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How to Become a Police Officer: 4 Steps to the Best Job Outlook

Learn how to become a police officer

It’s hard to image our society without police officers.

Under-appreciated even in the most appreciative communities, police officers are the stewards of justice, peace, and safety all over the country. They may not be perfect, and their public images may not be flawless, but police officers and other law enforcement officials are vital to this county.

You can be one of the proud police officers who protect the peace and safety of our communities, but it takes the right attitude, fortitude, and education to make it a reality.

To make the right decision for your future, you probably have a lot of questions. This article walks you through each of the 4 steps needed to become a police officer, so you can make the right choice and hit the ground running in your new career.

4 Steps to Become a Police Officer

To become a police officer, you need to follow a specific path for education, training, and experience. There are generally four steps:

  1. Meet basic requirements (and make sure there is nothing in your past to disqualify you).
  2. Complete a two year associate’s degree (optional, but highly recommended to be competitive in the job market).
  3. Graduate from police academy training.
  4. Plan your job search & career path.

Step 1: Basic Police Officer Requirements

What Qualifications Do You Need to Become a Police Officer?

The life of a police officer is a high-demand career, requiring the upmost integrity, a broad assortment of mental and physical skills, and a steadfast commitment to the protection of your community or the nation as a whole. As such, vigorous training is needed for this noble profession.

But first, you have to meet some of the most basic requirements, including…

  • U.S. citizen
  • 18 years of age (or up to 22 in some cases)
  • Valid driver’s license
  • Clean criminal record*

*It is possible to be hired as a police officer if your record only has minor offenses in the distant past. Felonies will disqualify you from entry as a police officer.

Additionally, an entrance exam testing basic comprehension skills is typically required to be accepted as a police recruit and enter the training academy. View a study guide to get an idea of what type of questions may be asked.

Physical Requirements to Become a Police Officer

Beyond the basic bio requirements, you will also need to meet physical requirements, such as:

  • Basic physical criteria (stamina, strength, agility, etc.)
  • Good vision and hearing
  • Mental strength

The physical requirements will vary from state to state and even city to city. For example in LA, male applicants must have a body fat percentage of less than 22%. In Philadelphia, recruits must pass a physical fitness test to be accepted into the training academy.

If you meet these essential requirements, you can move forward with education and training, which may include formal college courses, an important part of how to become a police officer.

Step 2: Police Officer Education Requirements

Do You Need a Degree to Be A Cop?

To be completely clear, formal education, such as an associate's degree or a bachelor's degree is not actually a strict requirement for becoming a police officer. However, many departments across the country are requiring at least a two-year degree, while others are placing a strong emphasis on hiring 4-year college graduates.

Even when not an official requirement for a job opening, having your college degree will be immensely helpful in the hiring process. Despite the fact that these are extremely challenging jobs, there can be lots of competition for positions, so having a formal degree, in addition to the required police training, will make you a more attractive job candidate.

Not only will a degree enhance your chances of being hired, it will also increase your chances of being promoted. At some point in your career, you may want to move into leadership roles, such as a captain or sergeant; having a bachelor’s degree in an appropriate area will make you more likely to find promotion.

Best College Degree for Police Officer

Police officers need a broad range of skills to thrive and excel in these careers. From solid communication to a strong understanding of human behavior, police officers will find a lot of value from an associate’s or bachelor’s degree in many different fields. The best major for you will be one you have a unique interest in and one that you would like to apply in your career as a police officer.

Police Officer College Majors

Law Enforcement

Many police officers will find law enforcement degrees to be the most directly applicable. Law enforcement education gives you an understanding of criminal behavior, the court system, psychology, security, public safety, and more.

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Criminal Justice & Criminology

Another degree field that will be helpful is criminology. This field of study takes a broad-range, science-based approach to crime, looking at crime statistics in relation to frequency, causes, demographics, and more. This is an academic discipline heavily rooted in science (criminology is, in fact, a type of science just like biology or psychology), so a curious mind and an aptitude for numbers is helpful. When complete, this degree is useful for career advancement, as it can be applied to the big-picture issues that law enforcement leaders need to tackle.

