How to Become a Police Officer

Becoming a police officer can be a long & strenuous process, but at the end of the process you are a gun toting enforcer of the law. You make your community a better place while getting to where a bullet proof vest. During the application process, you will be poked & prodded. During the academy you will yelled at, possible tazered, and told what to do. Get ready. On the other side, though you’ll be in one of the manliest jobs without becoming Chuck Norris, but you could still have awesome facial hair.

Police Officer Ranks:

Officer –  This is where everybody starts. These officers are the ones patrolling the streets writing tickets, and responding to calls. They typically wear no insignia & can specialize in a number of different fields

Detective – These officers do not usually have insignias either, however they often wear plain clothes which means they do not have to wear the same uniform as patrol officers. While they may not technically be above patrol officers, they have more authority in certain situations & can sometimes handle supervisory roles.

3 Inverted Chevrons are the Normal Insignia of a Police Sergeant

Sergeant – This rank is typically notated by three inverted chevrons as their insignias. Typically they will be in charge of shifts or smaller units depending on the city. Some cities have even more ranks such as staff sergeant, etc.

Lieutenant – These officers wear the insignia of one gold or silver bar. They typically oversee a certain number of sergeants.

A Single silver or gold bar is the insignia of a police lieutenant.

Captain – These officers have two gold or silver bars typically referred to as ‘railroad tracks’. They are usually in charge of entire police stations or precincts, but can lead smaller units depending on the city.

Two Gold bars are the insignia of a police captain

Major –  These officers often have a gold or silver oak leaf as their insignia & may supervise police stations or specific parts of the police department of captains

A silver or gold oak leaf is the Insignia of a police major

Colonel – These officers will sometimes where a gold and silver oak leaf or a gold or silver eagle. Most state police agencies maintain this role as the executive role for their department

A gold or silver eagle are typically the insignia of a police colonel

Commander – Often times have an insignia of a single star. Commanders are often in charge of a group of precincts or whole divisions within a police department.

A single gold or silver star is typically the insignia of the police commander

Deputy Chief– This role is typically the number two man in the whole police department & reports directly to the police chief.

Assistant Chief– This role is not used in every police department however may be another man that reports to the police chief without having a concrete role or area of responsibility.

Police Chief– This man is the head of the entire police department. He is often seen as the public face of the police department & usually gets the most flak for any decisions concerning budgeting or incidents. This office is usually appointed by the mayor or city council.

The first step in the process is to find which cities, suburbs, and municipalities around you are taking applications. When you are working on this go beyond the major city nearest to you, search for all the small little towns & suburbs as well.

That was a very brief breakdown of police ranks, in case you need more detail, you can read about them here

Steps to Becoming a Police Officer

A very brief very high level of the steps of how to become a police officer are as follows:

  1. Find out who is hiring & Submit an Application
  2. Go through an extensive testing and examination inside and out
  3. Go through the police academy
  4. Graduate and become a police officer

While most cities and towns only require a high school diploma or GED to become a police officer, there are courses you can take in both high school and college that will help. In high school the most helpful ones will be any government classes or communication classes.

Because understanding how your local city government works, will make life much easier when working for the city. Additionally communication classes are good because when you are a police officer clear communication can quickly defuse a situation instead of escalating it. Sometimes it can be the difference between life and death.

Then you need to find out what each town requires. Typically there will be education requirements, physical fitness requirements, and a long examination process. After all they aren’t going to just give you a gun and a badge.

The required education typically range from a high school diploma to either an associates degree or a certain number of college hours. You will need to get your transcripts sent into the police department.

Additionally they will be doing a very thorough background check so make sure you include all of your past jobs. You may need a copy of your past tax records if you’ve ever been self employed or a 1099 worker.

Most cities and towns do require a valid drivers license. It’s OK if you have a few tickets or have ever had your license suspended, just be upfront about any and all of it when you are filling out your application. If you can order a copy of your driving record from your DMV or do it online, that will make the process even easier.

Once the application is submitted with all the necessary paper work & most police departments run a physical fitness test at an early stage. It is of the utmost importance to make this and be on time. One of the best ways to get ready for the physical fitness test is to start doing some form of Crossfit.

Typically there will be a running portion, an obstacle course, and some sort of weight lifting. The running could be anything from a 1.5 mile run to running sprints back and forth across a football field. The idea is to properly simulate situations that an officer of the law may encounter during a shift. This includes foot chases. Police departments do not require a 5 minute mile, but running a mile without stopping or inside 10 minutes is usually expected.

