So, you want to be a cop eh? Well get in line... a really long line. And while you're standing in that line, you might want to read this. Follow these 15 steps and you're either going to be a police officer or you're going to find out it's not the career for you, which brings us to step one...
***A podcast episode is available on this topic here!
Before THE INTERVIEW
1. Why do you want to be a police officer?
Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Before you do anything, you must know your "one thing;" the thing that drives you, provides fire for your passion and gets you out of bed in the morning. Most people don't know what this is. There are plenty of careers that don't require someone to have a true passion for what they do; law enforcement is not one of those jobs. It will crush you and spit you back out if you think fighting crime and evil is your "passion." Question #1 is: What's your "one thing?"
Question #2: Is law enforcement the best career path to fulfill your passion? Have you thought about being a firefighter? Those guys get paid to sleep... just saying. But seriously, you must consider whether police work really fits your purpose. Many will find it does not.
If you're being honest with yourself, and you answered YES to question #2, continue reading.
2. Clean Up Your Act
Making a mistake once is human, making the same mistake over and over is stupid and shows you're not responsible enough to become a cop. If you can't take care of your own life, no department worth its salt is going to look twice at your application. Your track record should be clean for a minimum of two years (preferably 4 or more) when applying for a job.
Oh, and that criminal record doesn't matter. The list of times you actually got caught is not what will get you the boot. The polygraph and extensive interview process will have you admitting to everything you've ever done wrong in your life. Your only chance at success is owning your mistakes by being honest and putting your past mistakes, well... in the past.
3. Pick a Path That Sets You Apart
The three most common paths to police work are military experience, college education, and/or working in the security industry. I would recommend the military or college routes first, then security work, which of course can be done along with college. Whatever route works best for you, don't be the "gray man," someone who just gets along and doesn't get noticed. Work hard, stand out and make a name for yourself. Not only will that be reflected by your references later on, it will develop the work ethic you need to be a cop.
If you go to college, don't just get a basic Criminal Justice degree and nothing else. If you want to stand out, I highly recommend majoring in something else with a double major (or at least a minor) in CJ. You will learn how to be a cop at the academy and through field training. Modern departments need you to have skills they can't teach you, like:
- Emergency Management
- Police Management
- Technology Skills
- Public Relations Expertise
4. Work Harder Than Your Competition
There is no excuse when it comes to work ethic. It is a choice and you should choose to have it, period. A bachelor's degree should take 4 years maximum; and yes, you can work and be a full-time student. Take, for example, Mike; a listener of the Police Academy Podcast. He recently wrote in to say thanks for putting on a good show and included a bit of his story.
Mike knows the value of hard work and how to set himself apart from the crowd. During his last semester of full-time classes (15 credits), he worked at an area jail. Full-time, 12-hour night shifts and full-time classes during the day; now that's work ethic! At the time of his writing, Mike is in field training to become a police officer. He was hired straight out of college. His hard work paid off.
There are other smart ways to work hard. Some academies allow unemployed civilians to pay their own way. Yes, it's going to cost you, but a department is much more likely to hire someone they don't have to send to the academy, someone who is ready to hit the street right away. Consider it a college course and sign up if your local jurisdictions allow it.
5. Be A Good Applicant
Applying to become a police officer involves a lot of paperwork. If you can't get this right, why would a department hire you for a profession known for its excessive amount of paperwork? They won't! Here are a few tips to help your application make the cut:
1. Prepare all required personal documents ahead of time (birth certificates, DMV abstracts, etc)
2. Make copies BEFORE you fill out any form. If you make a mistake, start over!
3. Turn your paperwork in as early as possible, not on the due date.
4. Use references that know you personally rather than people with good looking titles who can't vouch for you. They should be able to give examples of your character, integrity, compassion, etc.
6. Test At Your Best
Are you ready for the obstacle course, for a 1.5-mile run, or whatever else you might have to do as part of the selection process? Do you even know what the test is like for the department you're applying for? Google it, call them, whatever you have to do; but find out what the test is like and start preparing.
Now is not the time to start lifting heavy. Get your cardio in order with aggressive sprint work and some moderate distance runs (2-3 miles is plenty). Then, when they tell you the physical is PASS/FAIL, ignore them. First of all, it doesn't matter. Good cops do their best work, regardless of the reward. Secondly, you never know if someone at your prospective department might see your physical times. Leave it all on the course!
You should prepare for the written test too. Find out if you can get a sample or practice test ahead of time so you can see what is going to be on it. Then practice any skills you're weak in or have forgotten over time. The written test scores played a huge role in getting to the interview for me and many other officers who have gone before you. Don't skimp here, no matter how painful it may be.
