Advice for Becoming a Police Officer
We asked several leaders in the law enforcement community if they could share their best advice for getting hired as a police officer. Here are their responses:
Carlton Stallings, Vice President of the Georgia Fraternal Order of Police:
- Character. The first and toughest huddle to overcome is a background investigation. Live your life where you have nothing to hide and nothing to be ashamed of.
- Education. A degree in a related field such as criminal justice.
- Good physical condition.
When showing up for tests or interviews, remember that you are going to a job interview! Dress appropriately. If it is for a test, at least dress in business casual clothing. If it’s an interview, I recommend a suit and tie for men and dress slacks and appropriate top for females. Females should NEVER wear anything that is too tight, too revealing or too trendy. Conservative attire is the best for either sex.
If given the opportunity to ask questions during an interview, ask. This is an excellent time to show that you have done your homework. I would not ask about salary, benefits, etc. unless it is a final interview and the subject has not been explained. If you’ve done your homework, you should already know the answer to these questions. If the opportunity presents itself and you have had a good experience with the department during the hiring process, complement them, and be specific. An example might be that you were kept informed throughout the process; contacts were timely so that you could plan appropriately; people were courteous and explained everything satisfactorily, or answered all your questions. If you didn’t have a good experience, this isn’t the time to complain. If it was a really bad experience, you might want to reconsider working there.
Chief Scott Silverii, Thibodaux Police Department: The advice I give to everyone interested in becoming a police officer is to educate yourself. There are many areas associated with arming yourself with information. Your high school completion or graduation equivalency diploma is the base requirement for most agencies, though many increasingly require college courses or degrees.
Prior to applying for any law enforcement service, become educated about each type of agency and the duties incumbent within that jurisdiction. Is it a county sheriff’s office that only maintains the jail, is it a municipal police department responsible for only criminal enforcement, is it a state highway patrol that addresses crash reporting and roadway regulatory ordinances, or is it a probation and parole organization that monitors criminals once released from incarceration?
Gather accurate information about the realities of becoming a police officer. Watching multiple episodes of Law and Order SVU or Lethal Weapon does not qualify as legitimate research. Speak with current or retired police officers, volunteer your time with agencies in programs such as Police Reserves, VIPS (volunteers in police service), Jr. Police, Young Marines or any of the many other community outreach and education initiatives.
Become knowledgeable about the hiring requirements. Most agencies incorporate a written exam, psychological evaluation, background check, and physical fitness tests into the employment process. Use available study guides to prepare for the written portion. Most agencies rank candidates by their exam score, and this places emphasis on your eligibility for the subsequent phases of hire.
Learn about and become involved with the community and civic groups. Build your resume through volunteering time by investing in the community you wish to serve. This demonstrates to police agency decision makers that you have a pattern of commitment and service.
Know the demographics of the community you wish to serve as a police officer. Learn about the cultural diversity, customs, ethnicities that live, work and play with your future jurisdiction. Do you have or can you acquire specialized skills to benefit the police agency to better serve a distinct element within that community?
Finally, and the most difficult element of educating oneself; question, explore, discover and determine if you truly have the desire to become a public servant. If you do, then go for it and I wish you the best of success.
- College Education (BA degree preferred; AA is better than nothing)
- Work Experience
- Clean Background
- Volunteer Experience
Let’s look a little closer at each of these.
College Education. Most states do not allow one to become a police officer until at least 20 1/2 years old. After graduating from high school, it is highly recommended to continue your education. You can at least obtain your two-year college degree before becoming old enough to apply for a police officer job. You can major in almost any field, not just criminal justice. Business Administration, Computer Science, Sociology, Psychology, and Business Management are all great majors to have in hand. If you enter the hiring process with at least your two-year degree and working towards your four-year degree, you will certainly jump ahead of a large group of applicants.
Work Experience. This can be accomplished by getting hired as a cadet/police cadet. Typically, the minimum age is 18 years old for these jobs. Working as a cadet gets one foot in the door of the police field. This will give you two years to prove yourself to your future employer. Many young people who work as cadets go on to become police officers. Another source of work experience is the military. Entering the military at 18 years of age, after serving four years, you will certainly have a leg up on the competition at the young age of 22 years. The military training is very similar to law enforcement training. Future employers know that most young people who make it through a four-year enlistment have what it takes to become police officers.
Clean Background. Municipalities want to hire the best of the best. A background that includes drug and/or alcohol use/abuse will almost always push you to the bottom. Additionally, maintaining a good credit score is helpful in presenting a clean background.
