Police officers have a job that many people are interested in. Police work is exciting, pays relatively well, serves an important function in society, and is very rewarding for those who spend a career in it. Here at CJ Career HQ, we know that the position of a police officer is one of the most sought after in the field of criminal justice, so we created the ultimate guide on how to become a police officer, presented here. Depending on what state you live in and want to work in, there will be some variance as to what you need to do to make this career hope a reality, but these general steps will hold true no matter where you are.
Make Sure You Qualify
In most states, in order to become a police officer you must be a U.S. citizen who is at least 21 years old. While college is not necessarily required, you must have either a high school diploma or a GED, as well as a driver’s license. You’ll also need to pass certain physical exams, such as endurance, strength, agility, vision, and hearing.
Stay Out of Trouble
As a police officer, you’ll be expected to be a role model for people in your community. Having a criminal record is a sure way to derail your law enforcement career before it even begins. During your high school and college career, avoid drinking and illegal drugs. While juvenile crimes do not appear on your permanent record, being a model member of society is good practice for your future role as an officer of the law. In addition, any felony conviction, any misdemeanor domestic violence conviction, and any conviction for a racially-motivated crime disqualify you completely from a career in law enforcement. You should also be very careful about what you post on the Internet, particularly on social media sites like Facebook. Hiring departments will definitely analyze your online footprint, so even the smallest indiscretions posted online can prevent you from getting a job.
Understand the Work
There are several different tiers of law enforcement, all of which do different kinds of work. When most people think of a police officer, they think of a uniformed officer on patrol (which is most likely the job you’ll get when you’re starting out in the field). This officers protect and serve the community by watching for crimes being committed and acting accordingly, as well as assisting during traffic accidents and other incidents.
State troopers work for the state government rather than a specific municipality, and typically focus on enforcing highway traffic laws and writing citations. They also provide backup to other communities within the state when necessary. Railway police patrol transit areas, while sheriffs work at the county level. Detectives and investigators are in charge of gathering evidence and facts for criminal investigations through interviews, research, and other means. Federal law enforcement officers, such as those with the Secret Service and the Drug Enforcement Agency, are very specialized and have jurisdiction over the whole United States. Having a solid idea of your area of interest is a good way to figure out what type of department you should strive to work for.
The work environment largely depends on your specialty, but all officers need to be alert and prepared for the realities of facing death and tragedy while on the job. Some types of officers, particularly federal, need to travel on a moment’s notice, which can take a toll on family life.
Find Out About Cadet Programs
If you’re younger than age 21 but want to begin working toward your career right away, find a local police academy that has a cadet program. These programs typically allow interested candidates to do administrative work and take courses within the department until they reach the age requirements to apply for the officer’s academy. If a cadet program is not available in your area, it’s still important to build a strong, credible work history. This will give you an edge over other candidates, particularly if you have strong recommendations from supervisors. It’s also important to see if you can shadow a police officer in the community you’re interested in working for. Doing ride-alongs can help you get a clear picture of the day-to-day life of a law enforcement official. If possible, volunteer for the department you’re interested in as well. For example, many officers need volunteers to role play during training exercises.
Get Physically Fit
As part of your application, you’ll have to take a battery of tests of your physical fitness and strength. Work on developing healthy eating habits and starting an exercise regime. Specifically, running is a great way to build up the speed and physical endurance necessary to chase suspects. Lift weights to build strength, and play games like volleyball and dodgeball that are helpful in improving your reflexes and reaction time. If you’re still in high school, playing team sports is a great way to improve your physical fitness as well as to develop the collaborative spirit necessary for officers of the law.
Maintain Good Credit
One of the things the police department will analyze as part of your background check is your credit score. Start building good credit early by paying all of your bills on time. If you do have credit issues, consult a financial advisor to find out what steps you can take to improve your credit before applying to the police academy.