Although sharing many similarities to criminology, criminal justice focuses on navigating the societal systems that have been set up to stop crime, punish criminals, and reduce future instances. Basically, a criminal justice degree gives you a thorough understanding of law enforcement, the court system, and corrections. Once again, this degree is extremely useful for future advancement, as it gives a strong understanding of the overall crime-prevention efforts in the United States. It’s beneficial for people who want to shift horizontally in law enforcement, moving into areas such as victim support or rehabilitation.

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Police officers need a basic understanding of criminal law, but any officer looking to advance their careers should have a deep understanding of criminal and civil law and how these laws apply to crime prevention. Attending law school puts potential officers in a strong position for career advancement, either rising in the ranks of a department or working as an instructor or educator in the law enforcement field.

Non-Traditional College Degrees for Police Officer

Like any organization, law enforcement agencies and departments need people with a variety of skills. Some of these skills can be applied in a supportive role, while others can be applied to a specific type of crime prevention. Others, frankly, simply make you a stronger, more educationally-rounded police officer.

Computer Science
The world is online, which means criminals are online too. With new advancements in cybercrime coming practically every day, law enforcement officials trained in computer science are more important than ever. Law enforcement groups, from federal agencies to local departments, need professionals to help prevent these crimes.

From accounting to financial planning, these degrees are useful to law enforcement leaders for two specific reasons:

First, they can be used in crime prevention, specifically financial crimes. Someone trained in accounting or finances will be more adept at stopping fraud, tax evasion, and other financial crimes. Let’s not forget that is was tax evasion, not racketeering, bribery, selling illegal substances, or even murder, that finally landed the brutal criminal Al Capone in prison.

Second, law enforcement agencies operate on budgets issued by higher government offices. Doing the most with tight budgets is a hallmark for a good police department, and financial experts can be useful for achieving this goal.

Foreign Language
In the United States, the need for bilingual or multilingual police officers is more important than ever. If you have a major or minor in Spanish, French, or one of the many Chinese varieties, among many other languages, you are a prime candidate for a police officer position.

Step 3: Police Academy

How Long is Police Academy?

One of the most important steps, as well as possibly the most challenging, in your path to becoming a police officer is training at a police academy. Each state will have different requirements for the specifics of a police academy, but recruits will typically spend about 800 hours in training before graduation. In general, the academy will take about six months to complete.

How Hard is Police Academy?

The police academy is, above all, an educational institution. In classroom settings, you’ll learn the basics of law enforcement, crime prevention, patrol, conflict management, and investigations. You will also complete field training that will cover firearms proficiency, self defense, agility and strength training, and more.

Similar to basic training for a military recruit, this all-encompassing education requires physical and mental endurance. You’ll be up early for exercise, attend strict classroom settings, drill in firearms, learn how to use non-lethal measures, and likely spend hours in the hot sun running, jumping, wrestling, and becoming a more physically-fit police recruit. It’s not easy, but at the end you will be prepared to face the physical, mental, and emotional rigors of police work.

Step 4: Find Your Perfect Police Officer Job

Types of Police Officer

When you work as a police officer, you will be in a setting where rank and seniority make a big difference. Like the military, there is a direct hierarchy of authority; whereas a private-sector boss can make a request, the head of a police department gives an order, and it’s your duty to follow these orders.

The exact structure of a police department can vary by region and size, but it generally starts with police officers, the most common rank. These are the professionals who complete ground-level duties of patrol and emergency response, forming the backbone of law enforcement across the country.

Next in rank are detectives, who perform crime scene investigations and work on individual cases.

From there, the structure of a police force, from lowest to highest rank, looks something like this:

  • Corporal – Essentially an entry-level supervisor, often in charge of a small group of administrators.
  • Sergeant – First-line supervisors, usually overseeing a group of officers and detectives.
  • Lieutenant – In charge of a group of supervisors.
  • Captain – Commanders of entire districts and units.
  • Staff Inspector – Responsible for overseeing large units and multiple districts.
  • Chief Inspector – Commanders of a bureau or large group of units.
  • Deputy Commissioner – In charge of large sections of departments and districts. 

In other cities, the police department can be headed by a “chief,” and there are other rankings and titles that can be found depending on the region.

Is Being a Police Officer a Good Job?

