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10 Steps for Becoming a Police Officer: A Quick Guide

Over the last several decades, the number of criminal justice programs at colleges and universities in the US has grown, and although their focus has evolved from the practical nuts-and-bolts police science programs of old to a comprehensive, interdisciplinary study of crime, criminals, and the whole criminal justice system, law enforcement remains a popular focus. The number of police officers (also referred to as peace officers or cops) is expected to grow seven percent (close to 60,000) in this decade,1 and it’s worthwhile for young people who are planning to enter this occupation to be prepared for the lengthy, multi-step process.2 The goal of this site is to clearly communicate these steps.

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Guide Index

Desired Traits for Police Officers
The Hiring Process
Step 1 – The Application
Step 2 – The Entrance Examination
Step 3 – The Physical Ability Test (PAT)
Step 4 – The Oral Board
Step 5 – The Background Investigation
Step 6 – The Polygraph Examination
Step 7 – The Psychological & Physical Examinations
Step 8 – The Executive Interview
Step 9 – The Academy
Step 10 – Field Training
Top 30 Police Blogs by the Numbers

Desired Traits for Police Officers

Police expert Neal C. Griffin says that professional police officers exhibit the “Five I’s”: integrity, intellect, industry, initiative, and impact.3 As a result, departments want to hire officers who are honest and will not cross ethical lines, who are smart enough to do one of the most complicated jobs in the world, who are not afraid of hard work, who are able to think independently and take charge, and who will make a positive impression on people. Officers must be level-headed at all times, even under acute stress, and they must have the requisite human relations skills to deal with all kinds of people in an infinite range of circumstances. Of course, someone who is considering a career in police work must also meet more objective criteria as well. For instance, all departments have minimum age and educational requirements. Though there is some variation, the typical department has a starting age of twenty-one and requires a minimum of a high school diploma or GED. It has become more common for police departments to require some college credits, but they usually allow exceptions to college requirements for those with military service or prior law enforcement experience.

Any youngster who is interested in becoming a police officer should participate in a Police Explorer program if a nearby department has one. These programs, which are open to kids in high school, provide excellent experience that will look good on an application for a police job. Given that the most common minimum age required of police applicants is twenty-one, aspiring officers will need to make good use of their time between high school and attaining that age. Departments always look for intelligent, well-educated recruits, so college is an excellent choice. A two- or four-year degree in criminal justice or a related field will definitely give an applicant an edge in getting hired and may qualify for educational incentive pay once hired. Many departments give hiring preference to veterans, so military service in any specialty, but in military police in particular, is a big plus. Some departments will hire communications personnel as young as eighteen, and experience as a dispatcher can be an advantage in getting hired as an officer. Attending a Citizen Police Academy or participating in a ride-along program may also be helpful. At the very least, any of the above options will give a person enough of a taste of police work to know whether or not it is a viable career option for him or her.

Any felony conviction, including deferred adjudication, is an automatic disqualifier, as is a less-than-honorable discharge from the military, any pattern of criminal activity, a history of drug addiction, and (in most cases) gang membership. Most misdemeanors, drunk driving, and excessive traffic citations or accidents will probably sabotage an application, too.

The Hiring Process

US police agencies utilize a hiring process that involves a series of steps that takes place over weeks or months and is focused on both weeding out undesirable candidates and identifying the recruits who possess desirable traits. While there are exceptions, to be considered for a position, a candidate must be a US citizen, 21 years of age, and hold a valid driver’s license. In addition to the usual application process that one would expect of any job, applicants for cop positions are also subject to written, physical, and psychological tests, extensive background investigation, polygraph examination, and multiple interviews. Although the process varies somewhat from agency to agency, certain key steps are typically involved, and the purpose of this guide is to identify and to explain those steps so that aspiring police officers will have a better understanding of what it will take to enter their chosen career field.

