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Police Officer Career Guide

Police officers play an important role in their communities throughout the United States. They go through rigorous training at the police academy to prepare for their responsibility of protecting the lives and the property in their community. Working in law enforcement requires physical and mental strength as officers deal with stress and dangerous situations on a regular basis. In fact, injuries and illness is more common in law enforcement than in any other field, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Police Officer Career Description: Common Description, Duties, and Tasks

The job of a law enforcement officer is to enforce the local, state and federal laws within the officer’s jurisdiction. The law enforcement officer is the front line defense against criminal activity in counties, towns and cities across the country. They are charged with the task of protecting the public, preventing criminal activity, investigating crimes and assisting in the apprehension and conviction of violators. Responsibilities of the law enforcement officer include public safety, first response for motor vehicle accidents and medical emergencies, public relations, enforcement of criminal statutes, service of court processes, and court case preparation and presentation. They provide public service and safety through routine patrols, school education programs, citizen police academies and other programs designed to help the communities become more involved in the prevention of crime in their neighborhoods. Law enforcement officers also enforce traffic laws and conduct safety inspections on roads and highways and alert the proper agencies when there are conditions that present a hazard. They are also a key element in the prosecution of offenders through the proper collection of evidence, presentation of case in court and locating and preparing witnesses.

Once police cadets finish their training period and start working for a department, they generally specialize in a particular area, such as fingerprint identification or chemical training. Some officers work with emergency response teams or SWAT teams, and others may work in the court system and in jails. One recent movement in policing is the idea of “community policing,” in which police officers fight crime by building trust within their patrol neighborhood.

Criminal Justice Degree Schools has more information on becoming a police officer available at our law enforcement degree resource, a law enforcement leader interview series and officer requirements for police departments by metro area.

Did You Know?: Prior to 1960, less than 5% of law enforcement officers in the United States had any college experience. Today, it is estimated that more than half have a college degree.1

How to Become a Police Officer: Requirements and Qualifications

The educational requirements for becoming a police officer vary by state and, in most cases, by city department. The minimal level of education often accepted by most police departments is a high school diploma or a GED certification. However, many departments around the country require at least a couple of years of college coursework, such as an associate’s degree in criminal justice.

Even if it’s not a specific requirement in the hiring process, having some college experience or a bachelor’s degree works strongly in an aspiring police officer’s favor when applying for a position and throughout their career. There is a lot of competition within the law enforcement sector and those with college experience generally stand out during the hiring process. Additionally, a college degree is usually a requirement for many promotional opportunities once a candidate is accepted into the force.

There are additional requirements an individual must meet to become a police officer. A candidate must be a US citizen, be 21 years old, and must meet rigorous physical criteria. Physical criteria includes having stamina, agility, adequate vision and hearing, and physical and mental strength. In many cases, candidates who speak a second language are preferred. Further, those with military police experience are often placed at the front of the line in the hiring process.

Working as a police officer means protecting a community, but it also means having a certain level of respect for working with the public. Future police officers must have a personable demeanor and should enjoy working with people. Applicants must be honest, responsible, and demonstrate integrity. Backgrounds are investigated during the interview process and most applicants are asked to undergo polygraph exams and to submit to drug testing.

Police Officer Job Training

Newly hired police officers go through an extensive training period. Recruits are usually trained at a police academy for approximately three months. Police academy training includes classroom instruction on topics such as state and city laws, legal processes, and accident or crime investigation. Police officer recruits also receive hands-on training in traffic control, weapons use, first aid, and emergency response.

Aspiring police officers must pass a written exam before being eligible to serve as a police officer. The training program is physically intensive, and the written exam is comprehensive, designed to test how well the candidates have understood the curriculum. Final scores are a major factor in the hiring process. In fact, according to Norman Hall’s Police Exam Preparation Book, in the extremely competitive law enforcement field, “Civil Service personnel have the luxury of screening only top-ranking applicants and can afford to pass up other qualified applicants.” Although passing the exam might be acceptable, scoring above the rest of the cadets is what may make or break your future career as a police officer.

After police training academy, officers are generally assigned to a senior officer for an on-the-job training period where they will learn how to apply their training in real life scenarios.

Other Helpful Skills and Experience

A desire to learn, a willingness to listen and to ask questions, and respect for authority are all important to a successful career as a police officer. In addition, officers must be able to communicate effectively both verbally and in writing, must have empathy toward others, and must possess sound judgment. Candidates with previous military or law enforcement experience and those who are bilingual or multilingual often have an advantage when it comes to hiring.

Examples of Possible Job Titles for This Career

  • Deputy sheriff
  • Law enforcement officer
  • Law officer
  • Patrolman
  • Patrol officer
  • Peace officer
  • Police officer

Career Opportunities and Employers

Police officers often work for the local, state, or federal government. Some may also work as officers on college and university campuses. Rookie police officers typically have to work their way up the ranks from patrol officer to such coveted positions as a homicide detective.

