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How to Become a Police Officer

Public service is one of the highest callings one can aspire to, but working in the public sector, especially in law enforcement, isn't easy. Here's a step-by-step guide to joining the police force.

Background Checks

Sooner or later in the process, you'll have to undergo a background check. This won't be a simple look at your credit report or a look at your criminal record: Police departments will generally assign an officer to thoroughly check the background of applicants, right down to their driving history. The officer will verify everything you've said on your resume and will often bring up incidents and issues even the applicants have forgotten about. Often you'll be required to take a polygraph test.

We put this first before the rest of the process because this is often what trips up even the most qualified applicant. So make a point of being honest, being scrupulous, and double-checking all your facts before you present them. Everything will be examined closely: Make sure it can stand up to scrutiny.

Getting the Right Education

It starts with getting the right education. Positions in law enforcement are highly competitive, and while many positions will state they only require a high school diploma or GED, many will look at secondary education which can give you a distinct advantage. So look into an associates or bachelors degree in criminal justice, legal studies, psychology, or related majors. Remember that it's the education you receive, not the school you get it from; choose a program that best suits your needs.

Applying

Applying for a job in law enforcement is, to some degree, a familiar experience. If you've applied for a job elsewhere, you'll know the basics. That said, different departments will have different rules and application processes, so before you submit your application, look over the process closely and find any potential issues. Depending on the role you're looking for, you may also need to consider where you apply; it's not uncommon for police officer candidates to move across the state or even across the country, following the law enforcement needs of different states. While it may not technically be a legal requirement, de facto, you'll need to get to work.

Taking The Civil Exam

Most law enforcement jobs require a civil service exam. In fact, they're becoming more and more common for general civil service positions, even on the federal level. And it's not something to take lightly; in many cases good candidates will wash out on the exam because they didn't prepare for it. Make a point to study the exam; many states will provide sample questions to guide your study. Expect the exam to cover topics ranging from proper crowd control procedure to use of firearms to how to work within the community. It may also make sense to familiarize yourself with test-taking strategies; you may not have taken an exam since high school, but the strategies are still useful.

Taking The Physical Exam

The next step is usually a physical exam. While the exam varies from department to department, the guidelines will be clearly posted, so you'll know what benchmarks you'll need to hit. Among the more common requirements:

  • A 75-yard sprint/obstacle course 
  • Completing as many pushups and situps as possible within a time limit, usually two minutes 
  • A timed 1.5 mile run

Remember not to push yourself too hard before you take the exam; if you injure yourself while taking the physical exam, you may need to wait for a year to reapply.

The Interview

Sometimes called "oral boards" or a spoken exam, this is essentially a job interview. You can expect to speak with several officers of varying ranks. It'll be a rather high-pressure situation, designed to test out how you deal with a rapidly shifting situation, and you'll be bombarded with questions about your previous work experience, previous law enforcement work, common situations you'll run into as an officer. You may also be asked more personal questions, or asked to discuss incidents you might have in your past; they'll be looking to see how honest you are.

Joining The Police Academy

Yes, once you finish all this, your next step will be even more education. Most police departments require a set amount of training hours before you can join the force. The academy will cover legal studies, the psychology of criminals, criminal investigation, traffic law, paperwork, firearms, physical confrontation, and other topics you'll need to have a background in as you work in the community. While a criminal justice degree may exempt you from some studies, you can still expect to spend a lot of time at the academy.

Field Training

The final step is going out in the field as a rookie officer. Essentially, you'll demonstrate that you can apply the knowledge you've picked up in the academy and show that you can interact with the public to de-escalate dangerous situations and enforce the law properly.

Sound like a lot of work? It is. But for those who feel the need to serve the public, it'll be worth it.