How to Become a Police Officer: Step-by Step Guide

Jul 01, 2019

Research what you have to do to become a cop, including the education and career requirements, training information, and where to apply for police officer jobs when starting a career in law enforcement.

Should I Apply to Be a Cop?

Before pursuing a career in this field, consider the responsibilities of the job.

Police officers are typically employed by state and local law enforcement agencies to enforce the law. They enforce traffic safety laws and investigate suspicious activities within work jurisdictions. Police officers may also work in jails guarding inmates and may testify in court concerning cases in which they have been involved. Potential personal injury and danger may cause stress for these officers. The reward of helping to ensure safety for others is a strong positive for many.

Career Requirements

To get started in this career, high school graduates must complete a police academy training program. Some agencies might also require an associate's degree in criminology or criminal justice.

Degree Level A degree is not always required; some agencies may require some college coursework or an associate's degree
Degree Field Criminal justice, criminology, or related field
Key Skills Strong communication skills,; knowledge of federal, state, and local laws; empathy; perceptiveness; good judgment and leadership skills; skillfulness with a firearm; strong intuition skills; passion for and dedication to upholding the law
Additional Requirements Candidates must typically be 21 years of age or older, a citizen of the United States, possess a clean driving record, and pass a criminal background check, drug screening, and physical exam - including vision screening
Average Salary (2018) $65,400

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Steps to Becoming a Cop

Step 1: Obtain the Necessary Education

If you're wondering whether you can be a cop with a GED, you should know that a high school diploma or a GED is typically the minimum level of education needed to become a police officer. A college degree may appeal to potential employers and may even be required by some law enforcement agencies. Through an associate's or bachelor's degree program in criminology, police science, public administration, or criminal justice, undergraduates can obtain helpful knowledge and skills to apply to a career in law enforcement. Some of these classes may even be available online; students can also pursue undergraduate certificates.

Success Tips:

  • Build up physical endurance and athleticism: Police officers need to remain in top physical shape due to the demands and dangers involved with the position. Officers regularly have to actively chase down and capture criminals who flee crime scenes. Participating in high school or college sports, along with exercising regularly, can build up the necessary endurance and athleticism to become a police officer.
  • Take foreign language courses: Police officers regularly need to work with people from a variety of cultural backgrounds, including people who don't speak English. In the process of becoming a police officer, obtaining proficiency in a foreign language can help one communicate more efficiently with witnesses or suspects and may help them stand out to potential employers.

Step 2: Apply to Be a Cop

A completed application needs to be submitted to the police department in the applicant's desired work location. After being accepted, applicants are placed into a pool of eligible candidates for future police officer openings. Depending on the hiring situation, applicants might be immediately moved into a training program. Alongside the application, prospective hopefuls must pass tests to become a police officer, including those involved with fitness, drug, and lie detectors; along with a civil service test that ensures that job candidates possess the qualities needed to be a professional in the field.

Step 3: Graduate from a Police Academy Training Program

To become a police officer, accepted applicants need to complete a rigorous training program. Police academy training generally lasts about 12-14 weeks. Programs combine classroom study with physical training. Coursework covers the law and civil rights as well as proper police protocol and responses. The physical aspects of the training involve learning self-defense techniques and proper firearm usage.

Step 4: Actively Work to Obtain Promotions

After completing the training academy program, graduates can begin work as police officers. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), with the right experience and training, police officers can choose a specialization like narcotics or juvenile enforcement. Promotions available to police officers include captain, lieutenant, detective, and many others. The BLS also notes that police officers can receive new vocational opportunities at the federal level.

Success Tips:

  • Continue education: A variety of continuing education options are available to police officers, and participation in these options may help an officer obtain promotions. Some examples of commonly available continuing education options include courses in specialized areas of the law, conferences, and seminars.
  • Network and Display Dedication: For those interested in specializing in a particular field of law enforcement, it would behoove them to become acquainted with the detective or lieutenant in charge of that particular division. In addition, showing dedication, strong work ethic, and finding novel ways to excel and impress can definitively help someone land their dream position.
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