What Do You Need to Be a Police Officer?

Learn about the education and preparation necessary to become a police officer. Get a quick view of the requirements and details about training programs, job duties and licensure to find out if this is the career for you.

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  • 0:32 Post-Secondary Courses
  • 1:35 Background Checks & Exams
  • 2:10 Choosing a Speciality
  • 3:14 Complete Police Academy
  • 3:50 Job Outlook & Salary

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Essential Information

Degree Level High school diploma or equivalent; some college-level work required
Degree Field(s) Criminal justice, law enforcement, or police science degree programs
License/Certification Completion of police academy training
Experience None
Key Skills Physically fit; pass background check; patience; communications and decision-making skills; ability to stay calm under pressure
Job Outlook (2014-2024) 4% growth
Median Annual Salary (2015) $58,320 (for police and sheriff's patrol officers)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

As first responders to crime and other emergencies, police officers pursue and arrest perpetrators, contain situations and ensure civilian safety. Officers conduct investigations at crime scenes, which may involve talking with witnesses, obtaining evidence and determining potential suspects. To become a police officer, individuals need to meet physical and educational requirements, as well as complete a state-approved police academy training program.

Let's look at the steps it takes to become a police officer.

Step 1: Take Post-Secondary Courses

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), before becoming a police officer, the first step applicants need to take is to meet the minimum educational requirements, which usually include a high school diploma or its equivalent. Most law enforcement agencies require that police officer applicants complete some college-level courses prior to entering police academy. Earning an undergraduate degree may also be required for some police officer positions, but that requirement varies by department.

Most individuals enroll in criminal justice or police science degree programs. Coursework in criminal justice degree programs includes criminology, evidence gathering, law enforcement strategies and constitutional rights. Police science degree programs require similar coursework, but these programs usually offer more opportunities for students to specialize through various degree concentrations, such as police administration or crime scene investigations. Furthermore, some police science degree programs require students to be simultaneously enrolled in police academy.

Step 2: Pass Background Checks and Physical Exams

The next step is to pass a thorough background check. Depending on the state, the background check process may include interviews of an applicant's acquaintances and family members, a criminal record review and a credit history check. To become a police officer, applicants must also pass physical examinations, which include testing an individual's sense of hearing and sight and verifying a person's level of strength, stamina, dexterity and overall agility. Some states may also require that applicants pass a psychiatric evaluation to verify if individuals can handle stressful situations.

Step 3: Choose an Area of Specialty

A police station consists of several specialty departments, including property crimes, narcotics and organized crime, so, the third step to take when becoming a police officer is to choose a specialty. If you want to work in one of these specialty departments, it could involve taking additional coursework while enrolled in police academy. Not all police academies train candidates for each department specialty, so individuals may need to compare academy programs to find the best options.

Besides specializing in a specific department, some individuals may want to work in specific locations. For instance, those who want to work at the local level may choose to work for cities, towns or universities, and those who want to enforce the law on the freeways and highways may want to join the highway patrol or sheriff's department. State and federal police positions are also available, but often require more training and experience. Working as a police officer for some of the locations listed above may require completing additional training programs other than basic police academy training program.

Step 4: Complete Police Academy

Individuals need to complete police academy in order to be a police officer. Each state has different police academy requirements, and police officers trained out-of-state may have to take additional courses to meet state requirements.

Several institutions split up police academy training programs into two distinct areas, including classroom learning and physical training. Classroom coursework covers patrolling procedures, police skills, first aid and police technology. Physical training includes stamina and strength building, firearms techniques, escorting criminals, defensive driving and self-defense.

The BLS estimates a 4% job growth for police and detectives in the 2014-2024 decade. In May 2015, the median annual wage of police and sheriff's patrol officers were $58,320.

To become a police officer, you need to complete training at a police academy, meet physical and mental requirements, and pass a background check.

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