The first step in exploring any career path is to learn as much as you can about it and the jobs within it. Law enforcement is no different. You not only need to make sure that you’re a good fit for this kind of work, but you also have to determine which of the many branches of law enforcement is right for you. Additionally, it’s important to learn the reality of a job in law enforcement–it’s substantially different than what you see in TV shows and movies. Law enforcement as a career is a substantial commitment of time, money and effort so you need to learn everything you can before you begin.
While you may come into this process wanting to join a local police department, you need to consider the other areas of law enforcement. In addition to the local police, you should explore other jurisdictional options such as the campus police at a local college or university. You may also determine that the highway patrol or a career as a probation/parole officer is a better match for your skill set. There’s also many law enforcement branches of our Federal government including the FBI, Homeland Security, or the Federal Marshall’s service. This short list is far from exhaustive, and you may learn about a more specialized area of law enforcement that is just what you’re looking for in a career.
2. UNDERSTAND THE ELIGIBILITY REQUIREMENTS AND YOUR MOTIVATIONS:
Not surprisingly, there is a stringent list of eligibility requirements that you must meet to become a law enforcement officer. These vary from one branch to another, but some common guidelines include a minimum age (usually 21), no previous drug use, no felony criminal record and be of good moral character and emotional soundness. You will likely be subjected to a background check, a psychiatric evaluation, a polygraph test. In addition, you will also have to pass a written exam and in many cases a physical fitness test.
While you’re thinking about these eligibility requirements and your ability to fulfill them, it’s a good time to think about why you want to become a police officer in the first place. Obviously, it’s not for the money and law enforcement benefits are comparable to most private sector careers. It’s also a more dangerous job and comes with a significant burden of responsibility. Make sure that your motivations are sound before you start the process of becoming a police officer.
3. GIVE THOUGHT TO YOUR LONG-TERM CAREER GOALS:
Like most professions, your career as a police officer will begin ‘at the bottom’. For most police departments, you’ll begin on ‘the street’ in one way or another either as a beat cop on foot or a patrol officer traveling in a car. With few exceptions, everyone else in your department will have ‘paid their dues’ in the same way.
Once you move beyond ‘square one’ in your career as a policeman there are a variety of directions in which you can move. You can remain a street officer long term or you can become a detective/investigator working major crimes. You can also work toward a position in department administration (aka ‘The Brass”) and advance up the chain of command. There are also many specialized areas of police work including K-9 training, SWAT team work, community relations and many others.
4. LOOK FOR A DEPARTMENT THAT IS HIRING:
Here’s where your career as a police officer will begin and it’s just like any other job–you need to find a department that is hiring and start the application process. There are many ways to find about job openings locally, regionally and nationally. Many departments list open positions on mainstream job search websites. There are also specialized websites for law enforcement openings. Another good resource for ‘networking’ are discussion communities for policemen and law enforcement officers. Finding the perfect job could be as simple as ‘asking around’ either in person or online.
Once you’ve found a department that interests you it’s time to talk to their recruiter. Keep in mind that becoming a police officer is a competitive and challenging process. Less than 10% of applicants can make it all the way through and become certified. The visit with the recruiter is the first place that you’ll be ‘evaluated’ by a prospective employer. Treat it like you would a private sector job interview–dress professionally, arrive on time and be on your best behavior. Act enthusiastic about becoming a police officer but don’t come off as arrogant or a ‘know it all’. Be prepared for some challenging questions from the recruiter about your career goals and motivations for entering law enforcement.
5. PREPARE FOR THE APPLICATION EXAMS:
In some ways, preparing for a law enforcement application examination is similar to studying for any other graduate school or professional certification test. There are many study books, preparation courses, online tutorials and video lectures that can help you learn what you need to know to pass the exam with flying colors. The more you study and learn now the greater your chances for success down the road.
You can also look to other police officers for advice and input. Most law enforcement officers are happy to help a qualified and ambitious candidate get through the testing process. You may already know some police officers that can serve as a resource. You can also contact the department you’re applying for or another department locally to spend a shift riding with an officer (a ‘ride along’). The study materials are an effective way to prepare for the exams, but nothing beats information from an experienced police officer.
6. PREPARE FOR THE BACKGROUND CHECK:
The goal of a background check is to leave ‘no stone unturned’ in determining a candidate’s fitness for police service. Every imaginable part of your life is fair game including personal relationships, family relationships, finances, and your driving record. You should obviously know if the background check will turn up something that disqualifies you from service. If you have something questionable but less serious in your past, you obviously can’t ‘undo’ it now. You can, however, but upfront and honest about it. A minor offense as a teenager won’t disqualify you, but being evasive and untruthful about it could raise questions about your character. Being honest about it won’t make it worse and could work in your favor as a positive reflection on your ethical framework.
