I once heard a leadership trainer ask a group of students this very question. He said that every time he asked that question in a class he got a variety of answers. It's pretty likely that if you asked 100 different police officers what made them "professional", you would likely get at least 60 or 70 different answers. Worse, some may not be able to answer you at all because they don’t have an understanding of what it takes to be a professional. They know what it takes to LOOK professional, or what it takes to ACT professional, but looking and acting professional are far different than BEING professional.
Management scholars will tell you that there is a mindset involved with professionalism, beyond how you look and how you act. True professionals in any field of work understand that mindset and cultivate it, and the best organizations not only encourage it, they require it of their members.
Think of it this way, what if you were to ask a United State Marine what it took to be a marine? Do you think that the answer you would get is that you are a marine because you LOOK like a marine, or because you ACT like a marine. Of course not. I have known many former US Marines, including my father-in-law, and have worked alongside many more, and not one of them will tell you that being a Marine is all about how you look, or how you act. The United States Marine Corps is known as one of the most professional military units in the world, but it’s not because they have crisp uniforms or because they stand straight at attention.
The Marine Corps has an established identity, an unwavering set of standards, and an expectation of performance. If you talk to a US Marine and ask what it really takes to be a marine they will tell you about values, and honor, and character. And they won’t just describe those concepts in theoretical or ethereal terms, as though they read them in a training manual with limited practical application. They will describe the values and character that it takes to be a marine as though they live and breathe those values every single day, which they do. It, too, is a mindset. It is a mindset that they are a part of something greater, with standards that are uncompromised regardless of inconvenience, or the amount of effort or personal sacrifice that is required. Do marines look great in their uniforms and do they stand up straight and tall and proud, you bet they do. But it is because of who they are, not what they are.
Do we, as the leaders of law enforcement, have that mindset ? More importantly, do we instill it in others? Do we let our officers know exactly what it takes to be a professional?