A police officer is a person whose occupation involves enforcing the law and investigating criminal activity. They may work in various settings and circumstances to maintain public safety and security. Particular duties may include responding to civil and noise disturbances, enforcing traffic laws and directing traffic, investigating crimes, and arresting criminals. Highly trained and educated officers may pursue careers in which they do much more.
Those with extensive education and experience may specialize in particular forms of law enforcement and criminal matters such as illicit drug trade and usage, domestic violence, human trafficking, and criminal activity targeting vulnerable populations. For example, individuals who become police officers and have strong research and public policy skills may apply these skills to pursue specialized careers in preventative approaches to law enforcement and public safety.
These professionals may work in municipal police departments and state and federal-level government agencies. Police officer training can be a foundational building block for those who wish to establish careers in state highway patrol departments, drug interdiction programs, and the public safety and functioning of large cities, such as coastal cities, in which diversified and complex economies require the oversight of multiple types of law enforcement professionals and their employing agencies.
The field of law enforcement has recently experienced significant public scrutiny in the United States due to high-profile events such as the murder of George Floyd, the school shooting catastrophe in Uvalde, Texas, and the growing issue of civic violence as evidenced by events such as the Charlottesville, VA “Unite the Right” protest in 2017 and the assault on the United States Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Events such as these tend to invigorate discourse on the proper role of policing in civil society, how community priorities are reflected in their budgetary decision-making, and how persistent issues such as racism influence police officer training, conduct, and the disciplinary consequences when law enforcement personnel engage in both minor and lethal misconduct.
Given the recent turbulent years in the United States and the related trends in police officer training, employment, and retirement, now may be an auspicious time for young, educated, dedicated people to establish careers in law enforcement.
Read on to discover the career outlook and salary prospects for police officers and learn how to get started in law enforcement.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS 2022), the employment of police and detectives is projected to grow by 3 percent from 2021 to 2031. Most of these openings are forecast to result from workforce attrition due to transfers to other occupations and retirement. Given the recent turbulence in American domestic politics, there’s expected to be a robust demand for law enforcement for years to come.
States with the highest employment levels of detectives and criminal investigators also tend to be high-population states. This makes sense considering that law enforcement is as much an industry defined by the quantity of personnel as it is by the quality of the skills and character of those same personnel. Large communities, cities, and high-population states will need to employ more people to meet their public safety and law enforcement needs.
Given the rapid pace of technological change in the United States, law enforcement professionals who pursue continued education opportunities and those who maintain expertise in topics of concern that directly intersect with technology will be more likely to succeed and build durable careers. Obtaining an academic degree in a subject matter such as CSI, forensic science, or cybersecurity can enhance an individual’s prospects for creating a law enforcement career.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS May 2022), police officers and detectives earn an average annual wage of $71,380. The percentiles for wages were:
Salaries vary somewhat according to what particular role a person takes. As in most professions, people who develop highly specialized, in-demand skills can typically expect to earn a higher salary. Those seeking more lucrative options within the particular law enforcement industry should seriously consider becoming a detective or criminal investigator.
According to the BLS (May 2022), detectives and criminal investigators made an average annual salary of $91,610 with the following percentiles:
Becoming a police officer involves a sequence of steps featuring educational, personal background, and training requirements. Once trained and accepted into a job, they must maintain active certification and meet all other relevant employer requirements to continue working.
Those interested in becoming a police officer must first complete high school or obtain a GED. Because many individuals seeking to work in law enforcement will ultimately wish to or need to complete some level of college education, and because access to such training is predicated on a high school diploma or GED, candidates must complete at least a high school education.
Students interested in psychology, forensics, and criminology may be seen as especially appealing candidates. College preparatory classes such as advanced placement classes can help prepare students for the rigors of college-level courses.
In addition to the minimal education requirement noted in Step 1, candidates must meet certain personal background requirements. Candidates typically need to be a US citizen, have a valid driver’s license, and be at least 18 or 21.
