Joining the police can be a hugely rewarding and exciting career choice for many individuals, especially if you possess the right temperament and blend of personality traits. Although it can also be stressful and dangerous, there are a wealth of potential opportunities and specialisms to pursue.
If you’ve ever considered heading down this career path, now is a great time to get involved, too. So, if you’ve ever envisioned yourself as the next Jimmy McNulty, read on and take notes: this is how to become a police officer…
1. Research the Profession
As with any potential career move, your first port of call should be to research the profession thoroughly. The reality of modern police is drastically different to how it’s often portrayed in the media, so make sure you have a clear and realistic idea of what you’re getting into.
Police officers work in partnership with their local communities to maintain law and order through the prevention and subsequent investigation of criminal activity. They instigate regular public awareness and education campaigns alongside schools, local businesses and various community groups, and on a larger scale also tackle broader criminal threats, such as terrorism and organised crime.
Police officers undertake a wide variety of roles, duties and responsibilities, including:
- developing relationships and liaising with community figures in order to tackle specific concerns and issues
- providing a visible presence through regular patrol activities in order to deter crime and reassure the community
- working with community members and other law and social care professionals to identify individuals and locations at risk of being involved in crime
- responding to emergency calls from the public as and when required
- providing a peacekeeping and security presence at public gatherings, social events, processions or strikes
- attempting to diffuse potentially volatile situations, often involving perpetrators under the influence of alcohol or drugs
- demonstrating empathy and tact when dealing with sensitive situations, such as delivering news of a sudden death or when dealing with sexual crimes
- conducting initial investigations, gathering evidence and interviewing perpetrators/victims/witnesses, adhering to strict legal guidelines at all times
- conducting arrests with due consideration of the rights, security and safety of detained individuals, members of the public, colleagues and self
- preparing crime reports and presenting case files to senior officers and representatives of the relevant prosecuting authorities
- attending and giving evidence in court and at other legal proceedings
- submitting internal crime and criminal intelligence reports, as well as performing other administrative duties
- gathering, recording and analysing intelligence to achieve community safety and crime reduction objectives
- attending road-related incidents, including collision scenes, vehicle checkpoints and traffic offences.
Essential Skills and Qualities
Being a police officer is a dangerous, stressful and complex role, and it certainly isn’t for everyone. These are the skills needed to be a police officer:
- highly effective communication skills, applicable to a whole host of potential situations and surroundings
- a strong community focus and an awareness of the cultures, concerns and issues in your area
- a devout sense of personal responsibility, integrity and robustness
- intuitive problem-solving skills
- the ability to convey a confident and calm manner at all times
- good literacy and numeracy skills in order to accurately record details and write reports
- a strict standard of professionalism, honesty and trustworthiness
- the ability to view things objectively and act with resolve, tolerance and restraint at all times
- a flexible and adaptable nature, with an openness to change.
Working Hours and Conditions
Police officers typically work rotational shift patterns, racking up a base total of around 40 hours a week. However, as the police provide a 24/7 service, it’s highly likely that you will take on considerable overtime and may have to work on your days off in order to cover colleagues’ shifts, security-sensitive public events or manning gaps.
As you progress through your career and take on more responsibility, you may also be called into work during emergencies or serious crimes. You will work a lot of unsocial hours, including nights and weekends, so bear this in mind. On the plus side, overtime rates for those extra hours are high, and you’ll get between 22 and 30 paid leave days per year.
You will spend a lot of your time out on patrol in all weathers and conditions, so you will need to meet certain minimum fitness requirements; as you specialise, your role may become more office-based. Ultimately, though, your work conditions will be influenced by regional factors, such as the terrain and the culture of the environment around you. It’s also worth noting that all police officers in the US routinely carry firearms but not in the UK – although there are some exceptions such as the Civil Nuclear Constabulary (CNC), the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and specialised armed response teams such as Trojan.
Starting salaries differ by force and, in some instances, are dictated by your pre-existing qualifications on both sides of the Atlantic.
In the UK, you will start your two-year probationary period on anything between £19,000 and £23,500, rising on an annual incremental scale and in line with your progress through the ranks. The top scale for constables is around £37,500 (achievable after around six to eight years), while a sergeant can earn between £37,000 and £42,000. An inspector, meanwhile, can take home between £47,500 and £55,000. Senior officers (between superintendent and chief constable) can realistically earn anything up to around £140,000 per year.