The obstacle course will contain jumping over objects, potentially moving under or through objects as well as environments like stairs and loading docks. These again are typical environments that are common almost everywhere around the country.

In addition to running & obstacles police departments may also require the applicant to demonstrate the ability to move himself and/or an external object. This may be a dummy that must be dragged a certain distance or a sandbag. This is to simulate handling a potential suspect or a helping a wounded person out of harms way.

Once all the physical test is done & candidates have proven their physical fitness they must prove their mental fitness. This usually takes the form of a series of interviews & psychological evaluations.

It is very important throughout the entire process to tell the whole truth. applicants who lie or try to mislead the police department often forget which version they have told which people & get caught by their inconsistencies. Even if it seems incriminating it is important to tell the truth.

One of the first psychological tests is usually a personality inventory that ranges anywhere from 500-900 true or false statements about the applicant. Here is where most people are knocked out. They answer the way they think the police department wants & they lie. These tests are designed by some of the best minds in the country and it is very unlikely that anyone ever truly fools them.

Again the best move is just to be perfectly honest. If you are feeling really nervous heres a practice one you can take.

After the personality inventory there is usually an interview or series of interviews with a psychologist. These interviews may contain simple canned questions such as ‘how do you like to relax’ or they could ask things that make people uncomfortable such as ‘how would you murder someone if you had the chance’. The goal of this portion is to weed people out who may be unfit or unable to handle the stresses of being a police officer.

Once past the psychological evaluation stage, the next step is a physical evaluation. This is good news! it means that the department wants the applicant & just wants to ensure that they are healthy enough for training & duty.

These physical evaluations typically consist of both hearing & vision tests. As well as blood panels, chest X rays, stress tests, lung capacity tests, drug screening, and a lot of other testing.

This stage exists so that the department has an official record of an applicants state of health before beginning duty. That way should any suit or claims be made against the city they have something to reference to measure the validity of it.

Once past this stage you are ready for the academy. Unfortunately it’s rarely like the movie.

Police academies can be anywhere from 12-21 weeks depending on the city.

They have four components that must be completed before you get to join the force. There is an Academic portion, firearms training portion, a field training and physical portion.

During the academy you will learn about modern investigative techniques, legal statutes & how to enforce them. In addition you will learn self defense, how to shoot and clean your weapon, and a lot of other things.

This won’t be a walk in the park. Most academies are 40 hours a week while some have up to 2 hours of physical training a day & 6 hours of academic or other training. That could mean classroom time, range time, lecture time. Anyting. If you can’t complete any portion of the training, you can kiss your dreams of a badge and gun goodbye.

You will also get some field training including how to drive a squad car, write a police report, take down a suspect, the basics of crime scene investigation. Additionally you will probably get pepper sprayed or tazered because police officers usually carry one or both of those. If you are going to carry them, it helps to have an accurate idea of what it feels like so that you will not use it lightly & so that you will be able to function in case something happens like you get some pepper spray in your eye while struggling with a suspect.

Get used to be screamed at and punished. Police academies are similar to military bootcamps. The instructors will pick on the top and bottom performers. so it’s always better to land somewhere in the middle. However, don’t take it personally. They’re doing it to prepare you for one of the world’s most thankless jobs & to keep you alive.

So after several months you’ll graduate & become a cop.

Life After the Academy

Then you go on probation for a year where you can literally be fired for any reason. Well that’s not entirely true, but you get the point. If you screw up, you’re gone. During this year you will be going on different rotating shifts in different precincts. If you are in the top 5 of your class you usually get to pick your precicnt and shift after that year. Otherwise they will be assigned to you.

During the first several years after the academy typically officers are basic patrolman. This means you will be writing tickets for traffic violations, responding to emergency calls, and many other things. However even in this basic position there are opportunities to expand your skill set.

Most police departments have rifle certifications which include getting qualified to shoot and carry AR-15s. Additionally they may send you through things like EMT school, negotiation training, or crisis response training. All of these are great chances to learn and master new skills, and look really good on resumes

What is the average salary of a police officer in the US?

The starting police officer is usually about 35-40k while in training. After that you it depends a lot on the city. Places like Memphis, TN top out at 53K a year for basic patrol officers after 3 years. While cities like Austin TX top out at 90K if you manage to stay on patrol for 16 years.

There will be opportunities for over time as well as special pay including shift differential & holiday pay.

