Are you interested in a career in law enforcement? Police officers play an important role in maintaining law and order in communities all across the United States. They are often regarded as the front line of defense against crime and have a wide range of tasks and responsibilities. These include protecting the public, apprehending criminals, preventing crime, responding to traffic accidents, etc. Policemen themselves have to be upstanding citizens and must undergo intensive training to ensure that they can meet the demands of the job.Law enforcement can be a rewarding profession. Read on to find out more.

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Process to Become a Police Officer

The essential role of a police officer is to uphold and enforce the law (local, State, and Federal) to protect citizens and their property. One of their primary tasks is to prevent crime so as to preserve the health and safety of a community and its inhabitants. Furthermore, there are a number of different specialties within the police force and they have differing roles that vary according to their area of specialization.   Generally however, police officers are involved in carrying out a large number of tasks which include:

  • Enforcement of traffic and safety laws
  • Investigation of accidents and crimes
  • Arresting those involved in or suspected of criminal behavior
  • Taking statements from witnesses and gathering crime related evidence
  • Conducting traffic
  • Public relations
  • First response in case of emergencies, traffic accidents, etc.
  • Preparing cases for court
  • Carrying out a service of court process such as warrants

How Long Does It take to become a police officer:

It takes approximately 6 months or 960 hours to complete police academy training. The Memphis Police Department Training Academy typically takes 22 weeks, or 880 hours, to complete. All in all, it may take as long as 2-years to become a police officer, including both pre-employment and training processes.

Is a career as a police officer really for me?

If you’re thinking about the field of law enforcement there are a couple things you may want to consider. The work life of a police officer can be particularly grueling with long hours and so the job requires a great deal of physical and mental strength. This particular line of work may also place officers in difficult, unpleasant, or dangerous situations in which their safety or their lives may be at risk.

Pros and Cons of Becoming a Police Officer

Like any job, being a police officer has its perks and its drawbacks. Pursuing a career in law enforcement is a reasonable commitment and requires a high level of dedication. Those who genuinely want to serve and protect must know that it is important to consider all aspects of the job before deciding to pursue a career as a police officer. You will be expected to go through extensive and ongoing training and will be facing dangerous situations in this line of work.

Below are a number of points which can help you gain a better understanding of what to consider when making this decision:

  • Salary which is above the median income.
  • Benefits medical and dental coverage, paid leave, holiday bonuses, pension plans, allowances, insurance, etc.
  • Field of law enforcement is generally stable which leads to higher job security.
  • Early retirement opportunities.
  • Long shifts with irregular hours
  • Dangerous and difficult working conditions.
  • Stressful work environment.
  • Physically demanding.
  • Extensive travel and relocation requirements (at State or Federal level).

Common skills required

As an aspiring police officer, the following skills and character traits are considered helpful and sometimes essential:

  • Good interpersonal skills
  • Leadership
  • People skills
  • Communication
  • Physical strength
  • Stamina
  • Ability to work in teams
  • Ability to cope with stress and stressful situations
  • Strong work ethic
  • Respect for authority
  • Compassion and Patience

Steps to Becoming a Police Officer:

  1. Education Requirements and Qualifications

It is generally accepted that the minimum entry requirements for admission into a police academy is a high school diploma. In some cases a G.E.D may be accepted as a substitute. It is important for candidates to be able to demonstrate that they have the ability to comprehend, apply, and utilize knowledge learned.

Although not a stringent requirement, an undergraduate or associate’s degree could be a bonus. Courses may be taken in areas such as criminology, law enforcement, or a related discipline.

Entry into the police force is highly competitive. One of the key advantages of pursuing a higher education is that it has the potential of giving you an edge with prospective employers. Furthermore, an associate’s degree in, for example, criminal justice, serves to introduce individuals to a host of knowledge and practical skills that may be very useful in the line of duty as a police officer. These include an introduction to basic criminal law practices, investigation techniques, how to document crimes properly, crisis management, etc. Such a degree will also be useful if you intend to become a detective, seek out an administrative position, or wish to work at the federal level.

Even if you decide not to pursue higher education, it is highly recommended that you gain some real world experience prior to applying for a job at the police academy. As entry into the profession is highly competitive, job experience can give candidates an edge when being considered. Jobs that require interaction with the public will increase your communication, people, teamwork and problem-solving skills.

In addition, experience in the military is highly valued. The mental and physical challenges that life in the military present are important in preparing individuals for the demands of a job as an officer.

