Becoming a Police Officer: The Selection Process

Updated on Dec 2, 2010

The real selection process begins after you have met the minimum eligibility requirements. If you already know the actual or type of agency to which you will be applying, your process will be somewhat easier than for than for those who are just beginning their job research. As you saw, policing is made up of many categories of agencies and many, many agencies within each category. Some selection process steps are fairly standard across all agencies; others are not. Some agencies' websites are very specific about eligibility requirements; others less so.

Although there are great similarities among agencies, no listing of hiring requirements and eligibility standards will be the same for all agencies or even for a particular category of agencies (i.e., local, state, federal, special jurisdiction).

This explanation of the selection process is not all-inclusive, but it is sufficiently broad to give you a deeper understanding of the hiring process. The most common steps include submitting a completed application form, taking and passing a written test (generally multiple-choice), passing a physical agility/ability test, passing a background investigation, and a psychological and medical evaluation. Additional steps that some agencies rely on include an oral interview and a polygraph (lie detector) test.

In a review of selection procedures published by the Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) in 2003, the most common screening procedures used by municipal police departments were (in their order of use): a background investigation, a personal interview (often conducted by the investigator assigned to do your background investigation, but sometimes a more formal process before a panel comprised of two or three members of the department), a medical exam, a drug test, a psychological evaluation (which may include a written test and an interview with a psychologist), a physical agility test, a written aptitude test, a polygraph exam, and, lastly, used by very few departments, a voice stress analyzer.

The list can seem intimidating, particularly if you are the first among your family or friends to consider a law enforcement career. Remember, though, that the steps take place over a period of time, giving you time to do research and, as you pass each phase, to gain confidence that you will achieve your aim. If you are attending a college with a police studies or criminal justice program, learn if the career counseling office has people to assist you in the process. Also, if criminal justice-related majors are a major focus of your college, you have probably taken some of these courses and know that some of your professors have worked in law enforcement. Most will be happy to assist you with pointers and to reassure you as you move through the selection process.

Application and Written Exam

The first step you will be asked to complete is an application. If you are applying to a large department, this step must be completed before you will be scheduled to take a written exam. In addition to providing you with entry to this exam, your initial application may ask detailed questions that will be checked against later questionnaires you will complete for a background investigation. Under no circumstances should you lie. False responses are grounds to exclude you from the applicant pool regardless of how well you score on the written exam.

Generally, the larger the agency, the more likely it is to rely on a written aptitude test as the first step in the hiring process after an application has been completed. Some agencies schedule written tests only every few years due to the costs involved. Some also may still have an existing civil service list of applicants but are planning ahead for future hiring. A few agencies have what are called "walk-in tests," which means they give tests regularly (weekly, monthly, etc.) to applicants who have previously applied or even to some who literally walk in on the exam date.

If you are attending a college with a police studies or criminal justice program, check with the career counseling office; many departments schedule their written exams on local campuses. Because of the availability of police jobs in many parts of the country, many agencies offer tests at campuses where they can expect to attract a large response. If you are able to consider relocating for a position, check the requirements for these agencies and do some research to determine whether you might want to live in the area. The Internet has made it feasible for you to learn about colleges, the real estate market, schools, and the availability of jobs for family members who may be relocating with you.

Regardless of whether the website of your chosen agency indicates a test is anticipated, if you are permitted to do so, you should file an application to assure that you will be notified in the event a test is scheduled. Within recent years, a number of departments have started to accept online applications; this is an efficient way to apply and also lets you apply to as many departments as may interest you with only a few clicks of your mouse.

Here, too, though, there is considerable variation. Some agencies allow you to download the application form, print it, and submit the completed application by mail. A few agencies allow or require you to fill out the application directly online. While this may be a faster method, if you are not a good typist or if you do not have all the relevant material available, you may discover that you are unable to comply with the instructions. If the application must be completed online, try to review it before beginning the process so that you are confident that you can answer all the questions.

Some sheriffs' offices and many police agencies that are comprised of 25 or fewer officers may not require you to take a written exam to be considered for a position. Check with the agency directly or on its website for instructions. Particularly in rural counties, an interview with the sheriff or undersheriff may result in an offer of employment pending completion of the background investigation and the police academy.

If you decide to make in-person inquiries at an agency that does not require a written exam, remember to dress appropriately in business casual attire. Less formal than business attire, which traditionally is a suit for men and a dress or pantsuit for women, business casual attire is worn at many advanced police training courses. This is the only time you should appear in business casual attire, which is generally is defined as dress slacks and a collared polo or sports shirt for men and a skirt and blouse, daytime dress, or pressed slacks and a collared shirt for women. At all other times that you visit your department when formally requested to do so, a man should wear a business suit and a woman a business-appropriate dress or a pantsuit.

Do not plan ever to visit the agency when you are wearing jeans, cut-offs, flip-flops, or similar casual clothing. You might see officers getting out of their personal cars dressed like this to report for work, but they are already employed and you are not. It is not uncommon in smaller agencies that the chief or sheriff or a high-ranking officer may be in the public area of headquarters when you make your inquiry. First impressions, particularly in an agency that bases it hiring decisions heavily on an interview, can mean the difference between acceptance and rejection. You don't want to risk closing the door on employment before you even begin.

If you have applied to an agency that administers a written test, make sure to appear on the correct date and earlier than the time printed on the exam card. Depending on the size of the agency, you may be one of thousands of applicants and there may be long lines at the testing locations. Come early, bring whatever tools you have been advised to have with you, and follow all instructions carefully and fully.

A civil service test administered by a police agency follows strict rules. When the test time begins, the door will be shut and those not already in their seats will be denied entry. Unlike high school or college, there will not be a teacher who has known you for a long time and may be willing to let you in late or give you a few extra minutes at the end to complete the exam. One of the first shocks for police applicants is that few exceptions are made; while no one wants to steal your uniqueness, you must also get used to being one of many who are all expected to follow the same rules.

Prudence suggests that once you have received your information about the test site, you make a trial run from your home to the location to judge how long it will take you to get from there to the site. However long it takes, add at least an additional hour or two to account for delays along the way and for long lines at the test site. If you treat the test time the same as you would any plans to travel by airplane, you are likely to be on time and relaxed when the test paper is placed on your desk.

Depending again on the size of the agency for which you have tested, it might take quite a while for you to get your test results. The reasons may vary, but whatever they are, you can expect to eventually receive a notification with your test score. If you are informed that you did not pass, you may receive information on how to appeal your result. In the interest of brevity, this discussion assumes that you passed the test and have been placed on what is generally called the eligibility list.

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