Police Officer: Career Guide

Police officers play an important role in communities throughout the United States. They go through rigorous training at the police academy to prepare for the responsibility of protecting lives and 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, law enforcement personnel have one of the highest rates of injury and illness related to occupation.1 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.

Career Description, Duties, and Common Tasks

The job of a law enforcement officer is to enforce 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 protecting the public, preventing criminal activity, investigating crimes, and assisting in the apprehension and conviction of criminal offenders. Responsibilities of a law enforcement officer include public safety, first response for motor vehicle accidents and medical emergencies, public relations, enforcement of criminal statutes, 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 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, as well as alert the proper agencies when there are safety hazards, such as fallen electrical lines or roadway obstructions.

Once police cadets finish their training period and begin working for a department, they generally specialize in a particular area, such as fingerprint identification or chemical training. 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?:Today, it is estimated that more than half of police officers have a two-year college degree, and a third have a four-year college degree.2

Steps for Becoming a Police Officer

The education requirements for becoming a police officer vary by state and, in most cases, by city department. The minimum level of education accepted by most police departments is a high school diploma or GED. However, many departments around the country require at least some college coursework or an associate's degree in criminal justice.

Even if it's not a specific requirement in the hiring process, having an associate's or bachelor's degree works strongly in an aspiring police officer's favor. There is high competition for available positions and promotion within the law enforcement sector, and those with college experience generally stand out during the hiring process. Additionally, a college degree can be a requirement for promotion into higher ranks.

There are additional requirements an individual must meet to become a police officer. A candidate must be a US citizen, be 18 to 21 years old depending on the jurisdiction, and meet rigorous physical criteria. Physical criteria include having above-average stamina and agility as well as adequate vision, hearing, and physical and mental strength. In many cases, candidates who speak a common second language receive preferred hiring status. Similarly, those with military 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. Prospective police officers should look into the process of the law enforcement agency for which they are applying, but generally, you can expect a process similar to the one below:

  1. Accumulate the education and/or experience needed to become a police officer.
  2. Apply for an open police officer position.
  3. Be interviewed for the position.
  4. Complete a physical examination.
  5. Take and pass a drug test.
  6. Take and pass a polygraph exam.
  7. Undergo a background investigation.
  8. Be conditionally hired.
  9. Complete several weeks of required police academy training.
  10. Be hired as a full-time peace officer.
  11. Continue being trained on the job once hired.

Please note that a degree cannot guarantee employment or career advancement. Additional academy training or education may be required for law enforcement jobs.

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 written and physical exams within the training academy before becoming eligible to serve. Police training programs are physically intensive, and written exams are comprehensive, designed to test how well the candidates have understood the curriculum. Final scores are a major factor in the hiring process. Although simply passing an 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 the police training academy, officers are generally assigned to a senior officer for an on-the-job training and mentoring period, during which junior officers 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.

Police Officer Career Path

Police departments in most major metro areas require officers to gain experience working in patrol before they become eligible for transfer to specialized law enforcement positions. However, once these experience requirements are met, officers have a wide range of opportunities. These include positions such as detective, mounted officer, SWAT, and other focused units, depending on the size and needs of a given police department.

Career police officers may also choose to seek promotion to the supervisory ranks. First-line supervisors of police and detectives include sergeants, lieutenants, and captains. These supervisors are responsible for shift scheduling, training staff, and supervising and coordinating investigations while ensuring proper procedures are being followed.

In most police departments, officers must meet experience requirements (three to five years is common) to become eligible to take a competitive promotional exam. An officer's score on a promotional exam determines, in part, how soon he or she will be promoted; those with higher scores tend to receive promotion first. An oral interview may also be part of the promotion process. This process is repeated for each promotion the candidate seeks: from officer to sergeant, from sergeant to lieutenant, and so on. After achieving the rank of captain, further promotions are typically based on appointment by department chiefs rather than by examination.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that nationally, first-line supervisors of police and detectives make an annual average salary of $89,030.3 Approximately 19% of first-line police supervisors believe that new applicants should have at least some college credit, while 19% believe that applicants should obtain an associate's degree.4

