How to Become a Police Officer | Degrees & Careers in Law Enforcement

Updated February 28, 2023

Law enforcement degrees are valuable for many jobs, including police careers. Learn about courses and requirements, and find out how much police earn.

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Being a police officer is a meaningful and impactful way to serve a community. Becoming a police officer doesn't rely heavily on formal education; in fact, a high school diploma is often the minimum formal education required. An associate's, bachelor's or graduate degree is rarely mandatory. Instead, extensive and specialized training is required. This training is often provided by police academies on the local, regional or state level.

So why get a law enforcement degree? Two reasons: Potential higher pay and better advancement opportunities. This guide focuses on how education can help an aspiring police officer realize their dreams.

What Does a Police Officer Do?

In the simplest sense, police officers enforce laws and protect life and property. But of course, there is much more to it than that. Here's how it breaks down:

Police Officer Careers Basics

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, secure crime and accident scenes, write detailed reports and testify in court, among other duties. Officers often respond to emergency calls, working shifts that operate around the clock.

Police Officer Salaries & Job Growth

Police Officer Salaries Across the US

Salaries of police officers are based on many factors, including experience, skills and training. However, one of the most important factors is based on geography. Certain areas of the country pay more, but are often in areas that have higher costs of living. For more information about what police officers can make and where they can make it, check out the map below.


Police Officer Job Growth

Police officers are a vital component to maintaining a peaceful society. While still subject to cost cutting like any other private sector industry, the demand for police officers remains relatively steady for the foreseeable future. For more detailed job growth information, please see the below chart.

Steps to Becoming a Police Officer

Though formal education is not usually required to work as a police officer, more and more departments are looking for those who have earned a degree and are ready to tackle the higher levels of management. Here's how to get there.

Step 1
Obtain high school diploma or GED
Getting a high school diploma or GED is the minimum formal education requirement for most police officers. Many law enforcement organizations may require or prefer applicants with a bachelor's degree, associate's degree or a certain number of postsecondary education credits.
Step 2
Meet other minimum requirements
Most applicants will need to be a US citizen, have a valid driver's license and be at least 18 or 21 years old, depending on department policy. Applicants will also need a clean criminal record, although some police departments may allow those with criminal records as long as their offences were very minor. Felonies will disqualify someone from this profession.
Step 3
Obtain a bachelor's degree (optional)
A bachelor's degree is usually needed for more advanced law enforcement positions, especially those at the federal level, such as with the FBI or US Fish and Wildlife Service. Even if it's not required, police departments are increasing beginning to look favorably on applicants with college degrees.
Step 4
Pass the law enforcement entrance exam
Before being admitted into a police academy, applicants must achieve a passing score on an entrance exam. The exact entrance exam taken will depend on the police academy and jurisdiction. Some of the tests given include Asset, Compass and LEE (Law Enforcement Examination).
Step 5
Graduate from the police academy
The police academy is where applicants receive the most important training that will allow them to serve as police officers. Training can last six months with a curriculum covering topics such as search and seizure, criminal statutes, traffic laws, firearms training, driver training and physical conditioning.
Step 6
Work toward a promotion
Depending on the department, moving up the ranks depends on level of experience, performance reviews, scoring well on a written promotion exam and obtaining additional skills and training. Pay increases with a promotion, but so does the level of responsibility and potential bureaucracy.

Law Enforcement Degrees & Training

Career Goal & Educational Needs Certificate Associate Bachelor Master's Online
The police department I want to work for doesn't require anything more than a high school diploma. However, they prefer recruits to have some legal-related postsecondary college credits before enrolling in the academy.
I'm working full time as a police officer right now. I know I need to get another degree to increase my chances of getting promoted within my department, but my work schedule is so varied that I don't have the ability to take classes on a set schedule.
I don't know exactly where I'd like to end up as a police officer, but I do know I want the potential for advancement, to give myself the best chance of being hired and to be eligible for federal law enforcement positions, such as at the DEA or FBI.
I hope to someday take a leadership position within law enforcement, even becoming a police captain or police chief.
I would like to gain additional knowledge about law enforcement. Many departments I intend to apply to require applicants to have several dozen college credits, if not a full degree.

