How to Become a Police Officer | Degrees & Careers in Law Enforcement
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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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Various crimes are discussed, including white collar, property and organized crime.
Knowledge concerning many different types of crime
Understanding of victimless crimes
How to distinguish different crimes from each other.
Students will learn how to use police intelligence to more effectively manage police resources and protect the public.
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.
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:
Moral and ethics dilemmas are examined in this course.
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
Students will receive instruction in emergency management and risk reduction tools and methods.
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
Students are exposed to different forms of policing models utilized at the local, state and federal levels.
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:
Students learn fundamental statistical analysis techniques and methods.
Familiarity of statistical models
Ability to interpret data and draw useful conclusions
Confirm the utility and validity of statistical data
Intelligence and surveillance methods and techniques are addressed in this course.
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.
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 SupervisorsMedian 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 Warden2015 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 Police2015 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 Investigator2015 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.
Detective2015 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.
Bailiff2015 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 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.
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 âread' 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.
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
Radar speed detector
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
High School Diploma
High School Diploma
High School Diploma
High School Diploma
Postsecondary non-degree training
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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