Read Career Advice from Experienced Police Chiefs

Possible Job Titles for This Career

  • Deputy Sheriff
  • Law Enforcement Officer
  • Law Officer
  • Patrolman
  • Patrol Officer
  • Peace Officer
  • Police Officer

Police Officer Salary and Job Outlook

Salaries in law enforcement range significantly, depending on whether a police officer works in a rural area, an urban setting, or in a large city. As seniority and tenure are the primary drivers of wage increases for police officers, higher salaries tend to be earned through experience. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports a median annual salary of $63,380 a year for police officers and detectives.1 The top 10% of police officers earn more than $106,090.1 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 BLS projects job growth of 7% nationally for police officers from 2016 to 2026.1 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 growth will create stronger opportunities for police officer applicants who hold a bachelor's degree in criminal justice or a related field. Additionally, prior experience in law enforcement or military experience is also heavily valued, as well as the ability to speak more than one language fluently.

Related Careers

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

From the Chief's View: “Employ your full skill at all times and to all persons. Prevent, manage, or intervene in situations requiring police service. Be open, accept change in this changing world, develop and maintain a broad perspective of your function and the society in which you work, be flexible and develop the ability to grow with the people you serve.” -David Couper, Retired Chief of Police, Madison Police Department

Top Paying States for Police and Sheriff Patrol Officers

State Employment5 Average Annual Salary5
California 72,680 $101,380
New Jersey 19,950 $83,720
Alaska 1,070 $88,030
Washington State 9,670 $77,670
Washington DC 15,950 $72,000

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2018.

Police Career Advice

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.

First, the dangers associated with law enforcement vary throughout the US, depending on location and crime rates. According to the FBI's 2014 Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) report, in 2017, 46 law enforcement officers around the nation were killed in the line of duty as a result of felony activity; 47 officers were killed as a result of accidents in the line of duty; and 60,211 officers were assaulted while performing their duties.6

To compensate for the dangers that officers face, there are substantial benefits that come with the job. One of 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. Officers who earn seniority have a measure of job security not often found in the private sector. Additionally, government jobs often offer better benefits than jobs in the private sector, including generous pensions, paid time off, and paid life insurance policies.

Additional advantages of becoming a police officer include:

  • Police officers receive excellent training that can be used beyond their careers in police work, such as 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 the “thin blue line” between law-abiding citizens and criminals.
  • 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 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 for promotion. Because police departments are usually divided into divisions, there are choices as far as available career tracks.

Though there are many advantages to becoming a police officer, there are also 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. Even with computerization, officers spend many hours each day simply working on paperwork.
  • You will see the results of violent crime. Due to the emotional magnitude of the job, post-traumatic stress disorder is common among police officers.
  • 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, especially before you earn seniority. Shift work can be very stressful on your family life.

The decision to become a police officer should not be taken lightly. Weigh all of 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

Question: How important is the police academy to my career?

Answer: How well you do at the police academy determines 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 maintaining professionalism at all times if you want to succeed at the police academy and in your career as a police officer.

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

Answer: Some police departments feature special cadet programs that allow aspiring police officers under the normal hiring age to work within the department doing clerical and related work. These cadet programs give candidates early experience in law enforcement that can be valuable when the time comes to formally apply to the police academy.

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

Answer: Police departments often assign the best shifts to the most seasoned police officers. Expect to work varied shifts, especially as a rookie police officer. On the positive side, officers do earn overtime, which is generally paid at time-and-a-half.

Police Officer Requirements by Metro Area

Additional Resources

Law Enforcement Resources

1.Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook, Police and Detectives: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/police-and-detectives.htm
2. Policing around the Nation: Education, Philosophy, and Practice: https://www.policefoundation.org/publication/policing-around-the-nation-education-philosophy-and-practice/
3. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2018 Occupational Employment and Wages, First-Line Supervisors of Police and Detectives: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes331012.htm
4. O*NET OnLine, First-Line Supervisors of Police and Detectives: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/33-1012.00
5. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Employment and Wages May 2018, Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes333051.htm
6. FBI 2017 LEOKA Report: https://ucr.fbi.gov/leoka/2017

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