How To Become a Police Officer

Female police officer in a classroom of students of the academy

An individual might be drawn to a career as a police officer out of a desire to make a difference in their community. This career path can be both challenging and rewarding. The role demands a sound mind, an able body, and a commitment to upholding the law to ensure the safety of the community.

How long does it take to be a police officer? It varies depending on the jurisdiction, but many law enforcement agencies follow a similar process.

In This Article:

An Overview of How To Become a Police Officer

The law enforcement hiring process may vary between police departments, cities, counties and states; however, there is a universal process regarding the steps to become a police officer. For example, you’ll need to meet the agency’s eligibility criteria, navigate its hiring process and complete your training at the police academy. The police academy selection process can be competitive, depending on the jurisdiction.

Earn Your Criminal Justice Degree at an Accredited School

In certain jurisdictions, it may be possible to become a police officer with just a high school education and training in a police academy. However, a bachelor’s degree, for example, may be a requirement to attain the rank of lieutenant or higher.1

A criminal justice or justice studies degree program could be an ideal choice for an aspiring police officer. Both of these degree programs will introduce you to essential concepts in criminal law and criminal behavior. Critical-thinking skills, along with cultural competency, servant leadership and ethical decision-making skills are all necessary for successful policing

Prerequisites To Join Police Officer Ranks

Although the hiring process can vary across jurisdictions, there are many consistencies. Most officer candidates must be United States citizens capable of meeting physical fitness and personal qualifications. Jurisdictions tend to disqualify candidates who have a felony conviction or a history of substance abuse.1

In addition, you must have at least a high school diploma and successfully complete the police training academy. Note that the eligibility requirements and hiring process for becoming a federal officer may be more rigorous.1

You may choose to earn a Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies degree with a goal of meeting the qualifications to navigate the police officer hiring process. The curriculum is designed to teach learners how to enforce the law in an objective and ethical manner.

Some of the concepts you may be taught during a bachelor's in justice studies degree are:

  • Threat assessment and behavioral analysis
  • Criminal procedure and public policy
  • Professional responsibility in justice
  • The adjudication function
  • Criminal behavior and victimology

How Old Do You Have To Be To Become an Officer?

Most officer candidates must be at least 21 years of age. For example, in the City of Phoenix, candidates must be at least 20.5 years of age at the time of their application and must turn 21 prior to completing the academy.2

Typical Hiring Process for Law Enforcement Agencies

So, how long does it take to be a police officer? It all depends on the specific timeline and the steps established by the department you’d like to work for, as well as the applicable state, county and city requirements. The following are the general steps to become a police officer after completion of the police academy.  

1. Application

When there is an opening in a law enforcement agency, the recruitment team is looking to hire the most qualified applicant(s). Read the job posting carefully, taking note of the minimum qualifications and restrictions. Complete the applications and gather all documents needed to complete the hiring process. Be honest and answer all questions completely.

You will need to include a cover letter and resume in your application packet. The cover letter shows employers your written communication skills and your accomplishments. Your resume should list any experience you have in the field, including relevant coursework, employment and volunteering.

Highlight any skills in your resume that you believe will make you a perfect fit. You will likely have to complete an authorization sheet verifying your personal records and character references. You’ll also need to undergo a background check and drug testing.

2. Written Test

Candidates typically begin the hiring process by completing a written test, which usually includes multiple-choice questions and perhaps an essay. The exam generally measures reading comprehension, basic math skills, vocabulary, judgment skills and summarization abilities.3

3. Oral Board

Some jurisdictions may require an oral exam. A multiple-person recruitment team panel usually conducts an oral board interview. You will be asked a series of questions by the panel to measure your communication and cognitive skills. This interview is also designed to assess how well you can function while under stress.4

4. Fitness Test

Physical fitness is important for police officers, who must be capable of both apprehending suspects and assisting individuals who are in crisis situations.1 Agencies generally list their physical fitness tests online so candidates can prepare themselves well before the application process. This test is minimally pass or fail, making it an important part of the hiring process for all candidates.

5. Polygraph Test

Many agencies require applicants to take a polygraph test to see if anything in their past would disqualify them from service. A polygraph is also known as a lie detector. It works by evaluating an individual’s changes in blood pressure and sweat, both of which can be elevated in response to stress. However, because concerns have been raised about the test’s accuracy, not all police departments use the polygraph in their hiring processes.3

6. Medical and Psychological Evaluation

Most agencies typically require full medical and psychological examinations to determine physical and mental well-being. The medical exam is designed to ensure candidates are physically capable of doing the work. The psychological exam seeks to determine whether candidates are capable of exercising reasonable judgment and that they do not have any significant mental issues that may disqualify them for the job.3

7. Job Offers

Agencies offer their highest-performing candidates a contingent job offer along with an academy start date. Please keep in mind that this entire hiring process may take months to complete.

8. Complete the Police Academy

Each police academy is a little different. In general, however, you can expect to receive training in:1

  • Local, state, and constitutional law, including police ethics and civil rights
  • The handling and safe use of firearms
  • Self-defense
  • First aid
  • Emergency response
  • Traffic control and patrol functions

9. Complete Your Period of Probation

If you graduate from the police academy, you may be offered a position at the local precinct as a patrol officer. New patrol officers are hired on a probationary basis. This is a period of time in which you receive on-the-job training, learn about typical policing life, and are expected to prove yourself in the field.5

During your probation, your knowledge, skills and professional conduct will be closely scrutinized by your supervisor, training officer, and other more experienced fellow officers. You can make a good first impression by displaying a positive work ethic, following all regulations, and demonstrating good judgment. If you successfully pass your period of probation, the department may extend an offer of employment.5

Pursue Professional Development Opportunities

After a few years of serving as a patrol officer and maintaining a clean record, you may be eligible to pursue a promotion.1 At some point, you may earn a supervisory role and oversee fellow officers. Some patrol officers eventually become detectives or seek lateral movements, such as joining a K-9 unit or becoming a member of a SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team.

You can enhance your career qualifications by pursuing professional development opportunities, such as a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement advancement or justice studies. If additional training courses are offered, consider enrolling. You might also consider earning a graduate-level criminal justice degree to help you position yourself to potentially receive higher-level promotions.

Earn Your Justice Studies Degree at GCU

Grand Canyon University offers numerous on-campus and online degree programs designed to provide the knowledge and skills for workplace-ready professionals, such as the Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies degree offered by the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Prepare to pursue entry-level positions in the law and criminal justice fields or work toward developing a firm foundation of competencies from which to pursue graduate-level education. Fill out the form on this page to learn more about meeting the educational requirements to be a police officer.

1 U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2023, Sept. 6). How to become a police officer or detective. Occupational Outlook Handbook. Retrieved Feb. 19, 2024. 

2 Phoenix Police Department Reserve Division. (n.d.). Qualifications. Retrieved March 7, 2024.

3 Indeed. (2023, Jan. 26). How to get hired as a police officer in 4 steps (plus requirements). Retrieved Feb. 19, 2024.

4 Go Law Enforcement. (n.d.). What is the police interview and how to pass it. Feb. 19, 2024. 

5 Scoville, D. and Harvey, W. L. (2008, April 30 ). How to survive probation. Police. Retrieved Feb. 19, 2024. 

Approved by the assistant dean of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on April 1, 2024.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.