Becoming a police officer is an immensely satisfying career choice that offers many personally rewarding opportunities, the first and foremost being the knowledge that your work serves a greater good. Few careers exist in the world, where you'll frequently have the chance to save a person's life, or countless lives, and enjoy the close bond and respect of your peers who proudly serve their communities along with you.
Even in the current climate with anti-police sentiments receiving a lot of attention in the press, police work is a highly respected profession and officers enjoy a large amount of public support for their commitment to civil service and for putting their lives on the line every day.
What Does a Police Officer Do?
Police officers perform a wide variety of duties to protect the rights of citizens, enforce the law, and promote public safety. Examples of their essential functions include responding to calls for assistance, patrolling neighborhoods to detect and prevent crime, conducting criminal investigations, enforcing parking and traffic laws, pursuing and arresting criminal suspects, writing reports and maintaining records, giving testimony in court hearings, and interacting with the community to educate, inform, and build cooperation.
Committing yourself to a career in law enforcement is much more than just a job, it is an opportunity to build an extremely rewarding career with longevity that you can be proud of.
Police Officer Duties and Responsibilities
The duties of a police officer vary depending upon the agency. State police have responsibilities different from officers in urban settings. A large metropolitan force’s expectations of their patrol officers differ from those of a small, rural department. Patrol officers do their jobs on foot, motorcycle, horseback, bicycle or in a vehicle. A few common responsibilities are shared across all law enforcement departments.
A police officer is assigned a specific zone in which to enforce the law, stop crime as it occurs, or to render assistance. The patrol officer responds to calls, makes arrests, writes reports, enforces laws, and conducts traffic stops. Additionally, he or she may administer first aid and provide testimony in court.
Provide Community Education
Television cop shows make it appear as if a police officer’s sole duty is to arrest criminals, but actually, officers spend most of their day educating the community about laws and public safety. For example, some patrol officers educate children about drug use at their local school. Or, a patrol officer may lecture senior citizens on self-defense. Most patrol officers feel their top priority is developing positive community relationships through education.
Respond to Calls
Police departments rely on the public to report a crime as it occurs or upon the discovery of a crime or criminal. A patrol officer is often first on the scene of a crime. Before attempting to apprehend any criminals still present, the patrol officer first ensures the safety of both the victims and the public. Next, they maintain the crime scene until investigators arrive. Typically, the patrol officer is tasked with keeping the public away from the scene while the crime scene investigators and detectives work.
Assist Other Agencies
Police officers may be called upon to help other local, state, and federal criminal justice agencies. Local patrol officers may help hunt for a fugitive criminal or assist in a statewide drug task force.
What Is It Like to Be a Police Officer?
Police work is physically, mentally, and emotionally demanding. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, patrol officers report some of the highest rates of on-the-job illnesses and injuries of any occupation. Police work is often shift work, which makes marriage and family life difficult.
However, police work means making a difference in the community, which is why most career patrol officers remain for 20 years or more on the job. Successful patrol officers have a few qualities in common.
Not only must patrol officers remain on high alert while on duty, but they regularly encounter unpleasant, often violent scenes. Successful police officers develop a high tolerance for emotionally stressful situations. Every public encounter presents different circumstances that call upon the officer to make decisions based upon local law and common sense.
Working as a police officer requires a high degree of physical fitness. Before you attend police academy training, you already should know how to maintain optimum physical fitness. Eating well, exercising, meditating, practicing spiritual wellness, and getting adequate sleep help to maintain health. Police officers must be physically able to apprehend offenders.
Part of physical fitness is a strong constitution. As first responders, police officers are usually first to a crime scene or accident, which means exposure to blood and violence. If you recoil at the sight of blood, a career as a police officer may not be right for you.
Mental and Ethical Fitness
As a member of law enforcement, you must be able to enforce the law regardless of the situation. While enforcing the law, events may occur that challenge your moral code. Police work requires a strong ethical sense and the ability to resist temptation.
