How to Become a Police Officer

What is a Police Officer?

police officer salaryIn the United States, they are a warranted law employee of a police force. They are the ones that are usually charged with the prevention and detection of crime, the apprehension of criminals, the preservation of public order, and the protection and assistance of the general public. They have the power to detain people for a limited time and also to arrest them. Most police officers take a sworn oath before they become actual police officers. Some may also be trained in special duties like child protection, civil law enforcement, VIP protection, surveillance, and counter-terrorism. They are also trained in investigation techniques in major crimes like rape, murder, drug trafficking, and fraud. Some may wear uniforms, some are plains clothes police officers, and some do undercover work. Most police officers will work with a partner.

To become a police officer in the United States, the minimum age requirement is 20 years of age in most states. If you are going to serve for the federal or state peacekeeping and investigatory agencies, the age requirement is usually 21 years of age. The maximum age you can become a police officer vary by the agency in the United States. Sometimes the maximum age is less than 40 years of age and other times it is the age of 65. A police officer’s job can be very competitive, so you are less preferred if you are older.

Police Officer Career Information

As a police officer, you will be maintaining the law and order in the society where you will be working. When choosing this as your career, you will be protecting the property and life of people, which is one of the most important responsibilities you will have. You may also not always ride in a patrol car but as a rookie you may be on beat patrol. This is where you will be walking an assigned area checking for violations of regulations and rules. On your beat, you may check in with various businesses, talk to people in the neighborhood you are patrolling, etc. At the start of your turn, you will be given a routine assignment that is delegated by the senior officer. Depending on the department you are serving in you may carry out searches, do interrogations, investigate crimes, and more.

In your profession as a police officer, you will work a variety of shifts, including days, evenings, nights, weekends, and holidays. You may even be on call or next up. For example, if you work in homicide there may be a list of all officers in that department and if your name is next on the list when a homicide happens you would be assigned that homicide and responsible for all the investigation, arrests if any, or anything else pertaining to that homicide. If you have been investigating a crime, it may be up to you to testify in court so you may spend a day or so in court waiting to testify in a case. There is also the not-so-fun part of a police officer’s job such as writing reports about the investigations, incidents, etc. There are also many departments and branches you can work for such as the local, state, or federal government.

Reasons to be a Police Officer

There are many diverse reasons why a person wants to become a police officer with each person having their own personal reasons. The top 5 general reasons to become a police officer include:

  • Serving their community such as being a traffic officer you can keep the roads safe by reprimanding drivers that are driving dangerously
  • Protecting the public by being the first on the scene during an emergency, reporting violations of the law, protecting the public from danger
  • Job variety because every day that you go into work it will be different and you will rarely know what each call is going to bring. You may be controlling traffic, answering a call to a domestic dispute, robbery, accidents, and more.
  • Challenging yourself because becoming a police officer is not easy but it feels rewarding to be able to make it through the recruitment process and graduating from the police academy.
  • Being able to work as part of a team.

Required Skills to Become a Police Officer

There are many qualifications to become a police officer, including physical requirements. The specific requirements depend on whether you are applying to the Federal or State government. The Department of Police also has their own special requirements for each city and state. Some of the basic requirements include:

  • Be a United States citizen and fulfill some domicile conditions stated by the police department
  • Must be an adult and in some cases be at least 20 years of age
  • Must pass written and physical examinations where your general fitness, height, eyesight, general aptitude, IQ, and EQ are checked
  • Minimum educational requirement is high school diploma but in some cases have an associate degree
  • Have a valid driver’s license
  • Have no prior convictions

The physical requirements include:

  • Desirable stature, which means that your weight and height are proportionate to each other and must not weigh more or less than what is medically acceptable for their height
  • Minimum vision capabilities of 20/40 or more, with or without corrective lenses
  • Hearing capabilities that are very acute

Their physical fitness and strength are measured through a rigorous test. The test wants to be certain that the police officer has the ability to subdue and restrain a suspect.

How Long Does it Take to Become a Police Officer?

To become a police officer will vary from department to department and whether you are applying to become a State or Federal government employee. You will need at least a high school diploma, but some also require that you have a certain amount of postsecondary education. One example is if you had applied to the Memphis Police Department their requirement is to have a least of 54 semester hours of college credit but if you have at least 2 years of military service and were honorably discharged that educational requirement is waived. Then you have to go through the application process, which can be time-consuming and can take 3 to 6 weeks to get everything done. In some areas, it can take as many as 3 to 4 months. The application process can include not only the application but also a drug screen, physical fitness test, background check, psychological and medical evaluations, and more. The next step is to take the entrance exam to get into the police academy. Next you will need to graduate from the police academy, which usually takes as long as 14 weeks.

How to Become a Police Officer?

