So you want to become a cop: What you need to know

Becoming a police officer requires passing numerous mental and physical tests — do you have what it takes?

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.

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.
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)

[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.]

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 requirements to become a police officer?

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 of age (though most departments require cadets to be 21 by the time they graduate the academy; more on that later).
  • 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 about disqualifiers?

A common question people have when it comes to applying for a career in law enforcement is, "Can I become a police officer with a criminal record?" And the answer, like most things in life, is that it depends.

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.

How long does it take to become a police officer?

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, as Officer Beau Babka explains in the video below.

Now more than ever, agencies put candidates through a lengthy process of 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.

Hiring process

After a relatively simple initial application process, a promising candidate is given a written test, a physical agility test and an oral interview or two. Then there’s the background check, including interviews with your former friends, roommates, schoolmates, teachers, bosses, co-workers, etc. Candidates who pass muster then undergo a thorough medical and psychological exam and usually a polygraph test.

If you get past all that, you then get to go through an exhausting physical and mental challenge known as the police academy.

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 840 hours of classroom instruction, which will take just shy of five months to complete.

[Learn more: Graduating with Honors: Mastering the Police Academy]

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 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.

how can i prepare myself to be a strong police candidate?

In addition to obtaining a college degree, and of course staying out of trouble, future applicants can help themselves out in various ways. Jim Dudley perhaps said it best during a podcast on the subject, so I'll let him explain.

For starters, he says, "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 Dudley, "talk to cops, talk to police officers, ask them what the job is about." 

[Dive deeper: 10 things teens who want to be cops can do to start on the right path]

additional resources

While every state has similar credentialing agencies, the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) has a great resource called Discover Policing. This is a great resource for applicants, which also includes a link that allows you to search for entry-level requirements by each state. 

Peace Officers Standards and Training, or POST, is the term used for most state agencies that regulate law enforcement hiring and training. For example, in California, for specific questions about the California Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training requirements for entry-level police officers, you may want to visit the California POST website. Police1 has also published more in-depth information on becoming a police officer in California.

Another California resource is the Public Safety Career Information Center, which includes videos and testimonials from police officers, forensic personnel (crime scene investigators), corrections officers, firefighters and EMTs/paramedics.

If you’re interested in becoming a state trooper, the Directory of State Patrol and State Police is a great resource for getting started.

If you hold a college degree, you may want to consider a career in federal law enforcement. These include the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Secret Service, U.S. Marshals, Drug Enforcement Agency and the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, as well as Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Border Patrol

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 2016, has been updated.

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