A Small City Police Department: Structure And Operations
WHEAT RIDGE POLICE DEPARTMENT
To help veteran job seekers evaluate opportunities in law enforcement, I interviewed two members of the police department of Wheat Ridge, Colorado, a western suburb of Denver. I spoke with Nena Rose, the human resources business partner, and Jamie Watson, a patrol sergeant and a former member of the United States Navy Reserve, on August 27. Both were recruiting job seekers at our RecruitMilitary All Veterans Job Fair at Sports Authority Field at Mile High.
The Wheat Ridge Police Department serves a population of about 30,000. I wanted to know how a small-city department is structured and how it runs on a daily basis. I was especially interested in the department’s desire to recruit prior military. What makes veterans a good fit for law enforcement?
The department has 72 officers, including command staff. It also employs about 33 non-sworn civilians. Watson told me that 19 employees (18 sworn and 1 non-sworn) have prior military service. The Wheat Ridge Police Department currently has two officers still affiliated with the military, one member of the Army Reserve, and one member of the Army National Guard. On behalf of the readers of Search & Employ®, I asked Rose and Watson to describe their department overall, and then to explain what the job requirements are.
The Office of the Chief consists of:
- Professional standards unit
- Administrative assistant
- Public information officer
- Emergency management
Responsibilities of the Office of the Chief include:
- Preparing and updating policy and procedure
- Investigating complaints against police department employees
- Overseeing the emergency management function
- Interacting with the media on department activities
The Investigations Bureau is part of the Support Services Division. A commander is in charge of the bureau, and there are 13 detectives assigned, including a volunteer cold case investigator, and two administrative assistants.
The persons team is led by a sergeant and has five detectives assigned. The property team is also led by a sergeant and has five detectives assigned, and two evidence technicians. The special investigations unit reports directly to the bureau commander and has two detectives assigned to the West Metro Drug Task Force, one detective assigned to the Metropolitan Auto Theft Task Force, and one vice/intelligence detective.
The bureau reviews all felony crimes and oversees the property and evidence function, sex offender registrations, and criminal intelligence.
The Crime Prevention Team runs programs such as neighborhood watch, school resource, and walk-and-watch.
The Crime and Traffic Team is part of the Patrol Operations Division. This team includes one sergeant assigned to a police motorcycle, three officers assigned to police motorcycles, and police cars. The team is responsible for enforcement of traffic laws, investigation of traffic accidents/traffic related crimes, and neighborhood traffic concerns.
The SWAT Team consists of officers and supervisors who have received specialized training in weapons, less lethal munitions, tactical response, and negotiations. Three units comprise the team:
- SWAT operators are sworn officers cross-trained in key aspects of tactical work such as entry techniques, perimeter duties, and specialized munitions.
- SWAT negotiators are specially trained personnel who are selected from the ranks of both officers and civilian dispatchers.
- Tactical medics are EMT’s and paramedics trained to provide medical support during tactical situations.
The Telephone Reporting Unit has a lot on its plate. The Wheat Ridge Police Department handles between 35,000 and 41,000 calls for police service every year – roughly 100 calls a day. At least 20 percent of them are cold calls: The crime has already occurred, the suspect is gone, and no evidence exists. However, the victim still needs to make a report, or a complaint still needs to be filed.
Community Services Officers (CSO’s) enforce nuisance codes, animal codes, and park regulations with an emphasis on public safety and quality-of-life issues. There are currently four CSO’s and one CSO supervisor. In addition, three seasonal, part-time CSO’s work from May through August. CSO’s design wildlife-management programs with the cooperation of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, a division of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, for resource protection and the management of large predators such as bears and mountain lions.
Applicants must be at least 21 years old – in Colorado, one must be 21 to carry firearms – and have at least 60 credit hours of college courses. The application process includes:
- written application
- testing, including polygraph, medical, and psychological evaluations
- oral boards
- interviews with the chief
The cutoff score, Rose told me, is between 70 and 75 percent. If a candidate scores at least a “C” average on all of the above steps, he or she will have the opportunity move to the next phase: the interview panel. Usually, the panel consists of officers and senior-lever leadership. In some cases, it also includes civilian employees.
According to Rose, the purpose of these tests and interviews is to determine the character of the applicant. “We want to know if their values really align with our agency values,” she said.
She explained that the chief doesn’t see policing like “cops and robbers” but more about connecting with the people in the community. “We aren’t looking for someone who just wants to shoot a gun or be on SWAT. We want people who are passionate about helping and serving others.” The department also does a thorough background check, which includes talking to close friends and family and checking for any red flags on applicants’ social media accounts.
Riding along. “One of the things we’ve incorporated in our process is a ride-along,” said Watson. The candidate spends a day with an officer to see what day-to-day duties involve and how they are managed. “This allows them to see us and how our agency works and whether or not we are an agency that they would like to work with. It also allows us to observe them. Do they have the same ethical standards? Do they have the same drive? Our agency takes pride in the partnerships we have made with our community.”
