Becoming a Police Officer: The Selection Process (page 3)
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.
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.
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.
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.
Psychological and Medical Evaluations
These evaluations are generally done after completion of your background investigation. Both are costly to your agency but are meant to save money and problems by assuring that you will be mentally and physically able to perform typical police tasks.
The psychological exam is generally administered in two parts. The first part is a paper-and-pencil test during which you will answer a few hundred questions that ask, among other things, about your personal attitudes and how you describe yourself. Many of the questions ask the same thing in different wording; this is to assure the honesty of your responses. Whatever you may be told by others, it is almost impossible to cheat on a psychological test. The way the questions are worded make it highly unlikely you will be able to fool the exam.
Although the questions may seem odd, many of the tests used by departments have been devised specifically for police or other emergency service candidates. The test is scored to determine your suitability on the basis of whether you are hiding having abused drugs or alcohol, your self-management skills (do you get unnecessarily angry over small issues), how well you can be expected to take direction or work in groups, and your intellectual ability to understand different sets of circumstances.
You will also at some point be scheduled to meet with a psychologist or psychiatrist who will interview you to determine whether you meet the requirements for a law enforcement position. You will generally receive one of three recommendations: recommended, recommended with reservations, or not recommended. It is up to your agency to determine how closely it chooses to follow these recommendations. Most agencies are unlikely to hire a candidate who receives a negative evaluation, not only to protect the candidate from emotional problems but also to protect the agency from lawsuits should you become involved in a controversial situation and the results of a negative evaluation are made public.
The medical exam is intended to evaluate both your short-term and long-term health. The medical exam is not the same as physical agility testing. Your agency wants to know if you are healthy enough to perform police-related tasks. Are you able to stand for long periods of time without passing out? Are you able to sit for long periods of time without getting severe cramps in your extremities? If you become fatigued easily you might be unable to withstand the rigors of some assignments. Keep in mind, however, that the medical exam portion is sometimes challenged by applicants—the agency's doctor may say no, but a private physician may disagree.
The long-term concerns revolve around whether you are prone to injuries or ailments that would shorten your career. Early retirements are costly to a police department; not only do most officers who retire early receive a more substantial pension than they would in the private sector, the department must now begin the costly and time-consuming selection process to replace you. It is neither in your nor the department's best interests for you to begin a career that is likely to end prematurely.
A new requirement that many departments include under physical conditions and/or lifestyle is that you be a nonsmoker or nonuser of tobacco products. Originally applied to on-duty conduct, within the past decade many departments have made this a condition of both on- and off-duty conduct. Even when smoking was permitted, officers could not smoke in public; this was an image issue rather than a heath concern, though. This meant that officers who smoked generally did so in their patrol cars or around the stationhouse, resulting in nonsmokers complaining about the dangers of secondhand smoke. This often resulted in a ban on all on-duty smoking. Eventually, primarily in response to medical reports on the dangers to overall health and the rising costs of insurance due to smoking-related ailments, departments began to prohibit smoking at all. Court cases have upheld the prohibition. Today in some agencies using legal tobacco products is as much as cause for dismissal as is the use of illegal substances.
The personal interview can take many forms. In some agencies, your time with your investigator and with the professionals conducting your psychological and medical exams will also be counted as interviews because those individuals will be asked to assess your communication skills and your responses to predetermined questions.
For some agencies, the interview is a more formal event during which you will meet with a board of individuals who will ask you specific questions about yourself and why you want to be a police officer or who may probe more fully into issues raised by your background investigation. Board participants may also ask you to describe a stressful situation and how you handled it or they might give a typical policing scenario and ask you what you would do (this is generally called a hypothetical). The board may be comprised only of police personnel or may include a number of civilians from other agencies or from community-based groups. Generally, the interview will be taped for later review or in the event board members disagree on your handling of the interview.
What are they looking for? A number of things, including how you present yourself, how you address the group, whether you answer the questions specifically or avoid them, and whether your answers are appropriate for the hypothetical situation you were asked to resolve. Remember the recommendations for meeting with your investigator—dress appropriately and address board members by title or as Sir or Ma'am. Make eye contact with the questioner and with other board members when they speak to you. Try to avoid such verbal pitfalls as beginning each sentence with "um," "you know," or "well." Remember to sit fully in your seat without fidgeting, playing with your jewelry or your hair, or scuffing your feet on the floor. These and similar distractions show a lack of self-confidence or self-control and are likely to weigh in the board's assessment of your suitability for a position.
These pointers may seem obvious, but many people are often unaware of the physical or verbal tics they have. Even if you cannot rehearse the actual interview, you can begin to make yourself aware of how you seem to others and you can begin to eliminate these annoyances well in advance of the personal interview.
Other Selection Mechanisms
Depending on the agency considering you for employment, you may be asked to submit to a polygraph exam designed to determine whether you have been truthful throughout the applicant process. A few agencies also use voice stress testing, which is another way of determining the honesty of your responses. Although many think of the polygraph as a new invention, it was first used by Chief August Vollmer in Berkeley, CA, in 1921.
Polygraphs (or lie detector tests) are administered by trained operators. What you say is less important than the measurement of certainly bodily functions during your replies. Basically, the polygraph device records changes in physiological functions such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. Not all states permit results of a polygraph to be used in court, but they may be used in pre-employment screening. If you refuse to take either the polygraph or voice stress test it is unlikely that you will be hired.
One of the most recent concerns of police departments has been officers who are heavily tattooed, particularly if the tattoos appear gang-related or can be interpreted as having racial or sexual overtones. Even if the tattoos are not in themselves controversial, a number of agencies have indicated that none can be visible to the public. This could mean that if you have one or more tattoos on your arms, you could be asked to wear a long-sleeved shirt even during the warmest months of the year. Because departments value uniformity, though, you might be asked to remove or cover your tattoos so that you are not wearing a different uniform from your peers. When a product becomes available commercially it usually means a trend has been detected. Law enforcement magazines have begun to carry ads for sleeves that look like skin to cover highly visible tattoos. Although special agents are not uniformed, federal law enforcement agencies have also recently been discouraging any visible tattoos.
You may find it ironic that as tattoos have become more mainstream and more people, including women, have been getting inked, police departments have become more sensitive to this issue. Part of the reason is that as tattoos have become more common, they have also become more noticeable, resulting in some public complaints about the image of heavily tattooed officers. Many police agencies also believe it detracts from the image of professionalism they are trying to convey.
Although there has been less discussion about visible piercings, it was as recently as the 1970s that police departments began to permit post-style earrings, first among women officers and then men when some complained that the policy of permitting women to wear any earrings while men could not was discriminatory. Dangling earrings worn by either women or men are prohibited because they are a safety hazard. The early policies on earrings that were not safety hazards tended to reflect a generation gap. Most of the senior-level male police setting policy found it difficult to accept that a man would consider wearing an earring. Policies are less well-defined on other piercings, but you should anticipate that any policies that are developed in this area will closely mirror policies on tattoos.
What to do if you have a tattoo? The mature approach is certainly not to get any additional ones. Since having a tattoo removed is costly and painful, it would be wise to wait until you are under serious consideration for a position or have been made a conditional offer of employment to learn the details of your agency's policy and to find out what steps you will be asked to take to comply with that policy. What if you have numerous piercings? Since no one will be concerned about the small holes that may be in your nose or eyebrow, the wisest course of action would be to leave the jewelry at home.
Just the Facts
It can cost a police department $60,000 or more to recruit, hire, train, and equip an officer. For many departments, this amount is double the officer's first year salary, which is why agencies use such a thorough application process. They need to eliminate those who won't be able to handle the job well before they attend the academy.