If “to protect and serve” sounds like a motto you want to live by, law enforcement might be the right career path for you. The standards for becoming a peace officer are high, as they should be, but the path to get there is not like you see in the movies.
Becoming a police officer does not start with shooting ranges or obstacle courses. Instead, as with most career paths, it is about education.
Career Path for Law Enforcement
You need to know a few things before pursuing a life as a police officer. First, it might take some time. Typically, jobs in law enforcement start with a comprehensive background check. That will mean something different in every city, but they will likely check your:
- Criminal history
- Credit history
- Education level
Generally, you cannot work in law enforcement if you have a conviction record of any kind, felony or misdemeanor. You must also have a high school diploma or a GED to qualify, and in many states, an applicant must be at least 20 years old.
You will also go through pre-employment testing. The exam tests basic skills such as math and reading comprehension and may also determine if you have the aptitude for police work. This test is part of what gets you into the police academy.
Some states require pre-employment testing before filling out an application for the job. Each city or state police force may also use a different testing agency. The employment prerequisites on the job site should indicate how to register for testing. The exam may only be given a certain number of times a year, so plan ahead.
Post-secondary education is not a prerequisite in all areas, but it may be in some. Even if it is not required, a college education could improve your chances of getting hired and enhance your opportunities once you enter the force. With a college degree, you could gain the criminal justice and legal training necessary to excel as a police officer.
Law enforcement is a competitive field, and it takes work to get into it. However, a degree is an important factor hiring managers will look for when reviewing candidates. Also, if you want to move up the ranks, it will give you more leverage. It might even be a requirement for a detective or sergeant’s badge.
In some instances, the degree may also mean you can skip a part, if not all, of the police academy training. You may still need a physical test to get the job, but you could have the book learning done.
Law Enforcement Degrees, Training, or Credentials
Even though a degree may not be required, any college degree is beneficial if you want to become a police officer. However many people who want to prepare to work in public safety consider a criminal justice degree the best option.
An Associate of Science in Criminal Justice takes an average of two years to complete and is available online at Post University. It covers the basics of the American criminal justice system and the ethical principles involved in police work.
You can also opt for a four-year degree in criminal justice. A Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice will cover the basics and give you a well-rounded education in other areas, such as forensics, security, investigation, and communications.
Both an associate degree and a bachelor’s in criminal justice are available from Post University online, so you can work while you learn. For example, if you are looking to move up as a police officer, you could apply and then study while on the job. This could also give you a competitive edge in the hiring process.
Even after you get into the force, you will need to continue your education to remain there. A police recertification program, for example, ensures officers stay current with the law. This certification also counts towards continuing education (CE) credits. The requirements for continuing education will vary by location.
What Skills and Experience Do Police Officers Need?
Police officers need both physical and mental skills to succeed. They need to be physically fit, and the hiring police force may have set weight and height requirements. They may also give you a physical fitness test.
Certain qualities make you a better police officer, too. Police need to be empathetic, good communicators, and able to solve problems quickly. In addition, they must exercise sound judgment, often in high-stress situations. That requires critical thinking and interpersonal skills. They must also have the courage to face danger and the ability to be assertive when necessary.
Getting an entry-level job without prior experience may be possible, with priority often given to military personnel. A job in another law enforcement or public service branch would also look good on a resume.
Police Officer Application Process
The steps to becoming a police officer will vary by location. However, looking up the prerequisites on the website of the force you want to join is an excellent start. That will ensure you know everything you need to do before applying, including if you need a post-secondary degree.
The steps will include in some order:
- Fill out the application – You may be able to do this online or in person.
- Take a written test – This entry test covers basic reading comprehension, writing skills, and math. Some tests may cover map skills, as well.
- Take a physical abilities test to ensure you are physically fit enough for the job.
- Undergo a comprehensive background check. For some, this may include passing a lie detector exam.
- Go through an oral interview – You will likely be interviewed in person by a hiring board of police officers.
- Take a psychological exam and evaluation – This may include meeting with a psychologist and testing.
- Get a medical physical and drug test – If you get this far, your odds of getting the job are good.
Once you go through all the exams, they will offer you a job and review the particulars. If this is your first time serving in law enforcement, you will likely have to attend a police academy through the department or a local educational institution.
Getting a job as a police officer takes some time, so start early and work your way through the process. If you want a way to improve your odds, check out our website at Post University today. We offer both an online criminal justice associate degree and online criminal justice bachelor’s degree that provide flexibility and convenience while you complete your program.
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