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How to Become a Law Enforcement Officer in the U.S.

In this video, you'll learn how to become a law enforcement officer in the United States. We'll cover the education requirements, training information and experience required for starting a career in law enforcement. View article »

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  • 0:01 U.S. Law Enforcement Officers
  • 1:31 Obtain a High School Diploma
  • 2:47 Enroll in an…
  • 3:27 Acquire a Position as…
  • 3:55 Complete Police…
  • 4:30 Consider Options for…

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Video Transcript

U.S. Law Enforcement Officers

Degree Level High school diploma or equivalent; some positions require an associate's degree
Degree Field(s) Criminal justice, law enforcement
Experience Law enforcement officers must complete police academy training
Key Skills Multi-tasking, leadership, and communication skills; empathy; good judgment and perceptiveness; strength and stamina, database user interface and query software, emergency vehicle operations; use of firearms and criminal investigation tactics
Additional Requirements At least 21 years old and U.S. citizen; valid driver's license; ability to pass a drug screening and background check; physical and mental health screenings
Salary $58,320 (2015 median for all police and sheriff's patrol officers)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, O*Net Online, Indiana Law Enforcement Academy

U.S. law enforcement officers work to serve and protect the public. They are responsible for a variety of tasks that include patrolling their designated areas, enforcing current laws, arresting suspects and filling out paperwork. Their daily work can be physically challenging and dangerous, since they may be dealing with criminals who try to harm them. At other times, it can be enriching to help protect members of the community.

Some of the key skills needed for this position include the ability to multi-task, communication skills, empathy and good judgment, leadership skills, perceptiveness, strength and stamina, database and query software know-how, the ability to operate emergency vehicles and knowledge in the use of firearms and criminal investigation tactics.

In addition to these important skills and abilities, there are additional requirements to becoming a law enforcement officer, including being at least 21 years old and a U.S. citizen, having a valid driver's license and the ability to pass a drug screening and background check, and passing physical and mental health screenings.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, police patrol officers earn a median salary of $58,320 per year, as of May 2015.

Step 1: Obtain a High School Diploma

The minimum educational requirement for a law enforcement officer is a high school diploma or its equivalent. Some high schools offer curriculums designed to prepare high school students to enter the police force. High school students wishing to become law enforcement officers should take courses related to communication skills, criminal law, forensics, computer science and community service. Students wishing to become police recruits should also dedicate themselves to staying in top physical condition.

Success Tip:

  • Enroll in a police cadet academy. Many cities and government agencies offer police cadet training to individuals under the age of 21 who are too young to enter training for entry-level police officers. These cadet-training programs typically recruit high school students and recent graduates. They then offer training in such topics as traffic offenses, curfew laws, building searches, computer technology and report writing. These programs might be short training programs lasting a week, or they could be extended programs, which include on-the-job training in clerical work and other non-hazardous duties.

Step 2: Enroll in an Associate's Degree Program

Although not a strict requirement, many applicants to police departments have taken college-level courses or earned a degree, and some jurisdictions accept completion of an associate's degree in lieu of portions of the police academy training program. Postsecondary degree requirements vary and may be dependent on whether an aspiring law enforcement officer intends to work in a federal, state or municipal capacity. Typical degree program in criminal justice may include courses in criminal law, the court system, the correctional system, police practices and criminal investigation techniques.

Step 3: Acquire a Position as an Entry-Level Police Officer

The requirements for an entry-level position as a U.S. law enforcement agent may differ by jurisdiction. Some law enforcement agencies recruit applicants with no degree or previous training. Regardless of the jurisdiction, applicants must meet age, citizenship, character and health requirements. Applicants may also be required to pass a background check, lie detector test and drug screening, as well as other examinations.

Step 4: Complete Police Academy Training

Each jurisdiction sends its cadets to police academy after they're hired. Completing the police academy usually takes aspiring officers between 12-14 weeks, depending on the department. Students are trained in both classroom settings and in hands-on exercises, where they are taught to use firearms, to administer first aid, to practice self-defense and to handle emergency situations. Cadet officers who have successfully completed police academy training are typically given assignments and can immediately begin work.

Step 5: Consider Options for Career Advancement

Once admitted to the police force, new law enforcement officers typically begin their careers as patrol officers. Through years of satisfactory service, police officers may advance in rank from corporal to captain. Some officers may choose to specialize and go into detective or juvenile work after extensive on-the-job experience.

Success Tips:

  • Consider specialized training. Some jobs require specialized training beyond police academy training. Examples of these types of positions include motorcycle officer, helicopter pilot or K-9 unit officer. The exact type of training given depends on the position, and the police department pays to train qualified applicants.
  • Obtain a bachelor's degree. A typical bachelor's degree program in criminal justice may include coursework in civil rights and race relations, as well as communication skills, crisis management, ethics, psychology and law. A degree may also increase the number of jurisdictions in which a U.S. law enforcement officer is eligible to serve.

Becoming a law enforcement officer in the U.S. involves earning a high school diploma and an associate's degree, acquiring an entry-level position, completing police academy training and looking into more specialized training or advanced education to further one's law enforcement career.

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