State your case: How young is too young to be a police officer?

California has raised the age of hire for law enforcement from 18 to 21. Our columnists debate whether age is an effective measure of a candidate's maturity


In September 2021, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 89, which raises the hiring age for police officers from 18 to 21 and establishes certain higher education requirements for employment. But is age an effective measure of a candidate's suitability for hire? Our experts debate this issue. Share your thoughts in the comment box below.

The ground rules: As in an actual debate, the pro and con sides are assigned randomly as an exercise in critical thinking and analyzing problems from different perspectives. 

Our debaters: Jim Dudley, a 32-year veteran of the San Francisco Police Department where he retired as deputy chief of the Patrol Bureau, and Chief Joel Shults, EdD, who retired as chief of police in Colorado.

Joel Shults: For those of us who must write about current events in law enforcement, reading about California's police reforms is a painful professional responsibility. Compare it to covering a natural disaster. One surprise to me was a bill that Governor Newsom signed that raised the age of hire for law enforcement from 18 to 21. I was aware that some jurisdictions allow police hiring at 18, but didn't know California was one of them. Even the Highway Patrol allowed hire at 20, but I'm presuming that the calculations were so that a cadet would be 21 at the end of training.

When I was a bright young man eaten up with the idea of wanting to be a cop, I found few opportunities before I reached my 21st birthday. An Army National Guard recruiter solved my problem by letting me know I could be an MP right now and signed me up! By the time I was 21 I had that military training and a 2-year college degree and before I reached 22, a shiny new badge for my first civilian police patrol position. 

After a Police1 article about a 2020 California proposal to raise the minimum age to 25, a survey of Police1 readers showed that nearly 30% of respondents agreed with the 25-year requirement. The majority were just fine with 21, and only 6% said 18 is acceptable. Even though I was a young'n when I started, I think I had some background that fewer of today's generation have.

Now before you start accusing me of being an old fart who walked five miles to school in knee-deep snow uphill both ways, it was a different era. For one thing, I grew up in a rural area where responsibilities were clear and self-discipline was necessary. Aside from possibly too much TV, I was not owned by any electronic devices. My relationships were personal, not virtual. I learned how to have conversations with adults. 

I do think we misinterpret the studies that seem to show that the human brain doesn't develop until the mid-20s. That's been a license for way too much extension of adolescence. But the reason all those neural connections are lacking is that the body and brain need to have a variety of learning experiences to develop. I think that is what is often lacking in today's young people. That is not a universal indictment on the coming generation at all, but anecdotal observations make this a concern. Getting life experience behind the badge is great, but maybe getting life experience as a civilian first is wiser. I think there is a good case for raising the age to become a police officer.

Jim Dudley: Maybe we need a Gen-Zer to join this debate to give their perspective on maturity levels today.  You and I are from the same Boomer generation and I agree with you, those were different times. I was living on my own at 18, attending community college and working full-time to support myself. As you recalled, I was too busy to do too many irresponsible things at the time. I did, however, have an interest in police work. I took a “Youth and the Law” class in my senior year in high school, joined the explorers, became a sheriff’s cadet and took an 832 Penal Code class to be certified as a reserve. I majored in Administration of Justice and was hired as a police officer before my 22nd birthday. I did just fine.

I understand the reasoning in waiting to hire individuals until they are 21, for a variety of reasons, including requirements to going into adult-only environments, like those with alcohol licensing or entertainment-licensed venues. Still, some rural areas in need of staffing meet personnel gaps by using civilian positions or semi-sworn positions under the age of 21. This new California bill will hurt those communities. For those asking to raise the age of applicants to age 25, that is just arbitrary. What other job or career restricts entry to those under the age 25?

Assessments can determine the maturity level of the LE applicant candidate. Of course, there are 30-year old candidates who may not rate with the desired maturity level, but a number of 18-21-year-old applicants may come through with high maturity levels. Allow science to determine maturity levels of individuals, rather than eliminating by age.

It is but one aspect of the job to consider. If the applicant sufficiently meets the demands and maturity levels required, why hamper and stall their careers at this important juncture of their lives? Will driving for a ride share service or delivering pizzas garner them maturity and seasoning at age 25?

Joel Shults: Jim, you make some good arguments, particularly about the apparent arbitrariness of the cutoffs. Perhaps more than the calendar numbers, better assessment of maturity levels should be included in police recruit testing.

Science does tell us that the part of the brain that controls impulses and makes goal-oriented plans is the part that is still developing through the decade of the 20s. That's the scary part when giving young men and women life and death decision-making authority. A more European model of training that takes place over a period of years rather than months might also address this issue of brain immaturity. There is a decent body of research showing the value of a college education in terms of reduced use of force and complaints on officers. Perhaps increasing academic requirements would be a de facto way to raise the age of recruits. 