WINNING THE INTERVIEW
7. Be Uniquely You
I know it's tempting to try fit in and be like them, but unless you already are, don't make this mistake. You will stand out and be remembered for being you, not who you think they want you to be. Good departments know they need a variety of people with diverse experiences and personalities to make things work. You should know your strengths and be willing to share them. More importantly, know your weaknesses. Oh, and being "too much of a perfectionist" doesn't count! Nice try. Honesty here proves you can own your faults and you have the integrity to admit them publicly. This is a GOOD thing.
8. On Time Is Late
In the law enforcement world, 10 minutes early is on time; anything less and you're late. Don't get there too early, though, or you'll be a nervous wreck before the interview even starts. Plan for traffic issues and be on site 15-20 minutes early.
Maybe you don't look great on paper; you don't have the distinguished military record or a prestigious college degree. That's ok; because if you've made it this far, now is your chance prove you're the right one for the job. Hard work here will pay off in a very big way because most of the other candidates won't put in the time.
Start by investigating the department. Know what they're about, who's in charge and why you want to work for them. Few things are more impressive than a candidate who can cite a department's motto or mission statement by memory. Look at the history of the community they serve. What is unique about it? Why do you want to serve and protect them? There may be questions pertaining directly these topics, so study up.
10. Know What To Expect
Many questions are going to be thrown at you: None of them should surprise you. Google "Police Interview Questions" and have answers to as many of them as you can find, especially the scenario ones. I'm not going to list them here as others have done this already, but know this; you will almost certainly have to answer a question about using deadly force. These are often scenario based questions where the only option available is to pull the trigger and shoot the suspect. Don't flinch. You must convey your willingness to end a human life if necessary. It is part of the job.
11. Convey Confidence
Cops must have what we call "command presence." Can you walk into a room and take control of a group of rowdy partiers if necessary? You don't have to take command of the interview room necessarily, but rather convey to your observers that this capability lies within you. Here's how:
1. Keep a strong, upright posture
2. Shake everyone's hand firmly but vertically (not over the top or underneath) BEFORE you sit down
3. Make good eye contact, but don't make it awkward
4. Speak with a calm, clear and loud enough voice so everyone can easily hear you
5. TAKE YOUR TIME!! Think about your answers before you open your mouth, then answer with confidence.
Remember, those interviewing you today were once in your shoes. They may have been more nervous than you and even bombed a few interviews themselves. Just do your best and don't worry about the rest.
12. Dress To Impress
The better you look, the easier it will be to remain confident, so don't worry about overdressing. Getting an interview IS a big deal and you should dress like it. If they aren't as dressed up that's ok. Your interviewer isn't trying to prove anything to you and they won't be bothered by your upstaging them.
I recommend a suit but you don't have to break the bank. These are cops after all. It's not like they've got $2000 suits in the closet at home. If you're really strapped for cash, thrift shop it, borrow it or rent it. Whatever you have to do, dress to impress.
Tip #7 was to be yourself, but there's a catch. When it comes to your hippie hair cut and that mangy beard, don't. Clean that crap up! Have a well-groomed haircut, trimmed beard (or clean shaven), cut fingernails, a shower and some good deodorant. Anything less probably won't pass the "sniff" test.
13. Tell The Truth
You're talking to cops and most likely they've been around for a while, which means they're acquired powerful built in lie detectors. Prove your integrity is worth more than your image and be refreshingly honest about everything they ask. This will make your character stand out and keep you from getting canned when the polygraph reveals all your dirty little secrets.
14. Own It Or Lose It
"Don't worry about the things you can't control." - Chuck Clark, Retired Captain Bellevue PD
That was the most useful piece of advice for me as a young recruit and officer. I firmly believe in taking extreme ownership of anything within your control, and absolutely no ownership of everything outside of it. Don't waste time worrying about the infinite number of things life throws at you over which you have no say. Get this one thing right and you'll be two steps ahead of everyone else without even trying.
15. Keep Your Head Up
"The only people who don't make mistakes are those who never do anything in the first place." - Harold G. Neihart, Retired NSP Trooper and Valor Award Recipient
I bombed my first interview. You can listen to that story here. But the second interview was the job I wanted anyway, and that's the one I nailed. Don't give up! Failure is the fast track to getting better; it's a good thing. Don't be ashamed, embarrassed or discouraged if you don't get the first few jobs you apply for. Ask the department for feedback so you can correct your own deficiencies and improve your approach each time. Good things don't come easily, so don't give up easily!
Let us Know how it goes
Still standing in line? Keep working hard and follow these tips and soon you'll be in the door. Once you get there, we'd love to hear your stories of success. Please leave a voicemail or use the links at the bottom of the page to tell us your story. This blog will be updated over time to reflect any changes in hiring strategies so it continues to serve as a mentor to those who find it. Please share it with anyone interested in becoming an officer. And, as always...
Do Good || Be Strong || Fear Nothing
Written by Terence Herrick - Former Police Officer, Producer of Police Academy Podcast