Additionally, you often must rely on your intuition. Offenders, witnesses, and victims may offer varying accounts of an event or crime. Learn to trust your instincts, but proceed with caution. Intuition may mean the difference between life and death.
How to Become a Police Officer
The minimum qualifications and selection standards for LEO positions are established locally and vary from region to region. Eligibility criteria and training requirements are governed by state law and local civil regulatory code, so it is important that all candidates interested in becoming a peace officer research the specific prerequisites of the department they plan on applying to before they apply.
Here, we summarize the minimum requirements of the California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), so candidates across the country will have a general understanding of the typical pre-requisites they must meet before entering the application process. We encourage all applicants to research local department and agency requirements online or to call the local recruitment unit directly to be sure of the standards they use.
1. Meet the General Qualifications and Eligibility Requirements
Upon meeting the minimum qualifications listed below, candidates are typically eligible to proceed with an application:
Applicants must be at least 18 years old to sit for the National Law Enforcement exam. Some agencies set the standard higher, for example, many agencies require applicants to be at least 21 years old before applying.
U.S. Citizen or Permanent Resident Alien
Applicants must be a citizen or a permanent resident alien of the United States who has applied for and is eligible to become, a U.S. citizen. Many agencies require officers to be U.S. citizens at the time of their appointment.
Valid Driver’s License
Applicants must possess (and maintain) a driver's license to operate an automobile at the time of their initial application and throughout the certification process. Agencies require a valid license in good standing at the date of hire.
Minimum Level of Education
At a minimum, all applicants must have a high school diploma from an accredited U.S. high school, obtain a GED, or pass a State High School Proficiency Examination. Applicants whose highest level of education is an associate's degree, bachelor's degree, or master's degree will meet the education requirements of most departments. Some law enforcement agencies require candidates to have earned some college credits or a four-year degree, while others offer incentive pay programs for officers who pursue a bachelor's degree program or higher.
Individuals who are considering higher education as a means to better prepare themselves for the rigors of the job or as a pathway to faster promotional opportunities as detectives and criminal investigators should consider a degree in criminal justice or a specialized field of law enforcement.
No Felony Convictions
Applicants must pass a fingerprint and criminal background investigation which reveals any record of criminal activity and checks the applicant's personal history to ensure the applicant is of good moral character. Fingerprints are sent to the State Department of Justice (DOJ) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Candidates are disqualified if they have been convicted of a felony or several specific misdemeanors. For example, many agencies will disqualify a candidate if they have been convicted of an offense involving domestic violence or any misdemeanor that prohibits the applicant from owning or possessing a firearm.
2. Pass the Hiring and Selection Process
The first step for any candidate who meets the general qualifications and eligibility requirements (detailed above) is to apply online with the city and county where they hope to work. Candidates who submit their application online must then pass additional written and physical exams, medical and psychological evaluations, and preliminary assessments by the agency to advance to the next steps of the hiring process and eventually be considered for employment. Below, we summarize the basic steps that are common among most police agencies.
Pass the “FrontLine National” Law Enforcement Exam (or Equivalent)
After submitting an application with the City and County, applicants must schedule themselves for the "FrontLine National" law enforcement exam, or equivalent state entrance exam. The FrontLine National exam consists of three components - a reading ability test, a written language ability test, and a video-based human-relations test - which seeks to assess the candidate's reading and writing ability, along with their ability to exercise good judgment in law enforcement. Agencies who do not require the FrontLine National exam often require applicants to pass a similar exam designed by the State Commission on Police Officer Standards and Training (POST), which seeks to measure reading, writing, math, and critical thinking skills. Testing typically takes 2 1/2 hours to complete.
Pass the Physical Abilities Test (PAT)
Candidates who sit for the FrontLine National law enforcement exam will be notified by the City and County of their pass/fail status. Candidates who earn a passing score on the exam will then be notified to take a Physical Abilities Test (PAT), which is also a pass/fail examination.
