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How To Become A Police Officer

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If you have deep respect for the law and want to make your community a safer place to live, a career in law enforcement could be the right path for you. Police officers are a crucial part of our society; they maintain the peace, respond to emergencies and protect citizens from crime. As the nation’s population grows, the need for trained officers grows along with it. The U.S. Department of Labor states that positions for local police officers will grow by about 8 percent between 2010 and 2020.

Police work can be dangerous, and achieving a position takes training and dedication; however, being a police officer can also provide a rewarding career that allows an individual to make a difference in their community.
 
Overview of Requirements to become a Police Officer
Job Opportunities for Police Officers
Police Officer Employment Outlook and Compensation
Finding a Position in Law Enforcement
Law Enforcement Career Resources

Overview of Requirements

People who are interested in becoming a police officer should enjoy working with people and engaging with the community. They should have sound judgment, honesty, integrity and a strong sense of responsibility. These are the general requirements for becoming a police officer, according to most civil service regulations:
 
  • Candidate must be a United States Citizen
  • Candidate must be at least 20 years of age
  • Candidate must pass physical fitness examination
  • Candidate must pass written examination
  • Candidate must have a high-school diploma

These qualifications are usually the minimum requirements. Most agencies also require some college coursework. The hiring process usually includes a physical and written exam, an interview, a background check, a credit check and a drug test. Some agencies may have candidates take a lie detector or personality test, and/or be interviewed by a psychologist. After being hired, a new recruit must also pass the police training academy and demonstrate their skills during a probationary period.

It should be noted that police and detective work can be very dangerous and stressful. Almost all officers witness death and suffering resulting from accidents or criminal behavior. If you are not comfortable with putting yourself at personal risk, a career in law enforcement is not the right path for you.

Education



Educational requirements for becoming a police officer vary from agency to agency. Be certain to research the jurisdiction you want to work in and develop a clear understanding of that agency's requirements before choosing an educational institution.  Some agencies limit hiring to applicants who have attended regionally accredited colleges, so it is very important to match your education with the jurisdiction's requirements.  Almost all agencies require some form of training in addition to a high school diploma.

A large number of colleges offer both associate and bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice. These courses of study include classes on legal policy, human psychology, computer systems and general education courses that improve analytical thinking. Learning a second language is also highly recommended. The more education you have, the better your job prospects and opportunities for advancement. A higher education also helps you understand the broad issues that affect our country and how they relate to criminal justice.

There are alternatives to going straight from high school into a college criminal justice program. A two-year period of military service provides the experience, training and conditioning that police agencies look for. Some agencies hire cadets straight out of high school and have them perform clerical tasks while they get their degree or attend a police academy.

Your education will not end when you are hired into an agency. Police officers are expected to pursue continuing education for their entire career. As laws and societies change, police officers must stay up-to-date on current legal procedures and social issues. There are a number of regional training centers where officers can participate in annual training on self defense, firearms, communication skills and advances in law enforcement technology. Continuing your education in a specific area of law enforcement also increases your chances of promotion to a higher rank or specialized position.

Physical Test


All police department applications include a physical exam. Police work can be physically demanding, requiring officers to have adequate vision and hearing, cardiovascular endurance and the ability to use controlled force. The physical exam typically includes tests of vision, hearing, strength and agility. Maintaining a physical fitness routine will help prepare you for this portion of the application process.
 
For youth looking into becoming an officer, participating in school sports can help raise your levels of fitness and encourage healthy habits for life. If you are anxious about passing the physical test, speak with the department recruiter about your concerns. Some agencies give you an opportunity to practice before you take the test and many will recommend a workout routine to help you prepare. If these physical tests are passed successfully, you will continue on to the written exam.

Written Test


A civil service examination is administered through the police department. Many companies offer study guides for these exams which are offered whenever a department has openings. Some departments also offer it on a regularly-scheduled basis to find a pool of eligible recruits.

Interviews, Drug Test and Background Check


After the written examination, recruits are given oral interviews, drug tests and background checks.

The oral exam is typically administered by a board of three to five people who have reviewed your application. They are looking to determine your personal character, judgment, responsibility and integrity. These questions are not specific to law enforcement knowledge. Some example questions may be:
  • Why do you want to become a police officer?
  • What have you done to prepare for this job?
  • If you were in a situation where you had to shoot someone, could you do it?
     
There may also be questions where you are given a scenario and asked how you would respond to the situation. The best course of action is to remain calm and answer the questions truthfully. The interviewers are looking for your communication skills, ethics and ability to perform under stress.