Applicants must also have a “clean” criminal record. An important distinction should be made between an acceptable personal background and a completely clear criminal history. Some police departments may allow those with criminal records to become police officers if their offenses were minor. In most instances, a history of a felony conviction will result in automatic disqualification. Conviction of assault, perjury, domestic violence, theft, and/or recklessness will almost always result in disqualification.
It is also important to understand that unreported past crimes can still show up in a law enforcement background check and result in disqualification. Because agencies often take undetected and unreported crimes seriously, candidates must disclose any crimes or related issues even if they believe there is no formal record of such incidents.
Upon completion of a high school education, the paths one may take to become a police officer ultimately are numerous. A person can go on to complete a formal degree such as an associate or bachelor’s degree or gain on-the-job experience.
Vocational/Trade School – Individuals needing help completing a formal degree program may elect to complete courses in a vocational or trade school setting. They may find certificate programs in which the credit they obtain can later count towards the requirements for an associate or bachelor’s degree. An important advantage of vocational or trade schools is affordability.
Community College – Community colleges provide multiple options for students who want to become police officers. Students can complete their associate degree in two years or a certificate in a few months. In many cases, credits earned in a community college program may also be applied toward subsequent studies in a degree program.
Law Enforcement School – The distinct advantage of law enforcement school is its single-minded focus on training law enforcement officers. Depending on the geographic area and current market needs, a law enforcement school may train recruits for a specific city, state, or particular in-demand law enforcement concern. A typical curriculum covers laws, how to make arrests, physical conditioning, tactics, and first aid.
Military – Given the physical fitness, mental discipline, endurance and analytical thinking needed in law enforcement, those with military experience are often considered suitable candidates for law enforcement as these two fields significantly overlap in their requirements. Police officer candidates holding military experience will have distinct advantages as applicants as they will already have some familiarity with firearms, a certain baseline of physical fitness, mental discipline, and familiarity with the military culture that has distinct similarities with prevailing law enforcement culture.
Four-year degree – Completing a four-year degree is highly desirable for various individuals seeking to become police officers. Candidates seeking to serve in police departments in major urban centers, specialize in advanced or sensitive law enforcement concerns such as illegal drug trade, human trafficking, and community-police relations, and those seeking to make law enforcement their lifelong career will all likely find immense value in completing a four-year degree.
By demonstrating a commitment to continued education, candidates can distinguish themselves and chart a path toward a rewarding law enforcement career that effectively uses their skill set. Those seeking to ultimately establish careers in specialized agencies/institutions such as the U.S. Coast Guard Police Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and even the National Park Service should expect to complete a four-year degree and potentially even a graduate degree relevant to the needs of the law enforcement industry.
Particular bachelor’s degrees often highly valued by the law enforcement industry include criminal justice, law, psychology, forensics, computer science, cybersecurity, accounting, public safety, and homeland security.
Upon meeting the aforementioned requirements, candidates must complete one more step to be admitted to a police academy: achieving a passing score on an entrance exam. There is more than one type of entrance exam that may be administered. Examples of some entrance exams include Asset, Compass, and LEE (Law Enforcement Examination). Various exam preparation resources exist to help candidates prepare for this critical step.
The most critical step to becoming a police officer is graduating from a police academy. The duration of a police academy program varies. Still, the featured curriculum typically includes topics such as search and seizure, criminal statutes, traffic laws, firearms training, driver training, and physical conditioning. A police academy usually lasts 13 to 19 weeks but may last up to 26 months (six months).
Until relatively recently, a major issue in police officer training in the United States was the variation in the quality of police academy programs offered throughout the country. This variation was attributable to the lack of national standards for law enforcement training. Rather than being required to adhere to a single federal standard, each state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) organization was allowed to maintain its own unique process and criteria for training police officers. Some states featured a thorough review of the training curriculum, while others required no review. In some states, outdated programs led to situations in which police departments became the target of civil litigation.
