Become a Police Chief: Education and Career Roadmap

Learn how to become a police chief. Research the education requirements, training information and experience required for starting a career in the law enforcement field.

Should I Become a Police Chief?

Police chiefs work in law enforcement and are responsible for managing officers, preparing reports, and informing personnel of investigations and regulations. Other essential duties include training and evaluating officers and other personnel, coordinating efforts with other law enforcement agencies or court representatives, and testifying in court proceedings. Working in the law enforcement field can be mentally and physically stressful, and police chiefs may encounter dangerous or life-threatening situations.

Career Requirements

Degree Level Varies from a high school diploma to a college degree; many agencies prefer to hire candidates with bachelor's or master's degrees
Degree Field Criminal justice and law enforcement are common fields; degrees in business, public administration, sociology, anthropology, psychology, or communications may be acceptable
Experience Several years of experience as an officer are required
Licensure and CertificationCertification program required; US citizenship, an entrance exam, a valid driver's license, and a cleared background check
Key Skills Ability to multi-task, communicate and lead effectively, utilize crime information and fingerprint database software, as well as composite and drawing computer programs, Word, and Excel, proficiency in handling handcuffs, firearms, and two-way radios, successful stress-management techniques and adequate physical fitness
Salary (2014) $80,930 (Median annual salary for all registered first-line supervisors of police and detectives)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, International Association of Chiefs of Police, O*Net OnLine

Step 1: Earn an Associate's Degree or a Bachelor's Degree

According to O*Net OnLine, 50% of first-line supervisors of police and detectives (the group that includes police chiefs) have an associate's or bachelor's degrees. Prospective candidates might consider a degree in criminal justice, law enforcement, or a related field. Typical coursework in a criminal justice program includes criminology, corrections, criminal law, and forensics. Students may also need to take classes in writing, sociology, and psychology.

Success Tips:

  • Study a foreign language. Proficiency in a foreign language is often an asset when seeking employment, especially in urban areas.
  • Complete fieldwork or an internship. Some schools require that students complete internships or various coursework in the field. Experiencing hands-on work is also helpful for students in deciding the types of environments in which they would like to work.
  • Follow a physical fitness program. Physical fitness tests are an important component in the application process for police officers. Adhering to a fitness program will not only prepare students for these tests, but also for a future career that can be physically taxing.

Step 2: Enter the Workforce

Aspiring police chiefs typically enter the workforce as police officers in law enforcement agencies. While each agency is different, most require officers to be at least 21 years of age and to pass psychological and physical fitness tests as well as written examinations. Additional requirements may include medical examinations and demonstration of sound character; most agencies require candidates with clean background checks.

Step 3: Participate in On-the-Job Training

Officers must receive training, often in the form of a certification program, after they have been accepted by an agency. This may involve training at a police or regional academy. The curriculum covers various areas of police work such as understanding laws and rights, conducting investigations, and utilizing related technology. Officers may also work with supervisors concerning training with firearms, patrolling, and first-aid.

Step 4: Gain Work Experience and Advance

Aspiring police chiefs are required to have extensive work experience in investigations, patrols, and administration. They must have a proven track record of leadership skills and competence in their work. Promotions through an agency are determined through examinations, aptitude assessments, and time spent with the agency.

Success Tip:

  • Pursue various work experiences. Hiring authorities at agencies seek to employ police chiefs with a diverse set of experiences and skills. Aspiring chiefs should be competent in several operational areas, including records and community affairs. Working collaboratively with other agencies can help develop these skills, as well as showcase varied experiences.

Step 5: Consider a Master's Degree Program

The IACP indicates that a master's degree gives an aspiring police chief an advantage in the competitive job market. Master's degree programs in criminal justice are offered at many schools and allow students to build on the knowledge gained in undergraduate programs. Graduate students may take courses in victimology, research methods, and terrorism and may be required to complete a master's thesis.

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