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How to Become a Police Officer

police officer
Police officers protect lives and property.
Credit: RDaniel | Shutterstock

Police officers are trained professionals who are responsible for the protection of civilian lives and property. There are many different types of police officers in the United States, from municipal patrolmen to federal officers, working for organizations that vary greatly in size and responsibilities.

Because there are many diverse opportunities in law enforcement, it’s important to know as much as you can about this profession before you look for a job. Here is some useful information for those looking to become police officers, including what an officer’s duties are, how much money you can expect to make, and what qualifications you’ll need to get the job.

What police officers do

It is the job of police officers to protect people and property by enforcing laws, responding to emergency calls, patrolling assigned areas, and conducting traffic stops and citations. Police officers are also responsible for pursuing and apprehending people who break the law, as well as arresting suspected criminals. The duties of an officer vary greatly depending on what organization he or she is working under, but all officers spend time writing reports and keeping detailed records that can be used in court.

Police agencies at the state and local level are usually organized into geographic districts, with officers assigned to patrol a particular area. In large districts, officers usually patrol with a partner, and more experienced officers may be assigned to work in a special unit, such as horseback, motorcycle or canine corps.

Besides municipal and state police, there are also agencies at the county and federal levels, as well as agencies assigned to perform specialized duties, such as transit and railroad police and fish and game wardens. Though most of the police officers that the public encounters are easily identified by their uniforms, some officers are plainclothes detectives who investigate crimes and are assigned particular cases through their agencies.

Where police officers work

A police officer’s workplace varies greatly depending on the type and location of the agency for which he or she works. But most officers can expect to work at the scenes of crimes or accidents that may be dangerous or traumatic. Most uniformed police officers at the local level are assigned a particular patrol area in their district in which to work.

Police work can be physically and mentally demanding, and officers may have to work in many high-risk situations, including conflicts with criminals and motor-vehicle pursuits. [Related: The Least (and Most Stressful) Careers]

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, police officers have one of the highest rates of on-the-job injuries and fatalities of any profession.

Uniformed police officers usually work in shifts, with more junior officers assigned to work weekends, holidays, and nights. Paid overtime is common in this profession, and many police officers also choose to work while off-duty as security officers for various events and establishments. 

The median annual pay for a police officer in 2010 was $55,010. Many agencies also provide officers with an allowance for uniforms. Police officers often receive extensive benefits and retire at an age that is lower than the average national age for retirement.

Becoming a police officer

The field of law enforcement offers a diverse range of career possibilities, and the requirements for these careers differ, but all officers must have at least a high school diploma or GED and be a graduate of their agency’s training academy. Many agencies also require officers to have a college degree or to have completed some coursework in a related field of study.

Nearly all law enforcement officials must be U.S. citizens and at least 21 years old, possess a valid driver’s license, and meet specific physical qualifications. Candidates typically must pass physical exams for vision, hearing, strength, and agility, and must pass written exams as well. Those with previous law enforcement or military experience are often preferred, and candidates with felony convictions may be disqualified. Applicants typically go through a series of interviews and must pass lie detector and drug tests.

Regional, state, and local police academies exist to train new recruits to the profession. Recruits often receive instruction in constitutional law, civil rights, state and local law, and police ethics. They also receive training, as well as supervised experience, in areas such as first aid and the use of firearms.

Requirements to become a police officer for local, state, and federal agencies vary greatly. For more information on how to become a local or state officer, visit the International Association of Chiefs of Police career website. More information on careers in law enforcement, including how to become a federal officer can be found in the Occupational Outlook Handbook’s contacts page.