Once you have met the demands to become a police officer, you will typically train at the police academy. Generally to be accepted into the training program you will only need a high school diploma or its equivalent. There are also college degrees that you can get. If you work for a federal agency, you will be required to obtain a college degree such as an associate or bachelor’s degree in police science or criminal justice. When pursuing either of these degrees, you should focus on a program that also provides as much career-related experience as you can get. You may also want to complete an externship, which are programs in which you would shadow a professional police officer as they work. These will generally only last a few days. You could also do a co-op program, which combines classroom instruction with paid work experience in your field of interest. Both of these programs can be completed in your district attorney’s office, local police department, juvenile justice agencies, etc.

Before you can be considered admission to the police academy you will need to submit an application to the police department(s) that you wish to work for. Once your application has been accepted, it will be placed into a pool of eligible candidates for future openings in that particular police department. At that time, your application may sit for weeks, months, or be moved immediately into a training program. It depends on what the hiring situation is at that police department. During the application process, you will also have to pass a drug screen, fitness test, and polygraph tests. Before applying to become a police officer you should make sure that you are in shape because there is a physical endurance test that you will have to pass

Each state has their own police academy and is administered at the federal level. If you are about to work for a smaller agency, you may attend a larger academy within their region of the state. Universities and community colleges also provide police training academies. Each one has their own particular entry requirements to be admitted to the academy. In some states, you may need to be recruited by the police department first before you can attend while other states allow open and direct enrollment. In addition to the basic requirements, there are also other things that you must do before being admitted.

  •   Mental assessments – you will be required to undergo a psychological examination to make sure that you are mentally balanced. You may have to sit for a written assessment to determine your reading comprehensive skills, cognitive skills, reasoning abilities, and decision-making capabilities. You may also have to take a personality test to prove your emotional stability.
  •   Physical abilities – police work requires physical work so you will need to show a good level of physical fitness. You will have a physical aptitude assessment that consists of a check of your stamina, endurance, flexibility, and strength. This is one of the most important and prominent requirements to gain admission to the police academy
  •   Spotless background – you will have to have a clear criminal background check that generally involves a detailed analysis of general records. These records include criminal, fingerprints, employment, and financial. The police academy wants to make sure that their recruits have clear behavior and character.

Also, before being admitted to the police academy, you will have to pass the written police officer examination. This written examination will help to screen out those that are unqualified. In most cases, it is a multiple-choice test, so it is easy to grade and score. It is deemed a fair way to screen potential police officers. The majority of the questions on the examination are reading-based and include any necessary information to answer the question correctly. For example, if an inquiry asks about a specific statute or rule, they will give the statute or rule, and it is up to you to be able to read and apply the rule or statute to the question and then answer the question based on the analysis. There are many different types of reading-based questions, like questions of fact, inference, ones that require you to choose between several different actions and ones that ask you to judge the behaviors of other people.

There are some that will involve practical judgment by giving you a fact pattern and then have you make an on-the-spot decision about the type of action to be taken. With these types of questions, you should use excellent judgment and common sense as you would use in an actual police conflict. Because you must be able to communicate effectively, there will also be questions that deal with expressions and grammar. As a police officer, you will be required to write many reports that are done in a logical and organized fashion without leaving any room for misinterpretation. There are questions that are geared to identifying potential police officers that have good skills in this area. There will be forms in which you will be required to pick out a sentence on the form that is grammatically incorrect, rephrasing an awkward sentence and more.

You may also have a few questions that involve your ability to read maps, mathematics, coding, analogies, filling out police forms, and observation and memory. Once you have passed a written examination, there are also other things that you have to do before gaining admission to the police academy such as a video-based exam and oral interview. The video-examinations will require you to watch a video and then respond as you would in the real life situation you are watching. If you can pass all the tests, including a drug screen, you will gain admission to the police academy.

Police academy training will generally last about 12 to 14 weeks. In addition to the physical training, there will also be classroom training. Some of the coursework that you will cover while at the police academy include proper police protocol and responses, state ordinances, and local law, working with the public, civil rights, criminal psychology, mental preparation for hostility, and more. You will also learn proper firearm usage, responding to emergencies, controlling traffic, role playing, first aid and CPR, and self-defense techniques. To pass the police academy, you will also have to pass a physical fitness and written examination.

Police Officer Schools

When choosing the best police officer school there are 4 things that you need to consider; length of the program, their reputation, graduate employment, and their relationships with state, federal, and city law enforcement agencies. At these schools, you will receive post-secondary training programs that are specifically designed to meet the requirements of the associated law enforcement agency. The programs will focus on standard law enforcement practices, basic psychology, criminal law, and physical contact techniques. Once you graduate, you can seek employment possibilities with security agencies or law enforcement. When you are looking at the graduate employment rate for a police officer school, make sure that you look at both the 6 and 12 months after graduation. The length of the programs can range from 6 months to 3 years with the best schools offering summer courses along with job placement opportunities. You want to make sure that the school you choose will offer the type of program that offers the training that is necessary to help you pass the examinations and entrance tests to get into the police academy and become a police officer. When graduating from these schools you will have an associate or bachelor’s degree.