To improve the quality and consistency of police officer training throughout the country, members of the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST) collaborated with state POST organizations to develop the National Certification Program (NCP).
The NCP, first instituted in 2015, is designed to establish and disseminate national certification standards for all vendor-provided criminal justice training offered both in a classroom setting and online. NCP standards were developed to meet or exceed all current state requirements. IADLEST utilized the knowledge of subject matter experts and curriculum development specialists with extensive experience in law enforcement to inform its creation of the national certifications standards contained within the NCP.
After graduating from a police academy, an individual becomes eligible to be hired as a police officer. To become a full member of a police department a person must first complete a probation period. During a probation period, new police officer candidates work with a senior partner and receive on-the-job training. Probation periods generally last six months but can be shortened or lengthened depending on a new officer’s progress. It’s customary for individuals to be suspended at any time during the probationary period if they fail to perform their assigned duties adequately.
Given the complexity of issues the United States currently faces, there will likely be a great variety of opportunities for individuals not just to pursue law enforcement careers but also to develop substantial expertise that will define the trajectory of those careers. Opportunities for promotion and career development depend on several factors, including experience, education, performance reviews, openness to continued education, and market demand for specialized skills.
Pursuing a long-term career in law enforcement typically requires regular recertification. The regulations that dictate recertification requirements vary by state. Details of recertification requirements appear in the police officer certification section further down this page.
Police officers work in a variety of settings and may be tasked with the fulfillment of a large number of objectives. Their tasks and responsibilities on any given day depend on several factors. including the mission, current priorities, and pressing concerns of their employer, their specialized training and experience, recent criminal activity or unusual events that require additional attention such as documentation and enhanced police presence, and the information collection, personnel, and other needs of entities that partner with their employer. Entities that partner with police departments may include various parties, such as local, state, federal, and tribal police forces.
A police officer may hold a variety of responsibilities, including some combination of the following:
As police officers gain experience and additional education, they can often advance to progressively more demanding roles in which their responsibilities increase, and they are permitted to work more and more independently. In addition, those who develop expertise may later serve in educational, advocacy, leadership, and other roles.
As previously noted, a critical step in becoming a police officer is completing a POST-approved police academy program. Satisfactory completion of such a program allows an individual to become POST-certified. To become an actual active police officer, a person must subsequently complete a probationary period.
Police officers seeking to serve in special units and/or become subject matter experts will often need to complete additional education and training that may culminate in the additional certifications necessary to be permitted to apply these advanced skills in their daily work.
To maintain an active certification, a police officer must customarily be recertified. The recertification process typically consists of some combination of the following elements:
Renewal application – As when a person first seeks to become a law enforcement professional, a person seeking recertification typically completes an application consisting of several forms.
They may include:
Background check – Given that the lives of law enforcement personnel change over time, it is also customary to submit a current background check. A current background check can minimize the risk of individuals continuing in this profession who would no longer be legally allowed to do so.
Supplemental materials – These materials may include information related to the safe use of firearms as well as the fulfillment of other requirements to ensure the safety of both officers and the general public
Refresher academy – Though not necessarily uniformly required in all states or for all personnel, a refresher academy may be required for people who need to improve their basic knowledge before completing the final recertification step, namely test out
Test out – The test out often includes both written and skills exams. In the skills evaluation, applicants must demonstrate proficiency in firearms, driving, and arrest control. These competencies are evaluated against POST proficiency standards for each competency area. Registration and advanced payment of the test-out fee is often necessary to participate.
Top professional associations and resources for police officers and similar occupations within law enforcement include:
Bernd Geels is a Berlin, Germany-based freelance writer and artist. He holds an undergraduate degree in atmospheric science and two graduate degrees. He completed his most recent graduate degree in international environmental studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in 2011. He is interested in healthcare, climate change, marine conservation, indigenous science, and refugee issues. You can reach him directly at [email protected].