Police officers play a crucial role in our society. They serve and protect their community by enforcing the law and maintaining peace, at times even putting their lives in danger. It can be a tough, but incredibly rewarding career. Read on to discover more about becoming and being a police officer.
How To Become A Police Officer
Becoming a police officer involves a few different steps and requirements. These vary by state, city, and department, but the most general are the following:
High school education or GED certificate
While the basic education requirement is high school, chances for hiring and promotion often increase with an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in a criminal justice-related field.
Minimum 18 or 21 years of age
While most departments will only hire those 21 or older, some may hire 18 year-olds to help out as junior assistants.
Citizenship or naturalization
Applicants must be U.S. citizens.
Valid driver’s license
Duties such as patrolling and responding to emergency calls require the operation of a cruiser.
Excellent hearing and vision
Perfect hearing and 20-20 vision is required by most departments.
If you meet these basic requirements, then you can start working towards the profession. Here are the steps to become a police officer:
1. Ensure you are willing to make a commitment to this career. Review resources, weigh the pros and cons of the job, and only apply if you are certain it is a job you want. Contacting your local police department is a good idea to talk with officers, to gain exposure to the work environment, and to show your interest.
2. Write the Law Enforcement Entrance Exam. Passing this exam will enable you to enter a police academy. The types of tests vary by state and city. Some common examples are Asset, Compass, and LEE (Law Enforcement Exam).
3. Graduate from a police training academy.
4. Apply for a position with a police department.
5. Work towards promotions.
Further information on training, hiring, police ranks, and related careers will be discussed below.
The Hiring Process
The hiring process for police officers varies largely depending on state, city, and department. It can be highly competitive, and is a good idea to prepare well for each stage. Exam results, especially, play a big role when hiring.
– Application. This is the initial step to show your interest and eligibility for a position. If successful, you will be invited to take the entrance exam.
– Written Entrance Exam. This exam is often standardized, testing for reading comprehension, writing ability, and mathematical and problem-solving skills. Many departments use the National Police Officer Selection Test (POST).
– Video Exam. Some departments may use this step to gauge social skills and judgment. They generally involve watching a scenario and then producing a verbal response.
– Physical Fitness and Job Simulation Tests. Physical fitness tests will examine strength, endurance, and cardio levels. Job simulation tests will involve job-specific tasks like running up and down stairs, dragging weights, and climbing walls. All departments have different minimum requirements.
– Background Check. A thorough investigation into academic, employment, criminal, residency, and credit histories, as well as character reports will be performed. This can include interviewing family, friends, and former colleagues, as well as a fingerprint scan.
– Drug Testing. A positive drug test will disqualify applicants from the position.
– Psychological Testing. Some departments may hire a psychologist to test applicants for psychological stability and fitness.
– Oral Interview. A formal interview may be conducted to analyze interpersonal skills, interest, and suitability of the candidate.
– Medical Exam. This will usually only be performed once an applicant receives a conditional offer.
If successful in all of the above, a candidate will be hired to the department and will begin his or her career as a police officer.
Types of Training
Training to become a police officer is done in police academies. These trainings generally last between three to six months and include both classroom and hands-on instruction.
Theoretical training in the classroom will include a wide variety of topics. Here are some examples of topics that will be covered:
– Federal, state, and municipal laws
– Legal processes
– Report writing
– Patrol procedures
– Accident and crime investigation
– Ethics and Integrity
– Stress management and prevention
There are also many several topics that may be covered in the practical trainings. Here are some examples:
– Traffic control
– Firearm and nonlethal weapon use
– Defensive tactics
– Use of force
– Emergency vehicle operations
– Basic First aid/ CPR
– Health and Fitness
At the end, participants will often undergo a field training, where they are partnered with a senior officer. This officer will serve as a mentor and will offer real-life training to the young recruit. Once completed, candidates will be able to successfully graduate from the academy.
