Interested in a career as a police officer? Use this guide to learn how to become a police officer and explore career and salary outlook data.

Updated August 26, 2022 • 6 Min Read

Police officers work to enforce laws. Often the first to respond to emergency situations, they also conduct routine patrols, issue traffic citations, and submit reports about situations they handled.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) projects that jobs for police officers and detectives will increase by 7% from 2020-2030, indicating a strong outlook for the field. Individuals considering police officer careers should have strong communication skills, an interest in leadership, and a desire to help other people. A police officer must hold a high school diploma at minimum, though many police departments require some college coursework.

Most police officers work for local, state, and federal government employers. According to the BLS, local government employs 77% of the police officers and detectives in the country.

Read the Specifics: Specializations | Salary | Requirements | FAQs | Organizations

What Do Police Officers Do?

Police officers help people by responding to emergencies, monitoring traffic rules, and arresting criminal suspects. They work within the law enforcement industry, which covers several careers including correctional officers and bailiffs, emergency management workers, security guards, and private investigators.

On a typical day, police officers interact with many different people. They respond to calls from citizens, adhere to a chain of command within their local precincts, and communicate with officials such as prosecutors. They may spend time writing reports, testifying in court cases, and dealing with traffic violations.

Police officers help people by responding to emergencies, monitoring traffic rules, and arresting criminal suspects.

With police work, promotions occur on a ladder that starts with a probationary period. Following this period, internal reviews typically determine when officers advance to corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, and captain roles. Some police officers might decide to specialize in particular areas of the law. Others might decide to pursue roles as special agents within the FBI.

Though the job comes with high stresses, police officers can excel when they possess the right skills. Soft skills relate to personality traits and attitudes, while hard skills involve measurable abilities. The sections below explore some of the key abilities that help police officers in their work.

Key Soft Skills for Police Officers

  • Communication: Police officers need to give clear, spoken instructions when coordinating emergency situations and negotiating conflicts. They also need to clearly communicate in written reports.
  • Empathy: Empathy helps police officers to better serve people and communities. They must listen to different perspectives and value those differences.
  • Persuasion: Police officers often must de-escalate dangerous situations. They negotiate with the people involved and convince them to reach a compromise.

Key Hard Skills for Police Officers

  • Physical Fitness: Police officers test regularly for physical stamina and strength, as the day-to-day realities of the job may require them to run, lift, or subdue violent individuals.
  • Knowledge of Law and Government: Police officers need to possess a strong knowledge of the law to legally conduct searches, make arrests, and handle evidence.
  • Public Safety: Detailed knowledge of tools and policies ensures that police officers can respond appropriately amid emergencies. Adherence to these procedures also keeps police officers safe while working to protect others.

A Day in the Life of a Police Officer

Police officers often begin their shifts by checking their equipment to make sure everything works properly, including patrol cars, radios, and first aid supplies. Station leaders may brief officers on important developments at the start of each shift. Shifts typically run for eight hours at a time, around the clock.

Daily tasks vary depending on the assigned patrol. Police officers might serve particular neighborhoods by patrolling in cars or on foot. They offer community assistance by providing security at public events and on school campuses. At other times, they work at the precinct, answering phone calls and coordinating station activities.

During a typical day, a police offer might:

  • Conduct arrests and deliver suspects to the appropriate facilities
  • Collect evidence
  • Respond to complaints and emergency calls
  • File reports
  • Surveil criminal suspects
  • Testify in court
  • Direct traffic

Areas of Specialization for Police Officers

Specialization Description Required Education Licensure and Certification Requirements Career Titles Within This Specialization
Special Weapons and Tactics SWAT teams handle high-risk situations with special tools like ballistic shields and blankets, night vision equipment, and thermal imaging technology. High school diploma at minimum Specialized training occurs depending on the location and career title Crisis negotiators; tactical team; grenadiers; snipers/observers; medics
Fish and Game Wardens Fish and game wardens enforce laws related to hunting and fishing. They also respond to calls related to wildlife activity. Associate or bachelor's degree often required Sometimes need special vehicle or boating licenses, depending on the location Local fish and game wardens; state fish and game wardens; federal wildlife officer
Detectives and Criminal Investigators Detectives and criminal investigators work to solve serious crimes. They collect and examine evidence, interview witnesses and suspects, and monitor activity related to their cases. High school diploma at minimum May pursue credentials like certified professional criminal investigator or cyber investigation Homicide detective, fraud investigator, forensic investigator
Canine Enforcement Officer Canine (or K-9) enforcement officers work with police dogs. They specialize in searches, burglaries, and missing persons. High school diploma at minimum, though many hold a bachelor's degree Intensive bootcamp training with canine partner These officers and dogs specialize in areas like narcotics, electronics, and explosive devices.

Police Officer Career and Salary Outlook

The BLS projects that job openings for police officers will grow by 7% from 2020-2030. This parallels the national average for all occupations. As officers retire, advance, or move on to other law enforcement jobs, newcomers can pursue entry-level openings. The number of available jobs can depend on factors like location, specialization, and industry.

According to May 2020 BLS data, police and detectives earn a median annual wage of $67,290.

Police work can be a stable job choice, particularly for those who like the idea of a clear advancement path. Stations typically promote from within their ranks once they qualify. However, police officers regularly face stressful and dangerous situations, which may have long-term effects on mental and physical health.

According to May 2020 BLS data, police and detectives earn a median annual wage of $67,290. Detectives and criminal investigators make a median annual wage of $86,940.

