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How to Become a Police Officer

What is a police officer?

A police officer is a first responder who is responsible for keeping their community safe by enforcing laws and preventing criminal activity. They personally respond to calls for directing traffic, investigating crimes, mediating disputes, and helping citizens get to safety. Police officers are commonly found patrolling different neighborhoods and cities to detect any potential crime or unsafe situations. 

A key part of a police officer’s job is to reduce criminal activity while promoting a safe environment for the community. They are required to follow specific guidelines and protocols while attending to different situations and emergencies. This involves observing and reporting certain details of accidents and unlawful behavior. Police officers may also be required to attend court hearings to provide evidence and reports on crimes. 

Qualifications and eligibility

Every state has varying requirements for becoming a police officer, however, there are common qualifications across all states. These include:

  • You must be at least 21 years of age 
  • You must be a citizen of the United States 
  • You must possess a high school diploma or pass the GED
  • You must have a valid state issued driver’s license
  • You must complete and pass a full background check
  • You must pass a medical examination along with a drug screening

A police officer must have a clean criminal record. Any serious misdemeanors or felony convictions can disqualify a person from becoming an officer. It is also important for police officers to be honest. Every arrest and imprisonment should be a result of an unlawful act. Any type of witness tampering or spoiling evidence could result in termination for a police officer. An integritous police officer is needed to keep the people and their community safe. 

Work environment

Police officers work in different locations and environments depending on their assignments, but you’ll typically find them working at police departments when they’re not patrolling the city they work for. Some other settings you may find police officers:  

  • Airports need police officers to ensure airport security in parking lots, Airfield Operations Area, and in the airport itself. They are also there to enforce federal and state aviation regulations. 
  • National and other public parks hire police officers to protect the area’s natural beauty and maintain public peace within the area. 
  • You’ll also run into police officers in malls and other public buildings to help create a safe environment for customers. 

Police officers are essentially working for their city, county, state, or federal government. Their jurisdiction and the size of the police department they work for can influence their day-to-day responsibilities. While local police officers typically patrol and protect the area they work in, federal police officers are found writing reports for government prosecutors and testifying in court. 

Typical work hours

As you might expect, the typical work hours for a police officer can vary depending on their role and department. Most police officers work full-time and usually exceed working the typical 40-hour week. Police officers are needed 24 hours a day, so it is common for police officers to be scheduled during weekends, nights, and holidays.  

Police officers’ shifts can range from 8 to 12 hours depending on the number of officers there are in a department. Once you earn a seniority position, you will be able to have more control in your schedules. This may include working shorter shifts or having more flexibility when it comes to working mornings, afternoons, or nights. 

Types of police officers

There are different types of police officers who work in law enforcement to protect a certain geographic area or group of people. A police officer may work as the following: 

  • Uniformed Police Officer – This type of officer works for a city or municipal police department. They commonly patrol the city and respond to calls for service, emergencies, directing traffic, and investigating crime. 
  • Police Chief – This is the top law enforcement official within a police department. They supervise all the uniformed officers and other personnel working in the department. Police chiefs are typically responsible for administrative tasks such as managing budgets and implementing training and policies for their team. 
  • State Trooper– State troopers are responsible for enforcing state laws. They respond to accidents on the road as well as issue traffic warnings and citations during highway patrol. 
  • Detective– This police officer is specially trained to investigate crime scenes. This requires gathering evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects, and writing comprehensive reports to prosecutors. 
  • Crime Scene Investigator – Crime scene investigators are uniformed police officers who gather and analyze physical evidence found at crime scenes. They may perform lab work to process the evidence and testify in criminal trials later on.  
  • School Resource Officer – These officers work in public schools to promote a safe learning environment for students. They usually work with a school’s staff to develop policies and procedures that will best keep students safe in emergency situations. 

Income potential

A police officer salary will largely depend on their experience, title, and the state they live in: 

  • The average annual income for a police officer is $60,900 and can range anywhere from $53,258 to $71,216. 
  • A police officer’s salary can vary greatly when you break it down by state, so it’s best to check your state’s data. For example, New York, California, Oregon, and Massachusetts offer the highest salaries between $63,000 – $67,000. Louisiana, Texas, and North Carolina pay the lowest wages at $45,000 – $50,000. 

