How to become a police officer

HomeCriminal justicePolice officer

To safeguard American society and its citizens, police officers take it upon themselves to enforce local and national laws as a means of ensuring peace and order. Generally, police officers are responsible for responding to both emergency and non-emergency calls while regularly patrolling their specific jurisdiction checking that laws are being adhered to. As first responders, they often place themselves in harm’s way, positioning themselves between criminals and the citizens they protect.

Police officers are ultimately responsible for a wide range of tasks that can vary from day to day, but their duties typically include the following:

  • Patrolling neighborhoods to prevent unlawful acts
  • Engaging in community outreach to offer services related to public safety
  • Arresting suspects, gathering evidence, testifying in court
  • Responding to calls and documenting interactions with suspects and witnesses

Police officers play numerous roles on a local, state, and national level, all of which focus around preventing crime and protecting citizens. Once in the position, police officers are tasked with controlling traffic, issuing citations, conducting preliminary investigations, preparing field notes, arresting and processing criminals, testifying in court, as well as other essential duties that help safeguard their assigned community.

Becoming employed as a police officer provides various benefits and, while there are risks that come with the job, there are numerous advantages to help counter any challenges that may arise. Since police officers are needed at every level of law enforcement from local to national, there are no geographic constraints. Every day on patrol is also unpredictable due to the wide variety of tasks and duties, which limits a monotonous daily schedule. The personal satisfaction that arises from protecting citizens and communities can be a positive motivating factor for many in this job.

The BLS predicts a 5% job growth for this professional until 2029, which is a higher-than-average growth rate for all other occupations. However, this demand does depend on location, as budgets provided by local and state governments can impact the number of available positions. Despite the unknown influence of governmental budgets, communities continue to demand an increase in officers, even when crime rates fall. This demand for police officers is predicted to continue to rise, thereby providing professional stability.

One of the most crucial characteristics a police officer must have is the ability to perform their duties impartially. They must be able to enforce laws without allowing sex, race, religion, or political affiliations to impact their responses. Officers must maintain their integrity to effectively carry out their duties or risk losing their standing in the community and thereby becoming ineffective. Police officers are required to serve their community, safeguard lives and property, protect the innocent, maintain peace, and provide justice and liberty for all. 

Tasks and duties 

Getting down into more specific tasks because not all police work is patrolling. What else do police officers do?  

Respond to emergency calls

When someone needs immediate assistance, the police typically answer the call and arrive at the scene first. Emergency calls can range from violent crimes to noise complaints, and as a result,  police officers require the ability to quickly adapt to any given situation.

Patrol neighborhoods

When not responding directly to emergency calls, police officers patrol an assigned neighborhood for reasons that vary from the regulation of traffic to protecting lives and property.

Write citations

A citation is a directive given to an individual by an officer that typically requires the person to appear in court to answer for an alleged misdemeanor or infraction. If found guilty of a misdemeanor, there is the possibility of incarceration, whereas an infraction usually carries a fine.

Deliver warrants

Once a judge determines if there is enough evidence that suggests an individual has committed a crime, they issue an arrest warrant, which authorizes the police to arrest the individual identified in the warrant.   

Arrest and process criminals

Once a police officer is called to the scene and makes an arrest, they must escort the alleged criminal back to the police department for processing. This consists of entering the charges regarding the crime the individual allegedly committed.  

Testify in a law court

Police officers are often asked to testify in court for reasons that can range from moving violations to more intense violent crimes where the officer intervened.

alt"light-bulb-1" Did you know?

There are more than 800,000 sworn officers in the United States.

Future outlook
future outlook tooltip icon

Future Outlook Projections are taken from the Projections Management Partnership (PMP). The PMP is funded by the Department and Labor, Employment and Training Administration, with direct support from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The PMP provides data-driven projections of future workforce needs.

654,900

Police and Sheriff’s Patrol Officers total employment

52,900

Police and Sheriff’s Patrol Officers annual openings
future outlook tooltip icon

Annual openings include jobs available due to both an increase in demand, and regular employee turnover (retirees, career switchers, etc.).

5%

Estimated increase in Police and Sheriff’s Patrol Officers jobs (2018-2028)
future outlook tooltip icon

The estimated increase in jobs (2018-2028) is the increase in total jobs expected and does not consider employee turnover.

Neutral job growth-0 Neutral job growth-1 Neutral job growth-2

Neutral job growth
future outlook tooltip icon

To provide context to estimated job growth, we employ a “fire and ice” system, which compares projected career growth to the national average of 5.2%, as follows:

<-10% = 3 ices
Btwn -5 to -9.9% = 2 ices
Between -5% to-.1% = 1 ice
between 0- 5.5% = neutral
Between 5.5%-10% = 1 fire
Between 10-20% = 2 fire
>20%=3 fires

At the state level, we simply sort the states from fastest growing to slowest within the particular career, or 1st to 50th.