Preparing for a Police Officer Career: Find the Right Environment

When an aspiring police officer chooses to go to school to obtain formal education, a world of possibilities opens up. Here are some of the potential places where the certificate or degree can be earned.

Vocational/Trade School

Some vocational or trade schools have certificate programs that may count towards college credit, such as for a future associate or bachelor's degree. Some might offer associate degrees. Vocational or trade schools can provide a way to save money on college costs while receiving necessary college course instruction.


Military experience is well regarded by law enforcement agencies and police departments. Familiarity with firearms, mental toughness, physical conditioning, discipline and an understanding of command structure and culture are all benefits that come with hiring a recruit with military experience.

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. As an added bonus, many community colleges allow credits earned in a certificate program to go towards an associate degree.

Law Enforcement School

As the name indicates, law enforcement schools focus on one thing: training law enforcement officers. Depending on the geographic area, a law enforcement school or police academy can train recruits for a specific city or state. The curriculum will cover many areas such as laws, how to make arrests, physical conditioning, tactics and first aid.

4-year schools

Departments that require a bachelor's degree are often found at the federal level. However, even if a four-year degree isn't required, getting a bachelor's degree can be a prudent decision: it can increase the chances of getting hired and promoted.

Types of Law Enforcement and Related Degrees

Those who want to advance in the law enforcement field can be well-served by a degree on any level. Here are the most common degrees, as well as information on courses, all presented to help students make the right choices for their police officer careers.

Certificate in Law Enforcement

A certificate in criminal justice or criminology is an opportunity for individuals to gain specific instruction in an area of law enforcement. Since a certificate consists of a few classes and can be completed in a few months, the certificate can also provide an opportunity to get started on an associate degree without having to commit to the two years just yet. Certificates are also great in that some department require applicants to have some college credits, but do not require a full degree. Some of the courses available in a criminology or criminal justice certificate program are listed below:


This course looks at the conceptual and theoretical reasoning and explanations behind criminal behavior.

Skills Gained

  • Knowledge of commonly used definitions
  • Application of criminology principles to explain certain types of behavior
  • Understanding of foundational assumptions and principles of criminal behavior

The Criminal Justice System

Students will learn about the criminal justice system and how it works.

Skills Gained

  • Understanding of courtroom procedures
  • Familiarity with criminal laws and procedures
  • Knowing the criminal process from arrest to incarceration


The basic theories and ideas behind criminal punishment and rehabilitation are taught in this class.

Skills Gained

  • Use of different philosophies regarding criminal punishment
  • Familiarity with common practices within a correctional facility.
  • Ability to follow established procedures and protocols of various correctional facilities

Associate Degree in Law Enforcement

An associate degree in law enforcement prepares graduates for police careers by providing the information necessary to pass police academy entrance exams. The associate degree usually takes two years to complete, is a well-rounded degree with general education courses mixed in, and serves as a stepping stone to the bachelor's degree. Because each associate degree program will be tailored to the requirements of the local and regional law enforcement departments, curriculums will vary. However, some of the classes incoming students can expect include:

Crime Types

Various crimes are discussed, including white collar, property and organized crime.

Skills Gained

  • Knowledge concerning many different types of crime
  • Understanding of victimless crimes
  • How to distinguish different crimes from each other.

Police Strategy

Students will learn how to use police intelligence to more effectively manage police resources and protect the public.

Skills Gained

  • Applying police analytics and to produce predictive policing maps
  • How to produce police intelligence and develop strategies
  • Allocation of limited resources in order to prevent crime

Investigating Crime Scenes

Students are taught how to properly manage a crime scene and gather evidence.

