CareerExplorer’s step-by-step guide on how to become a police officer.
Is becoming a police officer right for me?
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Frequently Asked Questions
Should I become a Police Officer?
A career in law enforcement can seem exciting, rewarding and fun. It's true that there are many good reasons to become a police officer, but before you take the leap and decide on this as a career, there are a few things you probably should know.
The Hiring Process - Long gone are the days of getting hired on the spot. You're not going to walk into your local police station, hand in a job application, and be patrolling the streets the next day. The hiring process is now often quite long, taking four to twelve months or even longer.
Background Checks - Background checks for police employment are very detailed and thorough. Typically, they include a criminal history check, a credit check, and a look at your previous employment. Questions will also be asked about any past drug use. There may also be a polygraph exam, a medical physical exam, and a fitness test. All of this is just to see if the department should consider giving you an interview.
Academy Training - Training to be a police officer is hard. Some will succeed academically, but find the physical fitness gruelling. Some will be physically strong but have trouble passing the academic qualifications. Candidates will have to qualify with a firearm, or demonstrate proficiency in defensive tactics, first aid, and driving. Many recruits and cadets wash out of their academy classes due to injuries sustained during training.
Field Training - Field training is even harder than academy training. Field training is about transitioning individuals from academy life into a full-time law enforcement career, and will weed out those who have what it takes and those who don't. In field training, every move will be scrutinized and evaluated to make sure individuals are ready for the road.
Seeing Things You Wish You Didn't Have To - Once individuals get out of training, they'll start responding to a variety of calls. Many will be tragic, such as accidents, injuries, abuse, and death. Perhaps the most important part of the job as a police officer is dealing with the victims of crime and the families of lost loved ones. It is very difficult and painful to see people in these situations, but it's something police officers have to get used to very quickly.
Hours - Police officers need to be staffed at all hours, as police departments are responsible for patrol 24 hours a day. Officers may work regular shifts, or may work rotating shifts. Either way, shift work can be a negative when it comes to social life and family life. Weekends and holidays are often part of an officer's schedule as well, which means missing out on enjoying certain holidays with family and friends.
The Work The experiences of a police officer working in a rural small town vs that of an officer working on the streets of a big city are going to be vastly different. Even in moderately-sized departments, there are a wide variety of positions a police officer might be employed at. One could work the streets as a patrol officer, be an investigator, be involved in training duties at the academy, be involved in crime analysis or computer crime, or have an administrative position (hiring, firing, or background investigations). These are all very different types of jobs and an officer might be involved in several of them during his/her career.
Job Fatigue - Law enforcement fatigue is brought on by too much overtime, poor sleep habits, bad nutritional food choices, and too much stress. Fatigue can often mimic impairment and can lead to dangerous situations both on and off the job.
Bad Habits and Health Problems - There is a strong correlation between police work and poor health, which has a lot to do with the bad habits police officers pick up. Many turn to fast food to fuel them through their shift due to their odd work hours and the need to eat quickly and on the fly. Officers also develop bad sleeping habits which can lead to dangerous health problems if proper steps to combat the issue aren't taken.
Money - Chances are slim that one will get rich working as a police officer. Public service is largely about sacrifice, and often that sacrifice starts with the wallet. However, officers can earn a decent living, especially if they are promoted.
Not For Everyone - Not everyone can or should be a police officer. Days can be hard and full of heartache. It's definitely a career that shouldn't be entered into lightly. Individuals serious about joining the police force need to do some research and soul searching in order to make sure it's a step they really want to take.
There are definitely some negative aspects to being a police officer, but there are also many positive ones. For the right individual, this career can be one of the most rewarding vocations available out there.
Are Police Officers happy?
Police officers rank in the 56th percentile of careers for satisfaction scores. Please note that this number is derived from the data we have collected from our Sokanu members only.
This career can be challenging, exciting, demanding and exhausting. There is usually a period adjustment where officers have to come to terms with all the bad things they must deal with on a daily basis. Focusing on the positives is crucial or the negatives can easily destroy one's spirit.
In essence, police work is what you make it to be, and the individuals who lose focus on why they became police officers to begin with inevitably end up hating their job. Integrity, common sense, respect, and understanding are important traits that serve police officers well on the streets. Staying healthy is also a very important component to maintaining a clear head, as is finding time for friends and family outside of work.
How long does it take to become a Police Officer?
In the US, the level of training required to become a police officer can vary from state to state and from agency to agency. Most law enforcement departments have their own academy, which recruits are required to attend for a period of 12 to 24 weeks before going out into the field. This includes classroom instruction in state laws, local ordinances, constitutional law, civil rights, firearms, first aid, emergency response, traffic control, self-defence, report writing, and accident investigation.
Once individuals graduate from the academy, they are paired with a more experienced partner (coach) where they slowly learn how to handle calls. There is typically a book where the coach checks off different types of calls that a street officer will handle. At the end of each day, the coach summarizes the new officer's work, good or bad, in a Daily Observation Report or DOR. This book is checked monthly and signed off on by the lieutenant and captain. This practical training can last four to five months, but can be shortened if the rookie does exceptionally well. It can also be lengthened.
After the book is complete, and all has gone well, the new officer is released and assigned to a squad. Even then, it is impossible to know how to handle every situation. It takes awhile (sometimes up to five years) before new officers become good, knowledgeable and experienced officers.
Steps to becoming a Police Officer
Most police departments require applicants to hold a high school diploma or equivalent. However, it is becoming more common for departments to expect some college education; many agencies will not accept applicants without an associate's degree. There are now many technical school programs that offer certificates or two-year degrees in law enforcement. For prospective police officers pursuing a bachelor's degree, criminal justice programs are available at many four-year institutions. Even if it is not necessary for police work, having a bachelor's degree is a back-up plan for many officers; they have one of the top five most dangerous jobs, and in some cases field work may result in career-ending injuries.
In addition to education, there are often height, weight, age, and other physical restrictions for potential police officers. Generally, they must be 21 or older to apply to a police department or agency. They must be in top physical condition and be able to pass standard eyesight and hearing tests.
After meeting these requirements, prospective police officers must pass a series of written tests in order to assess their psychological condition and analytical skills. This is to ensure that the officers have the mental stability to handle the emotional stress of police work. Background checks are also a standard in the industry.
Still more training is required after a police officer is accepted into an agency. The department usually has its own form of training, usually held in formal police academies. New recruits are subjected to rigorous mental and physical tests before being granted their first assignments. Even after being placed in a department, officers may receive training for three to twelve months while on the job.
How to become a Police Officer
Working as a police officer can bring on a range of emotions. It can leave you feeling satisfied, sad, rewarded, disgruntled, lonely and fulfilled, all within the same shift. A police officer needs to be a warrior, an information booth, a social worker, a guardian angel, a marriage counselor, and an arbitrator (just to name a few). The mental challenges are far more rigorous than all of the physical challenges put together.
Police officers carry the power of life and death on their hips, and are empowered to do things that, were they done by civilians, would get those civilians arrested. They can control traffic, take and imprison people against their will, and seize property. However, they are constantly reminded of the constraints that they must work under in order to exercise that power lawfully and fairly.
Police officers spend all their working hours dealing with people at their worst, as no one ever calls the police when everything is okay. The trickiest part is having to make snap decisions of great significance to other people's lives (including the potential for ending them). These decisions may also be subject to intensive review at a later date. Good training and experience can diminish the possibility of making a serious mistake, but the possibility for violent and deadly confrontations always exists.