How to Become a Police Officer

Looking to get into a career in law enforcement? You’ve come to the right place. Demand for police officers is slowly rising, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it is expected to grow by 7% between 2010 and 2020. Getting the proper training and education is vital to get in this field, although having a military background is an added bonus.

Regardless of how rigid it may sound, the road to becoming a police officer starts with getting the right education as early as possible. Even the most basic jobs in a law enforcement agency include having a Baccalaureate diploma and police academy training within the minimum requirements standards.

Taking into account the fierce competition for attending basic law enforcement training programs in an accredited police academy, the correct approach does not only entail working to meet the minimal requirements, but rather being prepared for whatever challenges they might throw at you.


Your Career Outlook in the Law Enforcement Field

Demand for police officers is high in the local police departments because of the high turnover rate because of below average salary, similarly demand is lower for smaller departments because of budget constraints.

There is more competition for state and federal agencies because of the higher salary grade and the opportunity for inter-agency transfers. Applicants who are bi-lingual, with a bachelor’s degree and have some experience in the police force or in the military have an advantage in getting in federal agencies.

Layoffs are rare because of retirement and trained police officers who lose their jobs because of budget cuts will have no problem getting employed in another agency.


Why Become a Police Officer?

Duties and Responsibilities of a Police Officer

These uniformed individuals perform a variety of duties aside from catching criminals. It is not uncommon to find police officers patrolling traffic in their areas of designation. They are also responsible for responding to calls that require assisting an accident or crime victim.

Sometimes crime scenes would require an officer to collect for the necessary evidence that will be later used in building against a perpetrator. Police officers use their communication skills both written and oral in investigating crimes.

Another important duty that is often overlooked is making reports and safekeeping records of any incident that may have been encountered.


Police Officer Requirements

Education is perhaps one of the basic police officer requirements. A good high school education is a stepping stone to this career although it should be supplemented by an associate or bachelors degree. The latter is important when you would like to be a state or federal police officer.

Individuals who are serious in building a good law enforcement career can opt to take programs in criminal justice in colleges. These would help you understand different aspects of legal issues and human behavior.

Law enforcement applicants usually undergo a series of tests such as physical and psychological fitness, knowledge-based examinations, and medical evaluations. Background investigation is also conducted to ensure that the applicant is fit for the job.

So those with records of traffic violations, drug offenses, and involvement in other illegal activities will have a high probability of being rejected.

Finally, a civil service examination must be taken when you apply for a vacant position in a police department. Other important requirements include a minimum age of 20 years as well as American citizenship.



The compensation for police officers varies depending on the level of education and experience. The highest earnings at present is about $83,510 for senior police officers. As of 2010, the median wages for law enforcement officers in is $51,590, $58,200, and $55,710 for federal, state and local government respectively.

It should be noted that competitive salaries and opportunities are offered in the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) for skills like foreign language proficiency as well as special assignments.


Frequently Asked Questions

How Long Does it Take to Become a Police Officer?

Because the law enforcement departments have their own set of requirements for admitting new personnel, the time frame needed to become a cop is hard to specify. Some police departments will accept candidates who have a high school diploma and have successfully graduated from state law enforcement training programs, which typically last from 3 to 6 months.

Other departments will impose applicants to earn a college degree in order to be considered for a training program. As a side note, recently the law enforcement agencies located in the large cities of the United States will only accept interns who graduated from an Associate’s Degree or higher learning program.

Moreover, in the Southern part of the U.S. (but not limited to that region), police departments favor candidates who know a foreign language. Therefore, training to become a cop in one of the large American metropolises takes minimum two years to earn a higher education degree and an additional year for graduating from a police academy.


How Hard is it to Become a Police Officer?

Similar to the period of time needed, the level of difficulty will vary from person to person and department to department.

Essentially, an applicant who has trained to be in good shape, did not commit misdemeanors or felonies, is emotionally balanced and of good morals will have a high chance of getting admitted into the police academy and/or police department.

All candidates will need to undergo a scrupulous medical, physical, polygraph, psychological examinations, drug screening and personality profiling. However, each state will choose the admission criteria based on several factors relevant for that region.

Even though each state established its own eligibility criteria, there are some admission procedure similarities.

For instance, obtaining a minimum score of 70% at the physical fitness agility standards test is mandatory for being admitted in a police academy, regardless of the state.

In general, the common physical activities that the candidates must perform in a timely manner (and according to their gender and age) include push-ups, sit-ups, 1.5 mile run and swimming. However, some states or certain police departments might include other physical tests based on data gathered from criminal statistics in that region.


Do I Need a Degree?

More and more law enforcement agencies right now require candidates to have a college degree although some agencies may only require at least 60 hours of higher education course work.

Federal law enforcement agencies like the Secret Service will lean towards applicants that have a graduate degree.

In most cases a Criminal Justice degrees will be enough, but other agencies would prefer candidates with degrees not related to police work such as IT and Accounting. It is also a big plus if you are multilingual.


