1. Get smart.
Figure 3.2 Handcuffs are not toys. Well, not officially.
College is an increasingly common requirement for becoming a police officer. You may be able to get a job in a small department with only a high school diploma, but even where it isn’t required, a post-secondary education will make you a more competitive applicant. Depending on the department you want to join, you may or may not need to major in a subject relevant to police work. Nevertheless, most wannabe cops either get a law enforcement certificate from a two-year college or a four-year degree in something like criminal justice.
You may need to take a skills training course after finishing school. This is usually a 10- to 14-week program focused on procedures, tactics, and techniques you’ll use as an officer, plus classroom instruction in state and local laws.
2. Find out how to become a cop where you live.
The process of becoming a police officer differs from one community to the next. Research job openings for peace officers in your area and, before filling out an application, make sure your age, experience, and educational background qualify you for the position. Many police departments have an official website where you can find job listings and hiring standards.
3. Demonstrate your intellectual and physical fitness.
Expect to take at least one standardized academic test. If nothing else, there will be a certification exam administered by your state’s POST board or equivalent agency. Some police departments embed a second written exam into their officer selection process. Be prepared to answer questions about math, grammar, reading comprehension, and the fine art of writing incident reports. You may even be required to write a short essay.
Your physical condition will be tested, too. Police work can be physically demanding, and you’ll undergo testing to prove that you have the endurance, strength, and agility to handle it. A doctor will also examine you to rule out any medical conditions that could interfere with your ability to work as an officer.
4. Interviews for you and all your friends.
First, you’ll interview with several members of a panel. This interview is often referred to as an oral exam, since one of its purposes is to test your interpersonal and verbal communication skills. Prepare to answer some typical job interview questions, as well as questions about your background and personal life. Answer honestly, even if it means admitting past criminal behavior or drug use.
Your background will be thoroughly investigated. The department will provide you with a packet in which to list names and contact information for all of your employers, teachers, family members, and “known associates.” If the background check keeps you in the running for an open position, you’ll probably interview one-on-one with the Police Chief, who just might offer you the job on a conditional basis.
5. Prove you’re not a nut or a liar.
Figure 3.3 Guess where my nightstick is.
Before you can be officially hired, you’ll need a psychological evaluation. This may involve a written questionnaire, an interview with a psychologist, or both. The police department isn’t actually questioning your sanity; the intent is to confirm desirable personality characteristics and rule out any underlying emotional, mental, or personal issues that could affect your job performance.
You may be required to take a lie detector test. Because police officers are often expected to testify in court, honesty is a crucial trait. If a polygraph examination reveals that you’ve told lies or omitted truths during the hiring process, your career may end before it begins.
6. Attend a police academy.
You’ll need practice in police procedures, self-defense, firearm safety, and more. If you’ve already gone through a skills training course in the state where you were hired, you may be able to skip this. However, some police academies only admit trainees who already have jobs lined up. A large police department may even have its very own academy where you’ll be required to train for as little as two weeks or as long as three months. Afterward, you may be required to sit for another written exam.
7. Get even more training on the job.
You’ll spend your first several weeks as a police officer simply observing other officers. Gradually, you’ll be directed to participate more and more, until you’re the one being observed as you perform traffic stops, respond to calls, and handle a variety of incidents. After an evaluation period to confirm that you understand the law and your role in enforcing it, you’ll finally be authorized to serve as a full-fledged member of the police force.
How to Get the Best Police Jobs
Variations in salary and crime rates from one jurisdiction to another make some law enforcement jobs more desirable than others. Many officers start their careers in less prestigious departments to gain experience before applying for a better position, but several other factors can help make you a more competitive candidate:
- Military experience followed by an honorable discharge.
- Professional experience as a security guard or loss prevention officer.
- Fluency in a second language, especially one that’s commonly spoken in your region. For most of the United States, that means Spanish.
- College coursework in a related field, such as sociology or psychology.
- A history of voluntary community service.
- Participation in sports, especially team sports. This implies both physical fitness and a cooperative attitude.