An Interview with Wendell Shirley
“I grew up in a very poor neighborhood where we did not have access to many resources. As a young man, I knew that the only way to get myself out of that situation was through education and hard work. When I decided to join the police force, I told myself I was going to work as hard as I possibly could each and every day, take advantage of every opportunity and take nothing for granted.”
Wendell Shirley is the Captain of Police at the Santa Monica Police Department in Santa Monica, California. He holds a Master of Arts in Public Administration and a Bachelor of Science in Sociology. Both degrees are from California State University, Northridge. He has also completed further education and leadership training through various law enforcement agencies.
Wendell decided to go into law enforcement after growing up in inner-city Los Angeles. He believes that his experience living in a challenging neighborhood contributes to his understanding of how crime can impact our society. He enjoys working with the public to reduce crime and promote a positive perception of police officers.
In your own words, what is a police captain?
A captain is like an executive of a business. You are responsible for the day-to-day operations of a particular division. My job is to provide leadership, vision and direction to my team, in addition to performing a wide variety of executive-level tasks within the police department, including budget planning, coordinating with other city departments, and establishing partnerships with community stakeholders.
If a student said to you, “I am interested in becoming a police captain,” what would your response be?
The first thing I would say to them is that they should get a college education before going into police work. Due to the time requirements of further education, it is extremely difficult to go back to college once you become a police officer. If you have any intention of seeking out promotions within the police department, a college education will generally give you an advantage over the competition.
What level of education is ideal to become a police captain?
For many law enforcement agencies, you do not need a college degree to be a police officer. However, these positions can be very competitive, so having a college degree will certainly give you an advantage. But to be a police captain, most if not all departments require you to have at least a college degree.
Why did you decide to become a police captain?
I decided to enter the police force because I have always enjoyed helping and working with people. When I joined the force in 1993, I discovered many excellent opportunities. I really felt that I owed it to those who hired me to not only do the best job possible for the community I was entrusted to serve, but also to take advantage of every opportunity to better myself and go as far as I could within the organization. The ultimate goal was to make a positive difference in the lives of people in my community and to set a good example for others to follow.
What were the biggest misconceptions that you had about becoming a police captain?
I wouldn’t say that I had any misconceptions about the job other than the fact that you never actually know what a job fully entails until you start doing it. I will say that the issue of preventing crime cannot be the sole responsibility of law enforcement. It must be a collaborative effort involving many different stakeholders, including the members of the community. It must be an all-hands-on-deck approach.
What do you enjoy most and least about being a police captain?
In my job, the greatest challenge also provides the greatest reward, and that challenge is to convince people that law enforcement truly does want to be a part of the solution. I understand the reality, which is that the police badge has been a symbol of oppression for many people over the years. I believe it is my responsibility to help build a mutual feeling of trust and respect between the police and the community.
What is a typical day like for you?
The job of a police captain is like being an executive in a fast-paced business. I come into the office each morning around 7 a.m. and immediately begin to respond to an inbox full of e-mails from my colleagues and community members. I deal with personnel matters, the budget, and crime-fighting issues and strategies. If requested, I respond to media inquiries. I am expected to attend several meetings throughout the day and attend numerous community events in the evenings and on weekends. Of course, all of my efforts are in keeping with the ultimate mission of the prevention and reduction of crime in order to enhance the quality of life for those that live, work and visit the great city of Santa Monica.
How do you balance your work and your personal life?
I don’t have much trouble balancing work and my personal life at this stage in my career. I have a clear understanding that I cannot do everything and I need a balance. I work about 50 hours each week, and I make sure to spend time with my family and friends. I also work out at least 5 times a week, which also helps me decompress. It’s a good life.
What personality traits do you think would help someone succeed as a police captain and what traits would hinder success?
A personality trait that you must have is excellent interpersonal skills because you will always be dealing with people. You also have to have a good level of confidence in yourself and in your ability to make sound ethical decisions. But a trait that would hinder your success is if you are especially averse to taking risks. In this job, you need to be able to take calculated risks for the greater good, and you can’t be afraid to make a decision just because someone might criticize or second guess you.
Looking back at your formal education, is there anything you would have done differently?
No, I wouldn’t change anything. It has helped me tremendously over the years. I have truly been blessed.
What classes did you take during your schooling that you have found to be the most and least valuable for the work you do today?
I think the most important class I took in college was sociology, because it taught me that everything can’t be judged simply from a black-and-white perspective. Sociology taught me to how to consider the factors that contribute to the decisions people make.
For example, when a person commits a crime, we can look at that situation and simply say, “They shouldn’t have done it, and that’s that. They’re going to jail.” And yes, they certainly should not have done it, and they must be held accountable. But I think it’s just as important to look at the contributing factors that might lead to such behavior, what we can learn from it, and what we can do to prevent it from occurring in the future.
What words of advice or caution would you share with a student who is interested in becoming a police captain?
I would tell anyone who is interested in becoming a police captain to remember that everything they do needs to contribute to the achievement of that goal. You need to stay out of trouble, and you need to make education and hard work your best friends. I would also suggest finding a mentor to support you in your professional and personal development. Be like a sponge and learn all that you can from them.