How Much does it Cost to Become a Police Officer?

The good news for future cadets is that most of the police departments will be paying for their police academy training. Furthermore, candidates who are approved for training will benefit from a decent salary while attending the academy.

In the eventuality that the law enforcement agency in a state cannot/is not obliged to fund the intern’s training, then the cadet can get the tuition money by applying for a grant, FAFSA, scholarship or loan, as a last resort.


How to Apply to Become a Police Officer?

Before you apply:

Filling in the application form and sending it along with the other necessary paperwork as requested by the police department or academy is the first step aspiring law enforcement officers should take. Besides the standard application form, candidates will be required to send in a resume and a cover letter.

While the resume should include information about schooling, jobs, degrees, certificates and titles, applicants should keep in mind that the role of the cover letter is to get an interview. Similar to the resume, the cover letter permits an applicant to show his knowledge as well portray himself as a worthy candidate for the position offered by the law enforcement agency or academy.

Therefore, candidates are highly advised to check out the submission deadlines before working on the aforementioned documents.


How to Become a Police Officer without a College Degree?

While it is true that most law enforcement agencies will require a college education to hire a new agent, it is important to note that the criterion can be compensated by service in the United States armed forces or previous work experience.

In regards to serving in the armed forces, only applicants who have performed active duty for a determined period of time and had an honorable discharge are considered eligible.

In certain situations, having work experience in the law field weighs more than the college degree. Essentially, a candidate who had a security job, volunteered to assist policemen or worked as a community service officer can attest that he is well aware of what the career implies and he is ready to get started.


States that only require a high school diploma or GED:

States that require candidates to have a college degree or at least complete a minimum number of college credits as a part of their qualification standards:

  • Colorado (A minimum of 60 college credits or an Associate’s Degree from an accredited college or university)
  • Delaware (A minimum of 60 trimester credits or 90 quarter credits from an accredited college or university OR 30 college credits plus 2 years active duty in the armed forces)
  • Idaho (A minimum of 15 academic credits from an accredited college or university)
  • Minnesota (An Associate’s or Bachelor’s Degree on Criminal Justice or Law Enforcement from an accredited college or university)
  • New York (A minimum of 60 college credits with a 2.0 GPA from an accredited college or university)
  • New Jersey (A minimum of 90 college credits or an Bachelor’s Degree from an accredited college or university)
  • New Mexico (A minimum of 60 college hours [any subject or course] from an accredited college or university OR attend San Juan College and receive 30 hours of college credits and complete the other 30 college credits needed after graduation OR complete 30 college hours from an accredited college or university and attend the New Mexico academy [through San Juan College] which will give you the other 30 hours of college credits required)
  • Pennsylvania State Trooper (An Associate’s degree from a relevant field or a minimum of 60 college credits from an accredited college or university)
  • Wisconsin (A 2-year Associate’s degree or at least 60 college credits from an accredited college or university)

States that allow candidates to use their military or work experience as a substitute for the educational requirements

  • Kentucky (A minimum of 60 hours of college credits or an Associate’s Degree in an accredited Kentucky college or university. This can be waived if you have military experience or 4 years work experience in the Kentucky National Guard or Army reserve)
  • Louisiana State Trooper (A minimum of 60 college credits from an accredited college or university OR 2 years experience as a certified POST peace officer OR 3 straight years in active military duty or 8 straight years working full time in the government)
  • Missouri (A minimum of 60 college credits in an accredited college or university OR 2 years active service in the military)
  • Nevada (A Bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university OR 2 years in active military duty or public contact service OR an Associate of Arts degree from an accredited college or university plus one year experience as an active military personnel or in public contact service)
  • Oregon (An Associate’s degree or 60 semester or 90 quarter hours from an accredited college or university OR active military experience)
  • Tennessee (Major police departments in Tennessee will have stricter academic qualifications, for instance in Memphis – applicants are required to have a minimum of 54 semester hours from an accredited college or university OR two years continuous service in the military OR three years of continuous employment as a certified POST officer in a police department with at least 20 officers)

Some Things You Should Do To Improve Your Chances In Become a Cop Without a College Degree

  • Stay out of trouble. Having a spotless record is an absolute must, any conviction will be uncovered during the background investigation so keep your nose clean if you plan on pursuing this career.
  • Have a positive credit score. Again police agencies will not hire candidates with huge debt or a poor credit score as this can be bad on their organizations reputation.
  • Get some work experience. This shows the police recruiter that you are a hard worker and a team player. Having job experience helps in any field, it’s no different in law enforcement.
  • Be in great physical shape. You will need to show that you can handle the physical demands of a cop during these demanding physical exams, getting a high score greatly improves your chances of getting hired.
  • Be prepared for the written exam by getting a study guide. Study guides are great resources to prepare for the pre-employment exam, these are often available through police agencies or can be purchased online. Set aside enough time to review and do not cram! Get enough sleep the night before the test.


Requirements by State