Within any community, police officers can have an impactful role. Ideally, the presence of police officers is a positive one, fostering a sense of trust between members of the community and members of the law enforcement profession. Not only can police officers play a vital role in preventing crime and ensuring order, they may also be seen as highly visible community helpers.
For example, police officers may help the citizenry they serve by assisting the elderly and disabled as they get around town, or by providing transportation to those whose vehicles have broken down or been stolen. Police officers can also encourage and inspire children by showing off their vehicles or letting children ask them questions about their exciting job.
For those who wish to make this kind of positive impact in a community, becoming a police officer may sound enticing. As for how to become a police officer, the process consists of several important steps, including formal education, medical evaluations and psychological assessments.
Why Become a Police Officer?
A career as a police officer may be attractive for many reasons, ranging from financial incentives to emotional benefits, such as the opportunity to make a real difference in the well-being of a local community.
Eclectic Nature of the Job
For those who are averse to monotonous professions, life as a law enforcement officer may provide the desired variety. Because the needs of communities vary, and the specific directives of a police department may shift over time, police officers may find that no two days are alike. As the Houston Chronicle notes, the daily responsibilities of a police officer may involve directing traffic, patrolling a neighborhood, responding to calls from concerned citizens, making an arrest or even testifying in a legal proceeding.
The Ability to Make a Difference
Becoming a police officer also allows the opportunity to make a positive impact in a community, down to the individual level. Police officers can improve the quality of life and peace of mind of the citizens they serve, whether by responding promptly to an emergency call, keeping children safe at a crosswalk or offering assurances after a home break-in. Beyond that, police officers are in a unique position to make a difference through simple daily acts of kindness and heroism.
The Chance to Be Active
While working as a police officer does come with administrative requirements, including the need to fill out paperwork promptly, the job provides many opportunities to be up and about and physically active. Examples include patrolling a neighborhood, pursuing a suspected criminal, or simply making the rounds while offering security at a public event.
The law enforcement profession can also offer financial security. According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, officers and detectives make a median annual salary of $65,170. Additionally, many police forces provide options for early retirement, allowing retired officers to draw income from a pension account. In some municipalities, police may be eligible for early retirement after just 20 years on the force. Overtime and special pay, generous paid time off, and insurance coverage options and health benefits may also be part of the job.
Bonds Within the Force
Finally, many police officers are drawn to the job for the unique sense of camaraderie they enjoy with their colleagues. Being a police officer can be tough, but it also facilitates real bonds with others in the same line of work.
Steps to Become a Police Officer
As for how to become a police officer, the process has a few key steps, though the specific requirements vary by state.
Generally speaking, aspiring police officers are encouraged to earn either a two-year or four-year degree in criminal justice or a related field. Some states require this level of education; others don’t require it but do encourage it and are more likely to hire officers with a degree. Due to relatively low turnover in the field, many police departments have highly competitive hiring processes; some precincts are more likely to hire an applicant who has a bachelor’s degree. More advanced education may also translate into a higher salary level.
The specifics of the police force entrance exams vary from state to state but generally involve written tests to assess an applicant’s cognitive ability, observational power and mental acuity. These tests are often compared to college entrance exams, such as the ACT or SAT; and they may delve into basic reading comprehension and grammar, as well as mathematics.
Successful passage of the entrance exam grants the applicant a space in the police academy, a government-sponsored training program that prepares applicants for work in the local force. Each police academy is different, but all will place a heavy emphasis on classroom learning. Some potential topics covered include:
- State laws
- First aid
- Investigative methods
- Basic computer skills
- Report writing
Additionally, the police academy involves physical exercise and training, helping applicants remain physically fit.
The duration of the police academy varies by state, but generally applicants can complete their training in around six months.
Police officers may also be required to demonstrate their fitness in the field; field tests may involve demonstrating their skills on assignment with a more experienced officer, or simply showing their stamina in an obstacle course. Field testing may also provide applicants with a chance to showcase and further develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills, as well as their proficiency in communicating with others.
Learn More About How to Become a Police Officer
Some additional resources for those curious about police careers include:
- United States Capitol Police, Police Officer Academy Training. See some examples of what police academy training can be like.
