12 Steps to Become a Police Officer
Mindset, Preparation and Equipment For Your First Years
If you are considering a career in uniform, you are reading the right article, which is the first of a twelve-part series. Upon reading these 12 steps, you will have a grasp of the whole journey into this phenomenal realm of public safety. If you are decided on joining the team, then print out these steps and post it someplace where you can see it and track your progress. If you are nervous about starting, that’s ok. Being nervous is part of what makes the career path interesting. Enjoy the ride!
*Disclaimer: This article does not illustrate my views on why one should consider becoming a police officer. That will be Step Two in the next article: Step 2: Resolve, Evolve and Drive.
STEP 1: CONDUCT FOCUSED RESEARCH
“The successful warrior is the average man with laser-like focus.”
Think Entry-Level First
I often meet young people while on duty who are interested in a career in law enforcement. Interestingly, I rarely hear people say they want to be police officers. More often, people tell me they want to be a detective, a crime scene investigator, or an FBI agent. These dialogues are partly what prompted this article. I feel compelled to help entry-level professionals zero in on their goals so they may go about them systematically. That is, the position of detective at a police agency is pretty much never entry-level. So, sometimes I ask some follow-up questions to help prospects decide whether they truly want learn the fundamentals …in the field. Before you can roll up in your unmarked vehicle wearing a gold badge on your jeans looking like Hawaii 5-0, you have to wear the blues. (And if you ask me, the most memorable and rewarding experiences happen in Patrol.) I strongly recommend picking up a good law enforcement field guide to get a sense of what patrol cops actually need to know and do.
Narrow Your Field by Jurisdiction:
If you are more than willing, but actually driven to get into the law enforcement field, then another simple way to conduct your analysis is by jurisdiction. I strongly caution you against skipping steps and shot-gunning applications at every cop job you can find on the internet, i.e, one for sheriff’s deputy and another one for DEA Agent. Instead, take time to research these fields and narrow it down. Think of jurisdictions by local (Miami PD), county (San Diego County Sheriff’s Department), State (Oregon State Police) or Federal (US Marshals, FBI, ATF&E). Consider the lifestyle associated with each position. Many will have differing core missions, schedules, benefits, promotional opportunities and commute distances. It can be overwhelming to attempt to compare the apples to oranges with these agencies, so looking at them by jurisdiction can help simplify the process. Below is a short description of these jurisdictional levels of law enforcement.
Local & County: Go for Medium-Size!
We can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone. —Ronald Reagan
As a current police officer for an active, medium-sized agency, I am very biased with my advice. I believe that if you are going to become a cop, get the full cop experience. That is, respond to 911 calls, get into foot chases, vehicle pursuits, jam up gang members and kick in doors. Of course there is a lot of dealing with “nuisance” crimes and patrolling can be real grunt work as well. It can be dangerous at times and often it’s exhausting. But, when I get home and my wife asks me what happened, I don’t have to wonder if I have a story… I just have to select which is the best story from my shift. And, upon retiring or transferring, you will never have to wonder what it would be like to get the quintessential police experience; you lived it. A medium-sized agency is ideal because it is large enough to offer all kinds of ancillary assignments, transfers and promotional opportunity, but small enough to build real relationships and develop camaraderie. As a county sheriff’s deputy, your jurisdiction is larger, but you generally will be assigned to a patrol district, and your general job will be similar to that of a city cop. However, you may have to drive further for calls and conduct different types of functions specific to the county regulations. Generally, lateral, ancillary and promotional opportunities range dependent on the size of the agency and the population they serve.
There are all kinds of state entities where you can serve in a uniformed capacity. A great starting place to see your options at the state level is the state government website. For example, in California, you can go to https://www.ca.gov/agencysearch/ and see a comprehensive list of state entities many of which have their regulatory and enforcement entities, such as Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC), Bureau of Cannabis Control and the famous CA Highway Patrol https://www.chp.ca.gov/CHP-Careers/Officer. At my agency, we have a healthy rivalry with our CHP comrades… but in all sincerity they do some amazing work and offer and phenomenal career paths. It’s not just the highways. As a state patrol officer, or Trooper, your jurisdiction is the state and you have all of the government resources at your disposal to support the state’s public safety concerns. For most states, your personal preference of office location will be taken into consideration.
Whether you want to patrol the backcountry on a four-wheeler, or protect the President, there is an enormous variety of Federal LEO positions. Go to https://www.usajobs.gov/. This is an awesome site where you can filter your job search by location, agency, salary and job type referred to as a series. If you are seeking a federal LEO position, filter your search into the 1800 series, which is General Investigation, Enforcement and Compliance. Peruse this site and you will get a sense of the entry-level requirements, the grade levels (GL), which refers to pay scale and qualifications. For the 1800 series, you would usually enter at GL 5-7 and could work your way up. Each grade has ten steps. Full information on the government grade scales can be found at the Office of Personnel Management here: https://www.opm.gov/policy-data-oversight/pay-leave/salaries-wages/2018/law-enforcement-officer/. Yes, the salary is important, but keep in mind that you will make more than what shows on the table by way of benefits and overtime. Think of the number on the salary table as a bare minimum.
When considering jurisdiction, with federal law enforcement, you are working for the US government which has various expanses of jurisdiction within the US, its territories and in other nations. You often will not get to pick where you serve. If you are offered a job, it will be where the government needs you. So, if you have a family, think about whether you are willing to move to any one of the offices listed in the job announcement. Consider what personally interests you, and chances are there are laws that are relevant to those interests, and thus require law enforcement. Each federal law enforcement entity has their own website full of material designed to help you understand their mission. Some require extensive travel all over the world with posts up to two years, such as the Department of State’s Diplomatic Security Service. Others may assign you to a region, such as the Southwestern region of the US as with US Customs and Border Protection. Every part of the US government has some kind of law enforcement, so you really can select from a huge range. You can be a Forest Service LEO with US Department of Agriculture (https://www.fs.fed.us/lei/ ) or a Uniformed Division Officer with the US Secret Service ( https://www.secretservice.gov/join/careers/). There are so many exciting LEO jobs in the US government, I could not list them here. To simplify your search, print out a copy of the US Organizational Chart and know that all Departments (Defense, Agriculture, Labor, State, Energy, Commerce, Justice, Interior, Veterans Affairs, etc.) have their own law enforcement entities.
Now you should have a basic familiarity with the idea that law enforcement is an enormous field with an expansive range of positions. They can range from very administrative in nature where the job is primarily office work to very operational where the work is done in the field. Whether it’s for days or months, spend adequate time researching this range. Then take a deep look into yourself and determine if you would thrive in any of these fields. Narrow your selections down by jurisdictional level and begin to take increased actions in that direction. Once you reach a particular threshold, you have to make a firm decision on one and resolve to succeed. We will address that topic in the next article: Step 2: Resolve, Evolve and Drive.
– Marcus Mahanty