The background check is an important part of the application process. You will be asked to provide a large amount of information regarding your jobs, schooling, family, any criminal activity and other issues. Be completely truthful in answering these questions, as it is likely any lies will be uncovered during the fact-checking process. Individuals with a track record of extreme traffic violations, drug use or prior arrests aren’t likely to pass.
If you are a young person looking for a career in law enforcement, it is important to remember that a single drunk driving or drug possession charge can keep you from achieving your goal. Obviously, the drug test must come back negative to continue in the hiring process. Many police departments also subject all officers to random drug testing throughout their careers.

Police Academy


Candidates who pass these stages and are hired by a police department are sent to a training academy. The academy may be anywhere from several weeks to several months in length. For state and local police departments, recruits are usually trained for 12 to 14 weeks. Small departments may send recruits to a regional training center or state academy, while large departments often have their own academies. In some instances the training can occur in a live-in academy in a different city.

New hires will learn all about the different aspects of police work at the academy and prepare for active duty.  Training includes instruction on constitutional, state and local laws, along with crime and accident investigation. Under supervision, recruits learn firearm use, self-defense, patrol procedures, traffic control, first aid and emergency response. Classes may focus on specific aspects of police work such as responding to domestic violence or improving police-community relations.

Some large departments will hire high school graduates as cadets or trainees. They perform clerical work while attending the academy, typically for one to two years until they meet the minimum age requirement and can be hired full time. In some states it is possible to attend a general academy without being associated with a particular department. This is a good option if you are unsure exactly where you want to work. Once you complete the academy you can apply to different departments in the state as a fully trained officer.

Probationary Training Period


After successful completion of the training, new hires are assigned to a seasoned officer who will help further develop new skills on the job. All new police officers are on probation with the department for anywhere from nine to 18 months. During this period you can be terminated without right to an appeal; however, the department has already invested large amounts of time and money into helping you become an excellent officer, and if you are willing to work at improving your knowledge and skills this probationary period should go smoothly.

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Job Opportunities

Police detective career
“Police officer” is a very general term. There are many different employment opportunities within the law enforcement field. The most common position is a city or county officer. There are also opportunities to work as a detective, state patroller, federal agent or other specialized position. Officers, detectives, patrollers and agents typically work 40 hour weeks, frequently with paid overtime. Since crime doesn’t sleep, shifts run around the clock. New officers are frequently assigned to work weekends, night shifts and holidays. Officers and detectives may work very long hours during complex investigations. Officers in most jurisdictions are expected to be armed and willing to exercise their authority if necessary, even if they are off duty.

City/County Police Officer

A city or county uniformed police officer is sworn to enforce laws within their jurisdiction. This may include a wide variety of day-to-day tasks. A majority of officers’ time is spent responding to calls and filing incident reports. Duties may include directing traffic, investigating a burglary or performing first aid on an accident victim.
In a large agency, officers are assigned to a specific type of assignment. Agencies are usually organized into geographic areas and officers are assigned to a particular area, known as a “beat.” Officers patrol the beat with a partner, becoming familiar with the area and remaining alert for any unusual or suspicious activity. Potential crimes or hazards to public safety are noted and resolved, and a call for assistance may come at any time. During any shift an officer may enforce traffic laws, pursue and arrest suspected criminals or resolve a community dispute.
An emerging trend in policing (especially in urban areas) is the practice of community policing. Officers build relationships with local citizens and encourage them to help fight crime by organizing Neighborhood Watch groups and reporting incidents quickly.

Detective


A more specialized role in a police department involves detective or special agent duties. Detectives are plain-clothes officers who build cases for a criminal’s arrest and prosecution. These individuals perform investigative duties such as gathering facts, collecting evidence, conducting interviews, observing suspects and researching records. They often specialize in one area of law enforcement, like homicide or drug distribution.

In some cases detectives may work with other agencies on general task forces to address widespread problems. Instead of working a beat, these officers are assigned cases that they work until an arrest and conviction is made, or the case is dropped.

State Patrol

State patrol officers, or state troopers, provide police service across an entire state. They are responsible for safety and law enforcement on all state highways. State troopers typically work alone and cover a large geographic area. They are usually full-time uniformed officers who perform regular patrols and respond to service calls.

Job duties include issuing traffic citations to motorists on the highway, providing support at accident scenes and assisting other agencies when needed. At the scene of an accident, state patrollers may issue first aid, direct traffic, issue calls for emergency equipment and file the accident report. Along with active
patrol, many state agencies provide forensic laboratory services and computerized criminal database information to local agencies in the state. They also frequently assist with investigations in small or rural agencies. The only state that does not employ state troopers is Hawaii.

