How to Become a Police Officer*
“To serve and protect:” This is the motto police officers everywhere live by. Although the reasons for becoming a police officer vary from individual to individual, this basic wish to protect the lives of others and the safety of the community in general is probably the number one reason that people pursue a career in law enforcement. Sometimes being a police officer is dangerous; at other times, it seems that few people in the community really appreciate what the police do “behind the scenes” to protect others. Furthermore, it’s not uncommon to hear sad stories about “crooked cops” who start off with a good intention but find themselves corrupted by temptations of money and/or power. Regardless of these deterrents to serving as a police officer, the United States always needs more honest, hard-working and brave policemen and women. Here’s what you need to do in order to become a police officer.*
Determine What Kind of Law Enforcement Career You Want to Pursue
The first step you need to take is to decide what kind of law enforcement officer you want to become. The term “police” can be misleading. Within the law enforcement arena, there are many different types of officers. For example, sheriffs are police officers who are elected to head law enforcement on a county level. The sheriff’s office then hires deputies, who are essentially the police force of a given county. While a city police officer’s jurisdiction only extends to the city’s boundaries, a sheriff’s office jurisdiction includes the entire county. In rural areas where city police forces are absent, the sheriff and his or her deputies are often the only law enforcement presence around. In these cases, it is up to them to carry out investigations, protect county courts, patrol roads and neighborhoods, and so on.
City police force officers have very similar job duties to the sheriff and sheriff’s deputies. The main difference is that their activity is limited to the city in which they serve.
Police detectives work at a county or city level and specialize in investigating certain types of crime. For example, homicide detectives specialize in investigating and solving murders. Narcotics detectives investigate and organize stings on drug dealers and traffickers. Detectives are more likely to be the people involved in interviewing suspects and witnesses, examining crime scenes and researching cases. They also participate in organized raids and sting operations.
Highway patrol officers, who are also called state troopers or state police, mostly enforce the law on America’s highways. For example, these police officers may pursue suspected drug traffickers as they travel on an interstate. They also assist in highway accidents and issue highway speeding tickets. It is not uncommon, furthermore, for highway patrol officers to be called in to assist county and city police forces.
Fish and game wardens work in remote, rural areas, enforcing fishing, hunting and boating laws. Although that type of work may not sound very exciting, fish and game wardens also assist in rescue operations, such as when hikers have become lost or trapped, as well as tracking criminals who might be seeking refuge in a remote wilderness area.
In addition to all these types of police officers, who are usually monitored by state, county or city governments, there are also a number of federal agencies who hire law enforcement officers. These agencies include:
- Border Patrol
- Drug Enforcement Agency (D.E.A.)
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (F.B.I.)
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (A.T.F.)
- U.S. Marshals
When you’ve decided that you want to pursue a career in law enforcement, it’s important that you first think about which of the agencies listed above best suits your interests and abilities. All of these various agencies have different job requirements.
Get the Right Education
It is not usually necessary to have a college degree in order to become an entry-level local law enforcement officer.* However, what type of education you need varies depending upon which agency you want to work for. For most local police forces, you only need a high school diploma in order to gain entrance into the police academy. You also need to be at least 21 years old, meet specific physical requirements, possess a driver’s license and pass a written exam. Furthermore, police forces almost always favor candidates who have military experience.
Although it’s not always necessary, an associate degree or bachelor’s degree in criminology or a related field often gives you an advantage against other candidates who are also applying to the police force for an entry-level job. Additionally, career advancement within the police force or law enforcement agency often requires a college degree of some sort.
Candidates who are accepted to the police academy or other training program then undergo an extensive, intense training program that usually lasts between three and six months. Some police academies last as long as nine months or even longer.
In the case of working for a federal agency, candidate qualification rules are often much stricter. To begin with, these agencies usually require a bachelor’s degree.* They also typically require related work experience. Some agencies, including the F.B.I., have additional requirements like passing lie detector tests and providing multiple references.
Be Prepared for Hard Work
Once you’ve gotten your necessary degrees and you’ve passed the academy, be prepared to work hard as a police officer.* You should know in advance that the work environment is often dangerous, physically demanding and psychologically taxing. You may wish to talk to people you know who are already police officers to find out more about what they face on a day-to-day basis. While the dangerous, difficult work conditions may be the “bad news,” the “good news” is that the job of law enforcement is rarely boring and always offers a chance for personal growth and protecting the lives of others.
*Law enforcement agencies may require additional training.