From military to police force: A natural transition?
Unlike many veterans who leave military service with no idea where their next job is coming from, Star Cazador had it all figured out — what she would do, where she would do it, and how much she would like it. Taking a cue from fellow Marines who sought careers in law enforcement after discharge, Cazador, who grew up in San Jose, applied to the Santa Clara County Sheriff’s Office. It seemed to her like a natural transition.
“There is a huge comfort level,” said Cazador, who served in the Marines from 2005 to 2009 and is now a Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputy. “In the academy my best friends were other prior military. We knew exactly how each other’s brains worked. We could just look at each other. We didn’t even have to communicate.”
Although many veterans feel that law enforcement is a natural fit, some former soldiers resent being typecast. Others say the profession is the least suitable career choice for veterans who are still working out emotional issues from deployments. And some veterans consider a career in law enforcement because they consider it one of the few viable options in a challenging job market.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t keep precise statistics on the number of veterans employed in law enforcement, instead lumping together the classification with wardens, school crossing guards and other security jobs. But the agency reports the unemployment rate for post-9/11 veterans was 7.7 percent in July, up from 7.2 percent in June. That’s 0.3 percent higher than the unemployment rate for the civilian labor force.
Veterans face challenges that civilians do not. Some are unsure how to express to potential employers how skills learned in the military translate to the civilian job market. Some return with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury and wonder if those conditions will be a deal-breaker if they reveal them when interviewing for a job.
So the notion of taking military skills to a civilian agency that has a similar structure can be appealing. And that’s a two-way street. Several job fairs for veterans have been held in the Bay Area over the past few months. They all seem to feature multiple law enforcement agencies looking to hire.
“The veterans we’re trying to reach out to, they have the set of skills, the discipline and the training where they would easily transition from the military to civilian law enforcement,” said San Francisco police Officer Gregory Pak, who manned an information table at a Hiring Our Heroes job fair in Walnut Creek in April, and on the USS Hornet in Alameda in August. “It’s a win-win.”
For Yeffiry Disla, 38, who is preparing for civilian life after spending four years in the Marines and 15 years in the Army, it’s more like a marriage of convenience.
“(Working as) a cop would be my fallback if I can’t do something else,” said Disla, who has served three deployments of 10 months or longer to Iraq and Afghanistan, “simply because I was an infantryman and those are my skills. Anything you want to see in a soldier, you want to see in a policeman.”
Others aren’t so sure the gun connection is a logical connection. Army veteran Mike Magpusao works for Project Hired, a San Jose-based nonprofit that helps find employment for people with disabilities — including combat veterans.
“I could see how somebody would think that would be an easy transition,” he said at a recent jobs fair at the Concord Hilton. “It’s familiar. I work with guns, I know how to use them, why not get a job that uses the same equipment? But I’ve spoken with vets. And, myself, I think I’ve experienced enough of that, so I wouldn’t want to relive that type of experience.”
And Magpusao said some veterans resent being typecast.
“A lot of them get out, they’re intelligent, they use the G.I. Bill to get a degree,” he said. “It’s like, ‘I can do more than pull a trigger.’ ”
Jason Deitch, an Army Ranger who served multiple deployments to Africa and the Middle East, has a concern beyond familiarity or pride.
“I’m not saying there aren’t lots of vets out there who wouldn’t be extraordinarily good cops,” said Deitch, a tactical consultant to police forces when he first got out of the military and who now works as a veterans rights advocate in Contra Costa County. “(But) many people who have gone to combat for any amount of time have got some stuff that they need to work on.”
Deitch said there is no logical link between the two professions, and he urges caution.
“As a matter of fact, there are good reasons to seriously evaluate whether or not that is a good idea,” he said. “You’re going to continue to expose yourself to violence, tension, stress, anxiety. You come back and become a police officer, the potential for retraumatizing is very high.”
There’s a screening process for that, said Jennifer Bice, a Santa Clara County sheriff’s deputy.
“Part of the background process is the psychological testing,” Bice said. “(Veterans) have heard that it’s an automatic disqualifier, and it’s not. It’s a case-by-case basis. We’ve all experienced bad things in our lives and sometimes that happens to us personally without even going to war. So it really depends on the individual.”
The International Association of Chiefs of Police was concerned enough about “transitional obstacles” veterans might face if they pursued a career in law enforcement that three years ago it published guidebooks for veterans and any agencies that might consider hiring them.
But those concerns didn’t stop Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS), an office of the Department of Justice, from offering 220 cities $114.6 million in incentive grants to hire post-9/11 veterans to fill 800 law enforcement positions.
“The benefits that I could see veterans bringing to a police force would be great,” Deitch said. “You are not going to find better leaders. On the other hand, I care about individual people.”