How To Become A Police Officer

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At Transizion, we specialize in helping students enroll in the college of their dreams – but we want to help all young people on the cusp of their transition to life as an adult, whether or not college is the right path for them. In this series of articles, we’re exploring a wide range of rewarding professions that don’t require four-year degrees.

Today’s post focuses on how to become a police officer. We’ll cover education, working conditions, salary, job outlook, and more. Let’s dive in!

What Do Police Officers Do?

Police officers are entrusted with keeping the peace. They protect people and property. The job varies drastically from place to place, and even between certain positions in the same precinct, but here are some tasks that many or most officers are responsible for on a regular basis:

  • Responding to emergency and nonemergency calls
  • Patrolling assigned areas
  • Observing places, people, and activities
  • Conducting traffic stops and issuing citations
  • Searching restricted-access databases for vehicle or other records and warrants
  • Obtaining and serving warrants for arrests, searches, and other purposes
  • Arresting people suspected of committing crimes
  • Collecting and securing evidence from crime scenes
  • Writing detailed reports and filling out forms
  • Preparing cases for legal proceedings and testifying in court

Police officers may eventually become detectives or criminal investigators, specializing in more serious crimes such as homicide. In the course of their work, they monitor suspects, examine records, conduct interviews, and participate in raids and arrests. There are roughly six times as many patrol officers in the United States as there are detectives. 

Working Conditions

Police officers usually wear uniforms so that they’re easily recognizable. They may spend a significant portion of their day in the car on regular patrols.. For many police officers, their daily or weekly work requires a fair amount of time at a desk, filing paperwork or inputting information into a computer. 

Nearly all police officers work full time, and many work overtime. The rate of injury is significantly higher than in most occupations due to the dangerous situations that police officers often find themselves in. 

Working as a police officer can be physically demanding and emotionally taxing. They need to be alert throughout their shift, ready to respond at any moment. Police officers will often encounter distressing scenes of violence and abuse. Experience varies widely from one area to another, so consider speaking to police officers in your area – or in the place you most want to live – to learn what their day to day work is like. 

How to Become a Police Officer

In order to become a police officer, you must be a U.S. citizen and at least twenty-one years old. Some police departments also have a maximum age of thirty-nine for new recruits. If you’ve been convicted of a felony or drug use, that may disqualify you, as will recent misdemeanors or traffic violations. Most precincts require you to have a high school diploma or GED, though it’s becoming increasingly common for them to require some level of college education. You’ll need a valid driver’s license as well. 

Some stations offer cadet programs, which allow people under the age of twenty-one to begin with clerical work while they take classes and undergo training to become an officer. You may be required to pass vision, hearing, strength, agility, and written exams. Drug tests are common practice, and some precincts perform polygraph (lie detector) tests as well. 

Important Qualities

If you want to become a police officer, you’ll need to be determined and dedicated. There’s a lot to learn before you begin. If you’re not yet twenty-one, you can begin working slowly towards all of the knowledge and skills that you’ll need to acquire in order to work as an officer.

Here are some other important qualities to foster:

  • Physical strength: You must be strong enough to physically apprehend suspects and to assist people in precarious situations.
  • Communication skills: You’ll need to be able to communicate well both in speech and in writing with the people that you’re helping to protect and serve and with your fellow officers.
  • Physical stamina: You must be in good physical shape, both to pass required tests for entry into the field (we’ll cover those in greater detail below) and to keep up with the daily rigors of the job.
  • Empathy: You need to be able to understand the perspectives of a wide variety of people and have an earnest desire to help the public.
  • Leadership skills: You must be comfortable with being a highly visible member of their community, as you’ll be in public in a uniform each day and people will look to you for help in emergencies.
  • Problem-solving skills: You must be able to determine the best way to solve new and difficult problems on a regular basis.
  • Perceptiveness: You must be able to anticipate people’s reactions and understand why they act a certain way.

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Education

The vast majority of police departments do not require applicants to have a four-year degree, but there are exceptions. The minimum requirement is usually a high school diploma or GED, and some police departments require a certain number of credit hours or an associate’s degree. Many police departments will accept military experience in place of college coursework. 

Some police departments offer slightly higher starting salaries to those with college degrees. These incentive programs may give way to stricter requirements as time goes on. Whether or not a college degree is required, it’s likely to increase your chances of acceptance. 

A small number of police departments require applicants to have an associate’s degree in Law Enforcement or Criminal Justice. Others require applicants to have earned a minimum 2.0 GPA in a set amount of coursework in subjects such as criminal justice, sociology, communication, and psychology. 

If you’re not yet twenty-one, use this time to build up your work experience and education. Earning an associate’s degree at your local community college would be a good use of your time, as it’s an inexpensive way to improve your chances of being accepted into a police academy. You might also be able to attend a state school for free, depending on where you reside and how much you or your family earns each year.

