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How to Become an Undercover Cop: Step-by-Step Career Guide

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

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Do I Want to Be an Undercover Cop?

Undercover cops forgo their uniforms in order to blend inconspicuously among criminals involved in crime rings. These operations may take weeks or months, as undercover agents observe and investigate the activities of suspected individuals. Their main goal is to get the physical evidence necessary to successfully prosecute criminals.

Once they have the evidence, they serve the arrest warrant and usually reveal their identities. Those working undercover may try to maximize their contacts within a drug or crime ring in order to extract information from these insiders. These law enforcement officials may also be required to provide written documentation of their operations and testify in court. This profession can be hazardous, since deadly weapons may often be involved. Associated danger can even continue after cases are closed.

Job Requirements

Varying levels of education are necessary, from a high school diploma to a college degree; different agencies have their own requirements. Successful completion of a training program is also required. The following table contains the core requirements for undercover cops:

Common Requirements
Degree Level Only a high school diploma is required for many jobs; however, some agencies prefer officers to hold associate's or bachelor's degrees*
Degree Field Individuals who wish to pursue postsecondary programs may study criminal justice, law enforcement or a related area*
Experience Experience requirements vary*; up to 5 years of experience as a law enforcement officer may be necessary**
Key Skills Undercover cops must have strong communication and multitasking skills; good judgment and perceptiveness are also essential*
Computer Skills Familiarity with fingerprint identification system, crime information database, crime scene image management, composite drawing and crime mapping software is useful; spreadsheet and word processing software, such as Microsoft Excel and Word, may also be used***
Technical Skills Undercover cops use tools such as handcuffs and surveillance equipment***
Additional Requirements Physical strength is necessary, since this profession can be demanding and dangerous*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **Iowa Department of Public Safety, ***O*Net OnLine.

Step 1: Earn a College Degree

Police officers usually have at least a high school diploma, but they are sometimes required to complete some college-level coursework or have a college degree. Associate's degree and bachelor's degree programs in relevant areas are available at many colleges, universities and community colleges. Areas that students may consider are criminal justice, police science or law enforcement; coursework requirements may include criminology, sociology, psychology, police operations, crime prevention, criminal investigation and juvenile justice.

Bachelor's degree programs typically also cover a broad range of general education topics, such as English and mathematics. These programs give students a good understanding of the theoretical and practical issues of justice systems and law enforcement and may be useful as they advance in their careers.

Success Tips:

  • Improve physical condition. Law enforcement officers must undergo a series of physical examinations before they can begin to work. These can include strength and agility tests. Aspiring undercover cops should work on increasing their strength and agility. Establishing and maintaining a fitness regimen may help to improve physical strength and stamina.
  • Seek out work experience opportunities in college. Some programs offer internships and other hands-on experiences to students working towards degrees. These valuable opportunities give students insight into a career that can be physical and mentally demanding and stressful, but very rewarding for some. They may help students to better understand the daily responsibilities of law enforcement officers and the dangers that this career may entail.

Step 2: Complete Police Academy Training

Police academy training is necessary before an officer can begin working. A person must be at least 21 years of age and a U.S. citizen before he or she may enroll in a police academy. Additional entry requirements include hearing, vision and strength tests; drug screenings and background checks are also common.

Trainees gain experience in a broad range of areas, such as emergency response, patrol work, self-defense and proper firearm procedures. They also receive classroom instruction in civil rights and state and local laws.

Step 3: Gain Experience Working as a Law Enforcement Officer

Police officers who would like to take on undercover work usually need to have some experience working in law enforcement. A combination of education and experience may be required. For instance, those with a bachelor's degree may not need work experience, and those without a college degree may need at least 5 years of experience. Individuals who have an associate's degree or some college coursework will fall somewhere in between. Duties of a police officer at the start of his or her career may include enforcing driving ordinances, responding to emergencies and accidents, pursuing suspects and making arrests.

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