Keep in mind that many police officers make higher pay with seniority, so their wage is typically based on the number of years they’ve worked. The average salary for a senior police officer is $68,866, so you’re definitely rewarded for your hard work and commitment to the field. 

Some police officers have different, more advanced roles that allow them to be paid more generously. Police chiefs and police lieutenants are paid the most in law enforcement with an average annual pay between $74,342 – $110,317. This is largely due to the fact that they are overseeing the entire staff and managing the department. Meanwhile, campus and school officers are usually paid the least with an average of $50,000 a year.

Position trends

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts the job market to grow by 7% for police officers over the next ten years. Around 67,100 job openings will be available each year to replace workers leaving the field to pursue a new occupation or to retire. 

Career path

As a police officer, you will gain the skills and knowledge needed to work in other law enforcement positions. Some people look into getting a criminal justice degree to later become FBI agents, victim advocates, ICE agents, or forensic analysts after their police training. Others may switch into different areas of practice such as becoming a firefighter or lawyer. 

Below is a list of positions that are potential career options for police officers:

  • Corrections Officers
  • Security Guards
  • Firefighters
  • Transportation Inspectors
  • Court Clerk
  • Bailiff
  • Intelligence Analyst
  • Court Reporter
  • Paralegal
  • Attorney
  • Judge
  • Evidence Technicians
  • Background Screen Analyst
  • Park Ranger
  • Deportation Officer
  • Fingerprint Specialist

Steps to become a police officer

The career path steps to becoming a police officer include:

1. Earn your high school diploma or GED

Obtaining your high school diploma or passing the GED is the first step to becoming a police officer. Not only are you required to earn your high school diploma, but you’ll have the opportunity to take valuable electives throughout your high school career that can prepare you for a career in law enforcement. Some of those classes include: 

  • Psychology – This class focuses on the study of human behavior. Understanding human nature will help police officers better identify criminals and figure out their motives. 
  • English – Police officers will be required to write detailed reports about accidents and criminal activity, so it is important for them to have strong and effective writing skills. 
  • Health & Physical Education – Passing a physical fitness test is required for police officers, so it is important for students to learn about what they can do to keep their bodies healthy and strong. 
  • US Government – An introductory US government class is perfect for anyone looking to go into law enforcement. You will learn the basics of civil rights, public policies, and laws. 

High school students can also prepare to become police officers by shadowing cops in their community to see if law enforcement would be a good fit for them. 

2. Make sure to meet the general application requirements

You must meet certain requirements before you can become a police officer. Here is a list of common qualifications you must meet before applying to become a police officer in each state: 

  • U.S. Citizenship – You must provide proof of United States citizenship early in the application process.
  • Age Requirements – You must be at least 21 years old to become an officer. Some states or departments have a maximum age limit around 34-37 years old. 
  • Driver’s License – You must have a valid state-issued driver’s license along with a clean driving record. 
  • Background Check – You must complete and pass a full background check. 
  • Medical and Physical Fitness Check – You must have a medical and physical examination to make sure you are physically and mentally strong enough to handle the on-the-job requirements.
  • Selective Service – You must be registered with or exempt from the Selective Service System. 

3. Pass the law enforcement entrance examination

The entrance exam you take will largely depend on the specific position you are applying for and whether you are pursuing a career as a local, state, or federal police officer. While the written examination doesn’t test you on specific law enforcement guidelines or terminology, it will evaluate your knowledge on written, math, and logical reasoning skills. You must pass the examination with a 70 – 80% to be hired as a police officer. Some of the different sections you’ll find on the written exam includes:

  • Grammar, vocabulary, and spelling
  • Reading comprehension
  • Basic math and problem solving
  • Situational scenarios and reasoning
  • Memory and facial recognition

4. Apply to the police academy

Once you meet all the requirements to become a police officer, you will have the opportunity to apply to the police academy. This is where you will train to become a police officer. As you apply to different police academies, you will have to write essays and provide different documentation to be considered. You can attend the academy through the federal, state, or local government or at a university. The police academy is 36 weeks long and over 1,400+ training hours

Here are some of the top police academies in the United States:

If you want a police academy that you can do online, check out Bryant & Stratton College

5. Attend and graduate from the police academy 

Every police officer must participate in and graduate from the police academy. This involves completing a series of educational and physical modules to help prepare and train officers for their various job responsibilities. 