In the US, a typical starting salary is between $42,000 (£29,875) and $50,000 (£35,570) – in addition to a wide range of benefit packages. Promotion through the ranks is on merit, with the average county or state police major earning between $135,000 (£96,000) and $150,000 (£160,700) per year.
It’s worth noting that all these salaries are base rates, too; they do not include overtime rates, unsociable hour or danger pay rates, or any other additional financial benefits not already listed. Therefore, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that a patrol officer in the NYPD on a salary of $42,500 (£30,230) could earn over $100,000 (£71,140) in a single year.
2. Get the Qualifications
Entry criteria is set by each individual force and, therefore, differs. There are 45 full-time regional forces in the UK (including 3 specialised national forces), while in the US there are around 18,000 separate forces overall (split into federal, state, county and municipal departments). As a result, it’s recommended that you refer to the individual requirements for your chosen force.
In the UK, most forces require applicants to be educated to A Level standard. Some prefer candidates to have additional prior experience either in an unpaid Community Support Officer (PCSO) role or through full-time military service. Increasingly, a small number of forces now require applicants to hold the Certificate in Knowledge of Policing (CKP), too, which is a Level 3 qualification that is usually taught to probationary constables as part of the training syllabus. There are also strict eligibility requirements, including:
- being aged 18 or over
- being a British, Commonwealth, EU or EEA citizen, or a foreign national with the right to stay and work indefinitely in the UK
- having lived continuously in the UK for at least three years
Forces in the US employ a similar policy. Candidates must usually have earned at least 60 college credits with a minimum GPA of 2.0 or have served previously in the military. You will have to be a US citizen and usually reside in the jurisdiction of the force you are applying to.
3. Land Your First Job
A career in the police is an attractive prospect to many, meaning the recruitment process can be hugely competitive; this is especially true in the UK where forces rarely open their recruiting windows and take on low numbers of cadets when they do.
The first step upon applying is usually to take a series of psychometric assessments online, followed by a screening interview over the phone; if successful, you will be invited to a Police SEARCH® Recruit Assessment Centre along with other candidates, where you will undergo the following:
- a one-to-one 20-minute interview
- a series of assessed roleplay scenarios with professional actors
- a literacy and numeracy test
- a report writing test.
Following this assessment, you will be given an in-depth feedback report and an overall grade; if you fail, you will not be allowed to reapply for another six months (the SEARCH® assessment can be taken a maximum of three times). If you pass, you will be invited to a longer panel interview (where, in some instances, you may also have to perform a PowerPoint presentation). At this point, you will undergo security vetting, as well as a medical and a brief fitness test entailing a shuttle run (to level 5.4) and a strength test where you will be expected to lift 35kg. If there are no issues at this stage, then you will be offered a position as a probationary constable.
In the US, the process is very similar. Upon meeting the eligibility criteria, you would typically be invited to an assessment day where you would undergo the following:
- the Written Entrance Exam (you will be provided with preparation and study materials in advance)
- written and oral psychometric assessments
- a background character investigation
- the Job Standards Test (JTS) which is a short obstacle course that involves a 50-yard sprint, several physical barriers, a demonstration of your ability to restrain someone, a chase, a 175lb carry over 35 feet and the satisfactory firing of an unloaded firearm multiple times
- a drug and alcohol screening.
If successful, the next stage is a panel interview with a small group of serving senior officers, where you are encouraged to discuss your own motivations and ambitions for applying. If found suitable, this will usually be followed by a medical and an offer to attend your chosen force’s relevant academy, school or training programme.
4. Develop Your Career
The first step is to put classroom theory into practice, learning on the job under the supervision of a more experienced colleague. In the UK, this is known as your probation period and lasts two years; in the US, it forms the core of your field training programme and usually entails eight weeks of closely supervised activity, followed by further on-the-job training under a more senior patrol partner.
All police forces operate within the framework of a defined rank structure, based loosely on the military, and you will be expected to follow orders and instruction from your superiors. Promotion through the ranks is not automatic but is instead based on merit and the efforts of the individual; you may also be required to undertake examinations and complete management qualifications.