Volunteer Experience. This is often overlooked but can be a huge plus for applicants. If you have volunteered in your community it shows future employers that you care about the community, you want to make a difference, and for you, it’s not all about earning an income. Volunteer experience can be achieved in many different ways. Boys Clubs, local churches, hospitals, Boy Scouts, Little League, and many other organizations. Many police departments have Police Reserve programs that are very beneficial to getting hired as a police officer. The reserve programs are mostly volunteer programs (some agencies pay reserves) that provide an opportunity to see if police work is really for you, without walking away from your current career. The drawback is, reserve programs can be tough to get into, due to the strict requirements that are identical to that of a fully sworn officer.
These are all great areas to focus on when trying to become a police officer. If you can accomplish two or three of the above suggestions, you will put yourself in a position that will make it very difficult for employers to ignore you. It’s not easy to get hired as a police officer, but it’s not meant to be. Good Luck.
Jonathan Parker, Founder/President of Covered Law Enforcement: Perhaps the best advice I can give to someone aspiring to be a law enforcement professional is to first develop a realistic view of the profession and examine one’s motivation for service. Media portrayals of law enforcement officers, the criminal justice system, and the day-to-day responsibilities of serving in this profession are very skewed and misleading. Media often presents the profession as one that is glamorous, action-packed, and replete with officers that are flashy, larger-than-life, all-knowing, and even invincible.
The result of these portrayals is a flawed public perception of what it is that we do and are capable of doing. The communities we serve may become disappointed with the realities that budget limitations exist, not every case is solved – especially within a few hours, officers are faced with the effects of constant stress, and not every call involves high action or crime scene investigation. New recruits are also affected by these perceptions, in many cases leaving them disappointed and frustrated.
I truly believe that serving is law enforcement is a calling, a noble profession filled with servant-warriors who defend our democracy and serve the interest of the people. But, one’s motivation must truly be to serve out of a deep sense of pride, professionalism, and integrity for the intangible rewards it provides rather than the false motivations presented in the media.
What specifically can be done? Interview officers, participate in ride-along programs, volunteer, become acquainted with the needs of the community, develop an authentic understanding of the profession, and live a life of leadership by setting a positive example. A candidate who has followed this advice will surely have an advantage in the interview and hiring process for becoming a police officer.
As a police chief and as an adjunct instructor at the college level, I am constantly surprised at the lack of knowledge about law enforcement occupations by those seeking positions in that field. There are major differences between police jobs at the local, county, state, and federal levels, and any candidate should thoroughly research those differences prior to completing applications. A very good place to start is the IACP site www.discoverpolicing.org.
Talk to people that are already doing the job. Show some initiative and contact your local PD and ask to speak to the recruiting officer. In a small agency, that may very well be the chief of police. Most will give you some time on the phone, or better yet schedule some face time, to discuss the hiring process at their agency. Don’t assume that all agencies hire alike; they do not. The same advice holds true for your state and federal agencies.
After conducting the appropriate research and interviews, start applying for internships. These may be a part of a college curriculum or may be less formal opportunities for exposure to the job that you THINK you want. You will quickly confirm that this could be the career for you, or in some cases, open your eyes that you need to look elsewhere before committing valuable resources; namely, your time and your money.
In general, you are in a job market that demands that you exercise initiative, a good work ethic, and impeccable judgment. You cannot sit back and wait for an agency to find you. Put yourself out there; you’ll be surprised how willing police professionals are to help get you on the right path. Remember, it works both ways. We are also looking for the best and brightest in a very competitive market.
Ray Hunt, President of the Houston Police Officers’ Union: My best advice is as follows:
- Follow all instructions on the application! Many times this is the first test to see if you have attention to detail.
- Make sure your credit is clear, you have no outstanding traffic warrants, you have valid auto insurance, and your DL is valid.
- If you are not on a social media site, keep it that way.
- Have all references lined up when applying and make sure they know you are applying.
- Dress professionally for your interview and be honest with your recruiter.
- Be patient and don’t get discouraged!
- The goal is to establish yourself on a hiring list and eventually you will be hired.
- Remember you will only get better each time you take a test.
I think the most difficult stage in the testing process is the oral interview. I think a majority of candidates are intimidated at this stage. Here are some suggestions:
- Prepare yourself. Learn as much about the police department and the demographics of the community before your oral examination. At times you may be asked questions that pertain to the police department and the community you will be serving.
- Find out if the department you’re testing for offers a ride-along program. Take the time to ride along. This is another avenue which may provide you with insight into the police department and community.
- Reach out to people you may know in law enforcement. Remember they have been through the testing process and may be able to offer you advice and/or suggestions when testing.
- Have them role play with you. Have them ask you questions they may anticipate you will be asked during the interview.
- After you have taken oral, discuss your answers and critique your responses. This will only help you to improve in any future oral interviews.
- Remember you will only get better each time you will take an oral interview!
David C. Couper, Chief of Police (Ret) Madison, Wisconsin:
- Receive a broad, liberal arts education leading to a minimum of a bachelor’s degree.