Step 1 – The Application

There are a few police agencies that accept applications on an ongoing basis, but most departments do not. Normally recruits may apply only pursuant to the posting of a specific job announcement. Many applicants limit their job searches to one or two local agencies, but a wider search is more likely to be fruitful. Most departments of any size now have websites with recruiting sections, and potential applicants can periodically check the sites of departments where they are most interested in working to see when a selection process will open. Some allow for e-mail subscriptions to track job announcements, and Google Alerts can also help keep track of current openings. Moreover, there are a number of websites whose express purpose is to help people find jobs. They include:

Discover Policing – The official job board of the International Association of Chiefs of Police
Police One – The jobs section of a site dedicated to providing information and resources for cops.
Police Career Finder – Associated with Police and Campus Safety magazines

When an agency posts an announcement, it may want a preliminary online application, to be followed later by the most extensive paper application that most people will ever see in their lives, or it may ask for the latter right away. Either way, the application may precede the written examination, or in some cases, applicants submit their applications when they report to take the entrance exam.

Step 2 – The Entrance Examination

Virtually every department is going to administer a written test, often called a “civil service exam,” very early in the process. It is one of the cheaper tests to give, and it allows agencies to weed out sub-standard applicants immediately. Most of these tests measure applicants’ verbal skills, much like the verbal section of standardized tests such as the SAT and ACT, and some may include job-related questions as well—e.g., map reading, observation and recall, and report writing. Some may also include questions that assess recruits’ maturity and integrity. Never underestimate the importance of verbal skills to cops. An officer will spend much of his or her career communicating, both orally and in writing. From talking with citizens and suspects to writing reports to testifying in court, officers must communicate constantly, and they must be able to do so effectively. In fact, strong verbal skills are arguably the most important trait of a good officer. Regardless of the form it takes and the skills that it measures, the written test generally provides the first ranking of candidates in a list commonly known as the eligibility roster.

Step 3 – The Physical Ability Test (PAT)

Sometimes called a “physical agility test” or “physical fitness test,” this may occur on the same day as the written test, or the department may schedule it separately. PATs vary greatly from agency to agency, but they are designed to measure a recruit’s general health and fitness. Recruits may be required to run a moderate distance, perhaps a quarter mile, for speed, or a department may prefer to measure recruits’ endurance with a run from one to two miles that they must complete within a maximum allotment of time. A test may include climbing a fence, dragging a weighted dummy, running an obstacle course, and even pushing a patrol car. Although this line of work may rarely require an officer to be physically fit, circumstances may arise quickly at any given time in which an officer’s physical fitness may be crucial to catching a criminal or defending the officer and perhaps others from danger. In rare instances, an officer’s physical fitness is genuinely a life-or-death matter. For these reasons, the physical ability test is an important screening tool and permits the refining of candidates’ ranking.

Step 4 – The Oral Board

This initial interview is unlike any job interview that most people will ever have. It will take place before a “board” of three or more officers of different ranks, and it is generally designed to put the recruit under a great deal of psychological pressure and then to see how well he or she thinks under stress. The members of the board will ask some routine job interview questions, but they will also present various scenarios and ask the recruit what his or her choice of action would be. In many cases, there is no clear right or wrong answer, and the board is not looking for any one answer in particular. Rather, the board simply wants to make the applicant squirm and to see if he or she rattles easily. In some cases, the oral board will take place after the background investigation, and the members of the board may be armed with a minor skeleton that the background investigator managed to exhume from the applicant’s closet. This serves a two-fold purpose: (1) By asking the applicant an open-ended question and giving him or her the opportunity to “come clean” about a minor transgression, the board is able to assess the recruit’s honesty, and (2) by revealing a fact that only the applicant and perhaps one or two confidants had knowledge of, it applies even great pressure to the subject sitting before the board. It may seem a little sneaky or even cruel, but it is a valuable tool that allows the department to assess its candidates more thoroughly. Policing is among the most stressful of all occupations, and if one cannot handle the pressure of the oral board, he or she is certainly not equipped to deal with the ubiquitous and intense pressure of this work.

