ve had a dual career this entire time," Demps said. "There are times when you have competing interests, and at some point you have to decide which one is priority."
In order to pull this off, you’ll need to work for an agency that is willing to be flexible when it comes to the demands of reserve duty.
"I’ve been to two wars and three peace-keeping missions, and the organization has always been supportive," Demps said.
Perhaps as important as flexibility for reservists who have to leave an agency to fulfill military obligations is a reintegration program.
This training refreshes officers on the agency’s policies and rules when they return from reserve duty.
When such troops deploy to combat zones with very different rules of engagement, this is crucial, said Tucson’s Turner, commanding officer of his department’s human resources operations.
The department’s academy helps refresh returning troops on procedures, while the behavioral science unit tackles psychological aspects.
A training officer is pictured with new recruits at the San Diego Police Department's paramilitary police academy.
Photo Credit: San Diego Police Department
"When they come back from deployment, we kind of re-acclimate them to civilian policing," Turner said.
Turner added that attracting and retaining service members is a high priority for the department. "We’ve just found that military people really come to the table with the mindset and the skill set to be really highly successful in roles in law enforcement," he said.