Police officers are responsible for enforcing laws and maintaining peace within communities. In addition to earning a high school diploma, police officers receive training at a police academy. Some police officers complete degree programs in law enforcement or criminal justice as well, which can be helpful for career advancement. Police recruits also have to go through a series of examinations that are determined by their academy, which may include physical fitness testing and psychiatric review.
Let's look at the steps it takes to become a police officer:
Step 1: Meet Basic Prerequisites
All police departments require their police officers to have at least a high school diploma or equivalent. While some departments hire graduates right out of high school, most require potential officers to be at least 21 years old. Thus, students who are hired after high school must work and train until they are 21 in order to become an officer. Other basic prerequisites for police officers include being a U.S. citizen and having a valid driver's license and clean record.
Step 2: Complete Undergraduate Education
Step 2 involves completing an associate or bachelor's degree program in criminal justice, law enforcement or a related discipline. While a degree is not required by many departments, applicants may find formal education advantageous when vying for officer positions. State and federal agencies generally require their recruits to have a college education. Degree-holders also may advance their careers more rapidly than those without a relevant degree. Some departments will even provide tuition assistance to officers who seek degrees in pertinent fields.
Step 3: Attend Police Academy
Most police officers attend some form of police academy for training. Large police departments send recruits to their own police academies. Smaller precincts may send new hires to attend larger academies as well. Academy programs typically last 3-4 months and combine classroom and hands-on, physical training. Academies include common classroom instruction in:
- Civil rights
- State and local laws
- Incident reporting
- Crime investigation
- Constitutional law
- Criminal psych
Police academy training prepares prospective police officers for active duty. Therefore, recruits also gain supervised experience in facing real-life situations. A police academy teaches students common requirements such as:
- Patrol, risk assessment and subject apprehension
- Accident and emergency response
- First-aid and cardiopulmonary resuscitation
- Firearm use
- Traffic command
Step 4: Pass Applicable Exams and Tests
In order to gain a position on the police force, candidates are required to pass various examinations to ensure competence. Candidates must pass written exams, which may be administered through a police academy. Most divisions also administer physical tests of strength, vision, hearing and agility. Some units conduct psychiatric or background interviews to assess a recruit's personal characteristics and overall suitability for a career in law enforcement. Most candidates will need to pass drug and lie detector tests as well.
Step 5: Find a Job
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported that state and federal police and detective jobs should be quite competitive. However, once a police officer is hired, there is generally very little turnover. The BLS reported that police and detective jobs would grow 4% from 2014-2024, which was slower than average. Police and sheriff's patrol officers made a median salary of $58,320 in May 2015.