Seven Key Factors in the Transition from Military to Civilian Policing
*This article is part of In Public Safety’s September focus on career transitions*
By Dr. Allan Conkey, Professor of Criminal Justice at American Military University
During my career in military and federal law enforcement, I have frequently been asked how one can successfully transition from the military to civilian policing. I have found that certain variables appear to play a key role in increasing the successful chances of that transition.
Based on my personal experience over two-and-a-half decades, combined with that of military police personnel in my past commands who have successfully made the jump from military to civilian law enforcement, here are seven key factors that can help with the transition.
Your career transition must be a proactive initiative, rather than a passive one. It is highly unlikely that an agency or department will come running to find you. Those who think it’s enough to merely fill out a law enforcement application will rarely land the job.
Ultimately, going from any profession to another is challenging and requires a great deal of research and follow-up. Recent military downsizing has increased the pool of candidates, so there is added competition for a limited number of law enforcement vacancies.
Past Service Considerations
Keep in mind, if you did a poor job in military policing that can come up when applying for civilian law enforcement positions. Over the years, I took numerous officer candidate screening calls regarding folks who were looking to transition to civilian law enforcement. The fact is, not everyone in service as a military police officer would make a good civilian cop and not all of my reviews were positive. While it’s important to include your accomplishments on your resume, be careful not to embellish and/or over-exaggerate your achievements.
Fulfill Fitness Expectations, Physical and Mental
Fitness is not only about physical health, but also about mental health. Serious candidates should be able to meet and exceed local police academy physical fitness standards by 10 percent. More so, prior military personnel should be able to show they are not scarred mentally (e.g., currently struggling with unresolved PTSD), which would generally preclude them from being competitive candidates for open positions.
Determine What Level of Education You Need
Most agencies seek candidates with a college education. It may be surprising, but having a degree in areas such as computer science, accounting, or even a foreign language may actually earn more points at some departments than a degree in criminal justice. This point goes back to an earlier recommendation about being proactive in your search and learning about current trends in hiring practices.
Emphasize Special Qualifiers
Be sure to include your military work experience such as K-9, explosive ordnance disposal (EOD), computers, and foreign language/linguistics; these specialties are often sought by departments.
If you don’t have military police experience, consider applying and paying your own way through a state-accredited police academy. I can think of two military members who did this (one had no military police experience at all minus being a military police augmentee) and both thought it was the academy experience that helped them land the job.
Ultimately, selecting a candidate who is already an academy graduate can save a department thousands of dollars. Hence, while doing this doesn’t guarantee you will land the position, for some departments it could show that you are a more committed applicant, and in turn it may boost your chances of being selected when all other things are equal.
Do Not Be Overconfident
Whether your confidence comes across as arrogance, entitlement, or some other undesirable individual characteristic, it could hurt your chances of landing the job.
In addition, times have changed and military service is not always considered beneficial for civilian law enforcement. Some notable police chiefs have stated that they would actually rather have non-prior military personnel as new officers. These comments are likely based on a fear that prior service members may be more prone to using a higher level of force on suspects than those without military experience.
This may not be a fully unfounded concern. Many military police personnel have served in active war zones and there is growing concern regarding service members returning with PTSD, which could potentially influence their future decision-making when dealing with an uncooperative public.
Therefore, when applying for a position, be sure to highlight the positives of military service while demonstrating that you are not overconfident or overzealous.
Keep All Documentation of Training and Service
When I started my career, my first commander and installation police chief highlighted the importance of keeping records pertaining to training and service. When I ended my service, I left with three completely full six-inch binders. Those records have been copied and scanned many times and in turn have played a vital part in helping me gain positions over the past 30 years.
Remember that you never know when even a minor certification, such as being able to administer the horizontal gaze nystagmus or field sobriety test(s), will help set you apart from candidates with no prior military or law enforcement experience. Such training is always considered a positive, but you have to be able to prove it via documentation.
About the Author: Dr. Conkey is a retired officer and a decorated veteran of both the first and second Gulf Wars. Dr. Conkey’s career opportunities have included being a criminal investigator, confinement officer, senior U.S. customs officer in Japan, and exchange officer with the Japanese National Police Forensics Laboratory in Northern Japan. As Commander of the Air Force’s Elite Guard, for two years he commanded plain-clothed security details in support of dozens of world leaders and heads of state to include President Bush and Afghanistan President Hamid Kharzai. He is a three time Military Chief of Police and member of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. In all, Dr. Conkey has over 25 years of active service in the law enforcement and security realm. Today, a published author and faculty member for American Public University System, Dr. Conkey teaches within the Criminal Justice Department, and holds the academic rank of Full Professor.