The baseline criteria for becoming a cop are meeting the age requirement of 21, having at least a high school diploma or GED, and no major felonies before initially applying at a department. It can take 13 weeks to six months to complete a police academy and go through the hiring process. Though a college degree isn’t required, it is highly recommended that you complete at least an Associate’s degree.
If you want a law enforcement job, you will first need to check if you meet the basic qualifications: twenty-one years of age, have at least a high school diploma or GED, and no major felonies. Bigger departments have more stringent qualifications, so check their requirements before applying. From the hiring process to the end of the police academy can take anywhere from 13 weeks to 6 months. There are many steps in between, including different education levels, the police academy, and on-the-job training as a rookie.
It can be challenging to know where to start when looking at starting any career, but for a job as a police officer, this can be even more complicated. There are many steps and qualifications you need to meet before becoming a cop. The process is different than most jobs and varies depending on where you want to work. Educational needs will differ as well. The same types of criteria are going to be similar across the board, though. Read on to discover what these requirements are and what they might look like in different settings.
Police officers and law enforcement are under a microscope these days. This shouldn’t deter anybody from seeking a career in this essential job, though. The country needs hard-working, mentally strong individuals to fill these crucial jobs.
Police officers don’t only prevent crime and arrest criminals. They can form relationships within communities and become an integral part of helping others with anything from making sure parks are safe for our children to finding essential services for the homeless. So, how do you become a police officer?
Part 1: Basic Qualifications
Every job has a baseline for determining who can apply for a job. You will need to check with the department where you’re applying to determine other qualifications.
What are the basic qualifications?
Individual states may have slightly different requirements as umbrella qualifications for law enforcement. These are the minimum requirements, though each department or agency can make more stringent criteria.
- Most departments require applicants to be at least 21 by the time they graduate from the police academy. Some may take a cadet as young as 18, but this is rare.
- Must have a high school diploma or GED at the time of application.
- A valid driver’s license is mandatory.
- Be a U.S. citizen at the time of application.
- Each department or agency will have a set of physical fitness standards they will want you to meet.
- Having a clean credit record is vital. The premise is, people who are in trouble with their credit are more prone to bribery and other felonious activity.
How do I apply?
The very first thing an applicant should consider is whether being a police officer is right for them. This can mean looking at whether they could physically restrain a suspect, whether they have the mental fortitude to work at sometimes gruesome crime scenes, and what the motivations are to becoming a cop. It’s not just about busting criminals and saving the day. These days there’s a lot of other things a police officer needs to take into consideration. If you’ve done all that and still want to apply, here is the general application process:
- Check with the department or departments where you’re interested in working and determine their requirements, especially educational requirements.
- Depending on the educational requirements, you will need to take classes or pursue a degree, with law enforcement as the end goal.
- Look into whether you can go to a certificated police academy first before applying to your department of choice. You will have to enroll either way but don’t necessarily have to be hired at a department before going, especially in a smaller department. It might even behoove you to look into the department’s reserve officer program to get an idea of whether law enforcement is right for you.
- Take the POST exam. This is the Police Officer Standards and Training exam that all officers will need to take. For more information on this test, look under Part 2 of this article concerning college and education.
- Apply to become a police officer. As stated above, if there are no openings in the department or agency where you wish to work, look into the reserve officer programs and ride alongs. Become involved and show your interest in the department.
These steps may vary from department to department, so your best bet is to first check with the department or departments where you wish to work so you won’t miss any critical steps in their hiring process.
How long does it take to become a police officer?
This depends on the route you take to becoming a cop. There are a few different routes, including whether or not you have military training or college.
- If you have military training, it might significantly decrease your time to become a cop. It depends on how long you served and what jobs you trained for while serving. Check with the department where you’re applying for more information.
- It usually takes two years to complete an associate’s degree. This could be longer or shorter depending on whether you’re working while going to school.