Annual Median Salary: $67,290

Source: BLS

Next Steps on the Career Path

Police officer career advancement typically occurs within the structure of the department. Police departments base promotions on experience, written examinations, and performance reviews. Some police officers may also advance to detective roles. Aspiring police officers can work toward promotions by:

  • Completing a bachelor's degree in criminal justice or a related field
  • Pursuing intermediate or advance police certifications
  • Pursuing specialized credentials in areas like supervisory/management, crime scene technician, or crime scene technician

Where Can I Work as a Police Officer?

States employing the most police and sheriff's patrol officers include California, Texas, New York, and Florida. These numbers align closely with the country's most populous states , suggesting that higher populations require more law enforcement workers.

Police officers looking to specialize may look for opportunities in other places. Top locations for transit and railroad police include New York, California, Ohio, and Illinois. The most fish and game wardens work in Florida, Texas, New York, and Tennessee.

Aspiring police officers should consider their preferred type of work. Areas with higher crime rates can make the job more dangerous. However, those who want to work in highly specialized areas, like canine enforcement units, might need to follow the job to a new location.

Top industries employing police officers include local and state government; colleges, universities, and professional schools; and the federal executive branch.

How to Become a Police Officer

Police officers need to apply with a high school diploma or equivalent. Some jobs require college coursework related to criminal justice, such as an associate or bachelor's degree.

Police officers often need to be 21 years old to qualify for the job. Younger students can join cadet programs to learn how to become police officers by helping at the station and taking classes in law enforcement.

Aspiring police officers can follow these steps to land employment in the field:

  1. Obtain a high school diploma or equivalent
  2. Pursue an associate or bachelor's degree in criminal justice (optional for some positions)
  3. Apply to training academy; pass a drug test and physical fitness, vision, and hearing evaluations
  4. Attend a police training academy according to the local jurisdiction's rules
  5. Complete a probationary period working on the force

Police Officer Training Requirements

A police officer needs to hold a high school diploma or an equivalent credential. Some employers require associate or bachelor's degrees. College coursework in criminal justice or law enforcement can help applicants qualify for more jobs. Individuals looking for more specific roles can tailor their studies accordingly. For example, aspiring fish and game wardens might major in biology or wildlife science.

Education requirements vary depending on the employer. Local governments might hire more high school graduates, while federal agencies more often require a bachelor's degree. Aspiring police officers can gain experience through cadet training or military service.

According to PayScale , entry-level police officers earned an average annual salary of $47,770 as of September 2021. With 5-9 years of experience, the average salary grows to $53,960. Police officers can increase their potential earnings by developing skills like safety compliance, emergency response, and operations management.

Thinking About Pursuing a Degree in Criminal Justice? Explore Your Options:

License and Certification Requirements for Police Officers

Because most police officers train through their specific departments, industry certifications can help with advancement or professional development goals. Examples include:

Students obtain these credentials by participating in a workshop focusing on incident response, tactics, and decision-making. This certification isn't required but could help police officers to advance or move into specialty areas.

This credential recognizes and develops excellence in innovative criminal justice work. Individuals seeking leadership positions might pursue this certification to boost their career goals.

This certification focuses on decision-making, resilience, and team collaboration. Graduates can demonstrate proficiency in tactical operations, emotional stamina, and risk management to help keep other officers safe. Officers interested in field leadership can consider this certification.

This credential prepares learners to protect their organizations against various threats through hazard response and recovery.

Required Experience for Police Officers

Police officers can qualify for the job through several entry points. Aspiring law enforcement professionals might connect with their local precincts to complete cadet training. Cadets who meet the minimum age requirement of 18 years usually need a driver's license and may need to pass interviews.

Cadet training can coincide with college coursework. Military service can also provide an access point for police officer training or work.

Finally, college coursework in criminal justice or law enforcement can provide an excellent path to working as a police officer. An individual who completes an associate or bachelor's degree can often qualify for positions, even without other experience in the field.

Frequently Asked Questions

What qualifications do you need to become a police officer?

Entry-level police officers usually need a high school diploma at minimum. Some employers require college coursework or degrees. Police officers typically need to be 21 years old to qualify for the job.

Are there a lot of steps to becoming a cop?

After completing the relevant educational requirements, aspiring police officers must apply for training. The application may include physical fitness tests, written exams, and interviews. The police officers then complete training and undergo a probationary period on the force.

How much does a police officer make?

According to May 2020 BLS data , police and sheriff's officers make a median annual wage of $65,540. Detectives earn a median income of $86,940 , while transit and railroad police make a median salary of $72,580 .

What are the disadvantages of becoming a police officer?

Police officers serve the public by keeping the peace and enforcing laws. However, police officers also respond to emergency situations daily. Often working long shifts, they must remain calm at accident scenes and negotiate potentially violent scenarios.

Professional Organizations for Police Officers

The FOP serves its law enforcement officer membership through advocacy, training opportunities, and wellness programs. Their work includes a foundation for disaster recovery.

Focusing on credible and ethical leadership in the field, IAPS offers a suite of courses for criminal justice professionals. The varied menu includes crash scene physics, interview techniques, and law enforcement basics.

ILEETA serves a membership of educators, managers, and supervisors through online training opportunities, regular webcasts, and professional discounts. Members can also attend an annual conference.

Headquartered in Virginia, NSA works with sheriffs and law-enforcement professionals. They advocate for their members on a national level, and members can access resources like a career center, industry publications, and regular events.

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