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    How to Become a Police Officer

    By Zach Skillings

    Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: May 14th, 2024
    How to Become a Police Officer

    Police officers are tasked with the important role of protecting and serving their communities. If you’re wondering how to become a police officer, you’ve come to the right place. Unlike some professions, there are no formal education requirements for police officers. In fact, many police departments only require applicants to have a high school diploma or GED. That being said, earning some type of postsecondary credential can give you a big leg up during the hiring process. Read on to learn more about what it takes to launch a career in law enforcement. 

    See also: How to become an FBI agent 

    1. Meet the minimum requirements 

    The first step to becoming a police officer is ensuring that you meet the basic qualifications. Requirements vary between police departments, but the following criteria are pretty standard:

    • Possess a high school diploma or GED
    • Be a U.S. citizen
    • Have a valid driver’s license
    • Be at least 21 years old 
    • Have a clean criminal record

    If there are any specific police departments that you’d like to work for, contact them to learn about their minimum requirements. 

    Also see: Fastest growing careers

    2. Choose an educational path 

    While it’s possible to become a police officer with just a high school diploma, more and more departments are seeking candidates who have advanced credentials. This is especially true for big police departments in major cities. For instance, the New York Police Department requires candidates to have at least 60 college credits (two years of full-time study) from an accredited institution. Check out the following educational options to see which one is right for you: 

    Certificate 

    Some police departments prefer candidates to have a few college credits, but do not require a full degree. When this is the case, earning a police-related certificate or diploma is a good option. Certificate programs are offered at trade and vocational schools and can be completed in just a few months. These programs are very narrow in scope, focusing only on the skills needed to become a police officer. They’re relatively affordable and are great for individuals who want to quickly launch their careers. In some cases, students can even skip the police academy (see step 4) if they earn a police certificate from an approved school. But for candidates in competitive job markets, a certificate may not be enough to land a job. 

    Associate degree

    Many aspiring police officers earn an associate degree in law enforcement or a related field such as criminal justice, criminology, or police science. Associate degree programs are offered at community colleges and take two years to complete. In addition to studying law enforcement, students typically complete general education courses covering humanities, math, and science. They’re a great option for candidates who want a competitive edge in the job market, but don’t want to invest the time and money that a more advanced degree would require. 

    Don’t miss: Top highest paying careers to consider

    Bachelor’s degree

    There are many bachelor’s degrees that can lead to a career in law enforcement. Some of the most popular choices include criminal justice, police science, public administration, homeland security, and emergency management. In any of these law-related fields, students can expect to receive a well-rounded education that blends core police subjects with general education requirements and electives. 

    It typically takes four years of full-time study to earn a bachelor’s degree. Although they require a larger investment of time and money, bachelor’s degree programs can give aspiring police officers a big advantage in the job market. Bachelor’s degrees also lead to more opportunities for career advancement down the road. Many federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree. 

    Master’s degree

    Master’s degrees offer students the opportunity to study specialized fields within law enforcement such as intelligence, research, and leadership. They’re ideal for police officers who hope to eventually rise to the rank of captain or chief. Master’s degree programs typically take two years to complete, and are only open to students who already have a bachelor’s degree. 

    Military 

    As an alternative to attending school, some aspiring police officers join the military instead. Servicemen and women gain valuable experience with firearms, combat, physical conditioning, and working in extreme conditions. All of these experiences are extremely transferable to a career in law enforcement, which is why most police departments accept military training in lieu of a college degree. Of course, joining the military is a big commitment. You should only pursue this route if you have a genuine desire to serve your country.

    Also see: Top scholarships for veterans

    3. Apply for open positions

    Each state has its own subtle variations in the police officer hiring process. But regardless of where you’re applying, you can count on the process being rigorous and involving multiple tests. Most police departments require applicants to undergo a psychological evaluation, a physical ability test, a medical exam, a background check, and in some cases a polygraph test. 

    You may also need to pass a written test covering reading comprehension, spelling, math, grammar, and analytical skills. If you successfully pass all these tests, you’ll be invited to an oral interview. This is your chance to discuss your prior education and experience and describe why you’re the best candidate for the job. 

    4. Complete police academy training 

    Once you’ve been hired, you’re one step closer to becoming a police officer. But you still need to undergo police academy training before earning your badge. This is required for all recruits, regardless of their prior level of education.* Many academies are residential, meaning that recruits live on campus in dormitories. Training can last up to six months, consisting of both classroom instruction and hands-on field experience. In the classroom, recruits learn about important topics such as police ethics, civil rights, and local, state, and constitutional laws. 

    During field training, recruits gain the technical skills that they’ll need on the job. Topics include firearm training, search and seizure procedures, criminal statutes, traffic laws, firearms, first aid, emergency driving techniques, and more. By the end of their training, recruits will have the skills and knowledge needed to become fully-fledged police officers. 

    *In some cases, attending an approved police certificate program prior to the hiring process can allow students to bypass the actual police academy. 

    5. Pass the POST exam

    During your path to becoming a police officer, at some point along the way you’ll need to pass the Police/Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) exam. Each state offers its own version of the test, so formats will vary. But in general, most POST exams cover topics like civil and criminal law, victims’ rights, and management and communication. 

    The exact timeline for taking this exam also varies. In some cases, aspiring police officers take the POST before applying for jobs. But in most cases, the POST is taken at the end of police academy training. It’s the final hurdle before you can get sworn in by your department and begin police work. 

    6. Advance your career

    Even after you become a police officer, there’s still a lot of room for growth. By taking written promotion exams and undergoing additional training, you can move up the chain of command and become a detective, sergeant, lieutenant, captain, or even chief. Most police departments follow a similar hierarchy. 

    Good luck, and no matter where you are on your career journey, make sure that you apply for all the scholarships that you qualify for!

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    Frequently asked questions about becoming a police officer

    Do police officers qualify for Public Service Loan Forgiveness?

    Yes – police officers can have as much as all of their federal loans forgiven in between 5 and 10 years in the service. However, you’ll want to read up on the details and check in with administrators to ensure that you are continuing to meet requirements, as the program often has very particular guidelines. Read more about public service loan forgiveness basics to start.

    What is the salary of a police officer?

    According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary of police officers and detectives in 2023 was $74,910 per year. This can vary widely based on the officer’s rank and the city in which they work.

    How long does it take to become a police officer?

    Most police academy programs take about 6 months, but they typically have a prerequisite of between 2 and 4 years of college education. So, if you already hold an associate’s degree, it might only take 6 months to become a police officer. On the other hand, if you are just out of high school, it will most likely take several years. It is worth noting that these requirements vary by district, so make sure to check in with any local branches of the police you are considering.

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