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 elements are all important in police officer training—but they are only one part 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’d see in many careers. While it’s true these standards and evaluation process may vary a little depending on the state, county, city or town you want to work for, there are a few steps that all would-be police officers can expect to take. If you’re not familiar with the steps, this can be a complicated process to understand. But once you get going, police academies and education programs will help you navigate some of the requirements.
The steps to becoming a police officer
Before you commit to becoming a police officer, it helps to know ahead of time what’s coming—so let’s dive right in.
Step 1: Background checks
At the beginning of the application process, law enforcement agencies will conduct a number of checks into an applicant’s background, including criminal history and even credit history.
While a background check isn’t literally the first step, it is the first one you’ll need to consider before you get too far along. If you have concerns about how your background check or credit history might impact your candidacy, you’ll want to ask 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 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. 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.
Step 2: Degree or academy training
The requirements for this step will vary substantially depending on the state in which you’d like to work as a police officer. Many states do not require their officers to be college-educated, even if they may prefer it. Some states, like Minnesota, do require an Associate’s degree or equivalent training to be eligible.
Generally speaking, the training process for would-be police officers follows two routes:
- Complete 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.
The options can differ depending on your state, so be sure to check with the agency that sets standards for police officer training and licensure in your area. Some states 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 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 college 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 says. “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.
Step 3: Police licensing board
You’d think after all those steps you’d be ready to take the oath and begin serving your community, but every candidate must pass this exam if they wish to become a police officer.
Your training program—whether it’s through a police academy, college or university—will give you the necessary requirements to take the POST 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 seek employment with a police department.
Step 4: Psychological evaluation
That’s not quite the end of the road, however. Prior to starting a law enforcement role, police departments and agencies will likely evaluate recruits for psychological stability and mental fitness. These psych tests vary, but will likely 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 booze and [that the candidate] generally enjoys a positive outlook on life.”
“The best advice is just to be honest when answering,” Shetler says. Once again, it’s smartest to play by the rules.
Step 5: Continuing education & career advancement
Once you have officially become a police officer, you will still have plenty to learn. Nothing beats work experience to show you all of the specialized areas police officers might want or need to learn more about. Consider for a moment all of the potential crimes in the legal system and all the skill sets to which law enforcement professionals would need to know how to respond—and you’ll have an idea of just how much an officer could learn.
Many of these ongoing training areas will be mandated by your police department based on federal regulation and local needs. Departments might also incentivize other education opportunities to encourage their officers forward. Police training is a consistent part of the job.
To give an idea of what’s available, Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers (FLECT) offer courses in a huge array of relevant specialized skills for police officers. You can find everything from Active Shooter Response training to Seized Computer Evidence Recovery—from International Banking and Money Laundering to Digital Photography for Law Enforcement.
Some of these areas are even connected to different job titles. Learn more about some of the different types of police officers to get a better idea of what’s out there.
Is becoming a police officer the right path for you?
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 also help you navigate the process.
But as you can probably imagine, a career as a police officer isn’t for everyone. It’s well worth your time to evaluate your aptitude for the job before you start pursuing enrollment in a Law Enforcement program.
If you think you’ve got what it takes, check out our article, “8 Often Overlooked Qualities You Need to Be a Great Police Officer,” to see how you stack up.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in June 2016. It has since been updated. Quotes from Shetler and Plantinga remain from the original.