The fastest growth states

1.

Utah

+23.1%

2.

Colorado

+14.8%

3.

Arkansas

+12.3%

4.

Nevada

+11.8%

5.

Georgia

+11.7%

6.

Tennessee

+11.2%

7.

Maryland

+9.8%

Police and Sheriff’s Patrol Officers salary information by state

Nominal
Real salary
future outlook tooltip icon

The nominal salary is the unadjusted salary paid.

The real salary is adjusted to consider the purchasing power by state. We multiply the nominal salary by a state purchasing parities index to indicate the relative value of salaries by state. For instance, while New York or California might pay the highest nominal salary, these states are relatively expensive and so the real value of the salary is often less than a cheaper to live in state with a lower nominal salary.

BLS
Payscale
future outlook tooltip icon

When available we provide 2020 state level salary information from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing 10th, 50th, and 90th percentile earnings to provide the range of salary experienced by each career. Salary data is aggregated from the actual reported income of the US labor force, and is considered the most trustworthy data source for salary information.

Payscale is a salary survey service meant to provide employers and employees with salary data at local levels to benchmark and compare. While Payscale has a much smaller sample size than BLS, Payscale does update more frequently so data may be considered fresher. Payscale also indicates salaries at a wider range of roles whereas BLS sometimes aggregates numerous professions into one category which may skew salary data. For this reason, we find Payscale to be a good secondary salary indicator. All information received from payscale is via a paid API. You can read more about payscale and their data methodology here.

Highest salary states

1.

California

$111,270

Average salary

2.

New Jersey

$91,630

Average salary

3.

Alaska

$85,910

Average salary

4.

Washington

$84,680

Average salary

5.

New York

$82,790

Average salary

6.

Illinois

$81,320

Average salary

7.

Colorado

$79,740

Average salary

Last five years employment and salary
future outlook tooltip icon

We utilize historic annual BLS salary and total employment statistics to create a trend line which illustrates the job market over time for a particular career.

National

Average Wage Total employment
2016: $59,680 657,690
2017: $61,050 662,390
2018: $61,380 661,330
2019: $63,150 665,280
2020: $65,540 654,900

 Step-by-step guide – what do I do to begin working?

Step 1: Education

  • Becoming a police officer does not require post-secondary education; in fact, a high school diploma is typically all the formal education that is needed.  Note, while associate’s and bachelor’s degrees are not obligatory, they can provide the officer with a competitive edge compared to those who have not earned a post-secondary degree.

Step 2: Entrance exam

  • Prior to being accepted into a police academy, potential officers are required to pass an entrance exam. Police academies have different requirements depending on location. Consequently, entrance exams can differ from one jurisdiction to the next. The written portion of the exam focuses on testing the applicant’s math, reading, language, and writing skills. Most police departments also require candidates pass a psychological, physical, and polygraph test. 

Step 3: Pass interview

  • During the oral interview, applicants are assessed on their communication skills, comprehension of the law, and their evaluation of various scenarios. This provides the opportunity for an oral review board to determine the competency and capability of the prospective officer.

Step 4: Graduate from a police academy

  • Upon completion of the entrance exam and interview, trainees need to  attend the police academy. The academy typically consists of training in first aid, emergency response, firearm usage, traffic control, and self-defense. Officers complete coursework that teaches them local and state laws, constitutional law, civil rights, and police ethics. Training can take up to 6 months and is recognized as forming the foundation to the process of becoming a police officer. 

Step 5: Complete field training                     

  • An important step in their professional development, field training provides new police officers with practical experience of law enforcement. In addition, police officers develop an understanding of the professional culture of the agency they work for. Field training is generally for 12-18 weeks, and in this period officers participate in active duty under the tutelage of a field training officer.

Education and training

Associate degree in criminal justice

The majority of associate programs for criminal justice require the completion of 60-68 credits and include the following coursework:

  • Criminology - Provides information that focuses on the examination of psychological, sociological, and moral issues that influence criminal behavior
  • Criminal justice ethics - Coursework revolves around how principles of ethics and morality impact the criminal justice and court systems
  • Police Studies - Delves into foundational aspects of the policing system by providing an overview of law enforcement history, crime patters, and the advancement of police procedures

Programs usually provide courses that focus on criminal law, law enforcement, and community relations. Outside of the core courses, students are often also provided with certification options within areas of study such as corrections or forensics.  Some associate programs are offered online.

Skills acquired

Throughout the course of an associate program in criminal justice, students develop various essential skills such as:

  • problem solving
  • critical thinking
  • active listening
  • time management
  • ethical leadership

FAQ

1.How long does this course take to complete?

