Becoming a Police Officer: Minimum Eligibility Requirements (page 3)
The hiring process has two interrelated parts. The first part involves what are generally called minimum (or basic) eligibility requirements. These include U.S. citizenship, a minimum and maximum age you must be at the time you are appointed (not the same as the time you take the exam); vision requirements; whether or not a driver's license is required prior to hiring, and educational requirements. For local agencies, the minimum education is most likely to be a high school or General Education Diploma (GED) and for most federal agencies it is most likely to be a four-year college degree (either a bachelor of arts or a bachelor of sciences). Increasingly, state and local agencies are also requiring some college education.
Minimum eligibility requirements mean just that; they are the least qualifications you will be expected to have met either before you apply for a position or before you are accepted for employment. Applying for a position and being accepted for employment are not the same thing.
Departments differ on whether you must have met the minimum requirements at the time you take the entry exam or at the time you are actually appointed and assigned to attend a police academy. Some job announcements make the difference very clear. Others are written in government jargon that you may need to reread more than once before you are confident you are able to follow the instructions. Many applications include a telephone number or e-mail address to contact if you are unsure how to proceed. Do not be embarrassed to take advantage of this. It is far better to ask questions first than to discover later that your application has been rejected for something that could easily have been done correctly.
Since many departments charge a fee for taking the entry exam, it is important to find out whether you must meet the minimum standards when you take the test or when you are notified you have passed the test and asked to submit your credentials for a background investigation. Do not make assumptions; some departments will permit you to have not yet met some qualifications but to have met others at the time you take the test. For instance, you may be allowed to take the test even if you are too young to be appointed. Similarly, you may be permitted to take the test if you have not yet met minimum college education requirements. If you pass the exam and have not yet met that minimum when you are called for an interview or to begin the background investigation, though, your application will be put aside until you have achieved the minimum number of credits. Even having your application put aside can be complicated. In some large agencies, you may lose hundreds of places on the civil service list and have to wait years to be called again. Other, often smaller, agencies simply put your application aside until you notify them that you have met the minimum requirements.
A major reason for the different rules has to do with the length of time the hiring process involves. Very large agencies may test thousands of candidates at once and it may take up to two years before candidates learn whether they have passed the written exam, completed the background investigation process, and been offered a job. Additionally, some departments believe that allowing candidates to take the test during their teen years will encourage them to maintain a lifestyle that will not prevent their being hired once they get older. The idea is that the possibility of a police career will help young people maintain a good driving or credit record and a drug-free lifestyle, and generally remain law-abiding so that they do not lose what they have already invested in a law enforcement career.
Just the Facts
As a student, you can join the American Criminal Justice Association, as well as some other professional organizations. The ACJA offers scholarships and other awards and holds an annual student essay competition. They also hold job fairs at their national conferences. Reach them at acjalae.org. Look for other organizations online using the keywords "law enforcement organization."
United States Citizenship
One nearly universal requirement is U.S. citizenship. A few urban departments and some smaller agencies in the southwestern states have considered changing this but since being sworn in as a police officer requires taking a constitutional oath, it can be anticipated that departments seeking to eliminate the citizenship requirement will face legal challenges from applicants who are citizens but are not selected.
If you are a non-citizen military veteran, you will probably be allowed to take the test based on the expectation that your citizenship application can be expedited if you are accepted for employment. You may also be permitted to take the test if you have already applied for citizenship and have completed some of the initial processing.
If you do not fall into either of these categories and you are not a citizen, you should inquire whether you will be permitted to take the entry test and to participate in any pre-employment activities.
Age is another area where departments interpret the minimum eligibility standards differently. Some will permit you to take the test as young as age with the understanding that if you pass the exam, your application will not be processed any further until you meet the minimum age requirements to become a police officer, which is as young as 18 in some states and generally 21 in most others. Federal agencies differ on this policy, so be sure to check the agency you are applying to carefully before proceeding with your application.
The decision to permit applicants to take the test years before they are eligible for appointment is in part a reaction to the shortage of police applicants. As with the decision to permit early testing to encourage a healthy and lawful lifestyle, departments believe that permitting applicants to test early would interest people in police careers before they had been lured to other professions. This is a particular concern of departments that require two or four years of college since potential applicants will generally be older and will have been exposed during their education to careers they might not have originally considered.
Many departments began cadet programs in the 1970s, often to attract minority youths to policing. These programs, too, were based on the theory that positive interactions with police officers, as well as taking the entry exam early, would increase the numbers of successful minority applicants. Most of the programs were discontinued before their successes could be measured, but they did result in changing many age eligibility requirements for taking the police test. Many of these cadet programs have been modified to attract college students with a combination of work-study or paid work until they are eligible for employment.
Educational requirements may also have to be verified prior to your being permitted to take the written exam. A few departments require that you meet the minimum requirement before the written test; most, though, knowing that it may be a considerable time from applicant testing to test results, will permit you take the test with the understanding that, as with citizenship and age, if you pass the exam, your application will be frozen until you meet the education requirements.
Some agencies require you to be a resident of the area. Some indicate preferences for those who live in the agency's jurisdiction. There is a difference between a residency requirement and a residency preference.
A residency requirement means that you must live either in the jurisdiction of the agency or in a surrounding area that will be specified as part of the position announcement. The Mount Vernon Police Department announcement in Appendix B is an example of an agency that has residency requirements for appointment. Its requirements are typical of agencies that do not mandate that you live in the town in which you will be working, but do require that you live in specified surrounding areas.
Read the job announcement carefully. In some instances you must be a legal resident of the area at the time you take the test; in other instances you will be expected to move into the designated area prior to accepting the position. Although not universal, a sheriff department will often give preference to county residents unless there are an insufficient number of applicants from within the county. Federal agencies have no residency requirements, although if you are hoping to stay in your home area, you will most likely be disappointed. Generally, upon completion of training new special agents are not returned to the area from which they were recruited.
There are a variety of ways in which a residency preference may operate. Some agencies provide extra points on the entry exam to applicants who have passed the test and live in the designated area. Almost always, you must score a passing grade without the preference. Rarely will the preference be used to bring your score high enough to be considered for employment. The three or five points that may be added to your test score may not seem like much. However, for a test in a large urban area that may attract thousands of applicants those few points may make a very large difference in your position on the civil service list; they might even result in your being scheduled for processing a year or more earlier than you would have been without the preference. Some agencies provide what is in effect a signing bonus for those who meet the residency preference, providing them with a small stipend in addition to the basic salary. Some departments hire from a large regional civil service list, but, rather than taking candidates in order of their scores, are permitted to go through the list to first select residents of their communities.
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