How to Become a Police Officer
Travel outside the country, and you might notice something a bit different as you leave the airport. Most countries have their own police force. The United States, however, doesn’t really have a national police force. Sure, there’s the Federal Bureau of Investigation, but those officers are not looking into last night’s robbery. Nor are they issuing parking citations. Instead, police power is highly decentralized.
Crime prevention and investigation is handled by a network of federal, state, county, and municipal law enforcement agencies. You can pursue a police officer career with any of these agencies. Read on to learn how to become a police officer in the agency of your choice.
What Does a Police Officer Do?
The job of a police officer is to enforce laws and protect people and property within a defined jurisdiction. Police officers are the front-line of defense against criminal activity in towns and cities across the country.
Their tasks break down into two parts: 1) public service, including crime prevention, and 2) enforcement of the law when a crime does occur.
Police officers are often the first responders to car accidents and medical emergencies. They routinely patrol neighborhoods to prevent crimes. They run school education programs, coordinate citizen police academies, and develop and manage other programs designed to help communities stay safe. One recent movement in policing is the idea of “community policing,” in which police officers fight crime by building trust within the neighborhood they patrol.
Officers often respond to emergency calls, either for wellness checks and accidents, or for potential criminal activity. They also enforce traffic laws and conduct safety inspections on roads and highways, as well as alert the proper agencies of safety hazards, such as fallen electrical lines or roadway obstructions.
When crimes are committed, police officers enforce laws. To do this, they may:
- Secure crime and accident scenes
- Interview witnesses
- Get warrants to search houses and businesses
- Arrest and interview suspects
- Write detailed arrest reports
- Testify in court to help convict suspects
Once police cadets finish their training and begin working for a department, they generally specialize in a particular area, such as fingerprint identification or chemical training. Based on appointment, length of service, and training, they may work with a K-9 unit responding to suspicions of drugs or dangerous weapons in vehicles and other property. Or, they might take a role on the SWAT team where they need to know tactics and procedures for working under dangerous conditions.
Much of their daily routine involves patrolling a certain area, such as a neighborhood. As an officer moves up the ranks, they may investigate crimes ranging from petty theft to murder.
Required Police Officer Skills and Characteristics
Much of what you need to know to be a successful police officer is taught during police academy training, but valuable skills can be learned anywhere. For example, having military experience or being bilingual can be an advantage when it comes to hiring. The following skills and tools are essential to help keep police officers and the public as safe as possible.
Leadership: Leadership qualities are important, not just for leading fellow officers, but for helping the civilian population in times of need. Police officers must be able to assess situations quickly and tell others what to do to keep safe.
Good judgment: Many problems faced by police officers have no easy solution. The right thing to do may require a complex solution and blur the lines between right and wrong. Good judgment helps police officers make the best decisions possible.
The ability to ‘read’ people: Police officers interact with ordinary citizens every day. They must be able to figure out when something isn’t right, not because of what is said, but because of what isn’t said. There will also be disputes that boil down to one person’s word against another. Being able to read people’s motives and tell when someone is being truthful is essential.
Physical strength and stamina: Law enforcement is demanding work, whether it is working long hours or having impromptu foot chases. Not all work will be dramatic, but physical ability is a much-needed skill for police officers.
Mental toughness: Police officers will see things that many people can’t imagine. If they don’t have coping skills to process their feelings, they may not be able to continue the work.
Police Officer Salary and Job Growth Expectations
Salaries in law enforcement vary significantly. Your salary will depend on whether you work in a rural area or a large city, whether you have seniority or you’re fresh out of the academy, and whether you take overtime or leave at the end of your shift.
That said, the median detective and police officer salary nationwide was $63,380 as of May 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Those working for the federal government did especially well, earning an average of $87,130. You should also calculate the value of benefits into the compensation package. Police officers typically enjoy paid vacation, sick leave, medical and life insurance, and uniform allowances. Plus, thanks to pensions, they can often afford to retire at a younger age than most.
As for getting into the field, the BLS projects job growth of 5% nationally for police officers from 2018 to 2028, which is on the low side for such a typically stable occupation. However, this outlook depends heavily on city and state budgets, which can fluctuate. The low rate of growth will create stronger opportunities for police officer applicants who hold a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or a related field.
