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How to Become a Police Officer in 5 Steps

Explore the career requirements for police officers. Get the facts about job duties, training requirements and job growth to determine if this is the right career for you.

What Is a Police Officer?

Local governments and state agencies employ police officers to protect the properties and lives of the public and to ensure public safety. Police officers are often caring, hard-working, physically fit individuals who enjoy working with people and making a difference in their communities. They work closely with the public to keep the community safe and generally work in assigned areas with other officers.

Degree Required High school diploma or equivalent; some college may be preferred by employers
Training Required Agency-sponsored police academy training
Education Field of Study Law enforcement; criminal justice
Key Responsibilities Enforce the law; provide emergency and non-emergency response to calls; make arrests and obtain warrants; complete police reports and testify in court
Job Growth (2018-2028) 5% (for all police and detectives)*
Median Salary (2018) $63,380 (for all police and detectives)*

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

What Does a Police Officer Do?

Police officer jobs involve pursuing and apprehending criminals, writing tickets, patrolling precincts, taking calls of an emergent and non-emergent nature, ensuring that the law is appropriately followed, appearing in court and using computers to search specific police records. They also maintain reports about all of their on-the-job activities. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), police officers can specialize in certain fields or units, such as firearms training, motorcycle patrol and emergency response (www.bls.gov).

Step 1: Finish High School

A high school diploma is the minimum educational prerequisite to become a police officer. The College Board, an organization that connects students with educational opportunities, suggests that future law enforcement officers take classes in math, science and psychology while in high school (www.collegeboard.com). The physical aspects of the occupation may be demanding, so you're encouraged to take physical fitness courses in high school to maintain a healthy physique for the police academy and beyond.

Step 2: Take College Courses

Although a college degree isn't always required to become an officer, police units may prefer their new recruits to take 1-2 years of college courses, such as those found in criminal justice or law enforcement programs. A bachelor's degree is required if you want to work for a federal police agency. Associate's and bachelor's degree programs in law enforcement and criminal justice prepare potential officers for the job with coursework in criminal law, forensics and criminal behavior.

Step 3: Pass the Civil Service Exam

Before being hired as a police officer, you need to successfully complete a civil service exam administered by local agencies. The process involves physical tests, including sight, hearing and strength. These aspects are all attributes that police officers use on the job. You'll also take a written examination, which tests your observation, reasoning and judgment skills, among others.

Step 4: Graduate from a Police Academy

Once you're hired, you'll most likely be enrolled in a police academy to acquire the necessary training. Academies train prospective policemen in all the essentials, such as traffic control, firearm use, constitutional law and first aid. Police academy training may take between 12-14 weeks to complete. You'll probably need to undergo a medical examination and background check to be considered.

Step 5: Advance Your Career

You will start your career as a uniformed officer. You may be eligible for promotion after a probationary period of six months to three years, per the BLS. You may advance your career through additional training in self-defense, crowd-control techniques and law enforcement technology. With enough experience, you could become a detective.

What Are Some Related Alternative Careers?

If you would like a job similar to that of a police officer, consider becoming a correctional officer or bailiff. As a correctional officer, you will be required to work in jail or prison settings monitoring incarcerated individuals. As a bailiff, you will work primarily in a courtroom setting, helping to keep order over the proceedings. In both of these occupations, you will also need to go through a training program similar to the police academy. Another possible occupation is a firefighter. Firefighters are generally required to have the same education level as police officers, although it is often necessary for them to take courses beyond high school. Firefighters also receive similar training during which they will participate in academies that are offered by the agency in which they intend to work.