Over 80% of police officers are satisfied in their careers, with many pointing out perks like great pay and benefits, amazing coworkers, and feeling like their job makes an impact. But while the perks of becoming a police officer are clear, the path to get there is less so.
Technically, anyone with a high school diploma can become a police officer in most states, but other credentials exist that make you a stronger candidate who is more likely to land the job. If you’re wondering how to become a police officer, or even if this job is right for you, this guide covers everything you need to know to join a local force. It also provides advice on whether policing is right for you. Read until the end for state-specific regulations on how to become a police officer.
Is becoming a Police Officer right for me?
Becoming a police officer is a highly personal decision, especially amidst concerns about divisive police practices. Regardless, there are some personality traits that many great police officers share:
- High tolerance for stress and danger
- The ability to keep a cool head in perilous situations
- A desire to serve the community, even if it means putting their life on the line
- Respect and desire to uphold the law
- Excellent attention to detail to manage cases properly
If you’re looking for a low-stress job or one where you don’t have to physically put yourself in danger, becoming a police officer isn’t for you. Those eager to serve their communities, aid in dangerous situations, and protect citizens should look further into how to become a police officer.
How to Become a Police Officer: Step-by-Step
Communities put a high level of trust and authority in their police force. When their job is done correctly, police can be superheroes in their communities. Yet, as one superhero cliche indicates, with great power comes great responsibility (and training). When researching how to become a police officer, you’ll notice the steps are rigorous. Generally, there are five main steps to becoming a police officer, though they can differ from state to state. The section below dives into each step in more detail.
Step 1: Earn a Degree & Complete Police Academy Training
Police academy training is a crucial step for becoming a police officer. This training is a staple of sitcoms, movies, and pop culture, though it can be hard to know fact from fiction. In reality, police academy training differs from state to state. Usually, this training takes place in person. In California, for example, candidates must take a six-month course with attendance from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Monday through Friday.
Before applying for the police academy, consider getting an associate or bachelor’s degree. Some states, like Minnesota, require an associate degree or higher in criminal justice for all police officers. In other states, only a high school degree is required. Regardless, a higher education degree allows you to stand out and may provide more options for career advancement.
Even between police officers with associate or bachelor’s degrees, career opportunities differ. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that officers with four-year degrees in criminal justice or law enforcement may be more attractive candidates and are eligible for positions like detective, sergeant, or police chief. Fortunately, there are plenty of high-quality online criminal justice bachelor’s degrees to consider.
Step 2: Successfully Pass a Background Check
Either before, during, or after completing police academy training, candidates must pass background checks. The timing of this check differs greatly since each state has its own process, though most require a background check before you are hired.
Here’s the timeline for five different states for a better idea of when the background may occur.
- California: A background check looking at a candidate’s criminal record and moral character occurs before that person is admitted to the police academy.
- Texas: Background checks occur before training begins for police officers and jailers. Texas only looks at a candidate’s criminal background.
- Indiana: After initial requirements are met, Indiana police departments run a series of tests on a candidate. Along with a background check, these include a written exam, physical fitness test, and polygraph test.
- New York: To join a police department in New York, candidates must submit to background checks before they are hired.
- Georgia: Georgia has an official pre-employment process that includes a background test and polygraph test, among others.
Most states require a series of background checks beyond a traditional scan for criminal history. Most also screen a candidate’s mental and physical fitness, how they respond to stressful situations, and their moral character.
Step 3: Pass the Police Officer Licensing Exam
Most states also require a licensing exam. Sometimes, this exam occurs at the end of police academy training. Other states have a licensing exam before training, though this is rarer. Some states have an exam before and after training.
For a better idea of what to expect, here’s how three states administered their licensing exam.
- Washington State: Candidates must complete the entire police training course before taking a final licensing exam. The final exam accounts for two hours of the 64-hour course.
- North Carolina: To be a licensed police officer, candidates must first complete basic law enforcement training (BLET) and pass the BLET exam. BLET is a 640-hour course that takes about 16 weeks to complete.
- Nebraska: To be a licensed police officer in Nebraska, there are many licensing exams to pass. Candidates must score 80% or higher on a written exam after police academy training and then pass a firearm exam.
When looking at how to become a police officer, keep in mind that you’ll have to set aside time to study for the licensing exam regardless of the state you want to work in.
Step 4: Undergo a Psychological Evaluation
Whether it’s going after an active shooter or on a high-speed chase to catch a robber, police officers end up in many stressful situations. These scenarios require an above-average level of mental toughness. To test the psychological wellness of candidates, police forces often put them through psychological evaluations.
A psychological evaluation screens for personality traits, behavior patterns, mental conditions, and personality disorders that may hinder an officer’s ability to serve the community and collaborate with other officers. In most states, this evaluation must be conducted by a licensed healthcare provider such as a psychologist or psychiatrist.
The exact requirements for the evaluation differ from state to state. In Oregon, for example, the evaluation requires:
- A written exam to test the “psychological test battery” of a candidate
- An in-person interview with a licensed mental health professional
After these two requirements, the mental health professional writes up a formal evaluation stating if the candidate is fit to serve and delivers it to the station. A police department has the final say in how they use the information from the psychological screening.
