20 Essential Skills Needed to Be a Police Officer

Do you have what it takes to fight crime for a living?

Reviewed by Chris Leitch

Skilled police officer chasing burglar

Deciding to become a police officer is a career choice that should not be taken lightly. It can be a highly stressful and dangerous job, and it takes a certain set of unique skills and characteristics to be successful in the role.

As a result, it’s a profession that’s not for everybody.

To give you an idea of whether you’d potentially be suitable, we’ve compiled a brief list of what it takes to operate in the line of duty. These are the 20 key skills needed to be a police officer.

1. Communication skills

The ability to communicate effectively is an absolute must for a police officer, especially when dealing with members of the public. In potentially unsafe situations, for example, such as when apprehending a potentially armed and/or dangerous suspect, you need to be firm and clear in your instructions. Alternatively, when dealing with a witness or a person of interest in an investigation, you need to be able to extract important information.

You’ll also need to communicate well with your partner, especially in instances where there is the potential for danger, as well as with your other colleagues and emergency services personnel, such as firefighters or paramedics.

2. Diplomacy

Part of being a good communicator is understanding the right tone and approach to take when dealing with different kinds of people. For example, when taking a statement from a victim of a violent or sexual crime, you would need to demonstrate tact and sensitivity, while the ability to be diplomatic will serve you well when interacting with members of the public.

3. Decision-making skills

As a police officer, you never know what kind of situation you might be in on any given day. Therefore, you need to be able to think quickly and clearly on your feet and make good decisions under intense pressure.

In the early stages of your career, this might involve managing the outcome of a callout in a particular way, but as your career evolves and you take on more responsibility, your decisions could potentially affect the welfare of your colleagues — particularly if you work within a dynamic unit, such as armed response, for example.

4. Attention to detail

Being constantly aware of what’s going on around you and being able to pick up on small signs or signals is something that you will develop with experience on the job, but you still need to be a fundamentally diligent person. Indeed, if you want to progress into a detective role, particularly within homicide, narcotics or fraud, being attentive to detail is one of the definitive requirements.

5. Writing skills

Although it’s not the most popular — or glamorous — part of the job, writing reports is a fundamental and mandatory duty for a police officer. They act as an official record of the respective callout or incident that you attended and are, therefore, admissible in court.

Most police forces will assess your basic writing and note-taking skills during the recruitment process, so ensure that they are up to scratch before you apply.

6. Physical endurance

As a junior police officer, both during your training and while out on patrol, it’s essential that you maintain a basic level of physical fitness.

You’ll need to be able to restrain suspects (within legal means) or, on some occasions, give chase on foot. It’s not just about being able to look after yourself out on the ground, though.

Police work can be stressful and involve long hours, so the fitter you are physically, the easier it will be to cope with the demands of the job.

7. Cultural awareness

This is an attribute that any modern police officer needs to have, particularly during a time when the behavior of law enforcement professionals is under public and political scrutiny.

At its core, police work is about understanding the community that you serve, so you need to be aware of the customs and practices of the many groups of people within those communities, especially if you work in a large city with a more diverse population. It will also make your job a lot easier, as people will be more willing to work with you if you demonstrate respect and courtesy for their culture.

8. Problem-solving skills

The ability to approach problems and find solutions in a quick and logical manner is a highly valuable skill for a police officer. For example, it can help you to solve disputes and reach a compromise between two conflicting parties before a situation escalates further, or it can enable you to find a breakthrough during a particularly tough and complex investigation.

9. Professionalism

Police officers are public servants who uphold the law and, therefore, are held to the highest moral and ethical standards. This means that your behavior needs to be exemplary at all times, including when not on duty, and that you should never be provoked or lose your cool.

If you find yourself in a situation where you’re being verbally or physically abused, then it’s vital that you’re able to remain professional and continue to do your job within the remit of the law.

10. Conflict resolution skills

It’s highly likely that a large proportion of the incidents you’re called to will involve some level of dispute, whether they’re played out in public or within somebody’s home. Therefore, the ability to diffuse a potentially explosive situation is highly useful, particularly if drugs or alcohol are involved.

This may involve physically separating the two conflicting parties in order to calm things down, or using tact and diplomacy to talk people around. Either way, creating an environment where the potential for danger is lessened and which allows you to get the full story is better and safer for everyone.