Through a series of physical exercises, the Physical Abilities Test assesses the cardio-respiratory fitness, muscular endurance, agility, and muscular strength needed to perform the essential physical job tasks required of police and detectives. Physical readiness is critical to the success of patrol officers, so there are typically no waivers or exceptions to the PAT - the test must be completed in its entirety and in accordance with the minimum standards set by the agency, academy, or department.
Pass an In-Person Oral Interview
Candidates who pass the first two components of the evaluation process (the FrontLine National law enforcement exam and Physical Ability Test) will be invited to sit for an oral interview with an Academy Manager or member of the department office of recruitment. The oral interview is also a pass/fail examination, and it should be treated as a formal interview.
During the interview, the academy manager will assess the candidates' demeanor and suitability to become a certified police officer. The interview will consist of questions that offer the candidate an opportunity to demonstrate skills and abilities that are not tested by other examination components, such as problem-solving, communication, and interpersonal skills.
Candidates who pass the oral interview component will be considered eligible and will have their names added to the agency's eligible list. Placement on this list does not guarantee employment, and there are many additional processes and evaluations for each candidate once they are selected from the eligible list. Nonetheless, this is a major step for candidates as they progress through the hiring process, on their way to earning an appointment in law enforcement.
3. Pass Additional Testing Requirements & Personal History Evaluation
Candidates that meet the minimum eligibility requirements and have passed all three components of initial testing (exam, PAT, and oral interview) may be selected by the Police Department to advance further in the hiring and selection process. It is at this point where the department will conduct a "deep dive" investigation into the qualifications, background, and health of the candidate, to further screen the candidate's fitness for employment.
There are no nationwide standards for the screening of police officers - laws and regulations establishing minimum requirements are set by state and local agencies - however, there are many common procedures, outlined below, that most departments will administer to determine which candidates will advance to the academy and receive an appointment.
Personal History Questionnaire (PHQ) Evaluation
A Personal History Questionnaire (PHQ) is a survey presented in multiple-choice format, that typically accompanies a full criminal background investigation of the candidate. The purpose of the evaluation is to gather information about the applicant's personal and professional background and to reveal any criminal associations or history. Candidates are expected to answer the questionnaire truthfully - any inconsistencies or omissions between the answers provided in the PHQ and the information revealed by a comprehensive background check may be a reason for rejection.
Employment, Character, and Background Check
Peace Officers are expected to approach their job and perform their duties with the highest level of moral character and integrity, which means that every applicant is subject to a thorough employment, character, and background check.
A criminal background check will include inquiries about any felony convictions, misdemeanors that would prevent an applicant from owning or possessing a firearm, serious violations of the law (such as domestic violence), criminal or gang affiliations, or any repeated violations that demonstrate a lack of personal responsibility. An examination of the applicant's professional experience will look for instances of the candidate struggling to accept supervision, failing to cooperate as a member of a team, and examples of insubordination. Other reasons for rejection include repeated instances of poor decision making and judgment, sub-standard work habits, truthfulness, and issues with personal accountability.
Review of Judicial and Driving Records
It is essential that all police officers are able to safely operate a motor vehicle, so all agencies require applicants to possess a valid driver's license in good standing to be employed. Candidates must disclose all motor vehicle violations on their Personal History Questionnaire (PHQ), which will be verified when driving records are obtained from the Department of Motor Vehicles. If any of the following misdemeanor violations occurred in the past three years prior to the date of application, the candidate may be disqualified:
- Drunk driving
- Reckless driving
- Hit and run with personal injury
- Hit and run with property damage
- Violations of the law that demonstrate a disregard for safety
- Suspended license
- Negligent operator probation
- Two moving violations in the past 24 months or three in the past 36 months
Testing for Use of Controlled Substances
A required component for all candidates is a test for the use of controlled substances. Any use of a controlled substance that occurs after the initial application date may result in rejection, especially illegal drugs, which trigger a mandatory rejection of any candidate. Information provided by the applicant about prior use of controlled substances may result in rejection as well, depending on how frequent and recent the usage occurred.