Federal Positions


There are also many different positions for law enforcement agents within the federal government. Federal agents are sworn to provide law enforcement services nationwide. Federal law enforcement agencies include the Drug Enforcement Administration, Secret Service, Central Intelligence Agency, Alcohol Tobacco & Firearms and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Once an agent has worked for one agency, they are eligible to transfer to another.
Federal agencies require more education and a longer training period than police agencies. Most positions require a bachelor’s degree and related experience, and the extensive training is conducted at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, or the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia. For more information on specific federal agencies, see the Resources section at the end of this document.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents are like detectives for the federal government. They are responsible for investigating violations of federal law and conducting national security operations. The FBI investigates a wide variety of criminal activity including drug trafficking, terrorism, bank robbery, financial crime and public corruption. Agents may conduct surveillance, examine records, investigate white collar-crime or participate in undercover assignments.

Other Specializations

Riot police
There are also many other specializations available to trained law enforcement officers. Some officers train for specialties such as chemical and microscopic analysis, firearms instruction or fingerprint identification. Others work in special horseback, bicycle, canine or SWAT units.

Some agencies also have particular enforcement responsibilities including public colleges, public school districts, jails, courts or public transportation. These uniformed police officers are not to be confused with security hired by private organizations. Hospitals, housing agencies and event facilities may hire their own security, but these individuals are not trained police officers.
 
After gaining some experience in the field, officers may be eligible to pursue some of these specializations and gain promotions. Officers can be eligible for promotion after six months to three years, depending on the agency. Opportunities may include promotion to detective, corporal, sergeant, lieutenant or captain. The selection process is usually determined by a written examination and evaluation of job performance. These promotions often come with additional management and personnel responsibilities along with specialized training.
While considering what type of law enforcement you would like to go into, you should also consider the size of the agency. Working for a very small or large agency can be a dramatically different career experience. Small agencies (less than 100 officers) offer more opportunity to do many different jobs and work in close partnership with the community. Medium-sized agencies (100-500 officers) have more opportunities for advancement and provide opportunity to work in specialized units small agencies may not have. Large agencies (500+ officers) offer even more opportunities for advancement and specialization, but may feel impersonal and in some cases have less close ties with the community.

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Employment Outlook and Compensation

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, job growth for local police departments and private detective agencies will be favorable for individuals who meet the requirements. The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts growth in the number of positions available due to population growth and officer retirement. The level of government funding dictates the level of employment for officers, so job openings can vary over time and across agencies. Smaller agencies may have fewer opportunities as they receive less funding.
There is less competition for agencies that start officers at lower salaries and also in precincts with high crime rates. Federal and state positions have more competition than positions in local agencies. Applicants who are bilingual and have military experience or college training will have the best chances in highly competitive situations.

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Finding a Position

Once you have completed your education and are looking to apply to a specific agency, how do you start? A good first step is to contact the recruiting or human resources office of the agency you are interested in. Making an appointment with a recruitment representative is an effective way to get all your questions answered and deliver a good first impression.

Here is an example of the specific requirements you will find on agency websites.

New York City Police Department Requirements:
 
You must pass a medical exam, psychological exam, physical agility exam, background and character investigation. On the day you are hired you must be a United States Citizen, at least 21 years old, have 60 college credits with at least a 2.0 GPA or two years of satisfactory military experience, have a valid driver’s license without restrictions, not have been convicted of a felony and be a resident of New York City, Nassau, Suffolk, Westchester, Rockland, Orange or Putnam county.

Resume Tips


It is important for anyone applying for a professional position to have a well-executed resume. Applicants for law enforcement positions are no exception. Ensure the resume showcases your communication and analytical skills with a solid message and clean format.

State your job objective clearly at the top of the document, below the contact information. This statement should reflect your intention in applying for the position and why you are a qualified candidate. Example Job Objective: to obtain a position in law enforcement that allows me to utilize my degree in criminal justice to make my community a safer place.

Below this, provide a detailed list of training, degrees and any related job experience. Even if you have just completed your education, include any related experience you may have, such as working with campus security or participating in martial arts. Any activity that demonstrates dedication, teamwork, leadership and a work ethic will be seen in a positive light.

To write a stand-out resume, look at criminal justice-related web sites and publications to help you choose key words to include. Many human resources professionals use scanning software to identify strong candidates out of a pool of resumes. Where appropriate, you may want to include any of the following terms: community and problem-oriented policing, crime trend analysis, crime analysis, traffic enforcement, field experience or crisis management.

Becoming a police officer requires extensive education and training. Be certain to understand the requirements of the agency you would like to work for prior to enrolling in any training or degree program.  It is not a goal you can achieve overnight, but with a commitment to learning and a solid work ethic it is a viable career path for individuals interested in protecting their communities.

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Resources:

Job posting boards:
 
 
Federal Agent Sites:
 
 
Other Resources:
 
 


If becoming a local, state or federal law enforcement officer is your career objective, Westwood College recommends that you contact the specific law enforcement agency or agencies in order to understand their educational requirements for employment. Westwood prepares graduates for certification. Graduates wishing to attain certification must take and pass any applicable test/exams. State and local restrictions may apply. Additional training may be required.