By: Michael Fernandez
How do you get a special assignment you want? What makes you stand out in a crowd of ten plus candidates for one spot? As an Anaheim Police Sergeant I am often asked by officers, “What do I do to get a special assignment? What can I do differently? Why do I continue to get passed over?” The following is based on my personal experience of 17 years. My experience consists of Patrol, Traffic Unit including Motor Officer, Resort Policing Team, Vice Unit, Criminal Intelligence Unit and Patrol Sergeant. I completed my Bachelor of Science and the Supervisory Leadership Institute. It is also based on numerous conversations with many officers, detectives, investigators, sergeants, special assignment sergeants and lieutenants throughout the years. I wrote this in the interest of career development for an officer relatively new to an organization. Every organization is different. What each organization emphasizes in an officer’s development to make that officer more marketable changes from place to place. However, this article describes the “intangibles” applicable to any organization.
One factor out of your control is the needs of the special assignment, like if it requires extensive investigative experience. That aside and regardless of how the selection process is accomplished, there are several factors which separate an individual from the pack. These are factors you can personally impact and shape because time on the job is NOT usually good enough.
Personality goes a long way: Everyone has his or her own unique personality. Because we are human, the factor of personality and its impact on a selection cannot be overstated. Think of it this way: What kind of person do you want to be around and rely on day in and day out? Compatibility is the key and the only way to accomplish this is for you and the assignment personnel to know each other.
Immediately traits come to mind such as humility vs. arrogance, team player vs. individual, modest vs. egotistic, friendly vs. rude, considerate vs. inconsiderate, pleasant to be around vs. unpleasant to be around, and on and on. Consider your own personality, put yourself in the shoes of the special assignment sergeant and officers, and ask yourself if you would choose yourself for the special assignment. If you have to answer “no,” then consider a change in your behavior.
Work ethic: A definition of work ethic from Dictionary.com: A belief in the moral benefit and importance of work and its inherent ability to strengthen character. Some people are thankful for having a job, believe they owe their employer an honest day’s work and are happy to contribute. Some people believe their employer should be thankful they work for them, believe they do not owe their employer anything, spread their cynicism about even the most mundane departmental and supervisory decisions and begrudgingly contribute at the minimum. A lot of people are somewhere in between. Who are you? This speaks volumes of your character, so consider it carefully.
A special assignment or unit wants someone with a solid work ethic who is willing to learn, help those around him or her and eager to contribute to the mission. Your work ethic is obvious to everyone around you and it will be clear to the special assignment supervisor and personnel if you are a hard worker. This is often more important than the other factors, personality excluded. The special assignment can usually mold a person into a knowledgeable expert in their field if the person has the good work ethic. A solid work ethic, like personality, is developed throughout a lifetime. They cannot tolerate a weak work ethic regardless of how knowledgeable you are.
Knowledge and expertise: How much do you know about the special assignment and their work product compared to that of the other candidates? If you’re interested in gangs, have you developed an expertise in the field of gang investigations? If you set your sights on a particular special assignment, know as much about the unit’s responsibilities and develop an expertise in their investigations and responsibilities.
Your work product from patrol related to the special assignment you are interested in will reach that special assignment, and you should make sure they know about it. For example, you should bombard gangs with field identifications or traffic with citations and traffic collision reports. Continuously develop your knowledge and expertise. This is a great opportunity for you to reach out to personnel in respective special assignments with questions. For those working graveyard and weekends this can be accomplished with a simple phone call or email. Special assignment personnel are usually willing to help.
Work product: Ask yourself if you write thorough and accurate reports. Ask yourself if you conduct detailed investigations. I’m sure you’ve heard it a million times: those in special assignments know you only by the paper you write. We’re cops, so it only takes one or two shoddy work products for you to earn a lousy reputation with a special assignment. Like the saying goes, “you’re only as good as your last screw up.” When a report goes to a special assignment, a detective or investigator can tell how many corners you cut by how many holes in your report they have to fill. Many detectives and investigators routinely read the author’s name even before they read the report to gauge going in how much will have to be fixed in your investigation. You want to be the officer that gets this reaction from the reader, “This was written by Johnny Law. Great, because that means it’s a tight report.” Don’t be that officer who gets the reaction, “This officer cuts corners on everything. Now I have more work to do.”
Standing out: There are many ways to separate yourself from the pack based on the additional work you do. Separate yourself from other candidates by putting in work for the special assignment and showing the special assignment that everything else being equal, you already know how to write search warrants, or already know how to run a community meeting.
