What to know before choosing a career in law enforcement

May 6, 2021

Emma Romano

Let’s begin with the basics

When deciding whether a career in law enforcement is for you, there are many elements of the job to take into consideration. Choosing a career in law enforcement and the path to get there is no easy task. It is imperative to do your research and understand what it really involves, the steps needed to get there, the risks, the benefits, the responsibilities, and the requirements. 

Law enforcement is tasked with preventing and investigating crimes, keeping public order, and other miscellaneous duties to maintain public safety. The responsibility to uphold the law and make sure others follow it is an honorable, but not easy, task.  

The first steps to a career in law enforcement include fulfilling the basic requirements and standards that agencies set for new applicants. Although requirements can differ from state to state, and agency to agency, there are several basic requirements that are followed by all. This may include education requirements, age, and health standards.  

Although most law enforcement agencies only require a high school degree or GED to qualify, some require a college degree or the completion of a minimum number of credits. A college degree may also be beneficial for future promotions or changes in your unit such as chief, detective, or undercover patrol. Some agencies also have different pay grades for people who have degrees. 

The typical minimum age requirement to join a law enforcement agency is 18-21, while the maximum age is around 35-37.  

Many law enforcement officers are veterans who joined the force after their careers in the military. Others may be right out of high school, looking to start their career as soon as possible. Other requirements include being a United States citizen or in some instances, a permanent resident alien. You generally need to hold a valid driver’s license. Being a law enforcement officer requires you to drive around in a patrol car, so having a clean driving history and a valid driver’s license is essential. 

 

The hiring process  

So now that you know all the basic requirements, let’s get into more detail about the hiring process. For starters, you’ll have to take a written exam to assess whether you qualify for a job in law enforcement. These tests require no knowledge of law enforcement or criminal justice and are used to assess general aptitude. The exam will include questions that test your reading comprehension, problem solving, judgment and writing skills. There are practice tests online and you can even join a study group to help you prepare. These tests tend to be lengthy and can consist of hundreds of questions.  

The entrance exam is the first way law enforcement agencies eliminate individuals who do not reflect their values or fit their standards. Getting your test results back can take from a few months to a year. You will typically be able to find your score online or have it sent to you in the mail, where you will also be able to see where you rank compared to others who took the test. The higher your score, the more likely you will be contacted to move on to the next step of the hiring process.  

After passing the written exam, you will be required to pass a physical fitness exam. Because law enforcement can involve physically demanding activities like running, lifting, and sometimes even climbing, applicants are expected to be physically fit. Police officers can find themselves in situations where they need to chase suspects, climb over fences, drag someone from a burning vehicle, apprehend individuals who are noncompliant, as a few examples. Being physically able to perform during moments like these is crucial when pursuing a career in law enforcement.   

Evaluating body and mind 

The physical fitness test measures an applicant’s level of fitness by assessing their strength, endurance and cardiovascular health. The test can vary depending on the agency you are applying to, but typically consists of a timed run, push-ups and sit-ups. The requirements you must reach are based on your age and gender. Hence, a 32-year-old male will have different physical requirements during the test than a 23-year-old female. Even if you haven’t been called to schedule your fitness exam, you should make sure you are training and preparing yourself for this exam. Some agencies may allow you to take the physical examination more than once, but most do not. If you do not pass, you are unable to move forward with the hiring process. 

If you pass the physical test, you will then be required to undergo a thorough background investigation to ensure that you are the type of applicant the agency is looking for. The background investigation can be a lengthy process. It includes employment history, driving history, professional and personal references, academic records, previous and current address history, credit scores and history, fingerprinting, and various interviews. Sometimes an agency will require diplomas, pay stubs, and will even schedule interviews with family and friends who can attest to your character.  

Drug tests may be performed several times during the course of your background check to ensure you are not taking any illegal drugs.  

A medical exam will also be performed to ensure you are able to perform essential job functions. This exam includes measuring your height, weight, vision, hearing, EKG, and blood pressure.  

A psychological evaluation will be performed near the very end of your background investigation to assure you are mentally fit enough to handle the job. Law enforcement can be an emotional and mentally draining profession. The purpose of this test is to evaluate your ability to handle whatever you will encounter as a law enforcement officer from a psychological standpoint.  

Lastly, most agencies will have you complete a polygraph, also known as a lie detector test. This is used to verify the information you have provided throughout your background investigation. They might ask you questions about your academic history, previous criminal behavior, drug or alcohol use, and any other form of deviant behavior. It is important not to lie during any part of your application process and to be consistent with your answers. You are more than likely to be disqualified if you are caught lying during the process.  

