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You ran till your legs felt numb. You watched the videos, practiced defensive tactics till they became second nature and you listened to countless instructors tell you about the job that lies ahead after graduation. To a cadet, reading material and hands-on, supervised training removes Hollywood’s depiction of law enforcement by shedding light on the realities of this career field. A ride along experience takes cadets out of the classroom and into real-life policing situations. The level of understanding available from participating in this type of experience is invaluable to future officers. If you are considering accompanying an officer in a ride along experience, there are a few things to think about ahead of time that will make the experience more meaningful. Here are some suggestions:
Plan Ahead. The paperwork is an important first step. Some agencies have this paperwork online and some make you visit the building. Research the process online at the agency’s homepage and plan according to their requirements and schedule. Do not expect to turn in your paperwork the day you wish to ride. Some agencies have a ten day processing period, some require a short narrative explaining your interest in the ride along program, and some require a notary’s stamp. Be wary of making expectations. The experience will be valuable but it will show the reality of the job. Some shifts are packed with action while others seem to drag on forever. This is simply a reality of the job. Also, the officer will make the final decision about how close to the action you will be allowed to get (if their department has not made the decision for them.) Keep this fact in mind before you go on the ride along and do not allow unrealistic expectations to tarnish your experience.
Dress the part. It is an honor to accompany an officer during his shift. Dressing in a way that shows respect to the officer, department and yourself shows you are interested in the field and are not wasting anyone’s time. Business casual is the way to go. Wear clean pants and a polo if possible. Wear comfortable shoes but leave sandals and toe-revealing shoes home, where they belong. Comb your hair and keep it out of your face. This may not be an interview but it is a networking opportunity. Make your appearance match the first impression you aim to make.
Network. Introduce yourself clearly and mention which academy you’re from (if you’re attending school in the local community, more often than not, the officers know one of your instructors.) Forbes.com says, “There is a lot of bad networking out there. You can differentiate yourself just by being prepared.” Have something interesting to say if the opportunity arises. Some suggestions are what has been your favorite class in the academy thus far, which lesson you are excited to learn next, and what do you hope to learn from the ride along. Trust your gut about when to speak and do not let your conversation get in the way of their work.
Be Professional. Now that you’re well-dressed, tailor your attitude to match the high level of professionalism your outward appearance portrays. Show respect through your language. Yes Sir, Yes Ma’am, No Sir, No Ma’am are not just for instructors. Treat everyone equitably as well. Civilian positions at a department are necessary for the sworn-in positions to accomplish the mission the entire department shares. The officer you ride with will more than likely make you feel comfortable and treat you like they would treat their fellow officer but remember to respect the lines that are drawn. This comes naturally for many but it never hurts to keep the thought in mind.
Ask Questions. Have a few questions handy. Many cadets have questions about the field or the department. Make sure you have thought of some questions before hand. Asking these questions reinforces your interest in the field and shows you are valuing the officer’s time. Pay attention to what is going on. If you have questions about why the officer pulled someone over, found someone suspicious, etc., ask them how they made their decision. This is an opportunity to learn about the thought process you will need during your career.
A ride along is a job shadowing opportunity for eager cadets. Cadets can gain a wealth of practical knowledge from the experience. You wouldn’t enter the academy without your uniform, books, and paper; don’t walk into the ride along blind. Make the most out of your experience by putting your best foot forward. Remember the wisdom of Alexander Graham Bell, “Before anything else, preparation is the key to success.”