The top 10 states for police and sheriff patrol officer earnings (not including transit and railroad police) in 2018 were:
- California: $104,790
- New Jersey: $85,330
- Alaska: $84,830
- Illinois: $82,670
- Washington: $78,870
- New York: $78,750
- Colorado: $74,550
- Hawaii: $73,370
- Oregon: $71,670
- Connecticut: $71,350
The states that employed the most police officers in 2018 were:
- California: 72,680
- Texas: 60,260
- New York: 53,560
- Florida: 37,650
- Illinois: 30,370
- Pennsylvania: 27,850
- Ohio: 24,890
- Georgia: 22,410
- North Carolina: 22,350
- New Jersey: 19,950
Police Officer Titles and Career Concentrations
Police officers go by many names and titles, including law enforcement officer, patrol officer, peace officer, public safety officer, state trooper, and uniform patrol police officer.
These are generic names for the same occupation. You can get more specific by incorporating rank. Officers, troopers, deputies, and corporals are all names for lower-ranking officers in different types of agencies. Sergeants, lieutenants, captains, and so on up to chief, commissioner, or sheriff are titles for higher-ranking officers in different jurisdictions.
These ranks are separate from police officer concentrations, which are numerous. Here are 11:
- Bailiff: Bailiffs are courtroom security guards, ensuring the safety of judges, juries, and everyone else. In addition to dealing with disruptions, they also perform courtroom functions like swearing in witnesses.
- Detective: Detectives are investigators who have put in their time as officers. They often specialize in a specific type of crime. At a standard city-level police department, this could include sex crimes, homicides and armed robbery, white-collar crime, and domestic violence.
- Game warden: State, local, and federal wildlife departments hire game wardens to enforce hunting and fishing laws that protect animal life and public safety outdoors.
- Internal affairs: Officers in the internal affairs division of an agency investigate possible crimes committed by officers in that agency.
- K-9: Police K-9 handlers train and work with canines to detect drugs or explosives, track missing people, or locate evidence.
- Marshal: Deputy U.S. marshals are like police for the judicial branch, ensuring witness safety, tracking down fugitives, and transporting prisoners, among other tasks.
- Narcotics: Narcotics agents, who are employed by multiple agencies, can work undercover or in uniform to enforce a jurisdiction’s drug laws. They may responsible for running wiretaps and conducting surveillance.
- Sniper: Police snipers may be called in to assist with hostage incidents or active-shooter incidents, or to monitor and protect large gatherings of people. They often work alongside other units, such as SWAT teams.
- SWAT: SWAT (special weapons and tactics) is a team at the city or county level called to deal with situations in which violence is a possible or likely outcome. That might include drug busts, hostage situations, or contentious demonstrations. SWAT unit members often perform normal officer duties while on call.
- Medic: To deal with emergency requests, some police departments have created units trained to respond to injuries in high-risk situations like mass shootings. Other departments simply provide dual training to police to support overwhelmed EMS services.
- Transit and railroad officer: Railroad police protect people and property on public transportation networks.
Police Officer Jobs by Jurisdiction
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 often patrol the streets or work on citywide 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 various states, 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.
Steps to Become a Police Officer
For the most accurate information, you should research the application process for the specific law enforcement agency you want to join. However, you can expect a process similar to the one below:
- Get a high school diploma or GED: The minimum level of education accepted by most police departments is a high school diploma or GED. However, many departments around the country require at least some college coursework or an associate degree in criminal justice.
- Get a bachelor’s degree (optional): There is a lot of competition for available jobs. Those with college experience generally stand out during the hiring process. Additionally, a college degree can be a requirement for promotion into higher ranks.
- Check that you meet the minimum requirements: Typically, you must be a U.S. citizen, at least 18 or 21 years old (depending on the jurisdiction), and be in good physical shape. You also need a clean criminal record, though some police departments will overlook minor offenses.
- Apply: You don’t just drop off a resume with a police department. The hiring process has multiple steps. The first is typically an application along with an essay and a personal history statement, which will be used in the background investigation later. You should also prepare for an interview, polygraph exam, and drug test.
- Complete a physical qualifier: Police officers must have above-average stamina and agility. To join the Los Angeles Police Department, for example, you must perform as many sit-ups as you can, then run a 300-meter sprint, then do as many push-ups as you can, before finally running 1.5 miles. Only applicants who meet the minimum score threshold move on to the following step.
- Complete a physical examination: In addition to physical fitness, you’ll also need adequate vision, hearing, and motor skills to perform the basic duties of a police officer.
- Undergo a background investigation: Your chosen employer will investigate your past to make sure you’d make a good officer. The agency may look through your job and military records, interview friends and co-workers, and check your financial and education history to make sure it matches up with what you’ve said.