Skills Gained

  • Knowledge of evidence gathering protocols, such as chain of custody
  • Methods for collecting evidence
  • Utilizing crime reconstructions methods

Bachelor's Degree in Law Enforcement

A law enforcement degree at the bachelor's level typically takes four years to complete and can include many different topics or subjects. There are prototypical degrees such as criminal justice, criminology and law enforcement studies. But there are other majors that can hold police officers in good stead. For example, graduates with a degree in accounting are excellent candidates for a career in white collar crime investigations, while computer science majors can have an advantage if they're interested in pursuing a career in computer forensics or cyber crimes.

Those in a bachelor's degree program in a law-related field can expect to find courses like these:

Police Ethics

Moral and ethics dilemmas are examined in this course.

Skills Gained

  • Familiarity with common sources of unethical and unprofessional police conduct
  • Identifying police culture and actions that facilitate unethical behavior
  • Application of certain tools and strategies for dealing with ethical issues

Emergency Planning

Students will receive instruction in emergency management and risk reduction tools and methods.

Skills Gained

  • Experience in riot control and less-than-lethal uses of force
  • Use of risk mitigation and management practices
  • Familiarity with organizations commonly called upon during times of crisis

Police models

Students are exposed to different forms of policing models utilized at the local, state and federal levels.

Skills Gained

  • Intelligence gathering and information management methods
  • Management techniques to most efficiently handle problems
  • Knowing the differences between local, state and federal police management and organizational methods

Master's Degree in Law Enforcement

Law enforcement degrees at the master's level are specifically tailored to many professional goals. These can include specialized and advance knowledge in a particular area, such as intelligence, research and leadership. A master's degree is particularly advantageous to those seeking professional advancement. Consisting of about two years of schooling, some of the classes that can be found at the master's level include:

Criminal Statistics

Students learn fundamental statistical analysis techniques and methods.

Skills Gained

  • Familiarity of statistical models
  • Ability to interpret data and draw useful conclusions
  • Confirm the utility and validity of statistical data

Intelligence Gathering

Intelligence and surveillance methods and techniques are addressed in this course.

Skills Gained

  • Ability to conduct intelligence gathering operations
  • Understanding the legal issues when gathering intelligence or making use of information gleaned from surveillance
  • Consideration of logistical and operational limitations of intelligence gathering

Criminal Justice Professional Development

In this class, students learn about leadership and management principles and concepts.

Skills Gained

  • Effective methods of leadership within the law enforcement context
  • Familiarity with underlying management practices
  • Strategies for advancing a law enforcement career

Law Enforcement Degree Concentrations

The law enforcement professions can lead to different careers, depending on advancement and professional aspirations of the individual police officers. A few of the options available to former police officers are listed below.

Police Supervisors

Median salary: $82,090

Whether they're police chiefs, lieutenants or captains, police departments require supervising police officers. These police supervisors determine which assignments and patrols go to which officers, handle administrative and bureaucratic tasks and help dictate police department policy and expectations of its officers.

Fish and Game Warden

2015 median salary: $52,780

Fish and game wardens are somewhat like police officers, but their jurisdiction is limited to fish and game related legal violations. The enforcement of these laws is to protect both the public, as well as the animals, environment and natural resources.

Transit Police

2015 median salary: $59,670

Transit officers are police officers with patrol areas limited to transportation settings, such as railroads, subways or buses. Transit police officers ensure the enforcement of applicable laws and regulations that relate to the specific transit method. Transit police officers also help protect the public and maintain safety.

Private Investigator

2015 median salary: $45,610

Private investigators research personal, legal and business matters on behalf of private clients. Their duties may require them to conduct surveillance operations, review financial documents or interview individuals for more information. Other typical tasks include background checks and data collection.