Step 5 – The Background Investigation

In today’s litigious society, companies are concerned about the potential for civil litigation if they say too much about a former employee in a request for employment verification. Most employers who are conducting background investigations on applicants simply accept this limitation, but clearly police departments need to know far more about the people whom they are considering for employment. Departments are highly concerned with an applicant’s integrity and overall reliability, so they must know about attendance, punctuality, and discipline, just to name a few key characteristics. Therefore, when a police department is conducting a background investigation of a prospective officer, the investigator will often go out to each former employer, sit down with the applicant’s personnel file, and then proceed to go through the file with a fine-toothed comb. The investigator may contact some of the applicant’s former bosses, college professors, school teachers, ministers, neighbors, spouse(s) and other family members, friends, and even landlords. Despite controversy surrounding the use of credit reports in the selection process, many departments will also obtain the applicant’s credit report because they believe that credit worthiness is another measure of personal integrity and that someone in a weak financial position might be more vulnerable to bribery. If an applicant has been a party to a lawsuit, including divorce, the investigator will likely obtain those legal records. Competition for police jobs is high, and a department can ill afford to ignore any red flag indicating that a particular officer may be a bad risk. The investigation will be extremely comprehensive and thorough in every respect, and the department will learn virtually everything there is to know about each applicant who remains in consideration at this stage. The department then uses this knowledge to further whittle down the list of potential new-hires, and in most agencies today, this information is also used as the basis for the polygraph examination.

Step 6 – The Polygraph Examination

It is impossible to overstate the importance of integrity in police work, and most departments will utilize the polygraph to assess the honesty of applicants who make it this far in the hiring process. The department may have its own in-house polygrapher, or it may contract with someone outside the agency. In either case, this is a time-consuming and expensive test, which is why it comes late in the process. A good polygraph examination will include an extensive review of the recruit’s application materials and background investigation results, a thorough interview with the applicant, formulation of control and relevant questions, and ultimately the examination itself. This will take several hours to complete and is a crucial stage in the process. Make no mistake about it— departments want to hire honest people who will become honest cops. If the polygrapher’s expert opinion is that an applicant has lied, even about something relatively trivial, the department will remove that individual’s name from the eligibility roster.

Step 7 – The Psychological & Physical Examinations

These tests often occur at or about the same time in the process, typically very near the end due to the expense involved. Sometimes they are even scheduled on the same day, with one taking place in the morning and the other in the afternoon. A psychologist will administer and score a written test, the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) for instance, and will then interview the applicant. Based on the written test and interview, the psychologist will then advise the department on the recruit’s suitability for employment. Physical examinations vary a great deal in thoroughness and depend to a large extent on the financial means of the agency. Some may give a cursory examination much like the typical high school sports physical, while others may include a treadmill stress test and echocardiogram to assess the health of the applicant’s heart. The exam will usually include blood tests and urinalysis to test both for potential health problems and for illegal drug use. Most departments have a height-weight requirement as well, and some applicants are removed from consideration at this stage for being overweight. Departments’ specific height-weight requirements are often quite different, and some are stricter than others. Anyone who is interested in becoming a cop should be sure that he or she is healthy and not overweight, and since most departments publish their requirements, there is really no excuse for getting this far along in the process and having an issue with weight.

Step 8 – The Executive Interview

Immediately preceding the department’s final selections, there will usually be another interview. It some departments this interview may be conducted by a high-ranking officer in the department, possibly even the Chief of Police. This “chief’s interview” is quite common in small- to mid-sized agencies. As this is the department’s last opportunity to assess its best candidates before hiring them, very few people make it to this stage of the process. If an applicant makes it this far, he or she has a good chance of being hired, but it is not certain. For instance, if a department has five openings, it might bring in the top ten candidates on the eligibility roster for the executive or chief’s interview. Clearly not everyone interviewed can be hired, but also, this stage is very subjective. Police personnel consider themselves to be a family, or at least a team, and issues of demeanor, appearance, and “fit” are important to hiring authorities. This is true with most jobs when it comes to final interviews, but it is arguably even more crucial in police work. At the end of this step, the department selects its newest member(s).