Jim Dudley: We can agree on that point, Joel. My criminal justice students graduate at 20-22 on average. Still, what would make even more sense would be a vocational training program of sorts, maybe as early as high school, for students to learn about public safety from police, fire, EMS, public health, mental health service, dispatch, emergency management and other curriculum areas. A multi-disciplinary view may give some a better idea of which field would suit them. This would serve as an apprenticeship program, force multiplier and make recruitment and retention more efficient. 

Ultimately, we should choose those candidates who are the best fit and well-suited based on their individual maturity level and not by age alone. 

Police1 readers respond: What should the age requirement be to become a cop?

  • 19 is a good age. It gives the recruit 1-2 years outside of the walls of the high school. A good interview board and background investigation can help determine the maturity level of the candidate. The academy and a good FTO program will help the recruit to mature further. Combined with a good mentorship program, a 19-year-old can perform just as well as a 21-25-year-old.

  • I think 18 is fine with the right supervision. I graduated high school at 17 and started my degree in law enforcement at a community college. At age 16 I was an auxiliary officer (cadet) and started dispatching on my own at 17 for a small rural police department in Maine. At age 18 I was sworn in as a reserve officer and hired full-time to perform foot patrol in the same town. At that time Maine did not require reserve officers to be certified through the academy. Through the college police department, I received 68 academy credits for attending their cadet training program. I was between my first and second year of college. My second week on the job I was directly involved with a line of duty death of a state trooper. My chief and my sergeant were top notch and I made it through the trauma. I was hired at my first full-time job at age 19 and I went to the academy at age 20. I went on to have a 42-year career in LE. I believe it is the individual as well as the supervision, not the age that determines if someone will make a good LE officer. The military law enforcement branches do the same job as their civilian counterparts but start at a younger age for the most part. I was in the USCG reserve and worked security at age 18 at a Maine Air National Guard base performing base LE duties. It is the individual, not the number.

  • My take on this is that of mental maturity acumen. There are people who mature at 18, and others can be immature at 40+. An objective interview can determine this factor. Life skills and street smarts all play into maturity. Can the candidate exhibit mental strength and maturity? What has the candidate experienced in life? Job history, if any, shows a determination of maturity. No life experience, as I have witnessed, makes for a poor candidate. In summation, 20 years of age to start training should be the standard.

  • Without a doubt, 21 years old. They need practical experience that only life itself will teach them. I feel they also need military experience, any military experience. The discipline and interaction with others will teach you about yourself whether or not you're cut out for law enforcement. Can you handle someone screaming in your face every day, being called every name in the book, having your mother or wife insulted, and still be a professional at all times? In addition to all of this, you need cadet training and actual experience with an FTO once considered for hire in a department.

  • I think 18 is fine. It is the “minimum age.” Nothing says a department is required to hire an 18-year-old. That being said, there are certain sworn positions that would help a younger person trying to get their foot in the door. An example is working in corrections/detentions. Do a couple of years in that capacity and let the agency determine if ready for patrol. It is still a sworn, LE position, but with limited interaction outside of the facility. And it’s a great opportunity to learn how to interact with suspects. Some agencies even made it a career. Age doesn’t determine someone’s maturity. I know very mature 18-year-olds. I also know 45-year-olds who act like children and have no business in LE. College degrees will not make you a “good cop.” Military service will not make you a “good cop.” And neither of those is required to have the ability to perform the job at a superior level. While these things may help a person that is individually irresponsible become responsible, it is not a guarantee. Again, it depends on the individual applicant. A trade/vocational school sounds good. However, I fear departments may use that as a check the box. Applicants without it may not get looked at fairly when applying for a position. The hiring process should not be “competitive,” especially when trying to build a “diverse” workforce – it should be based on maturity, which comes from life experience. And life experience comes from making both good decisions and bad decisions. When considering a candidate of any age group, the background investigators need to get out of their chairs and actually get to know the candidates. If the workload is too much, promote more investigators. There are few more important jobs in LE than background investigators. They need to speak with the candidate, their family, friends, coworkers, etc., and not just rely on emails and polygraph testing to determine if someone is suitable. Those should be used solely as tools. Nothing more. After interacting with/investigating a candidate, a good investigator would know if they are mature enough (regardless of age) for any position, or not ready for any position. Additionally, changing the age requirement would not have prevented any of the recent events that sparked “police reform.” To the best of my knowledge, none of the more well-known incidents involved an 18-year-old officer/deputy. I feel the states/agencies/citizens that support raising the minimum age are just looking to score cheap points without addressing the more serious issues in policing that would actually make a difference; like the mental health of officers. But that’s a discussion for another day.

