Of Rookies: Rekindling the Blue Flame

Ideals & other forgotten tales ...

By Antonio Zarzoza  |   Sep 6, 2018
Photo Tech. Sgt. Phyllis Keith

Every time we start reading anything that starts with “Once upon a time …” we can almost predict that the closing will end with something like “… and they lived happily ever after.” Most of the time such stories share epic tales with a message in the background, like those stories of police “rookies.”

For most police veterans the word rookie carries a negative connotation of inexperience, overzealousness, curiosity and everything “tacti-cool.” Too often we overlook the positive characteristics that most have in common, such as purpose, pride, ethical motivation, discipline and other similar noble ideals. This “Blue Flame” is just that: a temporary flame that ignites only through the period of time while the “rookie” is nothing but a new boot.

Once “rookies” get their wings clipped by their respective Field Training Officer, they are then considered part of the family and the term rookie is reserved only after the commission of petty mistakes. They start to form, shape up and develop their very own policing style, self-concept and little by little “grow out” of that “rookie” shell.

But what about the ideals of a rookie? What happens to those ideals? Purpose, pride, ethical motivation and discipline just to mention a few? Is it possible that we just “wake up and smell the coffee” of the undeniable realities of police work and see law enforcement for what it is and without the “rookie filter”?

Structure of Pride

Speaking about pride, we can tell a “rookie” by the way they carry themselves. That odd combination of eager excitement along with anxiety and trepidation for what is yet to come in their first days on the job. No other emotion will cast a shadow on a that pride.

Pride is a fundamental human emotion involving a complex self-evaluative process (Tracy and Robins, 2014). Different from other “purely” basic emotions, such as the universally admired emotion of love or the universally reviled emotion of jealousy (Williams and DeSteno 2009), pride is comprised of two distinct facets. To this extent, Tangney (1990) referred to “alpha” pride as pride in self and “beta” pride as pride in behavior. Furthermore, Tracy and Robins (2004) distinguished between authentic pride and hubristic pride: authentic pride is evoked by accomplishment from successful behavior and positively related to genuine self-esteem and prosocial traits, whereas hubristic pride is more towards self-aggrandizement and positively related to narcissism (Tracy et al. 2014). Additionally, the two facets of pride differ from each other in cognitive antecedents (Tracy and Robins 2007b). Authentic pride is triggered more by unstable, specific, and controllable attributions, such as solid results due to hard work, whereas hubristic pride is more likely to occur from stable, global, and uncontrollable causes, such as feelings of superiority from “who I am” (Tracy and Robins 2007b).

Evoking the “Rookie” in You

To put matters in context and bring this concept of pride to life, let’s do some imagery. Evoke that feeling you felt the very first time you looked at yourself in the mirror wearing a police uniform. Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and see your younger self standing in the mirror. Take a deep breath and look further, observe those details and see that duty belt with all of its accessories. Look at that gun, a gun that you actually get to take home with you, not having to check it back in with your instructor like you used to do it back at the academy. Now look at the badge, its shape, shine and weight on your chest right next to that name plate with your last name imprinted on it and pinned on the right side of your chest.

How cool is that?

Now look at the big picture and see those shiny shoes, the well-groomed hair and the crisp look of the fabric of your uniform. Open your eyes. Now answer this question with honesty: How did you feel during this simple exercise of imagery and introspection? What emotions did you feel? 

For the most part, the natural responses will be feelings and emotions of accomplishment, pride, achievement, empowerment, and happiness, among many others alike. Okay, great. We got to evoke those awesome feelings and emotions triggered by the ideals of a rookie. That’s definitely a step in the right direction. Now, here’s the question: What and how did you feel the very last time you looked at yourself in the mirror wearing your current police uniform?

Yes the very last time, perhaps this same day/night before you headed out the door to start your current shift. If you’re like most seasoned cops, it’s nothing like that first experience. Maybe you felt nothing at all. You checked the mirror and saw what you’ve seen so many times before—to the point that you don’t even pay attention to it. You looked at the surface just to make sure everything is in order. That image of yourself in full police uniform doesn’t trigger those noble emotions anymore. It’s like a second skin, and that’s a problem. A very sad problem that leaves us prone to the dreaded 3 Cs that appear when we lose sight of the ideals of a rookie:

  • Complacency;
  • Cynicism; and
  • Condescending attitudes.

Those 3 Cs will hit you hard and silently, affecting not only our work performance but our relationships in and out of the circle of brotherhood. Worse of it all is that these 3 Cs are perhaps the most insidious of all threats to law enforcement, because they leave us open to all others.

WWRD?

As I previously stated “rookies start to form, shape up and develop their very own policing style, self-concept and little by little ‘grow out’ of that ‘rookie’ shell. This begs the question, what about the ideals of a rookie? What happens to those ideals?” Well my brothers and sisters, for the most part those ideals stay in that shell we left behind when we morphed from “rookie” to “real cop.” We start to develop skill proficiency, brain patterns start shaping up our performances in the field, we gain experience, exposure and overall confidence and competence. So, the further we advance in this career, the farther away we distance ourselves from that once “rookie version” of ourselves.

Now let’s imagine for a moment combining experience, exposure, unconscious competence, skill/knowledge level and self-confidence with the most noble ideals of a rookie. Much in the style of the Alchemist, the result will be closer to the best version of ourselves.

While it’s undeniable that the current state of affairs and the prevalent anti-cop sentiment sucks, we can still say that the nobility of this profession is greater than its obstacles. This is by no means an attempt to romanticize the meaning of pride and other ideals of a “rookie.” However, as a police trainer, I have researched, studied, and taught countless hours on the importance of Ethics & Professionalism among the “Thin Blue Line.” I’ve read many dissertations by professors, doctors, philosophers, police commanders, and street cops. I’ve also watched countless hours of video footage where former cops recount during taped interviews their paths to self-destruction and listened to their detailed narration of the unraveling of their careers, their marriages and their lives. Despite all of this, I have more questions than answers, and perhaps the main question for the theme of this article would be: when faced with ethical dilemmas, WWRD? (What would a rookie do?).

Reawakening Ideals

My proposal is just a conceptual model of affective influence to reawaken the ideals of a rookie. Through this model officers are encouraged to embrace those ideals and reignite the pride they felt during that proverbial “Blue Flame.” Try it. Next time you are dressed in full uniform stand in front of the mirror and do not just look at yourself. Observe with pride and admiration the command presence of the “man in the mirror.” Just like when you were a “rookie.” Feel the pride to represent not just your agency but a brotherhood. Look at your badge, regardless of its shape, color or implied jurisdictional limitations. Evoke that feeling of purpose, drive, determination and achievement of having completed your basic police academy and having reached this far into your career.

Pride is one of the most intense experiences in police work (Katzenbach 2003b), and police work itself is a source of pride (Hodson 1998). Officers can take intrinsic pride in what they make, how they work, and whom they work with (Katzenbach 2003b). Experience of pride in achievement can be empathized by others in social interaction at work and thereby contribute to psychological empowerment and promote future successes (Froman 2010). Katzenbach (2003b) introduces a powerful “closed loop of energy” derived from pride: better performance contributes to success, and recognized success instills a strong feeling of pride, which fuels future better performance. This cycle can be repeatedly applied in law enforcement as long as we keep that “Blue Flame” on and the ideals of a “rookie” alive.