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.

Do I Want to Be a Police Chief?

As a police chief, you'll be responsible for managing officers, preparing reports and informing personnel of investigations or regulations. Training and evaluating officers and other personnel, coordinating efforts with other law enforcement agencies or court representatives and testifying in court proceedings may also be a part of your job. Working in the law enforcement field can be mentally or physically stressful, and you may frequently encounter dangerous situations.

Job Requirements

To become a police chief, you must earn a high school diploma or its equivalent to begin your career in law enforcement; many agencies also require a bachelor's degree. Some police chiefs may even hold a master's degree. Prior experience as a police officer is essential. The following table summarizes the core requirements for police chiefs:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Varies from a high school diploma to a college degree;* many agencies prefer to hire candidates with a bachelor's, or even master's, degrees**
Degree Field Criminal justice and law enforcement are common fields*; however, a degree in business, public administration, sociology, anthropology, psychology or communications may be acceptable**
Experience Several years of experience are required; requirements vary between agencies***
Key Skills Multitasking, communication and leadership*
Computer Skills Crime information and fingerprint identification database software and computer-aided composite drawing software, as well as Microsoft Excel and Word***
Technical Skills Safe handling of handcuffs and firearms, familiarity with two-way radios***
Additional Requirements Able to deal with stressful and demanding situations, good physical fitness*

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 degree. The International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) indicates that applicants with bachelor's degrees may be the most attractive candidates to potential employers. Prospective candidates might consider a degree in criminal justice, law enforcement or a related field. Typical coursework in a criminal justice program may include criminology, corrections, criminal law and forensics. Students may also need to take classes in writing, sociology and psychology.

Success Tips:

  • Study a foreign language. Some agencies may prefer candidates who are bilingual, so students may opt to enroll in foreign language courses. Proficiency in a foreign language may be an asset when seeking employment, especially in urban areas.
  • Complete fieldwork or an internship. Some schools may require students to complete internships or other work in the field. Working in a real-life situation may be helpful to students who are setting their goals for the future; practical experience may help them to decide on the type of environment 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 old and take psychological and physical fitness tests as well as written examinations. Additional requirements may include medical examinations and demonstration of sound character; many agencies disqualify candidates who have been convicted of a crime.

Step 3: Receive Training

Officers must receive training after they have been accepted by an agency. This may involve training at a police academy or a regional academy. Officers learn about specifics of police work like laws, rights, investigation and 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 demonstrate leadership skills and competence in their work. Promotions through an agency are determined through examinations, aptitude and time spent within the agency.

Success Tip:

  • Pursue a variety of work experiences. Hiring authorities at agencies may seek to employ a police chief with a diverse set of experiences and skills. Aspiring chiefs should actively pursue experience in several operational areas, including records and community affairs. Working with more than one agency may also show variety in experience.

Step 5: Consider a Master's Degree Program

The IACP indicates that a master's degree may give 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. A master's thesis may also be required.

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