Earning an associate degree typically takes 2 years to complete.

2.Does the course need to be accredited?

Selecting a program that holds regional accreditation is highly suggested, as those who decide to earn their bachelor’s degree will find the credits they earned can be transferred to a 4-year program.

3.Why would an associate degree in criminal justice help your police career?

By earning an associate degree in criminal justice, police officers showcase their desire to take on more of a leadership role. With an associate degree, police officers also have a high earning potential compared to those without any post-secondary education.

Bachelor’s degree in criminal justice

A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice typically requires 120 credits to complete and includes the following coursework:

  • Criminal justice system - Focuses on an analysis of the rights of citizens and how communities play a role in reducing and preventing crime in conjunction with local law enforcement
  • Criminology - Provides the impact that society and social structures have on crime while learning various methods on how to reduce crime
  • Service learning - Details how participating in public affairs and local government can help communities limit criminal behavior
  • Ethical dilemmas: Examines the dilemmas currently faced by law enforcement and how ethics can aid in positive reformations
  • Forensic science: Explores best practices regarding handing a crime scene and evaluating evidence

Skills acquired

After earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, graduates developed various skills that include the following:

  • critical thinking
  • personal ethics
  • effective leadership
  • effective communication
  • analysis of evidence/suspects/witnesses

FAQ

1.How long does this course take to complete?

Earning a bachelor’s degree typically takes 4 years to complete.

2.Does the course need to be accredited?

It is beneficial for individuals to pursue a program that is regionally accredited, as it carries a solid academic standing and can provide better access to additional advanced degrees.

3.Why would a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice help your police career?

Police officers with a bachelor’s degree have academic experience that cannot be provided solely within a police academy. As such, these officers have a higher earning potential as well as a faster and short route to various promotions.

Why get a degree before starting the Police Academy?

Prior to applying to a police academy, some applicants choose to earn an advanced degree. In doing so, prospective officers may increase their chance of attaining a leadership role, improving their earning potential, and expand their opportunities to pursue various positions within law enforcement:  

  • GED:
    • Average salary: $57,066
    • Potential position - Sergeant
  • Associate degree:
    • Average salary: $57,349
    • Potential positions - Private detective; correctional officer
  • Bachelor’s Degree:
    • Salary: $57,633
    • Potential positions - Lieutenant; captain
  • Master’s Degree:
    • Salary: $57,916
    • Potential positions - Deputy chief/assistant chief; chief of police

What can you expect to learn in the Police Academy?

To be accepted into a police academy, applicants must initially pass a written exam that tests their aptitude regarding their skills in math, reading, language, and writing. They also must pass a fitness test and psychological screening. While the specifics change depending on the location of the academy, applicants are fundamentally tested on the same skills:

  • Must be at least 18 (21 in some states) and have earned at least a GED
  • Drug screening
  • Physical exam
    • running: 1.5 miles
    • push-ups: depends upon applicant’s age/gender (average range – 14-37)
    • sit-ups: depends upon applicant’s age/gender (average range – 13-37)
    • bench press: depends upon applicant’s body weight
    • vertical jump: depends upon applicant’s age/gender (average 11.5 – 21.5 inches)
    • agility: activities that mimic chasing a suspect
  • Psychological evaluation which generally includes a written exam and a session with a psychologist to assess mental stability. This can also include a polygraph test to confirm answers providing throughout the application process.
  • Pass licensing exam: Although each state does have its own licensing board, exam generally includes topics such as civil and criminal law, community policing, victim’s rights, and communication.

Upon admission, prospective police officers are instructed both in the classroom and in the field for approximately 6-8 months of intensive training that includes the following:

  • Physical fitness
    • running
    • weight lifting
    • sit ups and push ups
    • calisthenics
  • Techniques
    • self defense
    • use of non-lethal tools
    • use of firearms
    • marksmanship
    • emergency vehicle operation
  • Coursework
    • role of law enforcement
    • law and the media
    • use of force
    • ethics
    • decision making

Upon completion of the training, trainees can apply for full-time positions where they will participate in field training.

Field training

Within the police academy individuals are trained in a controlled environment, with field training encompassing actual field work that takes place in the real world where each action has a consequence. The recruit is assigned to an experienced police officer who guides them through their field training for around 12-18 weeks. The field training officer’s evaluation at the end of this period determines if the rookie is ready for independent work or if remediation is needed.

alt"light-bulb-1" Did you know?

Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is the second longest running TV series after the Simpsons.

What are the differences between a police officer, detective, SWAT team member, and sheriff?

Within law enforcement, they are various positions that provide a range of opportunities within the law enforcement field. Although many of the positions are fundamentally similar, the roles within law enforcement can include a wide-range of responsibilities and require specific academic and professional backgrounds.



