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10 things teens who want to be cops can do to start on the right path

Above all else, remember that if at first you don’t succeed, try again — harder

Police officer speaking with kids during after-school program

Erie Bureau of Police Sgt. Tom Lenox talks with students during a Police Athletic League after-school program. Speaking with police officers is one of the best things you can do to prepare yourself for a future career in law enforcement.

Greg Wohlford/Erie Times-News

Police1 received an inquiry from a 14-year-old girl who wants to know what she needs to do — now and throughout her matriculation in school — to put herself in a good position to enter the law enforcement profession. It’s heartening to know that there are young people out there who admire and aspire to be cops, so we promptly responded to her inquiry.

Doing so served as an impetus for us to create a basic document that officers and administrators can use when they receive similar questions from kids in jurisdictions across the United States. The future of law enforcement will largely depend on how well we do in cultivating and recruiting the next generation of cops.

Here’s a short list of things that you can tell young people in your area to consider when planning for a law enforcement career. Add your own suggestions in the comments area below.

1. Work Hard at Your Academics

You don’t necessarily have to be a straight-A student (although that doesn’t hurt), but you must get good grades in order to get into a good school, because agencies are increasingly looking for applicants with at a least two-year (and preferably four-year) degree.

2. Keep Out of Trouble in School

Getting sent to the principal’s office is not a good start to a police officer’s career. Be respectful of teachers and fellow students and set an example for your peers by modeling good behavior. Not only will this put you in very good stead with the teachers and administrators, but the self-esteem value of being “the good kid” is immeasurable. Kids who behave badly tend to accumulate negative self-esteem.

3. Stay Out of Trouble After School

At the risk of overstating the obvious, being the subject of a police investigation is also not a good way to start a law enforcement career. Don’t commit dopey acts — even completely legal ones — that would raise negative attention of a police officer.

Don’t get involved in drugs. Keep in mind that underage drinking is against the law, so if you go to a party where alcohol is being served, you’d be making a bad career choice to partake. Also, even in states where marijuana has been deemed “legal” for medical use, an aspiring officer should refrain.

4. Volunteer in Your Community

Police officers are community servants, and people making hiring decisions at most agencies are looking for an individual’s history of community service. If there’s a municipal recreation center, a Boys and Girls Club, or a YMCA in need of volunteers to watch the younger kids, make time to do it. If there’s an organization that helps the local elderly population with food delivery or other assistance, plug into it and donate your time on a regular basis.

Not only does this kind of volunteer work look good on a young person’s resume, it has practical implications as well. The more often you have interpersonal contact with people in your community, the more you will learn about how to deal effectively with people.

5. Participate in Sports

First and foremost, sporting endeavors will help keep you in good physical condition, something that should become a lifelong habit for future police officers. Further, team sports are important for understanding how to work together with others, including others with whom you may not see eye-to-eye. Finally, individual sports (especially martial arts), prepare you to work things out on your own, something cops do on a daily basis.

6. Participate in Scouting

Boy Scouts of America and Girl Scouts of the USA are wonderful training grounds for the would-be cop. Both impart on their members a great sense of duty to others, and both have merit-based systems which prepare kids for the way in which police agencies operate.

7. Enroll in a Citizens Academy

If the police department in your city or town offers any sort of civilian training, take them up on it. If no such academy exists, ask your local department if there is another agency nearby that would allow you to attend their citizens’ academy.

8. Talk to Police Officers

If you have a school resource officer in your school, this should be one of the first people you approach to ask about what it’s like to be a cop. Beyond that, you can write a note to the chief of police in your town, and ask if you could meet with some officers at the station to ask them questions, and get some firsthand knowledge of what they do. If the agency in your jurisdiction offers ridealongs to kids your age, that’s another great learning experience.

9. Read Law Enforcement Resources

Nowadays, there is very little — perhaps nothing — that cannot be researched extensively with just a few keystrokes and an Internet connection. In addition to Police1 — the leading online resource for law enforcers, and probably also for aspiring officers — there are myriad websites with quality information about doing the job. Oh, and don’t forget that you can borrow books on law enforcement from the library.

10. Believe in Yourself and Don’t Give Up!

The selection process to become a police officer is among the most rigorous there is for any career. It is not uncommon for an aspiring police officer to falter at some point during their journey. You may have to apply to several academies in order to be selected.

Above all else, remember that if at first you don’t succeed, try again — harder, and with renewed commitment to achieve your goal of becoming one of America’s Finest.

Good luck, and stay safe out there.

Next: How to become a police cadet or explorer

This article, originally published June 2015, has been updated.

Doug Wyllie writes police training content on a wide range of topics and trends affecting the law enforcement community. Doug was a co-founder of the Policing Matters podcast and a longtime co-host of the program.