Program ResourcesHow to Become a Police Officer

Police officers are law enforcement officials who are responsible for protecting lives and property. They are at the front lines of criminal justice, pursuing and apprehending suspects who break the law. Police officers respond to emergency and nonemergency calls, patrol their assigned areas, collect evidence and issue citations and tickets for lower-level crimes like traffic violations.

The educational requirements of police officers vary according to their occupational specialty, whether they are local, state or federal officers and what kind of law they are responsible for enforcing. Generally, the educational requirements range from a high school diploma to a bachelor’s degree. Most police officers go through their agency’s training academy before completing practical training.

Most statewide and federal law enforcement agencies require their candidates to have a bachelor’s degree. Even those who are applying to become police officers at their local precinct are encouraged to pursue an undergraduate degree to better prepare them to work within the criminal justice system. Upward mobility within the police force also depends on education and on-the-job experience. Many law enforcement agencies offer financial assistance to officers who pursue bachelor’s degrees.

Many state and local agencies encourage their prospective police officers to pursue an undergraduate degree in criminal justice to begin to build a solid foundation of knowledge and skills in the field. In addition to education, candidates attend a training academy, which includes classroom and practical knowledge and experience. The academy courses cover state and local laws, constitutional law, civil rights and ethics. Recruits also gain practice experience in patrol, traffic control, firearm use, self-defense, first aid and emergency response.

Some prospective police officers who have not yet reached the proper age to become an officer (in most states it is 21 years old) choose to work at a police station or join a cadet program, doing clerical work and attending classes that prepare them for eventual eligibility.

Police officers can move up in the ranks based on their on-the-job performance and adherence to continuing education. Advancement is based on their position on the promotion list, which generally depends on written exam scores and their performance record. Depending on the size of the department, a police officer can advance to corporal, sergeant or lieutenant in a specific type of police work like juvenile justice, for example.

Police officers need many skills to do their jobs well. Communication is key, whether they are interviewing victims and suspects or talking to their colleagues. Empathy and perceptiveness are important because their jobs are based on human relationships and behaviors. And, of course, physical strength and stamina are important in the apprehension of suspects and to keep up with the daily rigors of the job.