- Take a psychological evaluation: You’ll be dealing with high-stress environments daily and using firearms. The agency may have a psychologist interview you to make sure you’re up to the task.
- Go to the academy: After being conditionally hired, you’ll head to the academy for several weeks of training. You’ll also undergo a physical training program with multiple fitness tests. You’ll need to successfully graduate from the academy to gain full-time employment.
- Start working full time: Once you graduate from the academy, you can finally start working in your new career as a police officer.
- Move up: Seek out professional development, training, or additional education to improve your chances of a promotion. Here’s where a college degree, if you don’t already have one, can help you stand out.
Police Officer Education
A career as a police officer is possible with just a high school diploma. Yet, with each degree earned, more possibilities open up, including positions in leadership, teaching, and criminal justice policymaking. Below we break down what to expect at each academic level, starting with the most basic: police academy training.
Police Academy Training
A high school diploma/GED and police officer training are enough to apply for jobs in many law enforcement agencies. Think of the police academy as police officer school. The standard program is 840 hours, or 21 weeks, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Most academies allow participants to go home at the end of the day, though some are residential.
Academies may be run by different types of organizations: city police departments, county sheriff’s offices, state police agencies, specialized peace officer training agencies, and educational institutions.
The training involves a mix of classroom instruction and field training. On average, recruits receive:
- 213 hours of operations training, including how to operate a vehicle in a high-speed chase but also the less exciting how to file a report; CPR also falls into this category
- 168 hours of training on firearms and defensive tactics
- 89 hours of self-improvement training, mainly for maintaining a healthy lifestyle but also for effective communication and ethical behavior
- 86 hours on law topics such as the U.S. Constitution and traffic laws
Some academies require foreign language training, stress management courses, or diversity training.
Aspiring police officers must pass written and physical exams within the training academy before becoming eligible to serve. Police training programs are physically intensive, and written exams are comprehensive, designed to test how well the candidates have understood the curriculum. Final scores are a major factor in the hiring process. Although simply passing an exam might be acceptable, scoring above the rest of the recruits may make or break your future career as a police officer.
After the police training academy, officers are generally assigned to a senior officer for an on-the-job training and mentoring period, during which junior officers learn how to apply their training in real-life scenarios.
Associate Degrees in Criminal Justice
An associate degree is a two-year program that requires at least 60 semester credits (or 90 quarter credits). Most criminal justice programs are actually in the 64- to 66-credit range. Of those credits, around 40% are general education requirements such as English, math, science, humanities, and other topics. Another 20% of credits are elective courses. The actual major is around 40%, or eight classes.
Because most associate degrees are meant to build into bachelor’s programs, the classes are, by definition, lower-level. They cover introductory material meant to be explored more in-depth in the final two years of undergraduate study.
Those classes might include the following:
- Introduction to criminal justice: You will learn who the different actors are – from police officers to lawyers to judges and legislators – and how they work together to form the criminal justice system.
- Communication: Learn the building blocks for writing a police report, interviewing suspects and witnesses, and deescalating tense situations.
- Judicial system: Explore the layers of the federal, state, and/or local court systems and which cases go where.
- Corrections: Examine how jails and prisons function and explore concepts such as rehabilitation and punishment.
- Research: Learn to analyze data to understand what different criminal statistics actually mean.
We’ve written about associate degrees in criminal justice more extensively elsewhere on the site. There, you can compare them to similar degrees and find links to actual programs.
Bachelor’s Degrees in Criminal Justice
A bachelor’s degree is a four-year program that is around 120-semester credits (or 180 quarter credits). Students often enter a bachelor’s in criminal justice straight out of high school. Others complete an associate program first, meaning they have already completed roughly half of the required credits for a bachelor’s degree.
Students entering from high school must cover all the same lower-level coursework from an associate program (see above). The final two years cover upper-level courses, which could include the following:
- Criminal law: Officers need to understand the U.S. Constitution so they can properly collect evidence, protect suspects’ rights, and arrest them.
- Applied research: You’ve already learned what statistics mean; this class is about using collected statistics to make decisions. For instance, you might be asked to determine how to deploy officers and use department funds to best prevent crime.
- Criminal psychology: This class is about getting into criminals’ heads to learn why they behave the way they do. It’s important for crime prevention as well as rehabilitation efforts.