Aside from educational work experience requirements, there are a few other important qualifications that need to be satisfied prior to applying for a job as a police officer.

Candidates must:

  • Be at least 21 years of age
  • Be a citizen of the United States of America
  • Have no prior criminal record
  • *Some agencies may require that candidates to be able to speak a second language (i.e. Spanish).
  1. Law Enforcement Entrance Exam

Prior to being accepted into a police academy and the commencement of training, candidates are required to pass a series of examinations. These are known as postsecondary placement tests and they are intended to help institutions gauge whether candidates have the required basic skill-set (reading, comprehension, problem-solving, etc.) to get into the police academy. The two most common types of tests which may be taken by candidates are ASSET or COMPASS.

In addition to the test, it is common for candidates to go through a number of (or all) of the following tests:

Physical Assessment

Physical fitness is a very important requirement in the course of active duty. In addition to the strenuous tasks that are carried out during the job, candidates are encouraged to engage in physical activity as it is helpful in reducing stress levels. The physical assessment may involve sprints, pull-ups, and obstacle course training. According to their age and gender, candidates are required to be able to perform up to a particular level. This assessment is designed to determine whether candidates can cope with the rigors of the training which take place at the police academy.

Psychological test

It is important to determine whether individuals will be able to cope with stress which is considered part and parcel of the job. Psychological tests help determine whether the candidate has impulse control, general intelligence (common sense), honesty, dependability and the ability to tolerate stress.

Polygraph test

This test is conducted to determine how honest potential candidates are. They are also helpful in determining whether candidates have any other character traits which may be considered undesirable, such as withholding certain types of information.

Clear a Physical

Candidates must be healthy enough to carry out common tasks required of police officers. A medical assessment is carried out to determine whether your vital organs, such as your heart and lungs, are up to handling the strenuous demands of the job. You must also have corrected 20/20 vision.

Background Check

All police agencies carry out background checks on prospective candidates in order to ensure that they are model citizens and display high moral and ethical characters. This is so because police officers, as public servants, are held up to a very high standard and so it is important for candidates to be capable of being held to those standards. It’s also a way for agencies to determine whether candidates are suitable for the job.

  1. Training at the Police Academy

If you are selected, the next step is training at the police academy. At this stage, individuals can expect a rigorous regime of training (both physical and academic) which lasts around 3 to 4 months.  Each state has its own requirements for police academies and as such, police academies may offer different courses and training periods may differ slightly.

Physical training is undertaken in the following areas:

  • The use of firearms.
  • Defensive tactics including how to apprehend criminals – learning how to use handcuffs, pepper spray, batons, Tasers, etc.
  • Self defense
  • Weight training
  • Regular running to increase stamina
  • Emergency Vehicle Operations Course (EVOC)– this teaches officers how to drive effectively and safely.
  • Traffic control
  • First-aid training

Academic training includes:

  • Learning how to write police reports
  • Introduction to important laws and legal concepts
  • Hostage negotiation
  • Civil rights
  • Criminal psychology
  • Investigation techniques
  • Spanish – if the academy is situated in an area with a large Spanish speaking population
  • Ethics – this is an important course in the training program and is provided in order to minimize the risk of officers incurring lawsuits which allege anything from racial profiling to excessive use of force. These courses are also intended to provide training in order to help officers make better decisions under pressure.
  1. In the Field Training

Upon graduation, newly appointed police officers must log a certain amount of hours of experience in the field with a senior police officer. For the first few months, rookie officers are required to observe a day in the life of trained officers. This allows them to get an idea for what the job requires. They also get the chance to apply what they’ve learned at the academy. The senior officer that they’re paired with gives them tasks and responsibilities to carry out and evaluates how well they handle the work.

Areas of Specialization

Once you’ve passed all the required exams and training, you may choose an area of specialization in which you’d like to work. Duties and responsibilities will vary according to your chosen specialization and you may be required to undergo some additional training relevant to your specialization.

Common specializations include:

  • Firearms instruction
  • Fingerprint identification
  • Canine unit
  • Chemical analysis
  • Special Weapons and Tactics team (SWAT)
  • Detectives

Potential Employers

Police officers may be employed at the local, state, or federal level. Their duties and responsibilities will vary according to their level of employment and their employer. In addition, salaries, benefits, travel requirements, job responsibilities and career advancement opportunities may differ at each level. Relocation is quite common at both State and Federal level, and jobs may require individuals to do a fair amount of travelling.

