To Protect and Serve: Here’s How to Start a Career as a Police Officer

Two police officers hug during their graduation in New York City.
The newest members of the New York City police force hug during their graduation ceremony on June 29, 2017, in New York. The average salary for police or sheriff’s patrol officers in May 2016 was $62,760, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Mary Altaffer/AP Photo

Costumed theme park gigs aside, you’ll hardly ever see a job listing for a superhero.

But if thwarting bad guys and saving the day is your thing, snagging a job as a police officer comes pretty close.

It’s a pretty lucrative career — albeit a dangerous and stressful one — that doesn’t require a college degree in many cases.

The average salary for police or sheriff’s patrol officers in May 2016 was $62,760, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Of course, pay will vary depending on where you live. Officers in California earn an average of $96,660, according to BLS data, with several metro areas, including San Jose, Napa and San Francisco, paying their police officers over six figures.

Salaries will also fluctuate depending on which agency you join. For example, state governments tend to pay more than local municipalities, the BLS reports.

So now that we’ve got your attention with the salary you could earn, let’s dig into what it takes to actually become a police officer.

A Career as a Cop

The role of the police involves enforcing laws and protecting the public. To do so, an individual will need to undergo rigorous training and will be subjected to an intense hiring process.

While colleges offer degrees in law enforcement-related fields of study, such as criminal justice, many agencies only require applicants to have a high school diploma.

Federal jobs, like working for the FBI or the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, are more likely to require applicants to have a college degree.

Candidates typically must be at least 21 years old with a clean criminal background.

In addition to various background checks, potential police officers must pass a basic skills test and a physical exam, which can include completing various exercises, according to LawEnforcementEDU. They’ll also have to undergo medical and psychological evaluations and pass a polygraph test.

Then comes specialized training at an academy.

Basic law enforcement training academies last about 21 weeks on average, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, though time will vary depending on the agency.

Recruits will learn about patrol procedures, handling investigations, writing reports, operating emergency vehicles and the use of weapons and other defensive tactics. Additionally, prospective officers will learn about laws, civil rights and police ethics, the BLS reports.

After graduating from police academy, recruits will still need to undergo in-the-field training. According to The Balance, the entire hiring process could take four months to a year to complete.

Once on the job, police officers can move up the ranks with promotions based on job performance, undergoing additional training or passing written exams.

Though the BLS classifies the job outlook for police officers as slower than average for all occupations, a quick search on Indeed shows hundreds of openings available around the country.

Having a degree, military experience or fluency in another language can greatly improve your chances for employment in this field.

Nicole Dow is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.

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