How to Become a Police Officer: Careers as a Police Officer


Learn, lead, protect and serve. Become a police officer.

Police officers work across wide range of local, rural, regional and state police organizations, each with its own set of hiring and promotion requirements. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that educational requirements across the nation can range from a high school diploma to college undergraduate and post-graduate degrees. Knowing that, how should you prepare for your career? Do you need specialized training to work in a federal law enforcement agency? How much will you earn?

This extensive guide answers many of these types of questions, as well as how to find the right training and education, how much you can earn, job prospects and how to advance in rank.

what does a police officer do?

Police officers are sworn to protect and serve the communities in which they live and work. They enforce laws, obtain warrants, arrest and interview suspects, write detailed reports and testify in court, among other duties. Those who work in patrol might have a certain area in a city, region or state that they monitor. Officers often respond to emergency calls, working shifts that operate around the clock. Based on your appointment, length of service and training, you may work with a K-9 unit responding to suspicions of drugs or dangerous weapons in vehicles and other property. Or, you might take a role on the SWAT team where you need to know tactics and procedure under dangerous conditions.

what kind of skills are required ?

Police officers may work under intense stress, physically and emotionally. You need to be physically fit and have well-developed communication skills. Independent judgment, empathy and strong leadership skills are valuable assets. You also benefit from having computer skills and the aptitude to learn laws and codes used in daily practice.


Most police officers work full-time, and many of them are on shift work, especially in the early years of employment. In 2012, police officers made a median wage of $56,980, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, the top ten percent in the profession made $93,450 or more. There are also the added bonuses and allowances for uniforms, extensive benefits and early retirement possibilities.

The map below shows details of the 10th, 50th, and 90th percentile earners for each state.

The Steps: Becoming a Police Officer

Meet the Minimum Requirements

All law enforcement officers are required to be a citizen of the United States, hold a high school diploma or its recognized equivalent, and have a clean criminal record at any level: local, state and federal. You should be at least 21 years old at the time of your application for employment.

Complete an Undergraduate Degree (Optional)

While positions exist for those who choose a general path, those who have a specific career goal in mind should be aware of more extensive requirements. For instance, those who want to work in federal law enforcement must have at least at bachelor’s degree as well as three years of related work experience. A two-year associate degree in criminal justice or law enforcement can move you up in the hiring line for non-federal jobs. Military experience or fluency in a foreign language can also help, especially if working where a language other than English is spoken commonly.

Pass the Law Enforcement Entrance Exam

The ASSET or COMPASS test is a common official entrance exam required by many law enforcement organizations. Your exam scores will be ranked as the agency qualifies candidates for entry to their academy. The prospective employer may also conduct a background investigation, physical aptitude test, oral board interview, polygraph and/or medical exam as part of the screening process.

Complete Academy Training

Upon hiring, you’ll be assigned to basic training at a law enforcement academy operated by city, regional, state or federal law enforcement agencies before you’re allowed to work in the field. You’ll study subjects like policing tactics, constitutional law, ethics, crime scene documentation and proper use and care of firearms. Federal officers receive training at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, or another national facility.

Advance Your Career

Law enforcement agencies have well-documented, standardized procedures for moving up in rank. Once your probation period is over, you can begin to accrue hours and study to take promotion exams. Test scores and police performance are ways that organizations rank candidates for advancement. For those who work in federal jobs, earning an graduate degree can boost promotion opportunities.

Police Officer Training Programs

If you are interested in learning how to become a police officer, you can often gather a wealth of information from schools that offer criminal justice and criminology programs. These schools are tops for future cops:

  • School:
  • State:
  • Degree Level:
  • Subject:
Total Results:
Abilene Christian University Abilene, TX Bachelor's Criminal Justice
Abraham Baldwin Agricultural College Tifton, GA Associate Criminal Justice/Police Science
Academia Serrant Inc Ponce, PR Award (<2 years) Criminal Justice/Police Science
Adams State College Alamosa, CO Bachelor's Criminology
Adirondack Community College Queensbury, NY Associate Criminal Justice/Police Science
Adrian College Adrian, MI Bachelor's Criminal Justice
Aims Community College Greeley, CO Award (<2 years) Criminal Justice/Police Science
Aims Community College Greeley, CO Associate Criminal Justice
Akron Institute of Herzing University Akron, OH Associate Criminal Justice
Albright College Reading, PA Bachelor's Criminology

Online Police Officer Programs

When you are learning to become a police officer, many of the courses can be taken online. However, keep in mind that some criminal justice programs might require hands-on training in some areas, and so a hybrid degree is a possibility. These colleges offer either online only education or hybrid education for aspiring police officers:

  • School:
  • Degree Level granted:
Total Results:
Adams State College Bachelor's Bachelor Of Arts In Sociology With Criminology Emphasis
Adler School of Professional Psychology Master's Master Of Arts In Criminology
Albany State University Master's Master Of Science In Criminal Justice
American InterContinental University-Online Associate Associate Of Science In Criminal Justice
American InterContinental University-Online Bachelor's Bachelor Of Science In Criminal Justice - Generalist Specialization
American InterContinental University-Online Bachelor's Bachelor Of Science In Criminal Justice With A Specialization In Corrections And Case Management
American InterContinental University-Online Bachelor's Bachelor Of Science In Criminal Justice With A Specialization In Forensic Science
American InterContinental University-Online Bachelor's Bachelor Of Science In Criminal Justice With A Specialization In Homeland Security And Crisis Management
American InterContinental University-Online Bachelor's Bachelor Of Science In Criminal Justice With A Specialization In Law Enforcement
Amridge University Bachelor's Public Safety And Criminal Justice

what do related occupations make ?

If you’re interested in how to become a police officer, you might also be interested in related professions. Working as a correctional officer, EMT or paramedic, firefighter, probation officer, security guard, gaming surveillance officer, game warden or firefighter might be on your radar. If that’s the case, you can peruse the list of related occupations below, which includes average salaries:

Police Officer and Related Job Salaries

What you earn depends on where you live, including the region, state or city. To help determine what you can expect to make in your particular area, our handy salary comparison tool can help.

Police Officer Salary Comparison Tool
  • Select a state:
  • Select City 1:
  • Select City 2:
Anniston 2012 MEAN PAY $37,240 per year $17.9 per hour
Auburn 2012 MEAN PAY $39,030 per year $18.77 per hour

Job Growth

Police officers will always be needed to help assure public safety. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of police officers will rise by 5 percent from 2012 to 2022. Growth will be strongest among police and sheriff’s patrol officers. Those who have fluency in a foreign language, military experience, or a bachelor’s degree will see the best prospects for jobs.

To see more on employment or job growth for police officers, select a state below.

  • Select a state:
  • Employed Police Officers
    0.54% Average Annual Job Growth 380 Annual Job Openings