  • I am one of "those" who started at 18. I grew up my entire life in a law enforcement family and was chompin' at the bit to get started. I don't regret any minute of it. That being said, I saw the immaturity in my fellow coworkers who were around my age at that time. Many of those aren't on the job anymore. A side effect of starting young was that I was growing up while growing in my career. I wasn't living life the way my friends were. I believe that the future of law enforcement is to get the latest generation involved earlier and groom them to be mature and successful. Getting them interested and started at 18 even if it's not in a sworn capacity is one way to do this. I am sure many of you seasoned old-timers can relate. There are countless stories of the 1970s, 80s and 90s dispatcher turned officer or cadet turned deputy out there.

  • As a woman who was hired at age 19 to serve as a police officer with the now-defunct California State Police Division, I believe the minimum age limit for hiring should continue to be 18 years of age. Hiring decisions should always be subject to the prospective officer’s experiential maturity, emotional intelligence, and other related factors as determined by the psychological assessment, interviews, information provided by references, etc. After being hired at age 19, I went on to enjoy a successful 39-year law enforcement career, the last 11 years of which I served as a police chief. It is a misnomer to equate age and maturity. Some scientists say maturity may not be fully realized until age 25; so if one takes that position, then 21 is not sufficient either. It is best to leave the applicant age at 18 and let the psychological screening tools and the various screening processes found in the pre-employment background investigation assess individual candidate maturity levels. Furthermore, like military boot camp, which takes recruits 17 years of age and older, the police academies are excellent at building confidence, promoting experiential maturity and strengthening emotional intelligence. There is no need to further reduce an ever-shrinking candidate pool by creating an artificial barrier that excludes potentially viable candidates.

  • I first became a police officer at 19, in a small city of 1,500. The chief was all of 21, and had been a police officer since he was 19. I was attending a community college at the time. I made my share of mistakes like any rookie, but I soon was accepted by the community. I was filling in for an officer who was on medical leave, but when it came down to if I could be on that department permanently, the City Council sadly had to let me go, citing they were, along with other agencies in the area, getting heat from the State Attorney General, on account of Federal firearms laws, stipulating one had to be 21 to carry a handgun. This was back in 1980. From my point of view since, I have seen young people under 21 who would make fine officers, and some 10 or even 20 years older who had no business behind a badge! But for a solid minimum, I'm afraid 21 should be the minimum age.

  • Age 21 is probably the sweet spot. I started the academy while I was 20 but graduated after I turned 21. Marine Corps boot camp and two years of active duty helped a lot with conforming to the paramilitary structure of the transition to civilian life but hurt me in the life experience realm. After a couple of years of working nights and afternoons, the bumps smoothed out. Looking back now at over 25 years of experience as being an FTO and staff training officer, it was the career cops that made the transition easier than the college kids looking for something to do while waiting for their “dream job.” It really depends on the individual's life experiences, maturity level and desire to succeed.

  • It should be 25 years old with 6 years minimum work experience or 4 years of military service. Without this, a person has no perspective on how to effectively deal with people.

  • I think it should be 21 years old. Many of those who are 18-19 years old and just leaving high school haven't had the same experiences as someone who may be just a few years older. I am currently a university law enforcement officer, and while there may be a handful of 18-19-year-olds who are mature enough, the majority are not. The 18-20 year range seems to be the prime time for young adults to figure out who they are and who they want to be, and if that is truthfully working in law enforcement, a few years won't change anything. In the meantime, they can do explorers or work in other capacities (dispatch, civilian, community service officer, etc.). I started with my department at 22 and am now 26 with the same department. If I would have started at 18/19, I don't think I would have been successful in both figuring out who I am/what I wanted and fulfilling a career that demands responsibility.

  • I believe some life experience is valuable in law enforcement, If you are unable to empathize with at least some of the people you have to deal with, you will be handicapped. I started late in life, at 42, however, in a state where you cannot go into an establishment that sells liquor unless you are over 21, it would be absolutely irresponsible to hire younger than that. Even at 21, agencies need to use their oral boards to weed out people who are not mature enough to handle the responsibility. If you haven't grown out of your high school locker room antics and childishness, the interviewers need to be able to recognize that and when an FTO suggests that someone is just not cut from the right cloth, we need to listen to them. We certainly can't afford to take any warm body just to fill positions. I think 21 is just fine, unless you have a drinking age in your state of 18, then I think you should evaluate the individual. I agree there are still some parents who raise responsible children into responsible adults at an early age. I work with some officers who are thirty-something and I am not confident in their maturity levels.

  • Minimum 21. It also depends on each person's level of maturity. I started my LE career at 35. I know I would not have been able to handle it any earlier than my late 20s.

