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A comfortable trap


August 30, 2016
By Tom Girling

808 words – MR

A comfortable trap

by Tom Girling

You know more than your supervisor about your speciality. Colleagues regularly ask you for advice. You’re court qualified, regularly asked to give presentations, develop policy and procedures without difficulty and are the agency ‘go-to’ person in your field, thanks to your many years of experience.

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Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? You’re in a professional utopia and a master of your domain. There’s only one problem: you keep thinking about your professional future. Will you get a shot at promotion (to add a little to the old pension) or can you transfer to another area and attract the same buzz you get now?

I refer to this phase in our careers as the “Comfort Zone Trap;” that time where all your hard work and dedication leaves you asking yourself, “okay, is this it?”

You have probably experienced this phenomenon if you have any appreciable time on the job. Perhaps you are living it right now. It just happens – you get there without trying, planning or thinking about it.

Many areas of policing offer comfort zones. Specialized jobs come to mind first, of course, but it can happen even in uniform patrol, supervision or management if you stay long enough.

My personal experience is from the specialized services side of the policing. After a few short years in uniform I got a chance to do some “old clothes” duties in my district. I was partnered up with a senior member who introduced me to the trade-craft of “infiltration” and the fine art of lying for a living.

I was nervous but immediately realized this was where I belonged and soon dedicated myself to becoming the best undercover operator possible. The perks of limited supervision and leaving the conformity of structured shift-work suited my personality well.

I spent the next 15 years working in an undercover capacity in one form or another and training other undercover operators. I watched colleagues outside the “undercover world” move from assignment to assignment and even get promoted. My supervisors increasingly relied on me to get the job done, often under stressful circumstances.

I’m sure you know there is no shortage of work out there and it became easy to live by the adage “wherever-whatever-whenever.”

I made sacrifices in my personal life (no children being one) as that became secondary, and my relationships had built-in end dates, which happened every time I was asked to choose between someone and my job. I never let on, but I was very afraid of leaving that life.

I felt I was nothing outside the undercover world. I think my supervisors unwittingly fuelled that belief by letting me continue in that role.

In their defense, most never did any undercover work so they were unaware of the turmoil I experienced. Add to that the fact that, “in those days”, you would never, ever, ever, ask for help.

The one thing that offered me solace was meeting up with the boys after work for “a few.”

I don’t know what happened, timing maybe, but the promotional system, for all its inherent flaws, finally gave me the chance to escape and take the first step to becoming the police officer I always was.

Voluntarily leaving my “life” was probably the hardest professional decision I ever made, and I miss it every day, but looking back, I know it was the right decision.

Since then I have come to know many officers that show the same symptoms I experienced.

In analyzing the comfort zone I look for things like:

• Time in a position. Some police services limit the time officers can stay in specialized units. This is a double edged sword and a balance between police service expertise and officer development.
• Qualifications achieved in the position (expertise). Some members take every possible advantage of being in a specialized position; others don’t.
• Unit capacity. Does the service have a succession plan?
• An individual’s attitude toward moving, including overstated explanations as to why they can’t be moved. Believe me, there are some very imaginative examples.
• Observations of supervisors who “protect” officers from other assignments; sometimes upper management needs to be more engaged.

Regardless of the reasons, some very special and capable people can potentially be left behind, either intentionally or unintentionally.

The self-realization of my experience in the “Comfort Zone” is freeing and powerful. I know it existed, and I know what I felt. It was a natural reaction to growing too big for my pot, to borrow a gardening term.

I hope officers living in the comfort zone realize that they are not alone. They should not fear taking the first step, and they should know that there is a great a big policing world out there with unlimited possibilities.

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Tom Girling retired in 2016 as a superintendent after a 37 year career with the OPP. Contact: rtg5696@gmail.com


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