Police Officer Salary and Outlook

Salaries range significantly, depending on whether a police officer works in a rural area, an urban setting, or in a large city. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median annual salary of $56,980 a year for police officers and detectives.2 The top 10% of police officers earn more than $93,450.2 Earnings may increase significantly with overtime. Police officers typically enjoy benefits such as paid vacation, sick leave, medical and life insurance, and uniform allowances.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job growth of 5% nationally for police officers from 2012-2022.2 This projected growth is on the low side for such a typically stable occupation. However, this outlook depends heavily on city and state budgets, which have recently been fluctuating. The low rate of projected growth will create a more competitive demand for police officer applicants who hold a bachelor’s degree. Additionally, prior experience in law enforcement or military experience is also heavily valued, as well as those aspiring police officers who speak more than one language.

Top Paying States for Police and Sheriff Patrol Officers:

State Employment Average Annual Salary
New Jersey 21,130 $88,220
California 68,340 $86,040
Alaska 1,100 $73,990
New York 50,390 $70,670
Washington 8,160 $70,640

*Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2013.

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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Police Officer

If you are considering a career as a police officer, research the various pros and cons associated with the job. Those in law enforcement assert that it can be very rewarding, but there are many factors to consider in what many contend is a fairly dangerous job.

First, the dangers associated with law enforcement vary throughout the US, depending on location and crime rates. According to the FBI’s latest Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) report, 27 law enforcement officers around the nation were killed in 2013 as a result of felonious incidents in the line of duty.3 That number is 44% less than reported police officer deaths in 2012.

Further contributing to the advantages of becoming a police officer is the stability of working for the government. Local, state, and federal governments continue to be the biggest employers in the United States. Additionally, government jobs often offer better benefits than jobs in the private sector. Furthermore, the retirement track is usually much shorter in public service than in the private sector.

Additional advantages of becoming a police officer include:

  • Police officers receive excellent training that can be used beyond their careers in police work including problem identification, problem-solving, and public relations.
  • Many seasoned police officers assert that they gain a sense of pride and accomplishment from their careers. Police officers are literally that “thin blue line” between law-abiding citizens and criminals, creating that barrier that protects the public.
  • Working as a police officer means that you are part of a tight-knit team. No matter where you work, your law enforcement colleagues become like a second family, providing support throughout your career and many times after leaving the force.
  • Opportunities for advancement are abundant in law enforcement. As individuals retire or move up in the ranks, there are more chances of promotion. Because police departments are usually divided in several divisions, there are a number of choices as far as available career tracks, such as working homicides, sex offenses, property crimes, or moving up the patrol ranks.

There are many advantages to becoming a police officer; however, there are also some disadvantages, including:

  • Law enforcement work can be very stressful. With departmental policies; local, state and federal laws; and other regulations, you may find it difficult at times to stay abreast of all that is required of you as a police officer.
  • Law enforcement work requires a great deal of documentation. With the move to computerization, officers who have been working in the field for many years may find it stressful to learn the new technology.
  • You will see the results of violent crime. Police officers deal with offenders, and they are the first person in the criminal justice system that the victim will see. Due to the emotional magnitude of the job, post-traumatic stress disorder is common among police officers. In 2012, there were 126 suicides among police officers in the United States.6
  • Work schedules generally aren’t consistent . Most departments have 12-hour rotating shifts. Your schedule may vary from day to night shift. Police work doesn’t take a holiday and you will most likely have to work weekends, nights, and holidays quite often. Shift work can be very stressful on your family life.
  • Some families cannot deal with the stress of having a police officer in the family and divorce rates among police officers are high.

The decision to become a police officer should not be taken lightly. Weigh all the pros and cons before making this commitment. You must have the desire to serve the public, to protect others, and to work as a team in order to be a successful police officer.

Frequently Asked Questions

How important is the police academy to my career?

How well you do at the police academy can determine whether or not you have a future with the department that hired you. Police Magazine recommends asking plenty of questions during training, respecting your superiors, learning from your mistakes and moving on, and maintaining professionalism at all times if you want to succeed at the police academy and in your career as a police officer.

I’m not yet 21. Is there anything I can do to prepare for a career in law enforcement?

Some police departments feature special cadet programs, according to BLS, that allows aspiring police officers to work within the department, doing clerical work and completing classes. The cadet programs give candidates, who can apply for a position when they become of age, experience in law enforcement.

Will I always have to work nights, weekends, and holidays?

Police departments often assign the best shift to the most seasoned police officers. Expect to work varied shifts, especially as a rookie police officer, but the good news is overtime is generally paid at time and a half.

Additional Resources

Related Careers

Interested in a career similar to a police officer? Check out these related careers:

O*Net Law Enforcement Occupation Information

Law Enforcement Resources

1. Bagley, Paul. The Everything Guide to Careers in Law Enforcement. Avon: Adams Media, 2007. Print.
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/police-and-detectives.htm
3. FBI: http://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm
5. Hall, Norman. Police Exam Preparation Book. Avon, Mass: Adams Media, 2002. Print.
6. The Badge of Life: http://www.badgeoflife.com/suicides.php
7. Police Magazine: The Law Enforcement Magazine: http://www.policemag.com/channel/careers-training/articles/2010/05/10-rookie-errors-to-avoid.aspx