We’ve laid out all the details on bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice on our site. You may want to take a look if you’re interested in careers outside patrol. The FBI, for example, requires special agents to hold a bachelor’s degree. Fish and game wardens also need a four-year degree.
Bachelor’s degrees are also useful for receiving promotions and better pay. A 2017 study of higher education in policing nationwide found that 73.5% of police agencies paid officers with a bachelor’s degree more. Additionally, it found that a college degree factors into promotion decisions, especially at the lieutenant level.
Master’s Degrees in Criminal Justice
A master’s degree in criminal justice is typically a two-year degree. It’s best for those seeking work with federal agencies or promotions into leadership positions. That may be because the types of courses you’ll take would help you reform a department or adopt new policies.
Students can get into a master’s program with a bachelor’s in criminal justice or a similar degree. They could also leverage criminal justice work experience and a bachelor’s in another discipline.
Those with limited exposure to criminal justice coursework will likely need to take prerequisites at the undergraduate level (see previous sections). The graduate coursework itself may include the following:
- Constitutional law: Moving beyond procedures, this class takes a deep dive into the philosophy of the Constitution and asks you to balance that with concerns related to public welfare, privacy, and crime prevention.
- Quantitative methods: Now that you have experience looking at other people’s data, it’s time to make your own. You’ll learn how to design research and parse the data you collect.
- Public policy: This class examines how criminal justice policies are created and adapted to the needs of local agencies.
In addition, most master’s degrees require you to complete a thesis, a research paper that allows you to show off what you’ve learned in the discipline and apply research to a problem you find interesting. Alternatively, other programs require a capstone project or an internship.
For more about master’s degrees in criminal justice, including entrance requirements, see our dedicated page.
Ph.Ds. in Criminal Justice
Getting a Ph.D. in criminal justice would put you in rare company, especially if you want to work at an agency. Although 29% of chiefs and sheriffs have a bachelor’s and 32% have a master’s, only 3% have a doctoral degree.
Yet a Ph.D. in criminal justice opens several possibilities. If you want to teach at a university or conduct research, it’s essential. Even if academia isn’t your thing, you could work to create or change policy.
Ph.D. programs are, by nature, individualized. Your main output is a dissertation, which is written after conducting original research. By the end of the program, you will be an expert in a small sliver of the criminal justice field. But what sliver? Depending on the program, you could, for example, bone up on budgetary procedures and strategic planning, both of which are necessary to run a department, or you could explore the social determinants of a specific type of crime in a specific area.
A Ph.D. in criminal justice will likely include the following courses:
- Theories of criminology: Dig deep into the causes of crime, pulling in threads from across disciplines, such as psychology and sociology.
- Research methods and statistics: By the end of the course, you’ll know all the statistical techniques you could apply to a data set. You should also know the best ways to collect that data. In fact, this topic is so important that you’ll likely take multiple classes in it.
- Dissertation proposal: Your dissertation requires thinking through not just its completion, but also the approach. In this course, you make sure you’re asking relevant questions and setting yourself up for success.
- Dissertation defense: The dissertation isn’t just a paper you turn in. A committee will review your work and question your results. This class prepares you to properly analyze your data and explain it to others.
We’ve written about doctoral degrees in criminal justice at length, including about the different types of criminal justice doctorates. Specifically, check out our interview with a criminal justice program director to see if a Ph.D. is worth it for you.
Places to Earn a Law Enforcement Education
Formal education can expand your job options in the law enforcement field. Here are a few of the institutions where you can earn a certificate, degree, or experience in criminal justice:
- Trade School: Some vocational or trade schools have certificate programs that count toward college credit, such as for a future associate or bachelor’s degree. Others offer associate degrees.
- Military School: Military experience is well regarded by law enforcement agencies and police departments. Familiarity with firearms, mental toughness, physical conditioning, discipline, and an understanding of command structure are all benefits of hiring a recruit with military experience.
- Community College: Students can complete their associate degree in criminal justice in two years or earn a certificate in a few months. What’s more, most recruits come out of police academies based at two-year colleges, meaning some curriculums will be well integrated with local training.
- 4-year institution: Federal agencies often require a bachelor’s degree. Even if a four-year degree isn’t required, getting a bachelor’s degree can be a prudent decision because it can increase your chances of being hired and promoted.
Pros and Cons of Becoming a Police Officer
This isn’t an 8 to 5 office job. It’s an on-your-feet, always-alert, out-and-about career. And while that’s a good thing, it also comes with a few downsides. Here’s the straight story on what to expect in a career as a police officer:
- Job stability: Police officers work for the local, state, or federal government, which don’t generally go bust or downsize like companies.