- New York City Police Department, Exam Tutorial. Get a glimpse into what a police academy entrance exam involves.
- PoliceApp, How to Prepare for the Police Written Exam. Discover some tips on preparing for the written police exam.
Requirements for Becoming a Police Officer
Becoming a police officer requires completing the necessary formal training and education as well as demonstrating mental aptitude and physical fitness. Again, some of the specific requirements may vary according to location or organization. Generally speaking, however, aspiring officers should be prepared to prove themselves in the following ways.
Hearing and Eyesight Requirements
Officers may be required to demonstrate a particular level of acuity with their seeing and hearing. As an example, the City of Scottsdale, Arizona, requires officers to have 20/20 vision or better, with certain allowances made for the use of contact lenses or glasses. Additional requirements include an ability to discern different colors and demonstrate strong peripheral vision.
Meanwhile, the City of San Diego requires “pure tone threshold testing for each ear separately at 500, 1000, 2000, 3000, 4000, and 6000 Hz.” Special considerations are mentioned for officers who wear hearing aids, specifically requiring them to demonstrate a high level of speech comprehension.
Physical Abilities Test
Applicants will also be required to demonstrate that they are in good physical shape. While the specific requirements and testing methods may vary by police force, California’s Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training is representative in its emphasis on aerobic stamina, physical strength, endurance and flexibility. The City of Knoxville, Tennessee, outlines specific requirements for applicants, including the completion of a physical obstacle course as well as a 1.5-mile run.
Clinical tests may be required simply to ensure that police applicants do not have specific medical problems or underlying conditions. These tests are typically administered by a doctor, whose job is to ensure that the officer does not have any health complications that could impede their ability to safely carry out the role.
Working as a police officer can be both stressful and people-intensive. Basic psychological evaluations help ensure that applicants are equipped to do the job without posing a threat to themselves or the public. Psychological testing also absolves the liability of the police force. Psychological exams may include a brief personal interview, covering the applicant’s life and personal history, as well as standardized tests meant to measure specific personality traits or behaviors.
Resources and Tools for Aspiring Police Officers
For those who are interested in how to become a police officer, a number of resources are available that can help individuals prepare for the police academy, entrance exams and other kinds of testing.
Preparing for the Physical Abilities Test
To get ready for the physical abilities test, police applicants may wish to consult the following resources:
- Police1, “How to Train for the Police Academy Physical Test.” Consider this recommended training regimen, focused on preparation for the physical portion of police testing.
- Houston Chronicle, “How to Prepare for Police Academy.” Learn about some basic lifestyle changes that can make you more fit for academy enrollment.
- United States Capitol Police, Police Officer Training — Preparing for the Physical Abilities Test. Gain additional insight into what the physical abilities test might be like.
Connecting with the Community
One of the most important aspects of success in the police force is knowing how to connect with different parts of the community. These resources provide some insight:
- The United States Department of Justice, Child and Youth Safety. Learn more about the role police officers can play in promoting the safety and well-being of children.
- The International Association of Chiefs of Police, Community-Police Relations. Get a closer look at some of the issues that shape relationships between police and their surrounding communities.
- Police1, “5 Critical Occasions for Agencies to Connect with the Community.” See some examples of instances where a police force may have a chance to connect with members of their community.
Law enforcement officers must also be prepared to demonstrate basic cultural competence, as outlined in these resources:
- Police Chief, “Cultural Diversity and Cultural Competency for Law Enforcement.” Find out more about how cultural competency can shape police strategy.
- Houston Chronicle, “Multiculturalism & Social Diversity in the Criminal Justice System.” Develop a clearer understanding of why diversity and social awareness are important to police officers.
- Bloomberg, “How to Make a Police Force More Diverse.” Learn more about the state of diversity in local police forces.
Prepare for a Role on the Police Force
Nearly 815,000 police officers and detectives are employed across the U.S., each one with the opportunity to play a significant role in shaping their community, helping the vulnerable, and facilitating strong relationships between the police and the surrounding population. It all starts with the proper preparation for the police academy and, ultimately, for life on the force.