Becoming a Police Officer: The Selection Process (page 2)

Updated on Dec 2, 2010

Physical Agility

For many years, the step immediately after receiving notification you had passed the written exam was the physical agility test. In the past, some agencies were stricter about the physical agility test than they are today, although generally state police agencies continue to use your ability to pass a rigorous set of physical tests as a major consideration in the selection process.

When agencies also maintained strict height requirements, the physical agility test site was where you were measured to assure you met the minimum standard and that your weight was proportional to your height. Along with being measured and weighed, you were put through physical testing including primarily running, sit-ups, push-ups, and chin-ups.

Much of this has changed. Primarily in response to lawsuits in the 1970s and early 1980s brought by women applicants and shorter, slighter men, height and weight requirements have been replaced with a somewhat less vigorous agility exam. For instance, many agencies have eliminated chin-ups, replacing them with agility tests that are more comparable to the daily activities of a police officer. Examples of what you may be asked to do include rapid acceleration drills, which might include a short climb over a wall, hurdle, or hedge or running through or over a storm drain, gulley, or fence, or running or darting through a crowd. You might be asked to drag a dummy of a certain weight a certain distance to test whether you would be able to rescue an inert person in an emergency. You might also be asked to climb a ladder or squeeze the trigger of the firearm used in the agency to measure your wrist, hand, and finger strength and control. The physical agility test for state police agencies will very likely be more strenuous than these examples and you will be less likely to get a second chance to pass if you are unable to complete all aspects of the agility exam.

If you do not receive detailed instructions on what comprises the physical agility test when you are notified that you passed the written exam or when you are called in for this phase of the process, your first step should be to check your agency's website. Many agencies provide detailed descriptions of their physical agility tests and also tips on preparing for the test.

If you are overweight, you should begin a weight control program immediately upon learning you have passed the written exam. Possibly you should consider starting a weight reduction and health care program even before taking a written test so that upon passing you can begin more strenuous training for the physical agility test. It would be wise to begin a physical conditioning program and to inquire whether your agency provides guidelines on what will be expected of you in the academy and how you can begin to improve your physical abilities.

A number of agencies, especially in California, where many local police agencies continue to maintain physical agility requirements that are more stringent than elsewhere in the country, allow you to participate in a structured program run by department physical fitness instructors. This helps you not only to get into good physical condition, but also to learn the techniques that can help you successfully complete the run, wall-climb, or other agency-specific tests. These programs were originally implemented to help women prepare for the physical agility tests because they were failing them in far higher percentages than men. The programs were so successful that men sought entry; today, where such program exist they are open to all candidates willing to invest the time in pretraining.

The pass rates for physical agility tests have been falling in many police agencies. The reasons suggested are a more sedentary society, with more young people playing computer games than participating in sports, and the general rise in obesity throughout the country. To assist candidates in meeting their requirements, some departments have gone to lengths previously unheard of, including providing applicants who fail the test with fitness club memberships and an opportunity to retest, allowing applicants who come close to passing to enter the academy and be retested prior to graduating, and even allowing candidates who fail the physical tests at the conclusion of academy training to be recycled into the next training academy rather than be terminated from employment.

Even if you are in excellent condition and the test instructions do not seem difficult to you, do not take the agility testing lightly. Remember that you will likely have to perform the various feats under timed conditions in front of physical fitness instructors and that you are very likely to be nervous, knowing that your future employment will depend on your score. It is also important that you listen carefully to all commands. Some exercises must be completed in a particular sequence for you to get credit for them and some may test not only your overall physical condition, but your ability to follow instructions under stressful conditions.

Visual Acuity

Vision requirements have changed drastically within the last 20 years. At one time, candidates who wore glasses were unlikely to be hired even if their vision was correctable to 20/20. Departments would not consider applicants who wore contact lenses, but eventually improvements in soft lenses convinced departments that these lenses would not pop out in an altercation or result in blurred vision under extreme weather conditions. Today most agencies accept applicants whose vision is correctable to 20/20 or 20/40 by either contact lenses or eyeglasses.

Applicants must also have normal peripheral vision (meaning you have a normal range of vision to the left and to the right) and may not have any eye disease. One vision requirement that has not changed is that you cannot be color-blind. The logic of this is apparent; responding to traffic signals and emergency flashers could easily be impaired and the ability to describe anything based on its color would be impossible.

Background Investigation

The background investigation is a crucial part of the selection process. Although it may seem less intimidating than the physical agility testing, it may actually be more crucial because there is little or no leeway for a second chance. While some departments may permit you to retake portions of the physical agility exam and even encourage you to work out to do better, once you have completed the forms your investigator will use to complete your background investigation you will have few opportunities to correct other than the smallest discrepancies.

Also, while you can improve physical or mental conditioning for the future, it is impossible to undo the past. Your life will be placed under a microscope and errors in judgment made many years ago may permanently alter your chances for police employment.

Among the aspects of your life that will be checked are your school records, all your places of residence going back 10 years or more, medical and military records, past employers, use of drugs or excessive use of alcohol, your driving and credit histories, arrests or other recorded contacts with the police, and any information that may lead the investigator to question your suitability to be a police officer. The investigation will be based primarily on information you provide through forms you will be asked to fill out, your fingerprints, and photos. You will be asked to fill out and sign release forms (waivers) so that the information can be released to the agency. While you may be given an opportunity to correct minor errors, anything that can be interpreted as a deliberate falsehood will result in disqualification. Keep in mind that standards regarding background issues evolve over time and something that isn't quite stellar today, might not be as important tomorrow. Moreover, as time passes, earlier transgressions are often overlooked, especially if the candidate has done something with his or her life. However, lying is always a disqualification, so it is better to tell the truth and risk disqualification for that than to lie.

When you meet your investigator for the first time, dress as you would for any job interview; a suit and tie for a man, a business-style dress or suit for a woman. This is the same way you should dress if your agency conducts an interview as part of the applicant process. Avoid excessive jewelry and anything that jangles and creates a distraction from what you have to say. You want to make sure that your first impression shows that you are serious about this job and that you understand the importance of the background investigation. Turn off your electronic devices when you meet with your investigator or anyone else at the agency, and certainly during your interview. These are not the times for your cell phone to blare out your favorite tune when your best friend calls to find out how things are going.

Just as you did for the written exam site, you should make a test run to where you will meet your investigator. Arriving late, no matter how professional you might look or sound once you arrive, detracts from your image. Although your investigator may not be much older than you are, never address anyone by first name and remember to use courtesy titles such as Sir or Ma'am. Speak clearly, avoid slang and obscenities, and make eye contact with your investigator and any other people who address you directly. Ask your investigator for a business card or to spell out his or her name. This is a person you will be interacting with on more than one occasion; if you are required to telephone or send additional information, you want to be sure you know who to ask for and where to address forms or other items you may be asked to submit.

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