How to Become a Police Officer: Career Guide

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Updated May 20, 2024 · 5 Min Read

You can help protect lives, maintain order, and secure peace through criminal justice. Learn more about how to become a police officer with this guide.

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Law enforcement helps keep citizens secure, maintain order, and ensure the safety of people's property. It is the subfield of criminal justice concerned primarily with criminal investigation, arrest, punishment, and rehabilitation. Professionals such as forensic science technicians, border patrol agents, correctional officers, and police officers work in this sector.

Police officers are often the face and voice of local law enforcement. They may provide community education at schools, offer direction at public events, and assist with emergencies. Discover details on the profession in this in-depth guide, including information on career paths, education requirements, and salary data.

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What Is a Police Officer?

A police officer is a government agent who maintains order, safety, and protection in their area. They are the uniformed professionals who monitor crowds at public events, respond to emergencies, enforce traffic laws, and arrest suspects.

Police officers can work for city, county, state, or federal agencies. County officers are generally called sheriff's deputies, while state officers are called troopers. Federal officers are wardens or agents, depending on the agency they serve.

Transit or railroad police are a special kind of law enforcement professional that ensures the safe, legal, and peaceful transportation of people and products.

Types of Police Officers

Law enforcement professionals can handle various responsibilities for different agencies. A police officer usually works for the city and provides general public safety and emergency response services.

Sheriff's deputies fill the same role for the county instead of the city. State troopers and highway patrol officers work for their state. Fish and game wardens can work for the state or federal government. They help enforce fishing, hunting, and boating laws.

A detective can serve in one of several law enforcement agencies. They find evidence relevant to criminal acts, including serious offenses like robbery and homicide. Detectives may examine records, conduct interviews, and participate in arrests.

Daily Tasks and Responsibilities

Police officers are the front line of law enforcement. They protect life and property. A police officer's daily tasks and responsibilities can vary widely depending on their area of specialization and geographic location. However, most officers handle the following tasks:

  • Patrol defined geographic areas, observing behaviors and events that may compromise public safety
  • Respond to citizens' calls about emergencies or non-emergencies
  • Conduct traffic stops and issue citations
  • Serve warrants and conduct searches
  • Arrest people accused of committing crimes
  • Collect evidence from crime scenes
  • Write reports about traffic stops, calls, arrests, or other events
  • Testify in court

How to Become a Police Officer

Police Officer Career Path Overview

  1. Earn a high school diploma or GED.
  2. Complete college coursework or a degree program (if required).
  3. Apply to the police department or agency in your city, county, or state.
  4. Pass a background check and pre-employment screening, and complete the interview process.
  5. Accept an offer of employment.
  6. Enroll in your state's peace officer training academy, which typically takes 12 weeks.
  7. Complete the field training program hours and a probationary period.

Education and Experience

Although some states, like New Jersey, require a postsecondary degree, most agencies only expect you to hold a high school diploma or GED certificate to apply. Generally, applicants have an edge if they hold military experience, a relevant associate degree, or a bachelor's in criminal justice. Social work, sociology, and psychology can also be effective preparatory majors.

While job requirements vary among employers, most agencies do not require job experience to apply for officer positions. Nevertheless, work experience can help you start your career or advance quickly.

A job as a security guard, police dispatcher, or emergency medical technician can equip you with important skills and experience for serving as a police officer. Some police departments may also offer internships for college or graduate students. If you have worked in another career, however, you may have fostered communication, management, or counseling skills that can help you compete in the job market.

Police Academy Training

Police academy is a physically and academically rigorous experience that teaches police cadets the skills to thrive in their careers. While specific requirements vary from state to state, most police academies last 4-6 months. Cadets with prior military experience may be able to shorten their time at the academy.

The curriculum at police academy commonly includes four distinct pillars — police strategy, stress management, weapons training, and community collaboration. Topics may include criminal psychology, constitutional law, and strategies for apprehension and arrest.

In Mississippi, for example, cadets spend 12 weeks learning proficiency in first aid, firearms safety, and tactical driving. New Jersey's police academy, by contrast, requires 24 weeks and covers additional topics, such as water safety and self defense.