11. Emotional intelligence

In much of your day-to-day police work, you’ll be dealing with people from a wide variety of backgrounds and circumstances. Being emotionally intelligent to understand their motivations and behavior will make you a far more rounded and effective police officer. It will also make you a better communicator, especially when dealing with suspects and witnesses.

12. Persuasion skills

Being able to persuade people to do what you want is another big asset for a police officer, particularly in situations where you’re dealing with somebody who is offering resistance or does not want to cooperate. This could involve persuading a witness to testify or give a statement when they don’t want to get involved, or explaining to a suspect that it’s not in their interest to be uncompliant.

13. Active listening

Regardless your role within the force, whether a community policing officer or a crime scene investigator, your verbal communication skills shouldn’t end at speaking clearly. Rather, your listening ability should be just as good as your aptitude for expressing yourself effectively.

Besides giving the speaker your undivided attention and not interrupting them, active listening entails maintaining eye contact and observing non-verbal cues, too. Yours and theirs, that is! Your body language needs to communicate that you’re fully engaged and focused, to establish trust.

14. Confidence

Though many think of confidence as an inherent quality, it’s in fact a skill that can be practiced and learned, much like communication. Some ways to achieve a higher level of confidence at work include adopting a growth mindset and maintaining good posture. If the latter sounds unlikely, it’s really not: science has shown the way we carry ourselves to be directly related to our self-esteem.

In a profession that requires a high degree of assertiveness, problem solving and interpersonal dexterity, confidence becomes a vital soft skill.

15. Stress management

Handling stress effectively can mean the difference between remaining calm and composed under pressure, and collapsing under the weight of it. As police officers are called to face physical dangers and criminal activities, it takes an enormous amount of self-control to push against instincts and impulses that might be telling you to react a certain way.

But stress management isn’t just useful while on the job. If you don’t find healthy ways to cope with the pressure of this profession, your time off work will be negatively impacted, too.

16. Negotiation skills

Hiring managers sifting through dozens of résumés and cover letters will be looking out for certain keywords. That’s why you want to clearly highlight your skills, and the best way to do this is by creating a dedicated résumé skills section.

In this section, you’ll definitely want to mention your ability to negotiate. As police officers can be called to handle crisis and hostage negotiations, keeping this skill in tip-top shape is of vital importance.

17. Critical thinking

Critical thinking requires gaining an objective understanding of an issue in order to arrive at an impartial evaluation or conclusion. And, in a profession that involves safeguarding people’s physical and psychological wellbeing, the ability to form solid judgments is crucial.

Police officers must implement critical thinking on a day-to-day basis to inform their decision making, by questioning both their sources of information as well as their own thoughts and arguments.

18. Resourcefulness

Every day, police officers are called to solve problems. The ability to quickly assess a situation and use whatever resources are available to your advantage is, therefore, essential.

Much like any other skill, resourcefulness can be learned and strengthened through practice. What it requires is a healthy amount of confidence as well as creative thinking; a faith in one’s capacity to take initiative — and responsibility — and to generate ideas to achieve the best possible resolution.

19. First aid and CPR

Though not every police officer job description out there will list first aid as a requirement, knowing how to render medical assistance could help you save a life. In the event of a violent crime or accident, police officers may arrive at the scene before emergency medical services do. That’s why receiving training in first aid, CPR and CCR — meaning chest compressions without mouth-to-mouth ventilation — is a good idea.

20. Teamwork

As life is (disappointingly) not a Marvel movie, no man or woman can singlehandedly save the world. Real-life challenges, such as crimes and disasters, require us to work together synergistically if we’re hoping to achieve the best possible resolution.

That’s what makes teamwork one of the most important police officer skills to have. When officers collaborate efficiently with one another, the efficacy of their efforts goes up, which in turn increases safety for everyone around them.

Final thoughts

As you can see, police officers require a very specific set of skills — many of which will be tested to the limit at some point in their career. It’s also worth noting that many of these skills and attributes require some development, which is why police forces tend to not employ many cadets straight out of school.

With a little life experience and a lot of self-awareness, however, it’s entirely possible to present yourself as a suitable candidate, especially if you have a full understanding of what policing entails and how you can be a positive addition to your respective force.

What other professional skills do you think are important for a police officer? Let us know in the comments section below!

Originally published on August 7, 2019. Updated by Electra Michaelidou.