2015 median salary: $77,210

Detectives are specialized police officers that investigate crimes and gather evidence. Their tasks include analyzing potential evidence, interviewing witnesses and suspects and assisting in the execution of warrants. Many detectives will specialize in a particular area, such as homicide, sexual crimes, arson or fraud.


2015 median salary: $41,670

Bailiffs assist judges in maintaining order in courtrooms. Their tasks can include restraining unruly litigants or members of the public, escorting witnesses, providing information to courtroom participants and protecting members of the court.

Components of a Successful Police Officer Career: Skills, Credentials, Tools & Technology

As with any other profession, police officers utilize special tools and skills. What makes the skills and tools unique to police officers is that when they are missing, unfortunate things can happen. The following skills and tools are important to help keep the police officers and the general public as safe as possible.


Software engineers are expected to have a broad knowledge base and skill set in multiple proficiencies, including both nontechnical and technical areas.

  • Leadership

    Leadership qualities are important, not just for leading fellow officers, but for helping the civilian population in times of need. Police officers must be able to assess the situation and instruct others in what to do to keep them safe.
  • Good judgment

    There are many problems faced by police officers that have no easy solution. The right thing to do may require a complex solution and blur the lines between right and wrong. Good judgment will be needed to make the best decisions possible.
  • The ability to ‘read' people

    Police officers interact with ordinary citizens every day. They must be able to figure out when something isn't right, not because of what is said, but because of what isn't said. There will also be disputes that boil down to one person's word against another. Being able to determine who is lying is essential.
  • Physical strength and stamina

    Law enforcement is demanding work, whether it is working long hours or impromptu foot chases or rescuing civilians from burning cars. Not all work will be this dramatic, but physical ability is a much-needed skill for police officers.
  • Mental toughness

    Police officers will see things that many people can't imagine. If a they don't have coping skills to handle what's seen on the job, they may not be able to continue the work.

Tools and Technology

  • Firearms
  • Police car
  • Body armor
  • Less-than-lethal weapons
  • Handcuffs
  • Laptop
  • Radio
  • Surveillance equipment
  • Radar speed detector
  • Breathalyzer
  • Flashlight


Police officers are expected to achieve and maintain certain certifications and licenses, such as those relating to firearms, CPR and basic first aid. Beyond the minimum certifications, there will be numerous opportunities for police officers to obtain additional credentials. These can include credentials in management, special weapons and tactics training, crime scene investigation techniques and arson investigation. Many certifications and special training regimens will be department or region-specific.

Related Careers at a Glance

Private Investigator
Median Salary (2015):


Education/Training Required:

High School Diploma

Security Guard
Median Salary (2015):


Education/Training Required:

High School Diploma

Median Salary (2015):


Education/Training Required:

High School Diploma

Correctional Officer
Median Salary (2015):


Education/Training Required:

High School Diploma

Median Salary (2015):


Education/Training Required:

Postsecondary non-degree training

Median Salary (2015):


Education/Training Required:

Postsecondary non-degree training

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

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:

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.

Law Enforcement Degree and Police Career Resources

Fraternal Order of Police

The FOP is one of the largest fraternal police organizations working to promote various interests of law enforcement officers. Activities includes political outreach, educational efforts, community service and labor representation.

International Police Association

The IPA is one of the largest fraternal police organizations with the primary mission of promoting friendship among its members, which consists of active and retired law enforcement professionals.

National Association of Police Organizations

NAPO is comprised of various police professional organizations and unions from across the United States. NAPO's overarching goal is to protect and promote the interest of police officers through education, education and political activity.

National Sheriffs' Association

The NSA is a professional organization representing law enforcement and public safety officers across the country. The NSA provides training and information resources for law enforcement and public safety professionals.

Police Benevolent Foundation

The PBF exists to help the families of police officers who have died in the line of duty. Assistance offered includes scholarships and financial support.

United States Deputy Sheriffs' Association

The USDSA is nationwide organization devoted to training law enforcement officers. The training is free and is focused on officer survival.

Related Careers at a Glance

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