When all the elements of your background investigation are completed, the agency will decide on whether you are a good fit for the job. If you are chosen to become part of the law enforcement agency you have applied to, you will then start your training in the academy.  

Tips to survive field training and the academy 

Receiving an offer of employment is the next step in the process to becoming a law enforcement officer. To earn your badge and uniform as a police officer, law enforcement agencies require the completion of academy and field training. Although every state and agency has its own set of requirements, all agencies require training in a police academy, a minimum number of hours of field training, and academic testing. A police academy can last anywhere from a few weeks to several months.  

During your time at the academy, you will learn the essential skills it takes to become a law enforcement officer. These skills include, but are not limited to, report writing, emergency vehicle operations, first aid, defensive tactics, firearms skills, use of force, communications, legal education, physical fitness, and ethics. In each category, there is a minimum standard you must reach to move forward with training. A major part of training will be classroom based, with real life scenarios as needed.  

The academy can be mentally, physically, and emotionally draining. Because law enforcement is a paramilitary organization, the academy will most likely include drill instruction, authoritative and hierarchical command structure, and military rank designations. This typically also follows outside of the academy, as you can move up through the ranks if you choose to (sergeant, lieutenant, chief, captain, etc.). It will include long days of physical and academic training as well as some nights and even weekends. Taking the time to study the material and practice on your days off will be crucial to make it through the academy and out into the real world of policing.  

The good, the bad, and the ugly 

The process of becoming a law enforcement officer takes time and patience. Understanding the process is necessary to determine if you qualify as a candidate and if you want to pursue it as a career. There are many benefits of becoming a police officer such as compensation, benefits, health insurance, early retirement, and the reward of helping people and the community every day.  

Police work is never routine and there is always something new, unlike the typical 9-5 desk job. You have the opportunity to save lives, help people make better decisions, and make a significant difference in the world and to the lives of others. There is bountiful room for growth in law enforcement. You have the ability to move up in rank, change units, and take on other positions like community service. Despite all the positives, there are also many negatives that come with the job. 

Police work is an honorable profession, one that is also dangerous and demanding. Men and women risk their lives to ensure their community is safe. Officers can find themselves in the middle of gun violence, domestic disputes, traffic fatalities, vehicle accidents, gang violence, and much more. Other than the obvious dangerous situations that police officers can find themselves responding to and their increased risk of injury, the responsibility and pressures that police officers deal with on a daily basis can be mentally, physically, and emotionally draining.  

Law enforcement officers are at a higher risk of many life-threatening and long-term health effects that are caused by the demands of the job. Long hours and late-night shifts can cause sleeplessness and insomnia as well as obesity. Police officers may find themselves grabbing food anywhere that is opened, quick and easy. These places are often fast food restaurants or convenience stores that don’t have the healthiest options to choose from.  

Chronic stress of the job has led to an increase in depression and suicide rates among police officers. As a police officer, you will be responding to calls that can include death, abuse, children, traumatic injuries etc. Officers are at an increased risk of developing alcohol and drug abuse as a way of coping with trauma. 

Long hours and rotating shifts can affect family life for law enforcement officers, increasing their rates of divorce and domestic disputes. Balancing police work and home life can be difficult and many officers find it hard to separate work from home life. Holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries are missed adding stress to the spouses and children of police officers. The physical risks alone are enough to be unsettling for family members concerned for the safety of their loved ones out on the job. Add to this, the psychological, mental, and emotional risks.

The impact of public perception on law enforcement 

The public perception of law enforcement officers can also be extremely stressful. Unrealistic or negative portrayals of police officers can skew the public’s view of law enforcement. Officers must constantly evaluate and assess their decision-making and discretionary powers and how it will be perceived by the community.  

Officers are easily scrutinized by the media and their community and can be subjected to discrimination based on the decisions of other officers. Also known as the Rotten Apple Theory, the 1% of corrupt police officers who choose to take part in illegal activities, or take intentional improper action towards citizens, results in a misconception of the other 99%. This then causes additional stress on law enforcement officers as they try to differentiate themselves from the bad officers. One bad apple can cause people’s viewpoint of law enforcement officers to change significantly. Even if you are a good police officer, the poor decisions of another officer can cause you to receive hostility from the community. 

Closing statements 

There is so much to know and consider before choosing a career in law enforcement. This field of work is exciting, rewarding, fulfilling, scary, and intimidating all at once. A decent work ethic, tough skin, and determination are great qualities for a future law enforcement officer. From local county agencies to the FBI, there are several different outlets to get your foot in the door of policing. Working as an officer can be a lifelong career, or it can be a stepping stone to an advanced career in the law enforcement or criminal justice fields.  

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