How to Become a Police Officer: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to Become a Police Officer: A Step-by-Step Guide

There are plenty of Hollywood movies out there that detail the rigorous physical training police officers endure on the way to earning their badges. These movies glorify the obstacle courses, shooting ranges and scenario training that is part of every department, but there are many things that have to happen before you get to the academy.

Becoming a police officer is one of those things that differs depending on the state, county, city or town you want to work for. It can be an incredibly long and complex process which is why we’ve enlisted the help of some experienced police officers to provide a step-by-step guide for your reference.

The steps to becoming a police officer

Step 1: credit check

At the beginning of the application process, law enforcement agencies will conduct a number of checks into an applicant’s background, in many cases this includes a credit check.  

Your credit history may be analyzed because it gives potential employers an idea of your level of responsibility.  A credit check can also give the agency or department a feel for whether or not an applicant might be susceptible to bribery or blackmail. This is sometimes the first step in the application process.

Step 2: background check

In addition to completing a credit check, applicants will have to endure a thorough background check and complete a lengthy application packet. Departments will check an applicant’s history of criminal activity, employment, residency and academic records.

“Basically, the police department is going to get deep into your business,” says Adam Plantinga, author of 400 Things Cops Know and police sergeant in 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. Basically, departments are looking for responsible people who play by the rules.”

Plantinga also encourages applicants to warn their friends, family, neighbors and former roommates and teachers, because they’ll likely be contacted as character references.  

Step 3: criminal history

As you can imagine, law enforcement agencies will be very interested in the criminal histories of their applicants. 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) won’t. Juvenile offenses are looked at more kindly than adult transgressions, because we were all knuckleheads as kids.”

Step 4: psych evaluation

Agencies need to make sure that you are psychologically stable and mentally fit to handle a job as a police officer. Because of this, becoming a cop requires a number of psychological tests. These psych tests 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; for indicators the candidate is not overly susceptible to stress and booze, and generally enjoys a positive outlook on life.”

“The best advice is just be honest when answering,” says Mike Shetler, former police officer and CEO of Shetler Security International.

Step 5: degree or academy training

Police officer candidates have two options to earn their badge: 1) attend a state- or city-sponsored academy; 2) earn a law enforcement certificate from a POST-certified college or university. This differs depending on the state so be sure to check which option is available to you.   

In both instances, your training will include classroom instruction in state and local laws and 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. It is the gateway you must pass through in order to become a police officer, just like doctors have to graduate from med school to lawfully practice medicine,” Plantinga says.

Though not always listed as a requirement, Shetler says an associate’s degree is a must, while a bachelor’s degree is the preferred academic credential.

Plantinga agrees: “I think a college degree is certainly beneficial. College teaches you to think critically. To see the big picture. To think of things in terms of systems. To write well. And writing well is 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. Plus, having an advanced degree can be helpful in obtaining a promotion.”

The 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.

Step 6: POST-certification

You’d think after all those steps you’d be ready to take the oath and begin serving your community, but there is one last step that every candidate must complete if they wish to become a police officer.

Regardless of whether you complete your training through a police academy or college program, both will give you the necessary requirements to take the POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training) exam. By passing this capstone exam, you are licensed to enforce the law as a police officer in your jurisdiction, and you are ready to begin your career.

Steps to success

“There is no more of a rewarding profession,” Shetler says. “Even with all the bad stories about the police [in the media] it is still a widely respected profession that most people get into for all the right reasons.”

While the list of steps to becoming a police officer may be lengthy, completing them is absolutely necessary if you want to achieve the fulfilling career you’ve set your sights on. But before you patrol a street or walk a beat, check out the qualities every police officer should have.


Aaron Lawrence

Aaron is a freelance writer for Collegis education who writes student-focused articles on behalf of Rasmussen College. His interest in writing articles for students stems from his passion for poetry and fiction and the belief that all words can educate.

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