Growing up, all Showana Paul ever wanted to do was to become a police officer. She worked as a security supervisor at the Quaker Bridge Mall and more recently as a security supervisor at the Princeton Medical Center in Plainsboro Township.
“I always wanted to be a police officer. It’s my dream job. I want to serve and to protect my community and my country,” said Paul, who is a self-described “people person.”
It is that lifelong goal that drew Paul to the Lawrence Township Police Department’s open house Jan. 25, where she joined 15 potential police recruits to find out what it takes to become a police officer.
Working as a security supervisor, however, is different than being a police officer – which is something that Paul and the others who gathered in the community room at the Lawrence Township Police Department quickly learned.
It is a career choice, and it is not for everyone, Police Chief Brian Caloiaro told the would-be police officers.
After a newly-minted police officer takes the oath of office, “you are no longer ‘John Smith.’ Now, you are ‘Officer John Smith.’ You have to be ready and you have to have your life in order,” Caloiaro said.
Police officers are held to a higher standard of conduct, on the job and off the job, he said.
Pointing to the motto on the patch that Lawrence police officers wear on their uniforms, “Honor, Integrity, Knowledge” are the qualities that the Lawrence Township Police Department seeks in its officers, Caloiaro said.
“You have to do some soul-searching. You have to be ready to be the person who does the right thing when no one is looking,” Caloiaro said.
There is a figurative “huge pot of gold at the end of the rainbow” for the right person, he said.
But to get there and to become a police officer, one has to meet certain standards.
A would-be police officer must be between 18 and 35 years old. He or she must hold a valid driver’s license and be a United States citizen, and be in good physical and mental condition, Caloiaro said.
Lawrence Township is a state Civil Service community, which means it abides by Civil Service regulations. One of those regulations is that a police recruit must be a Lawrence Township resident by the Feb. 28 filing deadline, he told the attendees.
Lawrence is one of many New Jersey municipalities and counties that rely on the state Civil Service and its tests in hiring employees for public sector jobs, such as police officers.
Lawrence Township chooses its police officers from among the top three highest-scoring candidates on the list. Recruits who pass the police department’s screening process, which delves deeply into their backgrounds, are sent to the Mercer County Police Academy for 24 weeks of training.
There is an exception for applicants who have previously been certified as police officers. They do not need to attend the police academy.
But for recruits who do attend the Mercer County Police Academy, it is 24 weeks of being yelled at and meeting demanding physical fitness requirements, said Lt. Christopher Longo. Recruits practice on the shooting range and learn how to drive a patrol car. It is very stressful, and about 10% of each recruit class drops out, he said.
“It is very regimented. If you can’t take being yelled at, if you don’t like being told what to do, then don’t go (to the police academy),” Longo told the 16 attendees of the open house.
Police recruits who graduate from the Mercer County Police Academy and join the Lawrence Township Police Department will find that it is a very busy police department, said Lt. Michael Whitmore. Officers answered about 30,000 calls last year, he said.
“We answer calls constantly,” said Lt. James Smith. “You won’t get as much experience in a small town (as compared to Lawrence Township). We handle everything. There is nowhere that you will go that will give you the experiences.”
The Lawrence Township Police Department includes a traffic bureau whose officers investigate traffic crashes and motor vehicle violations; a Detective Bureau; a Patrol Division; and a K-9 unit.
The Lawrence Township Police Department has several school resource officers who spend time in the public schools; an aviation unit with drones; a motorcycle patrol; a bicycle patrol unit; and an officer who is assigned to the Quaker Bridge Mall.
The police officers who spoke to the potential police recruits emphasized the need for honesty and integrity. The presence of cameras in the patrol cars and the body-worn cameras of the officers can reveal their actions.
“You can’t hide. When you get on the job, people will film everything you do,” said Michael Smith, a retired Lawrence Township police officer. He is not related to Lt. James Smith.
“You have to break bad habits now, because the cameras are part of a police officer’s life,” Smith said.
But despite the occasional negative media coverage, “90% of people like police officers. They respect what you do,” Caloiaro said.
“Don’t let a few bad apples (police officers) deter you (from choosing law enforcement as a career). There is a lot of job satisfaction,” Caloiaro said.