How to Become a Police Officer or Detective
Police and detectives must use good judgment and have strong communication skills when gathering facts about a crime.
The education typically required to enter the occupation ranges from a high school diploma to a college degree. Most police and detectives must graduate from their agency’s training academy before completing a period of on-the-job training. Candidates must be U.S. citizens, usually at least 21 years old, and able to meet rigorous physical and personal qualifications. A felony conviction or drug use may disqualify a candidate.
Police and detective applicants must have at least a high school diploma or equivalent, although some federal agencies and police departments may require that applicants have completed college coursework or a college degree. Many community colleges and 4-year colleges and universities offer programs in law enforcement and criminal justice. Knowledge of a foreign language is an asset in many federal agencies and geographical regions.
Fish and game wardens typically need a bachelor’s degree; desirable fields of study include wildlife science, biology, or natural resources. Federal Wildlife Officers and some state-level fish and game wardens typically do not need a bachelor’s degree.
Federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation may require prospective detectives and investigators to have a bachelor's degree.
Many applicants for entry-level police jobs have completed some college coursework, and a significant number are college graduates. Common fields of degree include security and protective service and social science.
Candidates for law enforcement appointment usually attend a training academy before becoming an officer. Training includes classroom instruction in state and local laws and constitutional law, civil rights, and police ethics. Recruits also receive training and supervised experience in subjects such as patrol, traffic control, firearm use, self-defense, first aid, and emergency response.
Federal law enforcement agents undergo extensive training, usually at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, or at a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.
Work Experience in a Related Occupation
Because they need experience in law enforcement, detectives typically begin their careers as police officers.
FBI special agent applicants must have at least 2 years of full-time work experience, or 1 year of experience plus an advanced degree (master’s or higher).
Some police departments have cadet programs for people interested in a career in law enforcement who do not yet meet age requirements for becoming an officer. These cadets do clerical work and attend classes until they reach the minimum age requirement and can apply for a position with the regular force. Military or police experience may be considered beneficial for prospective cadets.
Cadet candidates must be U.S. citizens, usually be at least 18 years old, have a driver’s license, and meet specific physical qualifications. Applicants may have to pass physical exams of vision, hearing, strength, and agility, as well as written exams. Candidates typically go through a series of interviews and may be asked to take polygraph (lie detector) and drug tests. A felony conviction may disqualify a candidate.
Police officers usually become eligible for promotion after a probationary period. Promotions to corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, and captain usually are made according to scores on a written examination and on-the-job performance. In large departments, an officer may be promoted to detective or to specialize in one type of police work, such as working with juveniles.
Along with exam and performance scores, a bachelor’s degree may be required for advancement to positions of lieutenant or higher rank.
Communication skills. Police and detectives must be able to speak with people and to express details in writing about an incident.
Empathy. Police officers need to understand the perspectives of a variety of people in their jurisdiction and be willing to help the public.
Good judgment. Police and detectives must be able to determine the best way to solve an array of problems.
Leadership skills. Police officers must be comfortable with being a highly visible member of their community, as the public looks to them for help in emergencies.
Perceptiveness. Officers, detectives, and fish and game wardens must be able to anticipate people’s reactions and understand why they act a certain way.
Physical stamina. Officers and detectives must be in good physical shape, both to pass required tests for entry into the field and to keep up with the daily rigors of the job.
Physical strength. Police officers must be strong enough to physically apprehend suspects and to assist people in precarious situations.