- Benefits: Many government agencies, unlike most private companies, still provide pension plans so people can comfortably retire – not to mention life insurance policies and more time off.
- Advancement opportunities: The combination of job stability and retirement benefits leads to a fairly consistent hierarchy in constant need of new people moving up the ranks.
- Training: Police officers receive excellent training that can be used beyond their careers in police work, should they want to go into private security, firearms training, or similar work.
- Sense of pride: In a 2016 study of law enforcement officers, 58% reported feeling proud of their work nearly always or often.
- Collegiality: Like other coworkers, police officers bond over shared duties. But those bonds are reinforced with constant teamwork in the face of danger.
- Risk: Being a police officer is a more dangerous than most occupations. According to the FBI’s 2018 Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) report, during that year 108 law enforcement officers in the U.S. died from injuries they received while working. This includes from ambushes and arrests gone wrong, but also car crashes and firearm accidents. It doesn’t include the tens of thousands of assaults and non-fatal injuries.
- Stress and depression: The inherent danger of the job often contributes to stress and depression. In fact, more police officers die by suicide than in the line of duty, according to a study from the Ruderman Family Foundation.
- Paperwork: A more banal risk is that you’ll get carpal tunnel from all the writing and typing. Each incident requires at least one report, which can eat up hours of your day.
- Odd schedules: Most departments have 12-hour rotating shifts. Your schedule may vary from day to night shift. Police work doesn’t take a holiday, and you will likely work weekends, nights, and holidays often, especially before you earn seniority. Shift work can be very stressful on family life.
Related Criminal Justice Careers
Given the downsides of a police career listed above, it’s understandable if you want something in the same ballpark but a little bit different. Here are some related careers that put you in the criminal justice game:
- Correctional Counselor: Correctional counselors create and oversee rehabilitation plans for convicted criminals who are in prison, on probation, or on parole.
- Criminal Profiler: Criminal profilers look at evidence, talk with victims and witnesses, survey crime scenes, and use psychological methods to create a probable description of the perpetrator.
- Customs and Border Protection Officer: As federal agents, customs and border protection officers intercept people attempting to enter the country without permission.
- DEA Agent: As employees of the Drug Enforcement Administration, DEA agents stem the flow of illicit drugs throughout the country and break up drug deals.
- FBI Agent: As federal crime investigators, FBI agents typically work in specialized areas, such as organized crime or terrorism.
- Forensic Scientist: Armed with undergraduate-level knowledge, forensic science technicians collect and analyze evidence that can be used to solve crimes.
- Homeland Security: The Department of Homeland Security oversees over 20 agencies, including the U.S. Customs Service. It is charged with implementing a national strategy to prevent and respond to terrorism. You can find careers in homeland security in multiple agencies.
- Park Ranger: Employed by either national parks or local and state parks, park rangers spend a lot of time in wildlife and outdoor education, but also enforce the law in remote locations.
- Police Detective: Whereas officers respond to crime and seek to prevent it, police detectives investigate crimes and determine possible culprits.
- Private Investigator: Private investigators are like detectives, but they are hired by private clients to run background checks, validate or disprove lawsuit complaints, track down missing people, or conduct other investigations.
- Probation Officer: When people are convicted of a crime but not sent to prison, they may be required to see a probation officer, who visits them regularly to ensure they stay out of trouble and meet the terms of their probation.
- State Trooper: Also known as highway patrol officers, state troopers enforce the law along highways and interstates. Their duties run beyond traffic violations to include other criminal investigations.
Resources for Police Officers:
- Fraternal Order of Police: With over 2,100 local chapters, the FOP is a voluntary membership organization working to promote officers’ interests. It’s involved in political outreach, community service, and labor representation.
- International Association of Chiefs of Police: The IACP is an advocacy organization looking to improve the quality of policing via policy. Its initiatives include providing officer training on countering human trafficking and conducting a census of law enforcement agencies on tribal lands.
- International Police Association: As a fraternal police organization, the IPA’s primary mission is to promote friendship among its members, who are active and retired law enforcement professionals.
- National Association of Police Organizations: NAPO is comprised of various police professional organizations and unions from across the United States. NAPO’s overarching goal is to protect and promote the interest of police officers through education and political activity.
- National Black Police Association: The NBPA not only represents current and retired African American police officers, but also is active in improving relationships between police departments and African American communities.