How to Become a Cop: Education and Career Roadmap

In this video, you'll learn how to become a cop. We'll cover the education, career requirements and experience required for starting a career in law enforcement so that you can make the right decision.

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Should I Become a Cop?

Police officers are often referred to as cops and protect people and property from criminal behavior. They enforce laws by responding to calls of distress, patrolling neighborhoods and conducting traffic stops. In some cases, cops will write tickets to people who violate laws, while more serious offenses will require them to arrest offending parties. Formal education requirements can vary to become a cop; however, all individuals will need to complete a police academy training program. Some aspiring police officers may also want to study criminal justice or law enforcement at the post secondary level.

Due to the wide range of duties, the career can be both mentally and physically exhausting. Law enforcement officers have some of the highest instances of injuries on the job. Paid overtime work is often available, and cops may need to work weekends and nights.

Career Requirements

Degree Level High school diploma or GED equivalent; some employers require college coursework or a degree
Degree Field Criminal justice, law enforcement, corrections or a related field
Experience Employers may require one year of experience; police academy and on-the-job training is generally required
Key Skills Excellent judgment and leadership skills, as well as the ability to communicate and empathize with others, ability to use crime mapping, photo imaging, spreadsheet and query software, surveillance audio and video recorders, notebook computers and handcuffs
Salary $56,810 is the median annual wage for police officers (2014)

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS); iSeek.org; Monster.com Job postings (September 2012),O*Net Online, New Jersey State Police Academy (njsp.org)

Step 1: Complete Police Academy Training

In order to enroll in a police academy training program, individuals will need to have at least a high school diploma. Related courses, such as sociology and English, may help prepare students for the academic portion of academy training. Participating in team sports may also help with physical conditioning and teach students about leadership, communication and teamwork.

Police academy training is designed to train cadets to work in law enforcement. While larger local police agencies have their own training programs, prospective officers working in smaller agencies are often sent to state or regional academies. Police academy typically lasts around 25 weeks. Officers learn techniques in first aid, firearms use, traffic control and self-defense. They are also taught specific local laws regarding subjects such as accident reporting and investigation.

Success Tip

  • Stay fit. Fitness is a critical aspect in police academy training. Developing a fitness routine before and during academy training will ensure that prospective police officers perform at their best and meet the physical requirements.

Step 2: Pursue Additional Training

Prospective cops can find a variety of related certificate and degree programs, such as the Associate of Applied Science in Criminal Justice with a law enforcement specialization or criminal justice administration law enforcement certificate. Although not required for all positions, the BLS notes that this may be beneficial when applying to various law enforcement agencies. Prospective employers may also look upon military experience favorably. Completing criminal justice courses or having combat mission experience can serve as preparation for the academic and physical requirements to become a cop.

Step 3: Apply for Jobs & Pass Exams

Applicants should pick the department that they'd like to join and submit applications. Police agencies with open jobs will allow eligible candidates to begin testing. Candidates must pass a written exam that generally includes information about the civil service portion of their job duties as police officers. Additionally, a physical exam must be passed. The physical exam tests several aspects of overall physical health and fitness ranging from strength and agility to good eyesight and hearing.

Step 4: Consider a Bachelor's Degree

Prospective police officers with a bachelor's degree and some experience will have the best job opportunities between 2012-2022, despite the slower than average growth expected in this profession. Those who speak more than one language or have investigative experience will also find better job prospects. A four-year degree can also provide great experience for police officer who wish to advance to higher positions within a department.

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