The police academy curriculum can vary depending on where you attend your training, however there are common modules across each academy. These include: 

  • Police Strategy – This area focuses on teaching officers about state ordinances, local laws, and constitutional law. You will also learn about the process of the legal system. Along with legal knowledge, you’ll learn about certain protocols and strategies regarding arrests, incidents, and traffic control. 
  • Weapons Training – Recruits will learn how to use tasers, OC spray, batons, and firearms during this section. 
  • Community Collaboration & Help – This section will help prepare you to serve your community. You will cover emergency aid, negotiation techniques, communication strategies, and criminal psychology. 
  • Mental Capacity – Police officers can encounter potentially dangerous situations, so it is important for them to handle stress in a healthy manner. This module will teach recruits how to handle hostility, understand risk assessment, and endure shifting emotional experiences. 

6. Decide what department you would like to work in

There are many different officer positions at a police department. It is important to explore your options before committing to a long-term position. You can find these departments at each police station: 

  • Administration – This includes the chief of police, the deputy chief, and their administrative assistants. They will oversee staff, manage budgets, and handle simple administrative tasks such as scheduling appointments and answering phones. 
  • Patrol – This position requires officers to patrol their assigned location by looking for and preventing any suspicious activity going on in their community. 
  • Investigation Services – This unit is responsible for investigating accidents and crime scenes. Officers will gather physical evidence as well as report witness statements for court hearings. 
  • Services – These positions focus on helping the community first-hand. This includes 9-1-1 dispatch operators, school crossing guards, and division commanders. 

7. Consider getting a bachelor’s degree

Some police departments recommend earning your associate’s or bachelor’s degree to better prepare you for the field. Some higher and more advanced positions may even require it. If you’re looking to work at the federal level with the FBI or the US Fish and Wildlife Services, you will most likely have to earn your bachelor’s degree in the one of the following disciplines: 

  • Criminal Justice
  • Law
  • Social Sciences
  • Public Administration
  • Paralegal Studies
  • Psychology
  • Homeland Security and Emergency Management

7. Take continuing training and education

While there aren’t any national requirements for police officer continuing education, some states will require a certain amount of continuing education hours every few years to keep their license active. This can range from anywhere from 20-50 hours every few years. Some states, like Texas, will have certificates that law enforcement can receive in specialties, like civil process, firearms instructor, and more. 

Other certifications police officers can receive include:

  • Certified Law Enforcement Analyst

You’ll need three years of experience and must become a member of the IACA.

If you want to work in the courtroom, you’ll need special training and certificates to do so. There are three levels you must go through. 

IFPO’s courses will certify you and prepare you for becoming a supervisor in security. This is great for those wanting to be in management. You’ll need to take a test and pass it with 70% or better and pay a $300 registration fee.

NICCS will prepare you to investigate crimes. However, before earning this certificate, you’ll need at least two years of experience working in criminal investigation.

Tips for becoming a police officer

If you are interested in becoming a police officer, there are a few things you should do. Here are some tips for becoming a police officer:

  • Research what the police officer requirements are in your state. You can find this information on local government websites.
  • Enroll in a Police Academy that is best fit for you. Look at different programs to get a feel for which one will best help you succeed. 
  • Find associations that offer resources and help to police officers:
  • Develop strong negotiation skills which involve active listening, remaining calm and non-judgmental, and treating others with respect. 
  • You may find yourself thrown into the most chaotic moments of someone’s life, so it is important to offer compassion and empathy to those you serve. 
  • Don’t take what happens on the job personally. People may become upset when you approach them – it is best to try to calm the situation and move on from it once it is over. 
  • Serve with honor. Never compromise your integrity. You must be able to report honest and accurate details regarding accidents and criminal activity to promote a safe community for others.

Police officer FAQs