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How to Become a Law Enforcement Officer

With so many popular television programs revolving around crime scene investigation, prison culture and police dramas- many misconceptions of law enforcement careers are floating around. While the shows are meant to entertain, many of them also compel viewers to become police officers, detectives and investigators. If you, like so many others, are interested in learn exactly what it takes to get started in law enforcement, you've found the right place.

Like choosing any profession, it is always a good idea to research what is needed before making any quick decisions. Being well informed of potential career paths in law enforcement may lead you to find the jobs that offer the most stability and satisfaction. There are many exciting and rewarding careers in the criminal justice field, but you need to do your research to find out if law enforcement is the right field for you.

Some aspects of law enforcement to consider when deciding if it's right for you include the specific requirements for the job, such as level of education, age requirements and physical fitness requirements. There are different segments of law enforcement including city, county, state and federal departments, each of which have specific requirements. You may also need rigorous training in firearms, laws and ethics.

Are There Age Limits For Police Officers?

The minimum age requirements for state and local law enforcement officers can vary, but you must usually be at least 18-21 to work in law enforcement. Age requirements for cops can vary between municipalities and states. If you are looking at a federal law enforcement position, you will find that most federal applicants must be at least 23 years old with some previous experience in law enforcement.

There may also be a maximum age requirement for some law enforcement applicants. For example, you must be under the age of 37 to apply to the Federal Bureau of Investigation Also, while there is not usually an applicant age limit for non federal officers, there is often a retirement cap, forcing officers to retire after reaching a certain age.

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Are There Physical Fitness Requirements for Police Officers?

After applying for an enforcement position, you will enter training, generally at an academy for law enforcement officers. Most local and county agencies share a central training academy while state, federal and some large metropolitan agencies have their own, separate academies. Most law enforcement applicants will need to prove ability to run a timed distance and complete a set number of sit ups, pull ups and pushups to be accepted into a training program.

How Long Does It Take to Become A Police Officer?

Depending upon the agency you are applying to join, there may be education requirements for getting into police academy training. Some law enforcement agencies require only a high school diploma or GED, while others mandate that you have an Associate's degree or at least some college credits. If you are required to have a degree, this may significantly increase the time it takes for you to become a law enforcement officer. Some potential police officers work to obtain an associate's degree in criminal justice straight out of high school while waiting to meet any age requirements in their state.

Once you are accepted into your training academy, you will learn about due process, local, state and federal laws, ethics, tactical procedures and any special training required for the position. Police academy training can vary from locality to locality, with some programs lasting 12-20 weeks while others can take six months to complete.

Jurisdiction Based Requirements for Becoming A Law Enforcement Officer

Another aspect of law enforcement to take into consideration is the jurisdiction of the agency you want to work for. Across the U.S., there are city, county and state levels of law enforcement. City police officers stay within city limits and are often found on street patrol or working with city wide investigations. Police detectives usually require a Bachelor's degree as well as experience in street patrol.

County law enforcement typically consists of a sheriff and several deputies who serve warrants, subpoenas and respond to rural civil disputes. Bailiffs and constables are under the sheriff's department and often serve the courts.

State law enforcement officers patrol highways, interstates and county roads; the jurisdiction of a state patrol officer is designated to a region of the state and includes those jurisdictions covered by city and county officers. Each law enforcement agency, no matter the size, has specialized units such as narcotics and SWAT, and offer specialized training through the academy for each unit.

Federal agents often travel across the nation or are assigned to varying states for work, which can be a bit unstable if you have a family. For example, working as a federal air marshal requires air travel across the nation to secure domestic and international United States flights. The hours and requirements can be physically and emotionally demanding with little recovery time between assignments.

Other federal law enforcement positions include game wardens, park rangers and railroad transit police, with some of these positions requiring specialized education outside of the criminal justice field.

How Much Does A Law Enforcement Officer Make?

As with any career, the pay, benefits and personal rewards of a law enforcement career are key aspects to research before entering the field. Standard benefits for law enforcement officers commonly include retirement, health coverage and life insurance, but may vary between agencies.

The 2012 median pay for police officers and detectives across the nation was $56,980 per year. Many agencies have officers working three 12 hour or four 10 hour shifts per week with opportunities for overtime, and some mandatory holiday and special event hours are usually required. Sheriffs and sheriff's deputies averaged a mean salary of $59,560 annually in 2012, a slightly higher rate than that of municipal officers.

Take a look at the criminal justice programs we list on our site to learn more about your options for getting an education that can help you become successful in law enforcement. As with any career, the more you know, the better prepared you will be to lead and succeed.