There are clear advantages to working in this profession, but it comes with some of the largest downsides experienced in almost any career. As a police officer, you see some of the worst aspects of society, including domestic violence, ravages of drug abuse, and even murder. It’s not just dealing with self-important speeders on the highway, but violent criminals as well. This can make policing extremely stressful, often forcing police officers to need therapy and other forms of emotional support.

But there are real advantages as well. As a police officer, you will experience pride in your job and, on occasion, the community will show its support and appreciation, which can make all the stresses worth the effort. Despite the challenges, you’ll know that your work makes the community a better place; few careers can honestly make this claim.

How Much Does a Police Officer Make?

If you are going to pursue a career in law enforcement, starting with the position of a police officer, you need to be motivated by more than money. To be certain, police officers can earn a strong salary (whether they earn enough based on everything they do is debatable), but finances won’t be motivation enough to put on the uniform and patrol the streets every day. That said, it’s worth looking into the expected salaries of a police officer to understand their earning potential.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2018 the median salary for police officers and detectives was $63,380. Detectives and criminal investigators had the strongest salaries in this category, earning a median over $81,000. Transit and railroad police earned a median of $74,030, while patrol officers earned a median salary of $61,380.

The best salaries appear to come from the federal government, where law enforcement officers enjoyed a median salary over $87,000.

Salary depends largely on location. For sheriffs and patrol officers, the best salaries appear to come from California ($105,220), Alaska ($87,870), and New Jersey ($86,840).

So while it may not be a path to riches, working in law enforcement can bring a strong income.

Police Officer Job Outlook

Job security matters to everyone. In fact it may be more important than overall salary; after all, what’s the point in having a well-paying career if no jobs are available? The overall expected job growth for police officers is 5%, which is the exact job growth for all career fields in the United States.

Like salaries, however, job growth will depend heavily on location, as certain areas, especially growing cities, will be adding to their police force, while other cities may actually be eliminating positions. Crime rates, according to the BLS, have been falling, but a demand for police to maintain and improve public safety will fuel job increases.

One of the main challenges, however, will be the low rate of job turnover. People hired in this career rarely leave unless they are promoted; unlike other careers where people take jobs, work a couple year, then transition into different jobs. This increases competition for these jobs, which makes the need for education all the more important. People with degrees in law enforcement, criminology, multiple languages, and beneficial skills can greatly increase their chances of being hired.

Beyond Law Enforcement Careers

No matter how much pride you get from patrolling streets, responding to emergencies, and being a first-contact between the police department and the community, you may eventually want to leave your position and go beyond a police officer career.

So what are your options? When it comes to advancement, police officers should consider positions both vertically and horizontally.

By “vertical” we mean climbing the ranks within the law enforcement hierarchy, which means taking on positions such as sergeant, captain, or even commissioner of an entire police department in a major American city. For the sake of this discussion, we’ll also consider moving to “higher” law enforcement levels, such as state or federal agencies, as vertical moves.

If you are most interested in vertical promotions should first focus on being the best police officer possible. Like any career, attitude makes a difference. While you can train for hundreds of hours a year and have decades of experience on your resume, an attitude focused on the positives of policing will be crucial for your success. Good captains, chiefs, and commissioners need a strong attitude that will rub off on the minds of other officers.

Education still matters. While many ground-level police officers are hired without a college degree, higher-ranking police officers are all but required to have a post-secondary academic education. An associate’s, or better yet a bachelor’s degree, is a wise choice for anyone who aspires to work in law enforcement leadership.

By “horizontal,” we mean looking for careers outside of a police force or law-enforcement agency, possibly in the private and nonprofit sectors. There are a variety of positions and businesses that could use the experience and skills of a police officer, including security firms, private investigators, and threat analysis. Training and education in law enforcement is also a potential job for former police officers. In the non-profit sector, you could find employment as a victim advocate, counselor, or police-community outreach supervisor.

There are almost no limits to the potential careers beyond a police officer position. From advancing in your local department to taking your skills to the private sectors, police officers have a variety of skills that can apply almost anywhere!

Start Becoming a Police Officer Today!

You can become one of the most important members of the community: a police officer. With the right education, you will increase your chances of landing a position in this challenging yet gratifying career.

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