- A Bachelor’s degree in law enforcement will take up to four years. Again, it could take longer if you choose to work while going to school.
- The police academy can take anywhere from 13 weeks to a year, depending on whether you’re working while attending.
Taking all these things into consideration, becoming a police officer can take anywhere from 13 weeks to four years. This will depend on your end goal and what career in law enforcement you choose.
How much does a police officer get paid?
There are many different law enforcement jobs, which will dictate how much an officer will get paid. The type of department and the size will also play a significant role in pay scale and or salary. Here are some basic starting salaries depending on job and setting:
- Small-town police chiefs can make around $68,000 a year. A police officer starting in a more rural area could average approximately $43,000 a year.
- Larger city police officers can start at around $53,000 a year on average. Since the cost of living in large cities is more expensive and an officer needs to keep a clean credit record, this average may vary depending on where you’re applying.
- Detectives and criminal investigators can make anywhere from $43K-99K a year, depending on where you are located.
- Federal law enforcement officers make on average around $53,000 a year. The federal government is a little more regulated, so this could go up or down depending on where you are hired on the set pay scale.
- Special assignments may qualify you for higher pay. This depends on the department or agency and the state you live in.
- If you have a college degree, this could put you higher on the pay scale, depending on the department or agency where you get a job.
It’s always a good idea to check with the department or agency in which you’re applying to view their pay scale. It will vary.
What are the other qualifications?
The most essential qualifier to become a law enforcement officer is to have the ethical, moral, and mental fortitude to enforce laws and serve the community with a neutral attitude regardless of your personal feelings. You will have to work with different personalities, people who may have different political views than you, and those with different religious affiliations. To be an effective police officer, you need to be able to compartmentalize and deal with individual situations effectively. Some other qualifications that may help you:
- Have experience with firearms.
- Be a solid driver.
- Have people skills and be able to converse with anybody you come into contact with.
- Have manners. I’ve heard police officers say that it can be difficult, especially when dealing with somebody who has performed a horrendous crime. Still, many situations can be diffused by having a polite manner. Not all the time, but if you can take a suspect into custody by talking them down, it will always turn out better in the end–for everybody.
- Have some negotiation skills.
Again, check with individual departments and agencies for any other unique qualifications they are seeking.
What are some of the disqualifiers for becoming a police officer?
There are many disqualifiers to becoming a police officer. In some rare cases, disqualifiers can be appealed. This depends on what the disqualifier is/was, and in the case of serious misdemeanors when they happened. When applying to become a police officer, the most important thing to remember is to be completely honest and open about all past experiences that might disqualify you.
- Felony convictions are the number one disqualifier. This also includes juvenile convictions as your entire record is open when applying to become a police officer. Felonies include DUI. Certain juvenile felonies can be looked at on a case-by-case basis. Be honest and open with your history.
- Serious misdemeanors, including domestic violence, sexual misconduct, or perjury, are hard no’s when seeking a career in law enforcement. Other misdemeanors may be looked at on a case-by-case basis.
- Illegal drug use and excessive alcohol use can be disqualifiers.
- A poor driving record or excessive speeding tickets.
- A poor credit history.
- Any gang affiliation.
- Any racial bias or prejudice.
- Disqualifying medical conditions. These include anything that could get in the way of performing set duties.
- Not testing well on the POST.
- Dishonorable discharge from the military.
- Not being able to pass the physical fitness exam.
- Falsified application.
In essence, if you’re applying to become a police officer, you need to stand up to the high ethical and moral standards required to enforce state and federal laws. We are all human, especially in our youth, so some situations can be considered on a case-by-case basis.
More on becoming a cop HERE.
Part 2: College Degrees and Education for Law Enforcement
More and more major cities are requiring officers to have some post-high school degree or college courses. Officers need to have more and more knowledge of sociology and psychology as their jobs require a higher degree of community involvement than just enforcing laws. As law enforcement moves more into being proactive in preventing crime, so does the knowledge base that requires. A higher degree of education is necessary moving forward if police officers are to keep up with the communities they serve.