It’s also a good idea to give your friends and family the ‘heads up’ that you’re in the process of a background check. This way they’ll know that you’re applying to become a police officer and won’t be surprised at the nature of the questioning. The interviews with your primary references can also be used to find ‘secondary references’ that interviewers may contact for additional information. There’s not anything you can do to ‘prep’ your references for the background interview but if you’ve been honest so far, you’ll be fine.
The background check process is usually where a department will subject you to a polygraph test. The test is done to provide additional verification to the information you’ve provided on the application and to find out about anything that you might be concealing. While there’s no pleasant way to deal with a polygraph examination, you shouldn’t have any problem assuming that you were truthful and forthcoming throughout the application process.
7. PREPARE FOR THE POLICE ACADEMY:
As a new hire in any police department, the next order of business is to complete the academy and earn certification as an officer. The police academy is part training program and part ‘boot camp’ style environment. The goal is not only to teach you the basics of police work but to challenge you mentally, physically and emotionally. The thinking is that it’s better to find out that an officer candidate can’t deal with stress in this environment than on the street.
The training program at the academy typically lasts between 4 and six months and is extremely intensive. You’ll be expected to abide by a strict set of rules governing your punctuality, preparation–even a dress code. Most police academies are ‘commuter’ program meaning that you’ll be living at home during the training. That notwithstanding, don’t expect to have much ‘leisure time’ as your off hours will usually involve studying or otherwise preparing for course work.
In addition to the mental challenge of the curriculum, the police academy will also work to evaluate and improve your physical fitness. You will be required to pass a physical fitness test, so it’s a good idea to get in good shape before the academy program begins. Work on improving your cardiovascular conditioning, your flexibility, your upper body strength and the ‘core strength’ of your torso. You’ll also be doing a lot of running at the academy so getting used to this routine will also be helpful.
8. BECOME A SWORN POLICE OFFICER:
Once you make it through the police academy, you’ll be a certified law enforcement officer. You will take an oath of honor in a formal ceremony similar to a college graduation event. This event not only recognizes your accomplishment at completing the difficult application process but underscores the responsibility of serving your community as a police officer.
At this point, your police department will assign your rank and prepare for you to continue your training in the field. The specific names and graduation of the hierarchy vary from department to department but in most cases your first rank will simply be that of ‘police officer’.
9. TRAINING IN THE FIELD:
Now it’s time to hit the streets for training under real world conditions. You’ll be dealing with real criminals, real victims real members of the community. You’ll begin your field training with the department assigning you an FTO. Your FTO (short for ‘field training officer’) earned the role by being a first rate police officer with excellent leadership and communication skills. In short, they’re someone you should pay close attention to and treat with the utmost respect.
An important part of training with the FTO is learning to reconcile the theory you learned at the academy with the practical reality of field work. Every FTO will be different and have different expectations for their trainees. As a rule, however, it’s a bad idea to respond to any question or situation by saying ‘this is how we did it at the academy.’ While most FTO’s will answer questions about the discrepancies between the academy theory and it’s practical application in the field it’s in bad form to dismiss his experience.
Training with your FTO is not only the final step in your formal preparation for police work, it’s a chance to build a relationship with a mentor. His job is to make sure you understand the processes involved in police work and the safety precautions to make sure you go home in once piece at the end of your shift. Ask questions, listen intently and take advantage of this extremely valuable resource.
10. LIFE AS A ROOKIE COP:
After you’ve completed several weeks of field training, you’ll be ‘on your own’–a full-fledged rookie cop. While your formal instruction is over there’s still a lot to learn. Your first year as a police officer will be a very challenging, stressful and ultimately rewarding experience. In many ways, it’s even more of a learning experience than the academy since you have to transfer the theory you’ve learned to the real world demands of ‘the street’.
It’s impossible to outline a good strategy to make your rookie year successful in just a paragraph but here are some basic concepts. Don’t expect anything to play out exactly like you learned at the academy. Don’t take things personally–from insults on the street to treatment by your fellow officers. Serve your community with dignity, grace, and politeness. Treat your fellow officers and superiors with respect.
The process of becoming a police officer is long and arduous. This difficulty is why so few candidates make it through the steps that lead to certification as a police officer. Never forget why you wanted to become a police officer in the first place and take pride in what you have accomplished. Now use your skills for the benefit of the citizens you serve and to make your community a better place.