Job Description / Responsibilities
Police officers have a wide variety of roles and responsibilities depending on rank, length of service, and level of training. These duties include but are not limited to the following:
– Law enforcement
– Patrol assigned areas
– Respond to emergency calls
– Write reports and fill out paperwork
– Obtain warrants
– Arrest and interview crime suspects
– Secure and investigate crime and accident scenes
– Testify in court
– Public outreach tasks such as talking in schools
With certain specializations, police officers may gain further duties. For example, an officer trained to work with a K9 Unit will know how to work with dogs to search for illegal substances or dangerous items. Other officers may specialize in forensic analysis and have the responsibility of analyzing fingerprints and other biometric data.
Upward mobility within the police profession is very attainable. After about three to five years of experience, officers can qualify to write a promotional exam. The higher their grades, the better chance for promotion.
This is a list of the ranks within the police force, from lowest to highest:
Officers are in charge of patrols, and general police work.
These positions specialize in investigations, and commonly work in plain clothes.
This is a supervisory role, taking care of watch shifts in smaller departments, or particular areas and detective squads in larger departments.
A lieutenant supervises two or more sergeants, and may supervise a whole watch shift or detective squad.
A captain generally supervises a police station, but may also supervise another division or unit.
This position supervises police stations.
These positions may be in charge of commanding divisions such as specialized service branches or groups of precincts in a region.
Deputy Chief of Police/ Deputy Commissioner:
Deputy chiefs have a wide variety of duties, depending on location.
Chief of Police / Police Commissioner:
This role is appointed by a mayor, or voted on by the city council. They manage promotions and ranks of officers, develop policies and regulations, and regularly report to the mayor.
Promotional exams are available up to the role of captain. Higher ranks are by appointment.
According to the American Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job outlook for police officers from 2014-24 indicates a 4% growth. This signifies an expected growth of 33,000 jobs more from 806,400 in 2014. However, compared to all occupations, this trend is lower than average.
The desire for public safety will continue to increase and lead to new spots for officers, but this demand will vary by location. As a result, entering the profession will continue to be quite competitive.
In addition to promotions within the police ranking system, it may be possible to branch out and specialize in a specific area of police work. Here are some examples of specializations:
– Investigate legal, personal, or business cases for private clients.
Crime Scene Investigator
– Specialize in investigating crime scenes and forensics
Transit Police Officer
– Patrol areas such as railroads, subways, or buses to maintain public safety
Fish and Game Warden
– These officers specialize in overseeing laws around fish and game
– They protect the public, the environment, the animals, and natural resources
– Help judges to keep the order in a courtroom
These are just a few out of many examples of specializations. A career in policing is fascinating for the amount of opportunities to branch out.
If you are interested in entering the police forces, you may also be interested in exploring other similar positions, such as one of the following:
– Security Guard
– Conservation Officer
– Correctional Officer
– Park Police
– Victims Advocate
– FBI Agent
Most of these positions fall under the category of public service, just like policing. All professions help to maintain the peace, health, and safety within communities and parks.
Due to the often unpredictable nature of the job, the work environment for police officers can be exciting, but also physically demanding, stressful, and even dangerous.
Hours in a police department can be long. While an expected amount of work is the regular 40 hours per week, it is often necessary to put in extra time. Additionally, working night shifts and weekends is frequently required.
The location of work is variable. Paperwork and general duties will be performed at the main department. Officers will also work in the nearby community while out on patrols, responding to emergency calls, or doing public outreach work.
Pros and Cons
Police officers are privileged to be government employed. This means job security and stability, as well as good benefits such as paid time off, large pensions, and paid life insurance policies. Similarly, they can enjoy a large number of opportunities for advancement.
However, there are also challenging aspects to an officer’s work environment. The inherent danger of the job can lead to stress, and difficult situations can sometimes even cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
It is important to ensure that you are committed to both the positives and the negatives of a job as a police officer before entering into the career.
Want more information? There are many resources out there about jobs in law enforcement, and which offer support to current law enforcement officials. You can find some examples below:
National Association of Police Organizations (NAPO)
NAPO is formed up by multiple police unions and organizations across the U.S. It works to continually advance law enforcement in America through education and legal and political action.
