By Jean Reynolds

Professionalism is an important topic in any police training program. Complex political factors and legal restrictions create challenges for police officers that call for professional communication skills and problem-solving strategies. Professionalism wins respect for you and your agency, enhancing the likelihood that you will prevail in a difficult situation.

During your police training, you’re likely to hear the term “professionalism” again and again. Modern police work is much more complex than the exciting cops-and-robbers escapades often portrayed in television programs and Hollywood films.

Complex political factors and legal restrictions create challenges for police officers that call for professional communication skills and problem-solving strategies. Knowing how to handle a variety of situations in a professional manner helps keep you and the public safe. Equally important, your professionalism enhances your reputation and shines a positive spotlight on your agency.

Here are four professional principles that every officer should follow:

1. Remember that you can control the actions of only one person in any situation: yourself.

You cannot force another person to obey the law, respect the police, learn self-control, or adopt any other behavior that you deem desirable. Even if you point your weapon while you’re giving an order, the other person may decide to take a chance and resist.

This principle means that in any encounter with the public, you should focus only on what you’re empowered to do. Never set up a power contest that you might lose. You can’t force a driver to admit that she was speeding or stop a teenager from taunting you. But you can carry out the procedures you’ve been authorized to perform—writing a speeding ticket, apprehending a lawbreaker, working with other officers to control a potentially dangerous situation, and so on.

2. Police work is one component in a complex system for protecting public safety.

You’ve probably seen movies and TV shows in which a streetwise cop single-handedly teaches a young thug that crime does not pay. Real-world criminal justice is much more complex than that. Guilt and punishment are carried out by three independent entities: Police (who apprehend suspected lawbreakers), courts (which determine guilt or innocence), and corrections (which administers punishment).

Our Constitution assumes that everyone is innocent until proven guilty, and it guarantees lawbreakers certain legal rights. Not everyone appreciates this system, which often functions slowly and sometimes allows criminals to go free on technicalities. Nevertheless, police officers are sworn to uphold it. (And many Americans cherish this system to the point that they are willing to die defending it.) Make sure you understand how your job fits into the American criminal justice system, and always respect the limitations imposed on the police

3. Police departments can’t get the job done on their own.

No one wants to live in a police state where armed officers control every aspect of citizens’ lives. In most communities a relatively small number of police officers maintain law and order. This system is successful because most people respect the police, are grateful for them, and recognize the importance of what they do.

This means that you must do your part to maintain the shining image of law enforcement. Demonstrate courtesy and self-control when you interact with citizens, even in tense situations. Be especially vigilant when children are present: In their eyes, you represent the entire police force. A small extra effort to act professionally and ethically now can make a difference ten or twenty years down the road when that child is deciding whether or not to trust a police officer.

4. In many situations, you’ll be more successful if you slow down and consider your options.

Often a quick response from an officer can prevent harm and save lives. But police work doesn’t always involve split-second emergencies. Sometimes everyone involved (including you and the public) will be safer if you call for a backup, wait to serve a warrant later, or simply allow the parties in a dispute to take turns telling you their side of the story.

These four principles may sound simple, but they are important tools in shaping your reputation and the way your agency is perceived in your community. Keep them in mind and practice applying them until they become second nature. As time goes by, you will see again and again how important they are to winning the cooperation and respect of the citizens whose safety you are sworn to protect.