How to Become a Police Officer: Your Step-by-Step Guide
There are plenty of Hollywood movies out there that detail the rigorous physical training involved in becoming a cop. You might even be able to picture the obstacle courses, shooting ranges and tactical scenario training rooms. These are all important elements of police officer training—but they only make up one portion of the process.
Given the high level of responsibility and trust afforded to law enforcement, the standards for becoming a police officer are higher than what you’ll likely find in many careers. The specific standards and process will vary slightly based on the state, county or town you’re applying to work in, but there are a few universal requirements to become a police officer you should be familiar with.
If you’re wondering how to become a police officer, you’re in the right place. Keep reading for a high-level breakdown of the path to pursuing a career in law enforcement.
5 Steps to becoming a police officer
How long does it take to become a police officer and what requirements do you have to meet? The info below will give you a better idea of the path ahead.
1. Successfully pass a background check
You can expect any law enforcement agency you’re applying for to conduct a number of checks into your background, including criminal history and even credit history. While this isn’t literally the first step to becoming a police officer, it is the first one you’ll need to consider before you get too invested in the process. If you have concerns about how your background might impact your candidacy, you may want to consult a police academy admissions representative about it.
Your credit history may be analyzed because it gives potential employers an idea of your level of responsibility and potential problems like gambling-related debts. Police departments look into applicants’ history of criminal activity, employment, residency and academic records as well.
“Basically, the police department is going to get deep into your business,” says Adam Plantinga, author and 17-year veteran sergeant with the San Francisco Police Department. “Don’t leave anything out on your background packet. If you omit something, even inadvertently, and it comes to light, you will likely be eliminated as a candidate. Departments are looking for responsible people who play by the rules.”
Things like felonies and gross misdemeanors could disqualify you from becoming a police officer, but less serious offenses could also be problematic—it really depends on the department and its policies.
“A misdemeanor conviction, depending on what it’s for, won’t necessarily be a deal-breaker, but it certainly doesn’t look good,” Plantinga says. “Anything domestic violence-related will bounce you out of the process. A speeding ticket—or four in my case—probably won’t. Juvenile offenses are looked at more kindly than adult transgressions, because we were all knuckleheads as kids.”
Plantinga also encourages applicants to notify their references and teachers, because they’ll likely be contacted as character references.
2. Acquire a degree or academy training
The requirements for this step will vary substantially depending on the state in which you plan on becoming a police officer. Some states do not require their officers to be college-educated, even if they may prefer it. Other states, like Minnesota, an Associate’s degree or equivalent training is one of the requirements to become a police officer.
Generally speaking, the training process for aspiring police officers follows two routes:
- Completing training by earning a two- or four-year degree in Criminal Justice or similar field from a Peace Officer Standings and Training (POST)-certified college or university, or
- Completing training through a government-approved police academy or training program.
Since police officer requirements differ, you’ll want to be sure to check with the agency that sets the standards for law enforcement training and licensure in your area. Some also have arrangements for military reciprocity, allowing candidates who served in the military to follow a different process in acknowledgement of the training they already have.
Whichever path you take, your training will include classroom instruction in state and local laws, covering topics like constitutional law, civil rights and police ethics. Recruits also receive training and supervised experience in areas such as patrol, traffic control, firearm use, self-defense, first aid and emergency response.
“The police academy gives you the basic tools you need to become a functional police officer,” Plantinga says. “It is the gateway you must pass through in order to become a police officer, just like how doctors have to graduate from medical school to lawfully practice medicine.”
Though not always listed as a requirement, an Associate’s degree is definitely a plus, while a Bachelor’s degree would be ideal, says Mike Shetler, former police officer and CEO of Shetler Security International.
Plantinga agrees that a college degree is beneficial, stating that this training teaches you to think critically, see the big picture and to write well—a crucial skill in police work.
“A rule of thumb is that for every hour you spend investigating, you’ll spend two hours writing reports,” Plantinga offers. “Plus, having an advanced degree can be helpful in obtaining a promotion.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) also notes that applicants with previous law enforcement or military experience—and those who speak more than one language—will have greater opportunities to become police officers.
3. Pass the licensing exam
The next step to becoming a police officer is to earn a passing score on your state’s police licensing board exam. Your education and training will prepare you to take the Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) exam.
Each state has its own licensing board, so the tests will also vary. But generally speaking, most POST exams cover topics like: practical application and techniques, civil and criminal law, community policing, victims’ rights and management and communication. By passing this capstone exam, you are licensed to become a police officer and enforce the law in your jurisdiction. You are now free to seek employment with a police department.
4. Undergo psychological evaluation
Prior to becoming a police officer, law enforcement agencies will likely evaluate recruits for psychological stability and mental fitness. These psych tests vary, but generally include lengthy written exams and possibly a one-on-one interview with a psychologist. You may also be subjected to a polygraph test to cross-reference the answers provided in your application packet.
“[The polygraph and psych tests] are screening tools that look for signs of stability,” Plantinga explains. “[They look] for anger issues, indicators the candidate is not overly susceptible to stress and [that the candidate] generally enjoys a positive outlook on life.”
Shetler reiterates the importance of not hiding anything throughout this process. “The best advice is just to be honest when answering.”
5. Continuing education and career advancement
Once you have completed all of these steps to becoming a police officer, you will still have plenty to learn. Nothing beats on-the-job experience to show you all of the specialized areas police officers might want or need to learn more about. The best officers are never done learning.
Similar to other industries, officers must meet continuing education requirements in order to renew their license. For example, Minnesota police officer requirements mandate a minimum of 48 hours of continuing education within the three-year licensing period in order to maintain their license.
In addition, active officers are required to train annually in use of force and once every five years in emergency vehicle operations/pursuit driving. Specialized training may also be directed by your police department based on federal and local needs. Departments might also incentivize other education opportunities to encourage their officers forward. Additional training or credentials may be required for those looking to climb the police ranks.
Is becoming a police officer in your future?
While the steps to becoming a police officer may seem lengthy, completing them is absolutely necessary if you want to achieve the fulfilling career you’ve set your sights on. And a good law enforcement program will help you navigate the process.
Now that you’re familiar with the process of how to become a police officer, you may be curious if you have what it takes to excel on the job. Learn more in our article, “Often Overlooked Qualities of a Great Police Officer.”
If you’re already set on becoming a police officer, visit our Law Enforcement degree page to learn how we can help you take the next step toward becoming a police officer in Minnesota.
The Law Enforcement programs at Rasmussen College are not aligned to the standards of any professional licensing body other than the MN POST and are not intended to satisfy professional licensure requirements of any professional licensing agency in any other state.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2016. It has since been updated to include information relevant to 2020. Insight from Shetler and Plantinga remain from the original.