What is the POST exam?
The POST test is used in every state except for Hawaii. For more information about Hawaii’s procedures and requirements, please go to https://www.hawaiipolice.com/recruitment/police-officers.
Some states may accept an equivalent type of test. For more information, an excellent website to look up different standards and testing requirements for becoming a Peace Officer or Police Officer, go to https://www.publicsafetytesting.com/.
The first part of the test is the written exam that initially tests a candidate’s foundational grammar, reading comprehension, and writing skills. Then it moves onto the physical fitness and medical examination. If you pass those portions, you move onto a psychological exam. This is a huge disqualifier, not because you are mentally unwell, but because they may determine you cannot handle the mental rigor of being in law enforcement. Then you have a background check and oral interview.
Do police officers have to go to college?
Though it is not a stringent requirement that a police officer goes to college, more and more departments are looking at whether or not you have a degree with some law enforcement background. Other degrees that support law enforcement could be in sociology or psychology. There are many different types of either education or degrees a police officer can attain. If you are looking for a job in federal law enforcement, you will need a degree, and possibly an advanced degree, of some kind.
- College courses in sociology, law enforcement, or psychology will help a candidate be more appealing to a department or agency.
- Some departments require an Associate’s degree or two-year degree at the very minimum to be considered for a position.
- Bachelor’s degrees or 4-year degrees are highly desirable in departments, especially if you want to go past becoming a uniformed officer. Degree programs in Law and Justice, pre-law, criminology, sociology, or psychology, are all fantastic choices for law enforcement.
- Those seeking future jobs in law enforcement administration or other specialty jobs in leadership positions are encouraged to take a Master’s program in Law and Justice, pre-law, criminology, sociology, psychology, or leadership.
Do police officers get paid more with a degree?
On average, a police officer with a degree is paid $5,000 to $8,000 more a year, depending on the department or agency. Over a 20-year career, this can average out to be about $100,000 to $160,000, which affects retirement benefits in the end, as well. Choose what works best for you, but it will pay more to have a degree of some kind.
Whether it’s an Associate’s or another college degree, they are becoming more vital for modern policing. Another avenue, or in some cases, in addition to college coursework, is the police academy. This will be discussed more in-depth in the next part.
Part 3: Police Academy
The police academy is the main form of education for any police officer. There are police academies for city and county officers and different, more advanced academies for federal law enforcement. While these may vary in coursework, the baseline types of activities are very similar. Each state sets out the standards for various academies in their jurisdiction. Anybody going into a career as a police officer will have to attend a police academy before becoming an officer.
How long is the police academy?
On average, a police academy for a basic, entry-level police officer is 720 hours. Each role in law enforcement has different training they need to complete, but this is the baseline. It can take a cadet from 13 weeks to a year to complete all courses and hours they need at the police academy.
What types of classes are at the police academy?
Though some college-level courses might focus on some general equivalent classes, the police academy focuses just on the education needed to go right into basic police work. Here are just some of the classes and courses you might find at the police academy:
- Investigations and legal codes
- Criminal and constitutional law
- Patrol procedures
- Traffic enforcement
- Writing reports
- Professional Conduct
- Detention and Prosecution
- Basic Emergency Medical Technician Training
- Operating Emergency Vehicles
- Defensive Tactical Training
- Physical Fitness
Depending on the police academy and the state, there might be more classes required to become a police officer.
Do I need college courses to get into the police academy?
While it isn’t a requirement, if a department hasn’t hired you, you will be more desirable by a police academy if you have at least two years of college. Since most police departments have an age limit of 21 years old, this also works to a candidate’s benefit. The general guideline in modern days is to have a college degree before becoming a police officer or applying to the police academy.
What happens if I don’t pass?
This will depend on why you didn’t pass. If it was just one course, you might get the chance to re-test for that course. Many police academies allow one retake of an exam. If it is not passed on the second try, you will be done. Look into individual state and academy policies and procedures for specific guidelines on this topic.