Law Enforcement Training

If you want to become a police officer, you’ll need to complete a training program. Police departments have their own police training academies. Not just anyone can enroll in a police academy; they’re reserved for those who have already been hired by the police department. Applicant testing may include: 

  • Mathematical Reasoning
  • Writing Ability
  • Situational Judgment
  • Human Relations
  • Reasoning
  • Analyzing
  • Reading Comprehension

You’ll also need to pass a physical readiness test. Details vary, but here’s one example from the Colorado Springs Police Department: 

Event Requirement to Pass

Vertical Jump 15 inches

Bench Press 60% of the candidate’s body weight

Illinois Agility Run 22.2 seconds or less

Sit-Ups 25 in one minute

300-meter run 76 seconds or less

Push-Ups 19

Some training programs take eight months to complete; others require less time. Cadets generally receive a healthy starting salary and excellent benefits while they’re in a police academy. Police academy programs are followed by periods of field training that allow new officers to learn from more experienced coworkers. 

Applicants wishing to work in federal law enforcement typically begin with twelve weeks of intensive training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia. The topics covered in this three-month program include:

  • Criminal Law 
  • Officer Safety and Survival
  • Constitutional and Federal Law
  • Communications and Interviewing
  • Defensive Tactics
  • Arrest Techniques 
  • Physical Security
  • Drugs of Abuse 
  • Driver Training
  • VIP Protection
  • Tactics for Flying Armed 
  • Firearms
  • Terrorism
  • Physical Fitness 

Once this twelve-week program is completed, ​trainees attend the United States Capitol Police Training Academy in Maryland for thirteen weeks of specialized training. After that, privates are assigned to experienced training officers for on-the-job training.

How Long Does It Take to Become a Police Officer?

The time required to become a police officer varies widely from place to place. Some police departments now require a four-year degree while others require no college courses at all. Then police academies vary as well, requiring about six months on average. But remember, if you make it into a police academy, you’ll already be earning a good salary. 

Career Outlook for Police Officers

Although this career is projected to have less employment growth than others over the next decade, there will still be about 68,500 openings for police and detectives each year. New jobs aren’t being created, but a lower retirement age allows for high turnover as officers are promoted or leave the force, and young cadets take their place.

How Much Do Police Officers Make?

Police and sheriff’s patrol officers made an average annual salary of $64,610 in 2021. This is significantly higher than the total average for all occupations, which was $45,760 that same year. The lowest ten percent of all police officers earned less than $40,420 in 2021, and the highest ten percent earned more than $105,540.

That same year, detectives and criminal investigators earned an average of $83,640. Detectives and criminal investigators start out as police officers, so there are opportunities to advance your career and earn more money over time. Some police departments offer higher salaries to bilingual officers or candidates with college degrees.

Law enforcement officers working for the federal government earned even more, an average of $93,970 that year. Officers working for state governments averaged $72,280, while officers working for local governments earned the average of $64,610 stated above.

Seventy-seven percent of police officers are employed by local governments. Eleven percent are employed by state governments, and seven percent are employed by the federal government. 

Wages vary drastically by state. In many states throughout the south, wages of under fifty thousand are the norm. California is the highest-paying state, with an average salary of greater than one hundred thousand dollars. Washington and New Jersey both pay more than ninety thousand dollars on average. Other states with above-average pay include Alaska, Hawaii, Illinois, Colorado, Oregon, and New York.

When assessing salary, bear in mind the cost of living in each place and the radically different levels of on-the-job stress that police officers experience in different areas. 

Benefits

Police officers generally have excellent benefits and the option to retire at a younger age than most people – usually after twenty-five years of service, meaning that if you begin work at twenty-one, you could retire at forty-six.

Police officers receive benefits such as:

  • Health, dental, and vision
  • Life and disability insurance
  • Paid sick leave, vacation time, and holiday time
  • Monthly subsidy for personal cell phone
  • Annual uniform allowance
  • Associate’s and Master’s Degree programs 
  • Fixed shifts with three days off at a time
  • Take-home vehicle 
  • Fitness facilities
  • Mentoring programs
  • Retirement and pension plan after twenty-five years of service
  • 401K and 457 deferred compensation plans

Working as a Police Officer: An Overview

A career as a police officer can be worthwhile and rewarding. It has the potential to pay well. This job can be relatively relaxed or intensely stressful depending on location, so you’ll need to think carefully about where you plan to live and work if you’re interested in becoming a police officer.

Here are some pros and cons to consider:

Pros:

  • Higher than average wages with excellent benefits
  • Room for advancement
  • Fulfilling work
  • Potential for early retirement

Cons:

  • High risk of injury
  • Stressful situations

If you’re interested in this profession, consider contacting local police officers to ask about the possibility of interviewing or shadowing them to learn more about this line of work. Many police departments allow potential recruits to schedule ride-alongs.

Stay tuned for upcoming articles on how to become a real estate inspector, power plant operator, or mason. 

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