The Blue Flame: The Socialization Of A Rookie

A new officer recruit must always prove his or her worth to a department through graded efforts such as work productivity, conflict resolution, and problem solving capabilities. Although paramount, these skills are not the only ones sought after in a new hire. The recruit, often referred to as a “rookie” cannot just put on a uniform and demand respect; they have to earn it through sweat equity. Additionally, there is an internal social process within the force amongst peers. This begins at the candidate stage and continues until a rookie is accepted by his or her coworkers as an officer.

Predominantly, a police recruit suffers from “blue flame syndrome” which is defined as the initial excitement, awkwardness, and enthusiasm rookies feel in the first months and early years of their patrol assignment. Calls are thrilling and feel action-packed, the work product is constant, and the enjoyment of the job is immense. In brief, they run circles around the seasoned officers and often get teased for having excessive bravado in front of their peers.

Along with the zest of wearing a shiny new badge and reflecting their pride of their newfound career, police candidates sometimes don department logo garb and police caps at inappropriate settings; making themselves a target rather than blending in when off duty. Eager to dive into police affiliation, recruits frequently add ringtones to show off their joy of the service such as sirens, the theme from Law and Order, and the song Bad Boys. These annoyances come under scrutiny from veterans. If ever the rookies set out to embarrass their peers or bring unnecessary danger to themselves, unacceptable behaviors are immediately addressed.

Veterans are sometimes harsh on new recruits, throwing “jabs” at them when their behavior is not socially accepted in the police life. It often comes at inopportune times when public shaming seems to be most effective in front of an entire squad. It’s true that police officers have tough skin and endure a fair amount of teasing while proving themselves to their peers. Aside from time and experience, all officers go through an internal social transformation which is unique to their profession.

Generally, all veteran officers recognize after time, that the early onset enthusiasm and vigor they patrolled the streets with changes to a knowledgeable calmness and affects how they approach resolutions and community interaction. One comment from a recruit during my training days put into perspective the disparity between a rookie and veteran status. “Do you always know exactly how to solve EVERY call just perfect?”, he asked me. My response was, “Why yes, yes, I do. “ Although it was somewhat sarcastic, it held a lot of truth. Veterans have a knowledge curve which develops with training and experience.

What veterans do miss, is the energy level recruits bring to the field. The blue flame syndrome fades with experience and evolves into emotional intelligence, situational awareness, procedural knowledge, and leadership. The anxiety and exhilaration from the dynamic workload subsides. Even running code becomes humdrum.

Many might consider it a career strike to put up with the push and pull of rookie status, harsh peer criticism, teasing, hazing, and ups and downs of initial police training. Perhaps some frown on veterans who might appear to be bullies. The police culture differs a great deal from our acceptable social norms.

It wasn’t always easy, but I never thought of it as a negative undertone. I used it to drive myself forward and overcome the naysayers’ opinions of me. Maybe I had to demonstrate my worth not only to my peers, but also to myself. Later on as a training officer, I felt the recruits needed to prove themselves as well and the old mindset followed me. It didn’t mean I was harsh or unfair. It meant that I was tough. After all, the job is full of dynamic situations filled with danger and the need for quick thinking.

There is no time for those who can’t adapt to that environment just to occupy a uniform. It really amounts to the one fact: “Can they manage themselves in life and death situations?” We may never know until that moment comes. However, that is really what we are training them to handle. The socialization process of a rookie makes up a component of that mindset and it is necessary for their success and for the organization’s effectiveness. It is also pertinent to public safety.

Not every moment in police work is a test of a recruit’s knowledge or capabilities on the street. There are circumstances which examine coping skills and character. Some situations are even comical and occur during the socialization mix between veterans and rookies. These bits are part of the dynamics making up the brotherhood and form the tight bonds you see within a fraternal organization.

When I was a training officer, I allowed a little leeway with some humor in the workplace and let them have their bold jabs at my expense. I also gave it back in jest. It relaxed the learning atmosphere and they felt some acceptance in the brotherhood. It was mostly in fun and was not meant as disrespect.

For example, on a call of suspicious activity in a rough neighborhood on a night shift, I had tripped in a hole. Unfortunately, I could not get up quick enough for my rookie who was standing over me gloating, “What are you doing on the ground? Can I help you up, ma’am?” Sure my pride was broken, but humor always softened the wounds.

Being a part of the social aspects of the job are minimal until they pass field training. Many departments do not allow recruits to go to social functions or be seen outside of work with any training officers. They are kept isolated until they pass their training program. This can be advantageous to keep them on the straight and narrow and it can be disadvantageous to their psyche. My peers all recognized the isolation was a difficult process which lasted for months. Eventually, the team building which occurs on duty carried the recruit through this stage of socialization.

So how do the two police cultures work as a team on the street? It might be surprising that the two often complement each other and clash at the same time. Some challenges faced by rookies are: (1) separation of officers into “cliques” which causes a distinct division among patrol teams; (2) animosity in police standard evaluations and statistic reports; and (3) challenges with different knowledge bases on calls and insurmountable training hurdles. While facing many tests, the advantages of the mixture of police cultures provides (1) valuable bilateral learning environments with regards to applying laws, proper police procedures, communication skills, conflict resolution, and exposure to different styles; (2) mentoring benefits for the new recruit gained from the veteran officer; and (3)intense socialization and team building.

Once a recruit transitions from being labeled a rookie to an experienced officer, the peer pressure subsides. There is always opportunity for jaded humor at anyone’s expense during a police career, but the officer does not always feel he or she has to prove oneself on each call. A certain level of trust and respect is obtained at this point. The discordant socialization of a rookie is a cycle each recruit might face upon officer candidacy. Each police organization contains those processes and associations; albeit whatever level they allow in policy and culture. Should a candidate endure it and muscle through the undertaking, the rewards are very great to have the honor to uphold the law for their community. Ultimately, the community benefits when the two police cultures complement each other with different skillsets.