Interview with Dr. Joel F. Shults, author of The Badge and the Brain
In this illuminating interview, Shults shares his early beginnings as a police officer, solid advice to the young person who is contemplating the profession, and the challenges and obstacles he has faced in his long and instructive career.
Tell us about your journey in deciding to become a police officer.
I have no one in my family with any professional association with law enforcement although our men traditionally serve in the military. While in my teens the field of psychology and counseling appealed to me and I began to plan, at least mentally, to go to college with that major. In high school, one of my best friend’s father was the mayor of our town and I would often find myself at City Hall with my friend visiting his father. During one of those visits I struck up a conversation with a police officer and found out that there was a ride along program. One evening I rode with a police officer and was completely fascinated. At the time – the ’70s – college for police officers was not an expectation and I knew that my family wanted me to go to college. Actually I wanted to go to college for my family. I was the first from my family to get a higher education. That came about when a police officer from the local university spoke to one of my high school classes and I discovered that there were college degrees for criminal justice. I was in college when I got my first civilian police job and have loved the career field ever since!
What are a few guidelines you would offer a brand new police officer?
I remember my enthusiasm and feeling bullet-proof and immortal as a young officer! Looking back I’d advise new officers to prepare for their future. Police work is hard on a mind and a body. It is very possible that an officer today may want to enter a different career field after five, ten, or more years in uniform. Therefore, protecting one’s self from injury, from financial instability, from liability, and from career damaging events is important. Get good financial planning, develop skills outside of law enforcement, and protect your reputation by being ethical all the time, following policy, and getting legal counsel to defend against accusations.
For those who may be interested in a career as a police officer, what possible challenges should they consider?
As early as possible, aspiring peace officers should be the kind of person that a community wants to hire as a police officer. That means no tattoos, no legal trouble in including traffic convictions, a good work record, and establishing a reputation that will be well spoken of during a background check. Have a serious conversation with yourself about whether you can take a human life, stay calm during chaos, take verbal abuse, stay physically fit, and have self-awareness and self-discipline to avoid ethical breaches and psychological damage.
Can you tell us about an interesting case you have worked on? What was your role?
A builder looks at the end of his project and sees a house on the landscape. Police officers often do not see the result of their work, so in that regard, the rewards of the job have to be internal. But there are cases where you know that you’ve made a difference. A friend of mine stopped a car once and warned the parents about not having the child in an approved child restraint. He got a letter some weeks later from the parents, telling how they had been in a crash a few days later and were so thankful that the officer had made them more vigilant about keeping their child safe! There are many times I’ve been able to provide comfort to victims, rescue children and the elderly from unsafe environments, catch bad guys, or intervene with a suicidal person. One of my favorite memories is taking a missing child report and finding the seven-year-old about 2 miles away with a sack full of socks tied to a pole over his shoulder. He had argued with his mother and was running away to find his teacher in a nearby town. I got him a Happy Meal at McDonald’s and drove him home to a very joyful reunion. It’s funny what we remember as highlights. I’ve arrested killers, taken guns and knives away from people, worked armed robber cases and more fight calls than I can count. But that little boy with his bag of socks is my favorite memory.
What advice do you have for someone just entering law enforcement?
Never stop learning; never assume that anything you learn or observe is irrelevant; never assume that anything or anyone is safe; and never forget that you are here to protect and serve; that everyone deserves respect without earning it and no one deserves trust unless they earn it.
How have technological advances in recent years changed the field?
Detection of DNA and the information databases available are great assets to criminal investigation. Law enforcement is still mostly local but criminal activity is highly mobile. It is essential that agencies have the ability to find common sources of suspect information.
What do you consider your greatest strength as a police officer?
I doubt that you’ll get this answer from anyone, but I have a love for people, especially the downtrodden and distressed, that motivates me to serve and protect on their behalf. I can be strong for the weak, knowledgeable to the ignorant, and a voice for the silent. The Bible says to love mercy and to DO justice. I feel called to do that.
We sincerely thank Dr. Joel F. Shults for generously volunteering his time to share insights, stories, and advice with our readers.