Police officerDetectiveSWATSherriff
What do they do?Enforce the laws, patrol for crime, respond to emergenciesInvestigate crimes where suspects are unknown or at-large

Involved in high-risk situations that revolve around hostages, terrorists, and other intense threats

Operate county jails and oversees corrections

Where do they work?At the city, county, state, or federal level

Police departments or privately

Large, urban police forces; sheriffs’ departments; state-level law enforcement agenciesCounty level

How many years of on-the-job experience is needed?  12-18 weeks
4-6 years

2 years as a police officer

5 years
How does pay compare?National Average: $54,461National Average: $63,620National Average: $61,042National Average: $47,144
What level of education is needed?High school diploma; GEDAssociate’s or bachelor’s degree

High school diploma; GED

High school diploma; GED

Where do police officers work?

IndustryEmployment (1)Percent of industry employmentHourly mean wageAnnual mean wage (2)
Local Government, excluding schools and hospitals (OEWS Designation)554,77010.27$ 33.63$ 69,940
State Government, excluding schools and hospitals (OEWS Designation)60,2202.74$ 37.13$ 77,230
Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools14,9600.49$ 28.75$ 59,790
Federal Executive Branch (OEWS Designation)12,6600.61$ 29.83$ 62,050
Elementary and Secondary Schools6,2100.08$ 28.30$ 58,860

Common police officer lingo

  • B&E. Breaking and entering
  • ADW. Assault with a deadly weapon
  • DIP. Drunk in public refers to an incident wherein an intoxicated individual
  • GTA. Grand theft auto
  • PC. Probable cause   
  • GSR. Gunshot residue 

alt"light-bulb-1" Did you know: Shaquille O’Neal is a deputy marshal in Louisiana, a reserve officer in Florida, and a sheriff's deputy in Georgia. Most recently he has sworn in as a Community Relations Director for the Georgia Sheriff’s Office.  

What tools and technologies do police officers use?

Bulletproof vest

Protects officers from gunshot wounds to the chest and is worn when they are on active patrol or in a high-stakes situation.

Drones

Surveillance technology that provides police departments with the ability to provide aerial images to monitor and/or track criminal behavior.

Mace or pepper spray

Aerosol containing chemicals that when sprayed can cause burning, tears, and pain when sprayed in someone’s face. Pepper spray is typically used as self-defense or in a scenario where lethal measures are not warranted to hinder illegal actions.

TASER gun

Causes an electrical current to surge through an individual, often leading to incapacitation. Officers use TASER guns as a non-lethal measure to disable an individual who is committing a dangerous or illegal act.

Handcuffs

Restrains suspected criminals so they cannot escape custody. Handcuffs are typically used at the scene of the alleged crime as well as in areas where the arrested individual might be a danger to others.

Additional career progression

Police detective / SWAT officer / K9 officer (lateral movement)

  • Step 1: Earn a degree in criminal justice, criminology, or another related position
  • Step 2: Enroll in a police academy
  • Step 3: Complete field training
  • Step 4: Focus on gaining experience in the desired position as a police officer (1-3 years)
  • Step 5: Take the appropriate certification exam
  • Step 6: Fulfill local certification requirements if necessary

Sergeant

  • Step 1: Earn a degree in criminal justice, criminology, or another related position
  • Step 2: Enroll in a police academy
  • Step 3: Complete field training
  • Step 4: Work as a police officer for 5-10 years

Lieutenant / captain

  • Step 1: Earn a degree in criminal justice, criminology, or another related position
  • Step 2: Enroll in a police academy
  • Step 3: Complete field training
  • Step 4: Work as a police officer for 5-10 years
  • Step 5: Apply for promotion after 1-2 years

Majors, lieutenant colonels, commanders, assistant chiefs

  • Step 1: Earn a degree in criminal justice, criminology, or another related position
  • Step 2: Enroll in a police academy
  • Step 3: Complete field training
  • Step 4: Work as a police officer for 5-7 years
  • Step 5: Consider completing a master’s program in criminal justice
  • Step 6: Apply for promotion after 1-2 years

Police chief

  • Step 1: Earn a degree in criminal justice, criminology, or another related position
  • Step 2: Enroll in a police academy
  • Step 3: Complete field training
  • Step 4: Work as a police officer for 5-7 years with 3 years in police administration
  • Step 5: Complete master’s program in criminal justice
  • Step 6: Earn certification in law enforcement training

International Association of Chiefs of Police

IACP is one of the world’s largest professional groups for police leaders. They provide various conferences and training programs that help police officers advance within their careers.   

National Association of Field Training Officers

Provides information and training programs for field training officers.

National Police Association Non-profit organization that provides education and support as a means of helping police departments while providing information regarding police work to local communities.