How to Become a Police Officer

Police officers have very varied law enforcement and protective duties. They typically start out in patrol but may advance to any of many leadership or specialty positions; the ‘detective’ classification is a little higher. As one may guess, it takes a lot of hard work to become a police officer– but it’s not all academics.

Specialized training is typically completed after hire, though some individuals self-sponsor.

Police Officer Educational Foundations

Most states place the minimum educational level at high school or GED. There are states that require an associate’s degree in many instances. Local governments may set standards higher than state governments. A scan of job postings in early 2021 reveals that some positions are posted as ‘bachelor’s preferred’. Some require a minimum of 40 or 60 college credits. Some have multiple pathways.

Educational standards reflect challenges of local markets. The Miami-Dade Police Department is an example. An associate’s degree or 60 college units is one pathway; another is three years of continuous employment (post high school). Miami, notably, has changed its standards at points along the way.

There may be a stated preference for coursework in criminal justice or related fields. A 2019 article posted on Community Oriented Police Services noted recruitment challenges faced by police departments and stated that, while criminal justice degrees were popular, departments might consider individuals with degrees in fields like psychology and sociology (https://cops.usdoj.gov/html/dispatch/09-2019/recruitment.html).

Police officers may benefit from a range of elective courses such as those in conflict resolution.

Many governmental entities will consider applicants with education at the high school level. In some cases, higher education means higher pay.

Once accepted, a cadet will enroll in a specialized training program. Often this is referred to as a POST Academy. Training typically takes several months. Six is not uncommon. The training period may be followed by a relatively lengthy probationary period.

Meeting Hiring Requirements

Minimum standards are set at the state level. Requirements typically include a test, background check, and assessment of physical skills. Many have a psychological assessment. Candidates often watch video scenarios and provide responses; responses are an indication of professional judgment.

The first steps generally consist of a basic questionnaire and a written test. One can find a list of typical steps on Discover Policing, a website sponsored by the U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (https://www.discoverpolicing.org/about-policing/the-hiring-process/).

Sometimes candidates are placed on an eligibility list but wait for a short time before completing the process.

Many states use the National Police Officer Selection Test (POST) offered by Stanard & Associates (http://www.stanard.com/public-safety). The tests covers basic skills (reading comprehension, mathematics, and grammar and also incident report writing.

The Law Enforcement Officer Selection Tool (LST™) is in widespread usage in the west. It tests a variety of cognitive skills such as deductive reasoning, spatial orientation, written expression, and flexibility of closure. It also assesses non-cognitive traits.

The LST is administered by Public Safety Testing (PST). PST carries out the hiring process for some jurisdictions.

Sometimes candidates are required to do basic fitness activities like push-ups. Some organizations use Stanard & Associates police officer physical ability testing. This tests skills like jumping over a ditch and ducking under an obstruction.

Santa Ana College states that people frequently underestimate the physical shape that they need to be in. PST has suggested preparation for individuals who take its physical fitness test.

POST Academies and POST-Approved Training Programs

States set minimum hours for police training; there is some variance. However, POST academies often go well above the stated minimum. California POST states that most academies exceed the state’s 664 hour minimum by at least 200 hours.

The following are among the typical content areas:

• Law
• Human behavior
• Patrol
• Investigations
• Traffic control

Typically POST attendees are sponsored by an employee. Not only is their attendance free, they receive a salary (although at a lower level than what they will receive once they have completed their training).

Some police academies offer room and board or provide dormitories for cadets who are out of the immediate area.

Academies may or may not allow self-sponsorship. In some cases, there are prohibitions. Washington State offers its Basic Law Enforcement Academy (required of city and county hires) only to individuals who are sponsored by a hiring organization.

Sometimes POST-approved programs are offered through colleges. The program may even award a degree. Idaho POST states that prospective law enforcers can opt for attendance at any of four state colleges in lieu of attending their academy (https://post.idaho.gov/college-programs/). Students need to meet hiring standards in order to enroll.

Exploring Police Careers

Police work is clearly not for everyone, and some who begin the training process don’t complete it. However, those who think it might be the ideal career can begin exploring at an early age. Opportunities may include ride-alongs, volunteering, and even citizen’s police academies for youth (https://www.discoverpolicing.org/explore-the-field/opportunities-for-youth).

Sometimes promising young men and women who don’t yet meet age requirements are hired in another capacity (https://cops.usdoj.gov/html/dispatch/09-2019/recruitment.html).

The NYPD has a Cadet Corps program with scholarships in exchange for service commitment (https://www1.nyc.gov/site/nypd/careers/cadets/police-cadets-program.page).

Salary

Police officers earned a mean salary of $67,600 in 2019; this is based on an hourly wage of $32.50. The 10th percentile salary is $36,960; the 90th, $105,230. BLS data May, 2019

California may be known for its high cost of living, but it is also the highest paying state for police officers — in fact, it’s not even close. The top ten metropolitan areas, wage-wise, are all in California.

Resources

International Association of Law Enforcement Standards and Training https://www.iadlest.org/post-portal
Discover Policing https://www.discoverpolicing.org/explore-the-field/discover-policing-in-your-state/
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