Step 5: Apply for Police Officer Jobs
For most states, the process of applying for police jobs is quite strenuous. It includes the background check, the psychological evaluation, completing the policy officer academy, and passing a licensing exam. Those aren’t the only requirements, either.
In most states, candidates must also:
- Pass a physical strength test with tasks like running a mile or doing 100 push-ups
- Be of strong moral character
- Complete a firearms training program
- Past a physical health test provided by a health care provider
- Complete a job interview
If a station is interested in hiring you, they’ll help facilitate the various screenings and policy academy requirements to determine your eligibility. Speaking to your local police station is often the first step in becoming a police officer.
Law Enforcement Specializations to Consider
Once you’ve passed basic police officer training, you may be interested in additional specializations that allow you to work more puzzling or high-stakes cases, enter into leadership roles, and increase your salary potential. But not all specialties are for everyone. To determine the best specialization for you, explore the five listed below to discover the personality traits that would make someone successful in that role.
How to Become a Detective
When researching how to become a police officer, you may come across a related but more specialized career: being a detective. Detectives solve more serious crimes and may do so in a police uniform or plain clothes. Often, detectives go undercover, participate in raids, and conduct interviews with suspects. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, detectives make about $20,000 more per year than other police officers.
Becoming a detective may be a good fit for candidates with these personality traits:
- Attention to detail
- Ability to commit to hard-to-solve cases until they are resolved
- High tolerance for stressful situations
A bachelor’s degree or previous policing experience also makes someone a more competitive candidate for this role.
How to Become a Sheriff
The terms sheriff and police officer are often used interchangeably. In reality, though, a sheriff is a specialized type of police officer who is responsible for running a jail, providing court security, and serving warrants. Sheriffs also police unincorporated parts of a county.
Becoming a sheriff may be a good fit for candidates with:
- An associate degree or higher in a field like criminal justice
- The ability to work alone or on smaller teams
- A willingness to drive further distances while on the job
When researching how to become a police officer, keep this specialization in mind as your career grows, especially if you’re interested in legal proceedings.
How to Become a Reserve Police Officer
A reserve police officer is a volunteer who steps into the role as needed. For example, in Washington D.C., 100 reserve officers help with community outreach, patrolling, and other law enforcement duties. While these positions are typically unpaid, they do come with annual training opportunities.
If you go through the process of becoming a police officer but decide to leave for another line of work, becoming a reserve police officer is a great way to maintain some training and have an impact on your community.
How to Become a K9 Officer
K9 officers work alongside police dogs on a variety of cases. Typically, K9 units are tasked with drug and security threat cases because police dogs are particularly adept at tracing drugs, bombs, and other security threats.
Becoming a K9 officer may be a good fit for those who like training and working alongside animals, especially dogs. It is also a great position for a police officer with some experience and interest in specializing in investigating security threats or drug offenses.
How to Become a Military Police Officer
Along with civilian police officers, the military has forces that operate throughout the country as well. Military police officers can be deployed into combat, either at home or abroad (usually, it’s within the U.S.), and may receive some additional training. Often, the role is more demanding since they are tasked with the responsibilities of both a soldier and a police officer.
This role is a great option for anyone looking to take on more of a combative role or additional responsibilities. If you’re interested in becoming a police officer but are also interested in military work, this role might provide the best of both worlds.
State-Specific Police Officer Requirements
How to become a police officer is a state-specific question. While this guide outlines the general requirements, it’s also important to look at what your state (or even city police department) requires from candidates. To give you an idea of what to look for and expect, here are the requirements in five states.
How to Become a Police Officer in California
In California, police officers (or peace officers as the state refers to them), must undergo pre-employment testing and complete the state’s basic police academy before they can join the force. Unlike other states, the pre-employment testing screens for a candidate’s moral character as well as their criminal background, mental agility, and physical fitness. If accepted into the police academy, training is a Monday through Wednesday commitment from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. It lasts six months, and officers are paid during training.
How to Become a Police Officer in Texas
Texas’ requirements are a bit more lax than other states. Texas requires that a candidate has a high school degree or GED, passes a criminal background test, passes a physical exam, and shows no signs of drug dependency before joining the force. They must also undergo police officer training at a licensed academy.
How to Become a Police Officer in New Jersey
To become a police officer in New Jersey, an applicant must first have an associate degree or higher, preferably in criminal justice or a related field. If a candidate only has an associate degree, they must also have at least 24 months of employment or military experience. All applicants must be 21 years or older and be able to pass criminal background and physical fitness tests. They must also attend a licensed police academy, with training typically lasting 24 weeks.
How to Become a Police Officer in Florida
In Florida, all candidates must pass the Florida Department of Law Enforcement Basic Abilities Test (FDLE BAT) before they attend an orientation session to learn about a local police department. Beyond that test, requirements are typically set by an individual city or department. In Miami, for example, candidates must be 21 years or older, have a high school diploma or higher, have good vision without glasses or contacts, and have no convictions.
How to Become a Police Officer in Illinois
In Illinois, candidates must have at least their high school diplomas or GEDs, be able to pass criminal background checks, and be of good mental and physical fitness. A candidate also must have a firearms license and driver’s license in the state of Illinois. The state also requires that candidates pass cognitive, physical, and psychological tests.