It is important to look up your state’s policies and procedures regarding police officer training, including applying for local police academies.
Part 4: Field Training Programs
So you’ve met the stringent basic qualifications, you’ve either went to college or directly into a police academy and now you’ve been hired. What happens next? All departments and agencies have some type of training for recruits. And don’t get too comfortable after being hired. There is a probationary period of, on average, 18 months for all new officers. This means a rookie or probationary officer can still be let go from law enforcement if they’re not performing their duties or making too many mistakes.
What happens after the police academy?
After the academy, and after being hired by a department, newly hired officers will be put into a training program or Field Training Officer Program (FTO), usually with a training officer. Probationary officers, or more commonly called rookies, will go on calls and learn by working with a more experienced officer to deal with everyday situations police officers face.
- Probationary officers are assigned a training officer or more experienced officer. There are two different models for training a police officer after the academy. The first is called the Problem-Based Learning program. The most common is the Field Training Officer model (FTO). FTO will last anywhere from 4 weeks to 20 weeks, depending on the department and setting.
- After FTO, a probationary officer could be assigned a patrol area and, depending on the department’s size, a patrol team. They will be evaluated frequently by the sergeant or other person in charge, on average bi-weekly though this will vary by department.
- Ongoing training and professional development are sometimes mandatory for new officers within the first year of becoming a police officer. This will depend on the department or agency.
- Most probationary periods with frequent evaluations last about 18 months. Some departments may be more stringent.
What are the different training programs?
The best police departments will support their new officers and make sure they have everything they need–even with tightened budgets. To have successful police officers, you need successful training and support. A sink or swim mentality will never provide satisfactory results with probationary officers. Continuing education and on-the-job training will always produce results, even with the most challenging new officers.
Two programs are being used to train probationary officers:
- Field Training Program is the most widely used. In this program, the objective is to train new police officers with more experienced officers to be better prepared for solo duty. Most officers work alone, except for a few rare situations. In this program, experienced officers show the new officers what a “normal” day looks like. They usually need this experience to pass another probationary review that comes up, like the oral interviews, which may be required somewhere around the 10-month mark. Each department varies, so check what individual requirements are. The training officer works more as an evaluator to the new officer, giving them feedback and improvement areas or where they are doing well.
- A newer officer training program is called the Problem-Based Learning program or the P.T.O (Police Training Officer). It was established in 1999. It focuses on building critical thinking skills and works through problem-based learning. The new officer is paired with a training officer, but instead of being an evaluator, they act as a coach and trainer.
Both models help new police officers learn how to transfer what they learned at the academy and through their college courses and implement those skills in real life.
Being a police officer can be a rewarding and inspiring job. Police officers help community members and enforce laws set by county, state, and federal governments. They also have to have the strong mental fortitude to deal with whatever situation they face.
Do police officers need a degree?
You do not need a college degree to become a police officer. You do need your high school diploma or GED. More and more departments are looking for college courses or degrees, though, so make sure you are checking with the department or agency you’re applying to for their requirements.
Do I have to be hired as a police officer before going to the police academy?
You don’t have to be hired as a police officer before attending the police academy. This may vary by state, so check your state’s requirements. Police academies might look at basic requirements, educational background, and whether you’ve completed most sections of the POST test before accepting your application. Another avenue to the police academy is through a department’s reserve officer program. Check individual department’s qualifications and criteria for this option.
How much does a police officer get paid?
Depending on the setting and state, a new police officer gets paid anywhere from $33,000 to $53,000 a year. Check with individuals departments for their pay scales. Since most police departments are public servants, the pay scales are usually public knowledge.
To learn how to best prepare and study for your police exam click here.
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Please note: This blog post is for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please consult a legal expert to address your specific needs.
Hi! I’m Shawn Chun and I’m so grateful that you’re here.
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