Over the course of the hiring and selection process, candidates will provide background information about their personal and professional lives, and will answer questions about their use of controlled substances, criminal history, driving record, history of employment, and medical history. Many agencies will administer a polygraph exam to determine the accuracy of a candidate's responses, so it is essential that all candidates provide truthful answers throughout the process - discrepancies between self-reported answers and information revealed by background checks and tests are a reason for rejection.
Medical & Psychological Examination
A rigorous medical and mental health screening is required of all candidates before they can be offered employment as a member of the police force. Each individual must be evaluated for any current or past medical conditions that may compromise the candidate's fitness for the job, including any mental health issues that may affect the individual's suitability for a law enforcement career.
A medical examination will likely include a check for any physical conditions or injuries that would preclude an officer from performing the essential functions of the position. It is common for blood and urine samples to be collected, along with height and weight measurements. The psychological examination will likely be conducted by a licensed clinical psychologist, who may administer a written test and clinical interview.
Hearing & Vision Testing
It goes without saying that police officers must be physically fit to effectively carry out their duties. This includes a candidate's vision and hearing, which are both tested prior to appointment. While each situation is evaluated on an individual basis, it is common practice for departments to reject candidates who fail vision and hearing tests. Requirements vary by state and locale, but generally, candidates are expected to have visual acuity of 20/30 - unaided or corrected by contact lenses or eyeglasses. Candidates must demonstrate command of all visual fields, pass a color vision test, and achieve a passing score on an auditory threshold test to qualify for duty.
4. Graduate from the Police Academy
Candidates who meet all minimum qualifications and successfully demonstrate their fitness for the job will receive an invitation to the police academy, where they will participate in an intensive period of physical and academic training.
Police academies, which are commonly referred to as law enforcement training facilities, are schools that offer specialized courses to certify people entering the field of law enforcement. While there is definitely some overlap and similarity between the core material and requirements offered by academies in different states, there are no federal criteria for police certification. This means that each state is responsible for defining its own courses and required hours. For that reason, becoming a certified law enforcement officer in Michigan, for example, may be a shorter process than doing so in California.
The length and content of the program you attend vary depending on the certification requirements established by the state you plan to work in. The program duration will include several hundred course-hours (typically 320 to 800 hours) and take anywhere between six and eight months to complete. The Los Angeles Police Department Police Academy, for example, divides its instruction down into component parts, totaling approximately 828 hours of instruction.
Attending the police academy is a requirement for all new law enforcement officers, so you do not have to pay tuition to attend the academy. Recruits receive their full starting salary while they go through training.
The exception is when you attend the academy prior to receiving a job offer. In some states, recruits can pay tuition to attend a police academy or police training center before applying to become a police officer. In these circumstances, the cost to attend training will come out of your own pocket. Costs to attend a police academy are typically less than $5,000 and many police departments offer tuition reimbursement programs that cover a percentage of the out-of-pocket tuition once you are hired.
Academies are often affiliated with community colleges or training centers operated by state and county departments. While attending a police academy, recruits receive training and instruction from senior police officers who have earned special state certification to teach courses. Instructors must typically possess a post-secondary degree (in criminal justice or a closely related field) as their minimum level of education and have several years of experience to qualify as an instructor. Most instructors must also have a firm grasp of the law and be certified in topics such as defensive tactics, CPR, hazardous materials, firearms, driving, racial profiling, and personal tasks.
Physical training at the police academy is no cakewalk. It's rigorous, demanding, and exhausting. A police cadet entering the academy will face an uphill challenge - from beginning to end - to pass intense fitness assessments while also undergoing academic training.