Consider Higher Education
While a degree is not typically required to become a police officer, many departments require a certain number of college credits to qualify. In addition, candidates with degrees tend to be more attractive to communities, increasing your chances of finding a job. If you are interested in an associate’s degree, start by taking classes in criminal justice at your local community college. In addition, many colleges and universities offer bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice (see the best criminal justice schools), psychology, business, or another related discipline. As in many careers, the more education you have, the easier it will be to advance. And just earning the degree is not enough; a high GPA and good recommendations are essential to bolster your job application. Beyond higher education, you may consider taking classes in a foreign language, as well as study the area and police department where you hope to work.
Consider the Military
If you decide that college isn’t necessarily for you, joining the military can serve a similar function in preparing you for a career in law enforcement. Not only does this valuable experience make you very attractive to police departments, in some cases the years you spend in the military can be counted toward years of retirement. In addition, most branches of the armed forces have law enforcement courses and training programs. For example, you can be a military police officer for the US Army.
Develop Related Skills
While higher education is important, you can also spend time on your own working on the “soft skills” that will be helpful to you as a police officer. Learning a foreign language is a great example; taking a public speaking class is another. Make sure that you learn to type well and quickly, aiming for a score of about 60 words per minute. Be knowledgeable about current events, and read up on the geographic area where you hope to work. Train your memory so that you can easily remember names, dates, and details. Consider taking a basic self-defense class, such as karate or ju-jitsu, and make sure you’re well-versed in first aid and CPR. Any enrichment activities you take on will be an asset when it’s time to apply for a job.
Take the Civil Service Exam
While the exact structure of the civil service exam varies by state, the test typically measures your aptitude to become a police officer or other type of civil service. You are assigned a score based on your relevant experience, schooling, and other factors. There is also either a multiple choice test or an essay. Just as you would for any other test, preparing for the written portion of the test is an important part of your preparation. Just passing isn’t enough; the field is quite competitive, so the best job openings will go to those candidates who not only pass, but excel.
Attend the Police Academy
After passing the battery of screening tests, you’ll hopefully be admitted to the police academy, which is the next step in your career. The academy typically lasts for about 12 weeks. While some states have a different academy for each jurisdiction, others have a statewide academy or one that’s linked with a university with a criminal justice program. Researching the requirements in your state is a critical part of preparing to apply for the police academy. During the academy, you’ll be trained on a variety of skills, including state and local ordinances, constitutional law, civil rights, traffic control, self-defense, first-aid, firearms, and emergency response. Read more on this in our article on police training.
Apply for Jobs
If you attend a police academy associated with a specific police department, you’ll likely be placed with them after completing the course. However, statewide and other types of academies will help place you in a local department that needs additional officers. When a job is available, most police departments will place a vacancy announcement and allow people to apply who meet their minimum requirements. Being prepared by completing the steps on this list will help you be ready when a job is available.
Prepare for the Job Interview
Be ready to answer questions about why you want to become a police officer. Make sure that you are neat, well-dressed, and clean-shaven. Be enthusiastic and talkative, but also come across as relaxed and confident. It also makes sense to practice common interview questions with a friend or family member. You should also make sure that your car is clean and organized; some departments will look at it to see how tidy a person you are.
After your probationary period with the department ends, you’ll likely have the opportunity to be promoted and move into different fields within law enforcement. The typical probation can last anywhere from six months to three years. In addition to moving up in your department, you can also seek specialty training in areas as diverse as homicide, chemicals, firearms, horse or canine units, handwriting analysis, and more. Your supervising officer will mentor and advise you about the paths that you can take to further your career. If you work for a local department, you might want to get more education so that you can become a state or even a federal officer.
Before taking the steps to pursuing a career as a police officer, you should also give serious thought to the realities of the job. While it can be dangerous and exciting, you’ll also be working long hours away from your family and responsible for extensive paperwork. The ideal officer is morally grounded, great at communicating with all types of people, and has excellent critical thinking and problem solving skills. In addition, you should be aware that police work has one of the highest rates of on-the-job fatalities and injuries of any profession. However, if you feel like you have what it takes, then you’re on the right path to a fulfilling career in law enforcement.