If your interest is to be a detective or investigator, your field sergeant will assist you with writing search warrants. If your interest is traffic, volunteer for as many traffic collisions as you can. If your interest is the community policing team, request to go to neighborhood meetings and assist with their projects. Continued training and professional development are vital for standing out. Whether you do this in-service or on your own, these actions demonstrate motivation and desire for growth.
Networking, networking, networking: Express interest in a special assignment long before an opening is announced. Expressing an interest is about letting the people in the special assignment, including the sergeant, know you’re interested. If you do something noteworthy related to the special assignment of your choice, let someone in the special assignment know. Discuss your interest in the special assignment with your field sergeant, and your field sergeant can be your strongest advocate. Reach out to special assignment personnel, ask questions related to their expertise, and produce a work product that reflects the knowledge learned. Request a temporary assignment to the special assignment if your agency allows, so you and the special assignment personnel can gauge how well you work with each other. Ask to assist them when they need it. Become the special assignment’s patrol go-to officer for cold stops, uniform presence, search warrant assistance, and probably most importantly, tracking people down for them on nights and weekends. The special assignment needs to know you genuinely want the job and would be grateful to be selected. Doing this work ahead of an opening lets everyone know that you are applying out of genuine interest, rather than applying to get out of patrol.
In a perfect world, “it’s who you know” would not be a consideration. However, we are all human, so it would be foolish to ignore it. This is about bridges you build and burn over the long term. Your peers today could conceivably have input in candidate selections for a special assignment. Your field sergeant today could be the special assignment sergeant tomorrow. The impressions you make on the watch commander today could positively or negatively affect you when that lieutenant runs a bureau.
Networking is important, and here are some examples. Work special assignment overtime if available, and try to partner with someone from a different assignment so they get to know you. Volunteer to be on various committees, such as the awards banquet committee. Baker to Vegas (running or supporting) is another way to interact with folks with whom you wouldn’t normally interact. If you have the time, attend crime meetings, caps meetings, gang meetings, assist with the Explorers, etc. There are countless avenues, work related or otherwise, to develop your network so you are a known quantity when openings come up. Please note I make a distinction between networking and “apple polishing.”
Willingness to accept constructive criticism: If you test for a special assignment, but don’t get it, contact the special assignment sergeant to find out why. This can give you valuable information about what the sergeant perceived were your shortcomings and where you can improve. Sometimes an issue can be corrected quickly, and sometimes there are long-term solutions. Either way, you can only improve by hearing the criticism. It may open your eyes to how others perceive you.
This is a two-way street. You must be willing to accept the constructive criticism, and you must hope the sergeant isn’t pulling punches. It’s irritating to be ready for the criticism and you get the old, “keep doing what you’re doing.” This gives you no direction. If that happens, respectfully press him or her for specifics. Afterward, be willing to accept the criticism no matter how bruised your ego may be. How you receive the criticism will be viewed as a measure of your maturity and willingness to improve. Do not focus on the criticism and become bitter. This will only harm your chances going forward. The most important part of accepting constructive criticism is acting on it. If you take the advice, trumpet your success. Let the person know if the advice was beneficial.
Conclusion: For those who think special assignments are given to the best “apple polishers” and saw that in the above factors, your potential for getting a special assignment is already decided by your own actions and inactions. For those who think, “It’s about who you know,” you are partly correct. Human nature dictates people always prefer a known quantity to an unknown quantity. If you follow the suggestions above, you will soon see YOU are who they know. The opinions of your peers in special assignments are based on the above factors.
Every agency strives for a great reputation with the DA’s Office and surrounding agencies. Each special assignment contributes to this reputation by being professional and having all personnel produce a quality product. Every special assignment sergeant understands the importance of carrying on and building on the reputation of those who came before them. They must decide if you are the one to carry on this tradition. It can only help your chances of being one of the top candidates for a position desired if you follow the above suggestions.
About the author: Michael Fernandez is a Patrol Sergeant for the Anaheim Police Department, and he has worked Traffic, Resort Policing, Community Policing, Vice, Criminal Intelligence, and promoted to Sergeant in his 17 years there. Before the Anaheim Police Department, Sergeant Fernandez worked for the El Monte Police Department for 11 years where he was a Police Cadet, a Jailer and a Reserve Police Officer. Sergeant Fernandez holds a B.S. degree in Business Administration from the California State University at Los Angeles.