Working hours for police officers are rarely standard. Some do 5 8 hours shifts a week while others may do 4 10 hour shifts or even 3 12 hour shifts. It depends on the department. Additionally if you are part of a special investigation or unit your hours may be dependent on that unit.

If you are going to transfer most police departments require 3 years of work in another department. If you don’t have that, they may put you back through the police academy.

After your initial year of probation you are actually going to have a lot of different career opportunities. You could become a detective, or undercover police officer, or even a swat officer. There are tons of different departements you could work in including narcotics, organized crime, special weapons and tactics, vice. Etc. and a lot more.

How to become a detective

once you have spent time on patrol. You will have the opportunity to join different parts of the police department & attain different ranks. One position you can attain is the position of detective. These positions are usually pretty competitive & much more focused. Instead of writing tickets & responding to calls, you typically handle a certain case load & see cases through to the very end. Whether you are in homicide, special victims (yes just like law and order:SVU), or any other department, this job usually comes with a pay increase & more responsibility. You will have to do things like interrogate witnesses & suspects, piece together information & much more.

How to become a SWAT Officer

SWAT officers are usually thought of as the baddest of the bad. Different cities have different names for these units, but the idea remains the same. These are the guys call when an unusual situation or threat happens. The requirements usually involve really strict physical standards such as:

  • Running a mile and a half in under 10 minutes
  • Being able to climb a 150 ft ladder with no safety gear to catch you
  • Being able to stress shoot with a pistol and shotgun
  • Swim 400 m
  • and more.

Even if you meet the physical requirements there’s no guarantee that you will make it into the training process. If you do manage to make it past the physical requirements, the school is the next step.

Usually this school is anywhere from 4-6 weeks of specialized training designed to make you the baddest of the bad. There will be constant physical training as well as team building and other tests that will push you mentally as well as physically. Once you’ve made it to the other side, you will have some pretty great privileges.

SWAT officers typically get issued a special police vehicle that carries all of their gear. You won’t have to sit behind a desk or be on patrol. Usually you spend your days training, testing new equipment, and preparing for calls. Once a call comes in you have to mobilize.

Heres a video that shows just a little of what SWAT training is like:

The LAPD also does a great job of breaking down what it takes to become a SWAT officer

How to become an undercover cop

Despite what movies like the departed show you, becoming an undercover cop does not require faking your own death, or pretend losing your job. Occasionally, it usually just involves going on a sting operation & buying drugs from a dealer.

Usually you are assigned to a specific unit(narcotics, internal affairs, etc.) & once you have spent some time there and proven that you know the lay of the land & can handle yourself, you get your chance. Typically it doesn’t involve months of being away from family and friends surrounded by hardened criminals, but sometimes it does. This job can be high stress, but also full of excitement, and very rewarding.

Police benefits

In the same way that your benefits depend on the company you work for, benefits for police often depend on what city you work for. However they typically include the following options:

Retirement: Much like a the military most police forces don’t require a certain age, but a certain number of years of service. For example after 25 years of service in the Memphis Police Department you are eligible for retirement. This retirement can be in the form of contribution into a fund, or can be your typical 401k

Health Care: Because there are certain risks & conditions that police officers face on a daily basis, it can be hard for them to get health insurance on their own. Because of this reason the city usually will provide access to some type of plan that is either specifically for police officer or at the very least makes it easier for the police officer to recieve coverage. Often this health insurance extends into your retirement which is good.

Life Insurance: In a similar vein to health insurance because police officers face danger & special circumstances everyday most cities will include life insurance in their offerings to prospective employees. Usually it’s very good insurance for the mere fact that a city wants to take of any fallen police officers families.

Education incentives: Often times city and academies will pay you for getting more college credit hours. This means that as you are working you can attend classes & get access to an education you may not have been able to afford otherwise. Additionally, some universities may give you a discount for being a law enforcement officers.

Unofficial benefits: Most people are appreciative of the fact that police officers are willing to put their lives on the line for strangers every day. Often time restaurants will give you discounts for eating there and some merchants will as well.

Can a felony keep you from becoming a police officer?

Unfortunately, yes if you have a felony on your record, that may disqualify you from joining the police force. Most departments require what they consider to be an outstanding moral code to be an officer, which means no felons. As much as it sucks those are the consequences of your actions.

If you have your heart set on becoming a police officer & genuinely feel like you have either changed your life, or caught the raw end of a deal with the police, you can try and get your record expunged. However, that is easier said than done.

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