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How to become a police officer: A cop’s guide

A veteran officer breaks down the rigorous process to land the job — do you have what it takes?

Police officer in patrol car on duty

How hard is it to become a police officer? It’s one of the most rigorous and trying experiences a person can have — but for the right person, completely worth it.

AP Photo/Martha Irvine

If you’re reading this, it’s because you aspire to be a police officer.

You’re drawn to the adventure and even the risk of policing and want to know more. You want to know where the police units are going when their red-and-blue lights are flashing and the sirens screaming. You want to know what’s going on behind the yellow crime scene tape.

You’ve kept yourself physically fit and feel like you’re ready to make a solid contribution to your community.

[Think you have what it takes to be a cop? Download a veteran police officer’s list of the 10 questions you need to ask yourself first by filling out the form on this page.]

One of the first things you need to know is that becoming a police officer today is perhaps one of the most rigorous and trying experiences a person can have. In the old days, it wasn’t unusual for someone to be hired, given a gun and a badge and then told, “OK, you’re hired. Start tonight at midnight!” Not so today.

Here are some other things you need to consider if you’d like to pursue this challenging — and rewarding — career.

What are the job requirements?

While specific requirements can vary from state to state and even agency to agency, most departments look for these minimum qualifications in their applicant pools:

  • The applicant is a citizen of the United States.
  • The applicant is at least 18-years-old (though most departments require cadets to be 21 by the time they graduate the academy).
  • The applicant is a high school graduate or has obtained a GED. (Applicants with college degrees, however, “seem to have a leg up on the competition,” says Policing Matters podcast host Jim Dudley. Some departments even require them, especially when it comes to promotions down the line.)
  • The applicant has a valid driver’s license.

What is the hiring process?

There are some barriers to employment in public safety that do not apply to most ordinary careers. You should be aware that the application, selection and appointment process may take four to six months to complete, and in some circumstances, up to a year.

After a relatively simple initial application process, a promising candidate must successfully complete the following:

1. Take a written test.

2. Pass a physical agility test.

3. Sit for an oral board interview.

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4. Pass a background evaluation.

The pre-employment background check will look at a number of things, including criminal record, credit history, military record, current and previous employment history and references.

While there are certain infractions that automatically disqualify candidates, including all felony convictions as well as misdemeanors that prohibit the possession of a firearm, such as those involving domestic violence, agencies may be willing to work with you if you’ve demonstrated a clean record in the years leading up to your application. For example, the city of Durham, North Carolina, will consider applicants with a DUI conviction more than five years prior to application; class A and class B misdemeanors may also be permissible if they likewise occurred more than five years prior.

Dishonorable discharge from the military, however, is another automatic disqualifier, as is a flagrant history of financial irresponsibility as demonstrated through a candidate’s credit report.

Now more than ever, agencies put candidates through a lengthy process of background assessments. The goal is to weed out not just candidates with the above infractions on their records, but also those with more subtle disqualifying characteristics, like the appearance of racial bias.

5. Undergo additional screening after receiving a conditional offer of employment.

Candidates who pass muster then undergo a thorough medical screening, psychological exam, polygraph test and drug screening.

What about the police academy?

If you get past all that, you then get to go through an exhausting physical and mental challenge known as the police academy. It should be noted that some agencies will require completion of an approved police academy course before applying for open positions, so be sure to check with the specific departments you’re interested in; almost all large agencies, like the NYPD, will require completion of their own in-house program once a conditional offer of employment has been accepted.

And yes, you have to complete a police academy prior to becoming a cop, even if you already have a college degree in a criminal justice-related field. While there is no standardized curriculum for police academies nationwide, you can expect an average of 833 hours of classroom instruction, which will take just shy of five months to complete.

After that, you’ll enter a tough on-the-job training program with a field training officer, after which you can expect to be on probation as a rookie officer for at least a year – in some places, up to two.

How can I prepare myself to be a strong candidate?

In addition to obtaining a college degree, and of course, staying out of trouble, future applicants can help themselves out in various ways. A Policing Matters podcast on the subject offered the following advice.

For starters, says former Police1 Editor-in-Chief Doug Wyllie, “volunteer in your community. Do things where you have responsibility, visible responsibility, and get out there and start cultivating your capability to be a public servant.”

Young people should also consider sports, not only because “healthy cops are good cops, but furthermore, you’re going to learn team building.”

“I’m a big fan of scouting” as well, he said. “It teaches you structure, it teaches you working through a rank system. It teaches you service.”

Youth explorer programs are also great places to start.

And perhaps most importantly, says Wyllie, “talk to cops, talk to police officers, ask them what the job is about.”

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

How much money will I make?

Police salaries vary between locations and governmental agencies, but overall pay is generally average to slightly above average than it is for most jobs in the U.S. Police1 publishes a regularly updated guide to police salaries that explains the ranges in pay between agency types, how overtime and promotions impact salary, and more.

Ready to get started? Download a veteran police officer’s list of the 10 questions you need to ask yourself before beginning a career in law enforcement by filling out the form below.

Welcome aboard

We hope you’ll join one of the most challenging careers of all and join us in our mission to protect and serve our communities. By reading this guide, you’re one step closer. Good luck!

This article, originally published March 8, 2016, has been updated.

Rick Michelson’s 30 years of experience in law enforcement started with the San Diego Police Department where he served as a patrol, SWAT and FTO sergeant. He also served as interim chief, lieutenant and sergeant with two university and college police departments. He has taught at the graduate and undergraduate levels.

As director of KSA Ltd., (Knowledge, Skills & Abilities), he provides leadership development training workshops, using assessment centers methods, for officers who are preparing for supervisory and management positions. He is also the author of “Assessment Centers for Public Safety.” He has a bachelor’s degree from Chapman University and a master’s degree in public administration from National University. He was also a Ph.D. candidate for the Union Institute and University.