The State of California, for example, recommends that recruits prepare themselves for the academy with a daily regimen of 80 push-ups and 250 crunches, just to be ready for Day 1. Physical conditioning throughout a recruit's time in the academy will typically include regular running, weight training, agility exercises, and training in specific movements used in self-defense. The use of non-lethal, brute force is a part of police work, so it is important that officers build the physical strength necessary to do the job. In Vermont, for instance, recruits between the ages of 20 and 29 must meet the following fitness criteria:
Male Law Enforcement Officers
- Sit-ups: 38 per minute
- Push-ups: 29 per minute
- Bench press: 99 percent of body weight
Female Law Enforcement Officers
- Sit-ups: 32 per minute
- Push-ups: 15 per minute
- Bench press: 59 percent of body weight
To be hired as a law enforcement officer out of the academy, you will have to pass a fitness exam, so it essential that you don't underestimate the importance of coming prepared from the first day. Reports released by the New York Police Department estimate that two-thirds of the recruits entering academy programs are unable to pass the final physical fitness test when they arrive at the academy. Needless to say, you don't want to be one of the recruits who fails the first physical exam.
Physical fitness and self-defense training is an important focal point of the academy, but a majority of the training and education you will receive will be in the classroom. The daily demands of police work require an officer to constantly reference their knowledge of how to properly enforce the law, how to deescalate tense situations, how to manage stress, and how to interact with the public in a professional manner. For this reason, a significant portion of your time in the academy will be spent honing the intellectual tools you will use on the job. Several of the most important topics you will learn about are highlighted below:
Academic work in this area will cover arrest and booking procedures, traffic investigation, patrol techniques, traffic enforcement (vehicle stops), building searches, use of deadly force, preliminary investigation techniques, radio and communications protocol, and report writing.
Law & Crime
Coursework encompasses laws of arrest, search and seizure, crimes against persons and property, crimes against children, collecting evidence, sex crimes, general criminal statutes falling under state penal code, local municipal code, and federal law.
Ethics & Human Relations
Covers community relations, cultural sensitivity training, community policing, stress management, sexual harassment issues, tactical communications, media relations, disability awareness, hate crimes, domestic violence, and missing persons.
- Accident Investigation
- Car Stops
- Community Policing
- Crimes Against Children
- Crimes Against Persons
- Crimes Against the Justice System
- Crimes in Progress
- Criminal Justice Statutes
- Criminal Justice Systems
- Criminal Law
- Crisis Intervention
- Crowd Control
- Cultural Diversity
- Devensive Tactics
- Domestic Violence
- First Aid /CPR
- Handling Disputes
- Hazardous Materials
- Information Systems
- Juvenile Law
- Law of Arrest
- Missing Persons
- Patrol Procedures
- Persons with Disabilities
- Physical Training
- Preliminary Evidence
- Presentation of Evidence
- Report Writing
- Search and Seizure
- Sex Crimes
- Traffic Investigation
- Unusual Occurrences
- Use of Force
- Weapons Violation
5. Complete Field Training & Performance Review
Recruits who successfully graduate from the academy officially become certified police officers, having met all of the physical and academic requirements to transition from civilian to police officer. However, this doesn't mean that freshly minted officers are immediately thrown into the job without support, supervision, or further evaluation.
After graduation, rookie officers enter a field training program, which is a probationary period, or "training cycle", where new officers are paired with an experienced or senior officer who helps prepare them to function as a solo beat officer. This training cycle typically consists of four to five months (16 -20 weeks) of intensive on-the-job training and daily performance reports. The purpose of this training and evaluation is to help transition new officers from a controlled environment to real police life.
After meeting specific performance standards and demonstrating an ability to handle situations assigned to them by their FTO, new officers will be certified for solo patrol duty.
Police Office Salary & Job Outlook
Where Can I Learn More About Careers in Law Enforcement?
If you are interested in becoming a police officer or pursing a career in law enforcement, it's a good idea to seek out professional organizations and additional resources that will help you advance in your career. You can use these resources and personal connections to support your professional growth.
Here are a few professional organizations to consider:
National Association of Police Organizations
International Association of Chiefs of Police
National Sheriff's Association
Fraternal Order of Police
Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association
International Association of Women Police
Women in Federal Law Enforcement
If you would like more information about other career paths in law enforcement, here are a few valuable resources to consider:
The path to becoming a police officer requires years of hard work and dedication, but the personal and professional fulfillment you will experience is worth the effort.