Other Requirements

To be a police officer in most states, you may also need to meet the following requirements beyond education and experience:

  • Be a U.S. citizen
  • Meet minimum age requirements
  • Hold or be eligible to acquire a valid state driver's license
  • Must not have a felony or criminal domestic violence record
  • Must not have a record of an aggravated misdemeanor crime
  • Must have a good credit history
  • Must not have defaulted on a student loan
  • Must pass a polygraph, a stress test, and hearing and vision tests

Interested in working for the state police instead? Check out officer requirements in your state:

Key Skills for Police Officers

Besides training, education, and physical fitness, police officers need key skills to perform their jobs.

Problem-Solving: Officers must quickly solve escalating problems in various challenging situations.

Ethics: Law enforcement officers must abide by the appropriate code of ethics in their personal and professional lives.

Patience: Policing requires waiting, listening, and reacting to be effective.

Mental Acuity: Officers need to think quickly and respond thoughtfully in tense, fast-paced situations.

Assertiveness: Police officers must demonstrate authority and encourage cooperation from people around them.

Community Awareness: Law enforcement professionals build relationships with the diverse communities they serve.

Police Officer Salary and Career Outlook

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), police and detectives in the U.S. earned a median annual salary of $74,910 as of May 2023. Holding a degree, serving in a leadership position, or possessing many years of experience can boost your salary.

Federal, state, and local officers are among the highest earning law enforcement professionals followed by warehousing and transportation officers.

Your location also determines how much you make. California, Alaska, Hawaii, Washington, and New Jersey pay the highest median salaries for police officers in the U.S. with Los Angeles offering the highest pay among cities. The District of Columbia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and South Carolina, however, have the highest concentration of jobs in the sector.

Nationwide, the BLS projects that the number of police officers will grow by 3% from 2022-2032.

Police and Detective Salaries and Outlook
Job Median Annual Wage (2023) Job Growth (2022-32)
Police and sheriff's patrol officers $76,550 +3%
Transit and railroad police $78,230 +3%
Detectives and criminal investigators $95,930 +1%
Fish and game wardens $61,120 -6%
Source: BLS OEWS, BLS OOH

Career Advancement for Police Officers

In many agencies, police officers are entry-level professionals. Above them are corporals, sergeants, lieutenants, and captains. Further up the organizational chart are the major, the deputy chief, and the chief of police.

Municipal police officers can advance through these ranks at their local offices or may move to new career tracks in state or federal law enforcement agencies. Generally, police officers who advance to leadership roles also earn better wages.

According to the BLS, first-line supervisors of police and detectives earned a median annual wage of $101,750 as of May 2023. Detectives and criminal investigators also typically receive higher salaries than police officers.

Professional Resources

NSA provides sheriff's offices, law enforcement personnel, and concerned citizens with information and guidance using its network of resources.

SRLEEA supports law enforcement organizations and professionals in small, rural, and tribal communities.

This nonprofit organization provides support, equipment, and training for law enforcement professionals, their families, and communities.

The largest nonpartisan, nonprofit agency representing federal law enforcement professionals, FLEOA provides its 30,000 members with discounts, scholarships, and a legislative voice.

IALEIA provides training, certification, and support for criminal intelligence analysts.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Police Officer

Is it hard to get hired as a police officer?

Yes, getting hired as a police officer can be challenging because you must be physically fit, mentally tough, and academically prepared. Although many states and municipalities need new law enforcement personnel, the training to become a police officer can be a barrier. The police academy is often several weeks long and usually requires many nights away from home.

What is the best age to become a cop?

Most agencies require you to reach the age of 18 or 21 to start a law enforcement career. This job requires maturity and good judgment, two traits that often come with age, but it also demands physical strength and agility, characteristics usually associated with youth. The best age to become a police officer, therefore, depends on your agency's regulations, your maturity, and your physical health.

Do you need a degree to become a cop?

Not all agencies require a degree to become a police officer. However, most employers favor applicants with associate or bachelor's degrees, especially if that degree includes a major or minor in criminal justice. Advancing in your law enforcement career generally requires earning a degree.

What are the cons of being a police officer?

Many police officers regularly confront violence and trauma. They also face danger, stress, and unpredictable environments while working long and irregular hours, which can take a toll on their physical and mental health.

What state pays cops the best?

According to the BLS, the top-paying states for police officers and sheriff's deputies include California, Washington, Alaska, New Jersey, and Hawaii. These states also feature some of the highest costs of living, however, which means their higher-than-average salaries may not buy as much as slightly lower salaries in other states.

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