  • It's not the physical age of the new officer, it's the level of maturity and problem-solving skills that is crucial. I started my career at age 35 in the early '90s and maturity was a sought-after trait. Street smarts are another needed quality. I have to think that the lack of the above traits is the root cause of LODDs in the past 10 years. We should look at an apprentice program as a valid solution. Training should be years, not months. The age of 18 for the military works because a soldier rarely works alone and for the most part a soldier meets a defined set of circumstances. A cop has no idea what the day will bring. They need to be trained to handle anything that comes their way and think their way through things they have never seen. We need to do better with the new generation of LEOs.

  • The minimum hiring age should be 21 or higher for one simple reason, the brain does not fully mature until 25 years of age. Given the nature of police work, the more mature the brain is, the better an officer can do the job.

  • I have been a Texas cop since 1972 (I was 23), so I have seen a lot of "sand run through the hourglass." Texas lowered the age to 18 in the 70s, and Houston PD put three academy classes together, one week apart, right off the bat. Due to the "law of unintended consequences," some of the cadets were 18 when they graduated, and because of their age, they couldn't purchase their own pistol ammunition. Texas raised the age back to 21, and there it sits. I think 21 is just fine.

  • 21 for hire is a magic number in my opinion BUT 18-21 years old should be a "trial by fire" so to speak. I started off as a police explorer at 15 years old. I went through various hands-on experiences, training and mentoring by veteran coppers and had their "blessing" when hired on at 18 years old as a park ranger. The city department I worked with did it right, in my opinion, with an unofficial training/indoctrination program that spanned over several years. This helped weed out individuals who were not necessarily cut out/built for the type of work. Also, definitely this was a different time then; responsibility, discipline and respect are something not everyone has these days, unfortunately.  
  • 25 years of age. I got hired at 20 years and 4 months and there was no way I was mature enough to handle that much responsibility. The fact that I didn’t get fired for stupid behavior is more a function of dumb luck than anything else.
  • 18-21 are formative years for most. Just getting the taste of adulthood. Policing is too complex for the average person of that age. I agree that age does not necessarily constitute readiness either, so saying that 25 is right doesn’t work. I think there should be a 2-year program through college or trade schools for prospective officers. Upon graduation, they would have an associate's degree and be eligible for hiring. That gives time for proper instruction in all areas of policing. Just my opinion.
  • I'm a retired city sergeant with 21 years on SERT. When I first started my career in the early '90s, recruits had better work ethics, more respect for rank and seniority and were willing to earn rank, positions within the department and didn't complain when as a rookie they got some of the less glamorous assignments. Today, we are correcting these kids to address their supervisors by their rank, we are fielding questions on why they can't have the assignments that a ten-year veteran officer has and the lack of motivation is frustrating. Fresh out of college at 22 with zero life experience does not qualify an individual as a mature prospect ready to do this job. 21 should be the bare minimum, especially in states that have age restrictions on firearm possession. I'd prefer slightly older who's been in the workforce if they don't have a military background. Some of the best recruits are young vets. Aged 18 and right out of high school is a recipe for disaster.
  • I think it should be left alone, 18-19 is perfectly fine. This is just another case of the government fixing something that is not broken I started at 19 years old with no problems I am now 40 years old with over 20 years on the job. I haven't seen anything to support this change and believe it will do nothing but stifle recruitment.
  • This is a difficult subject. In my experience with today's youth (21 to 30) on several different types of calls for service have absolutely no social skills outside of a social media page or forum, and minimal critical thinking abilities and knowledge on how to deal with confrontation. It is difficult to "train or teach" these skills but we do develop methods to teach them to those who are able to think outside of their box. We have hired a few between the ages of 21 and 25 and thanks to good trainers along with the "rookie's" ability to accept and utilize constructive criticism, they successfully completed the program and are on their own in the street. It varies by the individual and it is necessary to teach the ones that aren't quite mature enough how to handle life experiences as they are introduced to them in this profession.
  • Speaking from experience I was hired at 19, hit the streets at 20, and had a long and successful career. I was ready, but not everyone is the same. I believe they should open police academies up for anyone 18 or over and leave it to agencies to make decisions on a case-by-case basis. 
  • All of you commenting on being hired at 18 and 19 years old are from a completely different generation than the kids entering the workforce today.  The fact of the matter is that kids are raised differently today than they were when officers with 25 years of experience were raised. We had a work ethic, and we knew how to interact with people in person and not through a computer or phone. We had problem-solving skills because our parents didn't rescue us from every predicament we got ourselves in. However, I do agree that each person is different. There are still good kids out there who have been raised "old school" and have values and a work ethic. If I were king for a day, age 21 is the lowest I would go for hiring someone into this profession as a full-time officer/deputy. At our agency, someone at 21 needs to have cadet, reserve, or military experience. Without any of those things, 21 is still a long shot for a new hire at our agency.

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What do you think should be the minimum hiring age for police officers and why?

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