- Start (if you haven’t already) obeying the law and being an honest, moral, and trustworthy person.
- Work on your personal maturity. An education develops your knowledge and intelligence; now work on and develop your emotional and relational competencies and the ability to work with all kinds of people.
- Learn how to serve others. Be active in community volunteer work. Develop a curriculum of service as well as job experience.
- Be committed to lifelong personal and professional improvement. Be able to know who you are and where you are going.
- An added benefit would be to achieve competency in one of the traditional Asian martial arts – karate, taekwondo, judo, etc. so that you are familiar with physical interaction.
- Remember, police work is a calling, not just a job. It is a calling which is committed to assuring that our Constitution protects everyone and our way of life is worth preserving. For more advice, you can also read my book “Arrested Development,” which says it all, available at https://www.amazon.com/Arrested-Development-Veteran-Corruption-Necessary/dp/1470102560.
Military experience is extremely valuable. Active Military and or reserves is helpful.
Last, but not least, many states allow you to go through a certified police academy without being a police officer. Getting the academy certification before applying for a police department gives you a huge leg up on the competition.
-Chief Brian Miller retired from the Hammond Police Department in 2014.
Al Nienhuis, Hernando County Florida Sheriff, and Command Staff:
Here are some bullet points that could guide the potential law enforcement professional:
- Avoid situations that can result in an unplanned and unexpected law enforcement contact (avoid visits to popular establishments known to have physical disturbances or drugs, avoid relationships with individuals of questionable character, avoid domestic interactions that are volatile, etc.).
- If considering a tattoo, piercing, or other body modification, realize that, depending on location and content, it could be disqualifying or may negatively impact ranking when compared to other applicants.
- Be extremely cognizant of online and social media activity, realizing it can be misconstrued as offensive, and always assuming it will be retrievable for eternity.
- Be extremely conservative with finances and credit.
- Seek Explorer, ride-along, and/or other volunteer opportunities to learn more about the career and to become better known at a prospective employer.
- Focus on establishing a positive, stable work history prior to applying to a law enforcement agency.
- Be as thorough and honest as possible on the application.
- Be patient, humble, and flexible during the application and hiring process-maintain a positive and appreciative attitude.
Lieutenant Andy Jashinske, Bellevue Police Department
“As early in life as possible, focus on your character and education. Police officers must possess impeccable integrity and honesty. They must also have excellent reading, writing, communication, and critical thinking skills. Finally, do not forget physical fitness. Police officers must have the physical abilities to fight off someone to protect themselves, but also the academic abilities to articulate their actions in a police report and on the witness stand.
Consider continuing your education by obtaining a degree. Most police departments will not hire an officer under 21 years of age. You have a few years after high school to pursue a degree until you are old enough to apply. During that time, gain work experience. While you may not be working your dream job, this is the time to prove that you can stick with and be successful in the workforce. Give your 100 percent for those jobs as well.
Stay away from drugs, even marijuana that is legal in some states. Our state guidelines currently do not allow someone into the academy within two years of using marijuana, even legally. Do not abuse alcohol. Pay your bills to make sure you have strong credit. Keep in mind that anything you volunteer to the social media world will be reviewed, not only in your background investigation but also by a defense attorney someday.
Attend a local citizens police academy. Ride along with police agencies in which you are interested in employment. Make sure you understand that the job is not all the action that you would find on reality television shows. While having contact with police officers through those activities, as them questions about the testing, the interview process, and of their opinions of the department.
Test at the agency or agencies in which you are interested in working. Understand that this is a time-consuming process. Be completely open and honest throughout the entire process. Understand that police agencies are not looking for perfect people, but people who own, learn from, and are honest about their mistakes or poor choices.
Once you are hired, keep a positive attitude and accept critical criticism. Never take this career for granted. We are honored and blessed to be entrusted by the public to uphold the law, as well as protect and serve the community.”
“As social media has become more ubiquitous, it has become increasingly important that officers know that everything they say or do, in public or online, reflects on themselves and their work. Yes, we all have our right to express ourselves, but in a world where nothing truly disappears, you need to be very mindful of your online and real-life behavior. This also means officers need to know that in a frontline job like this, there will be plenty of criticism, some directed at them specifically, and a lot at their department, overall. You have to be ready for that. It cannot affect how you interact with the community you serve. But, you also shouldn’t ignore it – it can provide valuable insights into the feelings and priorities of your community.
Policing is an amazing profession. Every day you will have both uplifting and heart-wrenching moments. All of these emotions and experiences can weigh on you. Between shift work, stress, and this rollercoaster of emotions, you need to prepare yourself with a set of tools to manage it all. This includes relying on the members of your squad, maintaining friendships with people who are not in policing, staying physically AND mentally fit, and knowing it is ok, and now even expected, to get professional help.”