Watson explained that the ride-along process is all about mutual understanding: “Our ride-along program is a big benefit to finding the right candidates for our agency. We don’t want someone to go through all of these steps and get hired and realize they aren’t a good fit.” The ride-along step, Watson told me, is not something all police departments do. Wheat Ridge PD does it because they firmly believe in finding candidates who will maintain the same community-based mindset as the rest of the people in the department.
WATSON’S SUCCESS STORY
Jamie Watson retired from the Navy Reserve in 2012, after 24 years of service. She has been with Wheat Ridge PD for 16 years. In the service, she was in the medical field, first as a dental technician and then as a corpsman. As a civilian, she also worked as a dental technician. But then she decided to try something else. “I had some friends who were in law enforcement, and I remembered that I had wanted to do that as a kid. I thought, maybe I’ll try it.” So she did some research and went through the testing process. She was selected and sent to the police academy. “And here I am 16 years later,” she said, “and still loving every day of it.”
During her time in the Navy Reserve, Watson did four years on active duty as a reservist, which included four deployments. “The Wheat Ridge Police Department was behind me 100 percent,” she said. “That is another thing our agency does well. The last thing a servicemember needs to worry about is whether they have a job waiting for them when they come back. At the Wheat Ridge Police Department, you’re welcomed back with open arms.”
I asked Watson whether her transition from military to civilian was relatively smooth – in view of her medical experience in the service. She told me that it was not as easy as one might think. “I think that every servicemember has that transition period, especially if they’re coming home from a combat zone,” she said. “We all know that there’s a certain way you have to live when you’re in a combat zone; and when you come back, you’re still in that state of heightened awareness. You have to readjust your mentality to the crowds and noises that you encounter. Those are the things we have to take into consideration when our members come back from deployment. There is an adjustment period, no matter what.”
A couple of years ago, the department noticed that there were more than usual deployments, so they created a program for reintegrating and training the employees coming back. “When our servicemember comes back, we’ve got this book that helps them catch up on what they missed while they were gone,” Watson told me.
The servicemember also gets to pick a liaison who will remain in contact and keep him or her current on everything happening in the department. The returning servicemember also has someone to touch base with if there has been a lot of changeover. “When the servicemembers come back to us, they’re still connected,” said Watson.
Watson herself was somewhat disoriented when she came back to almost an entirely new group of staff after her deployments. “It’s not just the department that can change in a year,” she told me. “The city changes. We make it as easy and streamlined as we can so our returning servicemembers don’t come home and feel lost.”
Rose added that another factor the department considers is how servicemembers give and receive communication after being immersed in military culture. Watson agreed: “When you’re immersed in military culture, you speak a totally different language. And it doesn’t matter what branch you’re in, you understand that language. But then you come home and have to learn another kind of language for talking to civilians. And it’s not exactly that you have to relearn it as much as regaining what you forgot.”
Wheat Ridge PD also goes above and beyond to support its military employees by allowing them extra leave: Servicemembers are allotted 19 days a year for training and weekend drills. The department wants to do everything it can to make Wheat Ridge an appealing workplace for veterans and current servicemembers. “Because of their jobs in the military and their deployments, they have great life experience that can translate into public service,” Rose explained.
As a sergeant, Watson supervises a team of officers. Her team responds to calls for service, conducts traffic enforcement and directive patrols, and generally remains on the lookout for anything suspicious. Watson’s job is to make sure her team members do what they are supposed to do. She checks their reports for accuracy and answers their questions. She also acts as a mentor to them. “When we get busy, I’ll roll my sleeves up and take calls for service, myself,” she said. “It’s definitely a team thing. One team, one fight.”
Of all the skills she acquired in the military, Watson feels that, by far, her leadership skills have enabled her to do her job well. “The military teaches leadership to young people at a low level; and, as they progress in the ranks, they just keep building on it and building on it,” she said.
Watson added that the quick decision-making she learned in the military has helped her make snap judgments when needed in her civilian career. “It’s not too often in a civilian workplace that you have a person who was in a combat zone – fighting and making decisions on ‘shoot or don’t shoot’,” she said. Watson feels that people who have had this sort of responsibility are much better suited for critical law-enforcement jobs that require one to function well under pressure. “I think they have the ability to cope better under that stress than someone who’s never been in a situation like that before.”
Watson’s advice for transitioning servicemembers and those who have been out for a while: “Make sure you get an education. Take advantage of your benefits.” She also encourages veteran job seekers always to work on their leadership skills. “Being able to think critically and make decisions is important. And know yourself. Know yourself, know your limitations, and be able to accept them.”
For those just coming out of the military, Watson says, “If you feel like you’ve got things bothering you, you need to seek out that help. It’s tough; but if you don’t do it early on, it can really inhibit you later.” She encourages veterans to be true to themselves. “If law enforcement is the career that you truly want, you need to go after it. Don’t be swayed if it doesn’t work out right away, or if you are told ‘no’. Each time, you learn a little more about the process. Don’t be afraid to take those risks.”
By ELIZABETH STETLER