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What Do You Have to Do to Become a Cop?

The U.S. criminal justice system involves many different types of professionals who interrelate and interact with one another. Cops are among these professionals, and their role includes responding to emergency situations, investigating crime and participating in the prosecution of the crimes. A police officer’s job is dangerous and unpredictable, but to those with a true desire to serve the public, the job can be very rewarding. Becoming a cop is a competitive process involving not only an applicant’s educational and personal history, but also the applicant’s physical abilities.

Basic Qualifications

Police officers must be U.S. citizens and usually at least 21 years old, although the age requirement may vary from state to state. Officers must uphold the moral and societal values of the community, so departments closely scrutinize an applicant’s background. A person must have a clean criminal history and be able to demonstrate responsibility and sound decision-making. The Los Angeles Police Department, for example, reviews not only the applicant’s criminal history, but also the applicant’s driving and financial records to determine whether the applicant is a responsible and law-abiding adult.


Educational requirements may vary from department to department. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a high school education is the minimum education needed, but police departments are increasingly requiring some advanced schooling. An applicant with a bachelor’s degree or better can improve her chances getting a job. Course work in criminal justice or a related field also better prepares the potential officer for real-world situations. Much of an officer's training, however, comes at an academy or in the field.

Police Academy

Officers must attend a state-approved police academy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, training usually lasts 12 to 14 weeks. At the academy, recruits learn key skills needed for the job. This includes instruction on the constitutional parameters of search and seizure, how to handle a traffic stop, self-defense training, fire-arms training and community policing theories.

Joining a Police Department

Applicants must apply for police officer jobs through a local police department. Officers are public servants and local budget constraints often dictate a department’s ability to hire new officers. The lack of funding and the general competitive nature of the police field can make joining a police department challenging. If hired, the officer receives on-the-job training. The training often involves being paired with a senior officer and completing a probationary period.


Based in Traverse City, Mich., George Lawrence has been writing professionally since 2009. His work primarily appears on various websites. An avid outdoorsman, Lawrence holds Bachelor of Arts degrees in both criminal justice and English from Michigan State University, as well as a Juris Doctor from the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, where he graduated with honors.