Step 9 – The Academy

Most big-city agencies have their own academies that new officers are required to attend regardless of previous education, training, or experience. The length of academy training varies but is generally around six months. Cadets participate in rigorous physical training, learn self-defense, and receive firearms instruction that focuses not only on the technical aspects of operating weapons safely and accurately but also on decision-making and ethics in the use of deadly force. Although this has not always been the case, due to the physical danger and the high potential for civil liability in high-speed pursuits, most departments now provide officers with training in pursuit driving that mirrors their firearms training in the sense that it focuses on the driving as well as decision making. Additional training includes criminal and traffic law, report writing, investigations, human relations, stress management, ethics, verbal judo, policies and procedures, and other subjects. Policing is a very complex line of work. Training is extensive, and standards are high. Some cadets drop out, and others fail to meet the requirements for graduation. Those whose scores are satisfactory will graduate and move on to field training, and friendships forged through the trials and tribulations of the academy will last forever.

Half of all departments in the US employ fewer than ten officers, and fully three-quarters employ fewer than twenty-five.5 Clearly these agencies do not hire frequently enough or in sufficient numbers to maintain their own academies. In some cases, departments are willing to hire non-certified officers and then pay to send them to regional academies in their respective states. However, it has become common for many of these smaller agencies to require all applicants to be certified in advance. That is, an applicant must have already graduated from an approved academy and passed the state licensing exam in order even to apply for a position with those agencies. Aspiring officers in these areas should check with colleges in the area to see if they have academy programs in addition to the usual degree options. There are differences in how these programs are structured. A program might give the option of attending full-time for one semester or part-time for two, and financial aid may be available. As noted previously, if an academy graduate is hired by a larger agency with its own academy, he or she will have to attend that agency’s academy. That may seem redundant; however, the previous academy training will be considered favorably by the hiring agency, and it may give the applicant a leg up on the competition in getting hired.

Step 10 – Field Training

police-officerWhether or not a department has its own academy, virtually all departments have some type of official field training program. For a period of three to six months typically and sometimes as long as a year, the department will assign a new officer to a field training officer (FTO) who administers the prescribed training to the trainee. Depending on the agency, the FTO might be a sergeant or master officer, or perhaps simply a senior officer who has demonstrated the necessary skills and willingness to train rookies. FTOs have some discretion in how to train their new-hires, but most will start out with verbal instruction and modeling and then will eventually assume the role of observer. When the rookie officer meets the department’s required criteria and receives the endorsement of the FTO, he or she will be a full-fledged cop. In many agencies, that will mean graduating to solo patrol of an assigned beat. Whether working alone or with a partner, this new officer will soon discover that the process of training never ends. It will, in fact, continue throughout the officer’s career in police work. Aside from the ongoing training that departments and licensing commissions require, an officer will literally learn something new every day. Policing is an extremely complex job, and becoming a cop is not a destination. It is a journey that lasts as long as the officer wears the badge.

Conclusion

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, police officers in the US earn an average of almost $58,000 per year.6 While there is a wide range of income potential that is strongly correlated to the size of the department, becoming an officer remains an excellent middle-class career option for those seeking job growth and security. This guide should be a useful resource to anyone wishing to enter this vital occupation.

This guide was written by William Prince, Adjunct Instructor of Criminal Justice at Wharton County Junior College.

City Police Officer Requirements

The hiring process and requirements can vary at different law enforcement agencies. Learn about requirements for becoming a police officer in the following cities:

State Police Officer Requirements

Footnotes:
[1] Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Protective-Service/Police-and-detectives.htm
[2] Although this guide uses the terms “police”, “police officer”, and “cop” exclusively, the process described here as characteristic of municipal departments is fairly typical of county sheriffs’ offices and state agencies as well.
[3] Griffin, N. C. (1998). The five-I’s of police professionalism: A model for front-line leadership.  Police Chief, 65, 24-31.
[4] Google Alerts: http://www.google.com/alerts
[5] Bureau of Justice Statistics, Local Police Departments, 2007 (Washington, D.C.:  US Department of Justice, December 2010), Table 2, p. 9.
[6] Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes333051.htm