Once you are confident and competent in your duties, it is also possible to apply for different types of specialist roles, where you can pursue a particular aptitude or interest and take your career in a certain direction. Some of these include:
Criminal Investigation Department (CID)
In the UK, the CID is responsible for serious crimes such as murder, rape, robbery and serious assault. To work in the CID, officers must pass their detective exam and, even then, only a select few are deemed suitable. CID hours are long and irregular, and the work can be highly taxing. In the US, most large forces run separate homicide and major crimes departments.
Drugs Squad / Organised Crime
Regional forces often have squads that target local drug dealers, although the majority of large-scale drug trafficking – and much of the crime associated with it, such as immigration crime and fraud – is dealt with by the national Serious Organised Crime Agency (SOCA). Typically, this kind of work can involve undercover operations, surveillance, witness protection and financial investigation. There is a similar setup in the US, where local issues are dealt with by Narcotics departments and larger scale issues by the federal Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Each regional force has a Special Branch dedicated to counter-terrorism (some are uniquely larger than others), and generally involves the gathering and analysis of various sources of intelligence. Much of their work is covert and they often collaborate closely with other national intelligence agencies, such as the MI5 and GCHQ. In the US, much of this work comes under the remit of the FBI.
While all forces have a small number of officers trained in the use of firearms (although this number is increasing), there are full-time teams that are set up primarily as tactical response units to emergencies or potentially dangerous arrests; the most high-profile example is Trojan, the Metropolitan Police’s armed response unit. In the US, these teams are known as Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) teams. Armed response officers must be robust and quick-thinking, as well as undergo challenging and intensive training courses akin to the military.
Traffic officers deal with a number of potential issues on the roads, including:
- responding to and managing collisions and pileups on roads and motorways
- monitoring the legal validity of vehicles and drivers
- dealing with motoring offences, such as dangerous driving, speeding or drink driving.
On some occasions, they can be involved in dangerous high-speed pursuits and, as a result, are highly skilled drivers who undertake advanced and challenging driving courses. In many parts of the US – especially where there are long stretches of road – traffic police are a separate entity and operate under their own jurisdiction.
While the majority of police officers tend to specialise in one of the areas listed above, there are dozens of potential directions your career could take. Other specialisms include:
- Crime scene investigation
- Diplomatic and royal protection
- Custody and detention
- Evidence (and other administrative) management
- Command and dispatch
- Human resources
- Dog handling / K-9
- Mounted police
- River / boat police (including underwater search teams)
Serving police officers are also eligible to apply for secondment to Interpol, an international police agency based in Lyon, France, or the United Nations (usually in a consulting capacity). Additionally, UK officers of a certain rank can apply for senior positions within the British Overseas Territories, such as the Sovereign Base Areas in Cyprus or the various British-owned islands in the Caribbean.
While police officers have previously received no formal educational accreditation (other than the Level 3 framework obtained during initial training), this is currently subject to drastic change. The UK government announced in late 2016 that all new police officers will have to be educated to degree level from 2020, which can be obtained in one of three ways:
- as a degree apprenticeship paid for by the respective force, completed ‘on the job’
- as a self-funded degree following which the candidate would apply for a job
- as a six-month postgraduate conversion course for existing graduates
The Police High Potential Development Scheme (HPDS) also provides internal support and training to those who demonstrate potential and cites its aim as the development of the future leaders of the force.
In the US, although there are no accredited qualifications directly linked to internal training, many forces encourage officers to pursue law enforcement-related college courses throughout their careers. In some instances, this may extend to financial support if it is deemed beneficial to the wider force.
Police officers will always be required in their role as public servants and protectors. In the UK, levels of police recruitment are often linked closely to the political climate, with budgets and resources often the subjects of heated public debate. Due to such concerns, the government has pledged to increase the number of officers being recruited over the next 10 years, although official numbers are hard to determine. In the US, meanwhile, the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) cites police work as growing at ‘the average rate’ for all occupations, although ‘demand may vary by location’.
As you can see, there is an enormous amount of opportunity and diversity in a career with the police, even if the work can be stressful, antisocial and dangerous. For those who are seeking a challenge, though, there are few jobs that can match the sheer variety of what you might encounter each and every day; if this sounds like what you’re looking for, then why not get involved?
Do you think you’ve got what it takes to be a cop? Let us know in the comments below…
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