This is a popular webpage dedicated to sharing news, products, job listings, as well as education and training opportunities for police officers.
The United States Deputy Sheriffs’ Association (USDSA)
USDSA is a national organization that provides free officer survival trainings to all law enforcement workers.
International Police Association (IPA)
IPA is dedicated to connecting law enforcement officials around the world through communication, exchanges, and recreational programs
Fraternal Order of Police (FOP)
FOP is an organization dedicated to improving the work conditions of law enforcement officers through education, information, legislation, community involvement, and employee representation.
Association for Police Officers
This is a non-profit organization that offers educational opportunities for law enforcement officers. Currently, they run programs in New York, Connecticut, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania, but hope to eventually extend nationwide.
There is a wide set of skills and abilities needed for a successful police officer career. The job is certainly not for everyone; it requires specific personality traits, as well as more concrete skills and abilities. Read below to see if you fit the profile.
– Good judgment and problem-solving skills
Officers must judge quickly whether a situation needs their interference, as well as how they should respond. Problem-solving is needed to quickly and rationally look for solutions to the issue.
– Eager to learn
A willingness to frequently study and practice what is learned in training and on the job is required to master skills such as proper weapon use, investigation techniques, and even proper paperwork protocol.
– Good listening skills, respectful towards authority
Officers must be ready to obey the chain of command in emergency situations to ensure smooth operation of their response.
– Adaptable, multi-tasking skills
Hours are long for police officers and can change quickly, so officers must be prepared to adapt quickly to various schedules. Likewise, an officer may have to adapt to juggling many tasks at once, such as paperwork, obtaining a warrant, and preparing to testify in court.
Officers will at times be placed in dangerous situations, so courage is required to successfully assess and manage risks.
– Assertive, leadership qualities
Leading and being assertive are crucial in emergency situations to firmly relay orders to other officers and ensure a good response.
– Team spirit
A willingness to collaborate and communicate with others is important, as officers often work in pairs or groups.
– Resourceful and responsible
Officers should be creative with resources such as contacts, weapons, and policies, and must use them appropriately and responsibly.
– Compassionate and empathetic
These traits will help officers connect with the community, as well as better assist crime victims on an emotional level.
– Cultural sensitivity; non-prejudiced
Police officers will often deal with wide varieties of cultural groups, so must remain unbiased and sensitive to cultural differences.
– Good verbal and written communication
Talking with colleagues, superiors, and the public is required on a daily basis, and report-writing and paperwork are a large part of an officer’s duties.
– Physical Fitness
Endurance and cardiovascular health is required to pursue criminals on foot, and strength is necessary for capturing and detaining them.
– Bilingual or multilingual
While not necessary, knowing another language is an asset. It will make candidates stand out when hiring, and will improve chances for promotions.
There are many ways to develop these skills. Volunteering for your local police department, or for another community service will offer exposure to the type of work police officers do.
Gaining general work experience is also very valuable. All kinds of jobs will help you to develop key skill sets that can be transferred over to a position as a police officer. For example, learning to communicate effectively with the public can be gained from working in many different work settings such as retail, hospitality, and recreation.
Another way to develop these skills is by taking related courses. Courses that focus on critical thinking and communication are best, as these are two areas very important for success as a police officer.
If you think these skills and abilities sound like you, then a career in policing is very likely a good match for you.
Besides skills and abilities that are beneficial for an officer, there are also some factors that will automatically disqualify applicants. These include the following:
– Adult or juvenile felony convictions
– Repeat misdemeanors or violation convictions, particularly domestic abuse and sexual crimes
– Illegal drug use
– Poor driving record, including reckless driving or DWI/DUI convictions
– Poor credit history or financial problems
Every police department has different policies, so some may pardon minor misdemeanors if they happened long ago. However, other departments may be stricter. Make sure to avoid these issues if you hope to get into this field of work.