How to Become a Police Officer


The field of law enforcement is broad and offers many different ways for people to serve and protect their communities. If you’re thinking about joining the law enforcement community as a police officer, here’s what you need to know.

First of all, check to make sure you meet the basic requirements for law enforcement employment in your state. Each state or agency has its own minimum qualifications, but in general you must:

  • Be a citizen of the United States, or in some cases a permanent resident who has applied for citizenship
  • Be at least 21 years of age, although some agencies take applicants as young as 18
  • Have a high school degree or a GED
  • Have a valid driver’s license

If you meet the application requirements for your state, you’re ready to begin the application process. Every department and state is different, but the foundations of the process are similar.

Physical Agility

With most departments, applicants will be required to complete and pass a physical agility examination. The criteria for the physical agility exam vary from state to state, but one thing remains consistent: In order to be considered for a position as a police officer, you must pass the required physical agility exam.

Don’t take the test unprepared! It’s not the Ironman, but it can be a challenge, especially for those who do not exercise regularly or who do not know what the test includes. Before you apply, check the requirements of the department you’re interested in joining.

Written Examination

A police officer needs brains as well as brawn to be successful, and a written examination will be an important part of the hiring process. These tests are meant to evaluate your reading comprehension, mathematical aptitude, and problem-solving skills.

Examinations can be proctored by the department themselves, or as part of a consortium testing approach in which one test will be valid for multiple departments. You must meet the department’s minimum score to proceed.

Oral Examination

Once you’ve demonstrated you have the physical and mental aptitude to become a police officer, departments will want to test your verbal skills, because words are the greatest tool a police officer has.

Most agencies will conduct an oral board examination, which consists of a panel of officers and local officials posing situational questions to the candidate. These questions are meant to evaluate your problem analysis and problem-solving skills, as well as your ability to communicate with others.

In some cases, candidates that have successfully met all requirements at this point in the process may receive a conditional offer, which is contingent on passing an additional exam or screening or being evaluated by a selection committee. A conditional offer does not guarantee employment with that agency.

Assessing the Candidate’s Character

Once the abilities of the candidate have been assessed, the department will want to evaluate their character. Because they are representatives of the law, police officers must be held to high standards when it comes to their integrity.

Candidates will be subject to a thorough background examination by an officer, usually a detective, within that department. This will encompass all facets of an applicant’s past, including criminal history, work history, and personal history.

Remember: No one is perfect! The important thing during this portion of the evaluation is to be honest. Candidates often make the mistake of hiding something they feel may disqualify them from the process. In reality, it is most often this omission itself that leads to their disqualification.

While many agencies will disqualify a candidate who has a past felony or misdemeanor conviction, has used illegal drugs, or has a poor driving record or a DWI/DUI conviction, it’s still best to be honest about your background and any past infractions. Some agencies consider mitigating factors in some cases and use their own discretion when deciding if a candidate is fit to be a police officer.

Many departments also require truth verification testing. This can be in the form of either a polygraph examination or voice stress analysis. Again, honesty is of the utmost importance at this stage of testing.

The Final Steps

Toward the conclusion of the process, applicants will be required to have a full physical examination as well as a psychological evaluation. Departments want to establish the physical and mental well-being of a candidate before moving forward.

At this point, the candidate will be presented to key decision-makers in the hiring process. For some department that takes the form of a Chief’s Interview. Other departments may have applicants meet with the police commission or other governing body.

From this point, candidates will be moved in one of three directions.

  • Candidates that have successfully met all requirements may be offered a position with the department.
  • Candidates may be placed on hold or on an eligibility list. This means that the candidate, while qualified, will not be extended an offer at this time. These candidates may be offered a position at a later date.
  • Candidates who do not quality for whatever reason are rejected or placed on hold. These candidates will be removed from the process and may be eligible to reapply at a future date.

The law enforcement hiring process can take months to complete and eligibility lists can be maintained for up to three years. Be patient with the agency throughout the hiring process. Departments can have hundreds of candidates and must give equal and fair evaluations to every candidate that applies.

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