Five of the police schools that offer a 4-year bachelor’s degree in police science or criminal justice are:

  • Texas State University
  • University of Baltimore
  • Oklahoma Panhandle State University
  • Kaplan University
  • Colorado State University

If you are pursuing just an associate degree, you can attend ITT Technical Institute and get your associate degree in criminal justice.

Police Officer Salary

What the salary of a police officer would be depends on their rank, years of experience, city, and state where they are working, the law enforcement agency such as local, state, or federal. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2014 the average yearly salary for a police officer was $58.6000 and if you were a criminal investigator or detective you had an average yearly salary of $82,000. The highest average yearly salary was $62,810 if you worked for the state government followed by the local police department at $57,670 and then the federal executive branch of the government at $52,620.

The highest paying states with an average yearly salary was New Jersey at $84,930 followed by California at $84,320. Rounding out the top 5 are Alaska at $72,240, Washington at $68,920, and New York at $68,510. The lowest paying average yearly salary was found in the southeastern part of the United States with salaries ranging from $27,260 to $41,300. Some of these states included Arkansas, Oklahoma, Georgia, North Carolina, Louisiana, and Mississippi.

In 2014, a police officer with less than a year’s experience was earning an average yearly salary between $28,534 and $57,325 and if you had at least 20 years of experience you could have an average yearly salary between $40,201 and $99,460.

In 2015, the average annual salary for a police officer was $52,848 which was approximately $5,000 less than it was in 2012, but there is also the benefits package that a police officer receives that must be taken into consideration. Some of these benefits include paid vacation and sick days, paid holidays, overtime pay, long and short term disability, paid medical and life insurance that may cover the family, may also get vision and dental insurance, yearly or quarterly bonuses, education reimbursement, detectives may be supplied a car and others. Working as a police detective, you could have an average yearly salary of $56,059. A police chief would have an average yearly salary of $68,968. At the lower end of the average yearly salary scale, 10% of police officers would make $35,984 and at the higher end it would be $71,040.

To increase your average annual police officer salary in 2016, you will need to take the exams and further your education so you can move up to become a detective, investigator, or even chief of police.

Police Officer Job Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the job opportunities for detectives and police officers will vary by location. They are expecting slower-than-average job rate growth when you compare it to other career choices. The total job growth rate expected from 2012-2022 is only 5%. The best prospects to get a job as a police officer during this time frame are those who have a bachelor’s degree and experience. Another plus to securing a job in the police officer career is being bilingual, so it is advisable that when pursuing your bachelor’s degree that you take a foreign language such as Spanish since in many cities there are many Spanish speaking people. One of the reasons that the projected growth rate is so low is that the employment opportunities at the local and state government are affected by the department’s budgets. If they do not have it in their budget to hire more police officers for that particular year, there will be no jobs posted. Depending on the government this could be no jobs for one or more years, depending on their budget and what they need to spend it on.

Similar/Related Jobs

In regards to police officer jobs, there are 4 basic categories; investigations, traffic, patrol, and administrative. Depending on the city and state there may also be other jobs but these are the 4 basic categories. There are also different ranks within each category; entry-level officers who go by the title of police officer, detectives or non-uniform police officers, entry-level leadership, which include sergeant and lieutenant, police chief, and then deputy or assistant chief of police.

  •  Patrol division – this is the most common police officer job with the majority of the police department being patrol officers. They are responsible for answering calls of service.
  •  Investigation division – this is the most important division for a police officer. They are responsible for looking into suspects and causes of a crime. These police officers can be of any rank, but most commonly are called detectives.
  • Traffic – these police officers monitor the highways, streets, and roads for safe driving. They issue tickets to those that break the law. In some of the smaller agencies, the traffic officer is also a patrol officer
  • Administrative – these police officers will usually work in an office at a desk answering phones, working with the community, sometimes supervise other police officers, and write reports. They can work in any division and are often the ones that keep the business part of the law enforcement system properly functioning.

There is also the likelihood that you could even become an instructor at the police academy.

Conclusion about the Police Officer Career

Being a police officer can be a very rewarding career but on the other hand, it can also be a dangerous career. Each day when you start your job you do not know what it is going to bring. Will it be routine or will you walk into a situation that you will not walk out of alive? Knowing this, it can also be very stressful. Your hours can vary, or you could be assigned one particular shift. Many times the newbie police officer will be stuck with the worse shifts around, mainly the night shift. To be able to get the coveted days shift may take a while because usually the ones with seniority will be awarded those first. If you love to help people, love to solve a crime then this may be the ideal career for you. It does take physical stamina to be a police officer, and you must always be in shape because there may be days when you have to chase a criminal a couple of blocks to arrest them. The salary and benefits packages are good although the entry-level salary may not be as high as you would like, but you can slowly start to move up the ranks toward a higher salary. It is always up to you.