  1. Local:

Local law enforcement agencies oversee the protection of a particular locale or county. At this level, police officers are expected to protect the citizens and uphold the law in that particular jurisdiction.

  1. State:

The State employs officers at this level to carry out law enforcement duties statewide. Officers may be hired as highway patrol officers whose main responsibility is to enforce regulations on major highways in the state. State police officers have wider investigative powers given to them by their agency, commonly the State Bureau of Investigation. These officers may also be called upon to conduct investigations and law enforcement services in smaller towns in the state.

  1. Federal:

The scope of jobs at this level is typically wider than at the State or local level as they have jurisdiction over the entire country. Additionally, the jobs may either have investigative or safety and security responsibilities. Federal officials can also expect to have a higher salary. There are over 65 agencies at the federal level that employ full time personnel authorized to carry out law enforcement duties.

Some of these agencies include:

  • The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • S. Customs and Border Protection
  • S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
  • S. marshals and deputy marshals

Career Advancement Opportunities

After the successful completion of a probation period, it is possible to become eligible for promotion. There are a number of ranks of officers that candidates can aspire to be promoted.

  • Detective
  • Sheriff
  • Chief of police
  • Police commissioner
  • Sergeant
  • Lieutenant
  • Corporal

In order to be eligible for a promotion, candidates are usually required to take exams and log a certain amount of hours on duty. Additionally, the candidate’s job performance is monitored and evaluated.  Requirements may differ for the position the candidate is applying for. At federal level, having a graduate degree and or prior military experience could increase the chances of promotion.

Related Careers

The following careers share a number of similar duties and responsibilities with those of a police officer and may be considered as viable career options:

  • Immigration and customs inspectors
  • Criminal investigators and special agents
  • Bailiffs
  • Correctional officers
  • Wildlife and conservation
  • Marine patrol
  • Fish and game wardens
  • Security guards
  • Forensics

Salary and Outlook

According to data provided by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), police officers and detectives earned a median average salary of $56,980 per year in 2012. For those who advance in their careers, data shows that the top 10 percent earned more than $93,450.

Employment in this field is expected to grow at a rate of 5% between 2012 and 2022. This is a slower than the average rate when compared to other professions. Due to the importance of public safety however, there will always be demand for police officers. It is essential to keep in mind that fewer jobs mean tougher competition. For this reason, it is highly recommended that you pursue a college degree or undertake military experience which may increase your job prospects and give you an edge over competitors.

There are also other factors which influence your salary. For instance, salaries will differ according to whether you’re employed at the local, State, or Federal level. Your rank will also be an important factor in determining your salary. Those areas with larger populations or higher crime rates may also offer higher salaries due to the work load. This can be seen from data provided by BLS:

Top paying States for this occupation:

State Employment Employment per thousand jobs Hourly mean wage Annual mean wage
New Jersey 21,130 5.53 $42.41 $88,220
California 68,340 4.64 $41.37 $86,040
Alaska 1,100 3.40 $35.57 $73,990
New York 50,390 5.84 $33.98 $70,670
Washington 8,160 2.89 $33.96 $70,640
Texas 56,890 5.21 $25.50 $53,030

To conclude, becoming a police officer involves a number of years of mental and physical training. It’s a profession that can be demanding and should be pursued by those dedicated to protect and serve. A career in law enforcement can also be very rewarding and comes with a number of benefits. Those interested in following this should consider all the options carefully and accordingly chart their course to becoming a police officer.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Q: What are some of the tasks that police officers are required to do?

Ans: Police officers are required to uphold and enforce the law, and protect citizens and their property. In the course of their duties, they are required to carry out a large number of tasks. Some of those tasks include conducting traffic, investigating crimes and accidents, gathering evidence, taking statements from witnesses, acting as a first response in the event of an emergency, and serving warrants.


Q: How do I know if becoming a police officer is really for me?

Ans: Before applying to become a police officer, there are a few things that you should carefully consider. Law enforcement is a tough profession. The hours are long and irregular, and the work requires a huge amount of physical and mental strength. Sometimes you’ll find yourself in dangerous, unpleasant, or difficult situations in which the lives and safety of other people will be at risk. If these conditions are too stressful for you, law enforcement may not be the career for you. If, however, you feel like you can handle the rigors of police work, than becoming a police officer may be for you.