How to Become a Law Enforcement Officer in the U.S.
Learn how to become a law enforcement officer in the U.S. Research the education requirements, training information and experience required for starting a career in law enforcement.
Education Requirements to Become a U.S. Law Enforcement Officer
U.S. law enforcement officers work to serve and protect the people. They are responsible for a variety of different tasks that include patrolling their designated areas and filling out paperwork. Qualifications for law enforcement officers vary by state but students are typically required to graduate from a local police academy and meet age and character guidelines. The following table describes the core requirements for a career as a U.S. law enforcement officer:
|Degree Level||High school diploma; some positions require an associate's degree*|
|Degree Field(s)||Criminal justice, law enforcement*|
|Experience||Law enforcement officers must complete police academy training*|
|Key Skills||Ability to multi-task, communication skills, empathy, good judgment, leadership skills, perceptiveness, strength and stamina*|
|Computer Skills||Database user interface and query software, graphics or photo imaging software, map creation software**|
|Technical Skills||Emergency vehicle operations, use of firearms, criminal investigation tactics***|
|Additional Requirements||At least 21 years old, U.S. citizen, valid driver's license, ability to pass a drug screening and background check, as well as physical and mental health screenings*|
Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **O Net Online, ***Indiana Law Enforcement Academy.
Step 1: Obtain a High School Diploma
The minimum educational requirement for a law enforcement officer is a high school diploma or its equivalent, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some high schools offer curriculums designed to prepare high school students to enter the police force. High school students wishing to become law enforcement officers should take courses related to communication skills, criminal law, forensics, computer science and community service, if they are available. Students wishing to become police recruits should also dedicate themselves to staying in top physical condition.
- Enroll in a police cadet academy. Many cities and government agencies offer police cadet training to individuals under the age of 21 who are too young to enter training for entry-level police officers. These cadet-training programs typically recruit high school students and recent graduates. They then offer training in such topics as traffic offenses, curfew laws, building searches, computer technology and report writing. High school cadet academy programs might be short training programs lasting a week or they could be extended programs, which include on-the-job training in clerical work and other non-hazardous duties.
Step 2: Enroll in an Associate's Degree Program
Although not a strict requirement, the BLS notes that many applicants to police departments have taken college-level courses or earned a degree. According to O*NET OnLine, 24% of all law enforcement officers have at least an associate's degree. Some jurisdictions accept completion of an associate's degree in lieu of portions of the police academy training program. Post-secondary degree requirements vary, and may be dependent on whether an aspiring law enforcement officer intends to work in a federal, state or municipal capacity. A typical degree program in criminal justice may include courses in criminal law, the court system, the correctional system, police practices and criminal investigation techniques.
Step 3: Acquire a Position as an Entry-level Police Officer
The requirements for an entry-level position as a U.S. law enforcement agent may differ by jurisdiction. Some law enforcement agencies recruit applicants with no degree or previous training. Regardless of the jurisdiction, applicants must meet age, citizenship, character and health requirements. Applicants may also be required to pass a background check, lie detector test and drug screening, as well as other examinations.
Step 4: Complete Police Academy Training
Each jurisdiction sends its cadets to police academy after they're hired. Completing the police academy usually takes aspiring officers between 12-14 weeks, but it can take up to several months, depending on the department. Students are trained in both classroom settings and in hands-on exercises, where they are taught to use firearms, to administer first aid, to practice self-defense and to handle emergency situations. Cadet officers who have successfully completed police academy training are typically given assignments and can immediately begin work.
Step 5: Consider Options for Career Advancement
Once admitted to the police force, new law enforcement officers typically begin their careers as patrol officers. Through years of satisfactory service, police officers may advance in rank from corporal to captain. Some officers may choose to specialize and go into detective or juvenile work after extensive on-the-job experience.
- Consider specialized training. Some jobs require specialized training beyond police academy training. Examples of these types of positions include motorcycle officer, helicopter pilot or K-9 unit officer. The exact type of training given depends on the position, and the police department pays to train qualified applicants.
- Obtain a bachelor's degree. A typical bachelor's degree program in criminal justice may include coursework in civil rights and race relations as well as communication skills, crisis management, ethics, psychology and law. A bachelor's degree may give prospective law enforcement agents the best possible training into appropriate responses to crisis situation. A degree may also increase the number of jurisdictions in which a U.S. law enforcement officer is eligible to serve.
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