Joseph Libowsky,
former Special Agent

When browsing through job openings for the position of a police officer, quite often candidates are wondering which written exam they will need to take and pass in order to continue on with the hiring process. As there is no national police exam, each state, and each agency can choose from a variety of exams for testing law enforcement officer applicants. Therefore, we have prepared a series of articles about the police exams used in various states and the requirements to become a police officer in those states. This information will help applicants in preparing for the law enforcement hiring process. 

California is one of the popular states when it comes to looking for law enforcement jobs. The state provides various options for aspiring law enforcement officers with its 509 law enforcement agencies and nearly 120,000 full-time law enforcement employees as of 2017.  

Below you can find details about the requirements to become a law enforcement officer in California and the main exams that you will need to take if applying to an agency in California. There is also helpful exam preparation tips and information about the major agencies.  

California police officer requirements 

In case you have decided to join the law enforcement ranks, it is necessary to know what are the main requirements for the position and what will stop you from becoming a police officer. In general, the basic requirements for each position are similar but there can be certain differences between the states, the type of agencies, and even between different police departments within a state. Therefore, it is necessary to check with the department you are applying with to find out what are their specific requirements.  

Make sure that you meet the requirements prior to applying with an agency so that you can save yourself time, effort, and disappointment. Note that there might be some exceptions as well but still it is better to meet all of the criteria and have good test scores in order to stand a better chance of getting hired.  

When it comes to the state of California, the minimum requirements a candidate needs to meet are: 

  • Be at least 18 years of age  
  • Be a U.S. citizen or a permanent resident alien who is eligible and has applied for citizenship (Note: CHP officers must be U.S. citizens at the time of appointment) 
  • Have a U.S. high school diploma, GED certificate, or high school equivalency certificate, or a two-year, four-year, or advanced degree from an accredited or approved college/university  
  • Be free of any felony conviction or certain misdemeanor convictions that are disqualifying  
  • Be of good moral character as determined by a thorough background investigation 
  • Be free of any physical, emotional, or mental conditions that might adversely affect the exercise of the powers of a peace officer 

Additionally, if you are to become a sworn-officer, you will have to successfully complete a minimum of sixteen (16) hours of CLEST certified training annually, to include firearms qualification and Racial Profiling. 

If you meet those criteria, you are ready to enter the competitive hiring process for the position of a law enforcement officer. Keep in mind that you will need to prove that you are eligible by providing the necessary documentation and any other additional information required. The background investigation is a thorough process that may reveal details that you have omitted. Therefore, it is better to provide all the information and not try to hide anything. 

California police exam variations 

As part of the competitive hiring process, you will turn in a completed application and required documentation. You will then be required to take a series of exams. This can include a written exam and physical agility test. The hiring process is designed in such a way to check both the mental and physical abilities of the candidate to perform the duties of a law enforcement officer. 

One of the challenges that you need to overcome as an aspiring police officer is the written exam. In the state of California, there is a Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST), which has the power to determine the standards and necessary training for law enforcement officers. The California POST has selected the PELLETB as the main written exam to be used across the state. Still, the agencies within California have the right to distribute a different exam as part of their selection process.  

The aim of the written exams used by law enforcement agencies in California is to check the basic abilities of the candidate such as reading, writing, and reasoning. The questions contained in the different exams are related to the job of a police officer but no prior experience or knowledge of law enforcement is required in order to pass the exam. 

As the PELLETB is the most popular written exam in California, the chances that you will have to take it are great. Nevertheless, there are some big departments that have opted to use a different written test. Frontline, for example, is yet another test that is quite popular in the state.  

Here is a list of the major departments that decided to use a test different than the PELLETB: 

  • The Los Angeles Police Department now uses a multiple choice test rather than the previous Personal Qualification Essay. The test will measure your abilities in ready, writing vocabulary and spelling. The LAPD Test Prep Course is one of the most recommended.
  • The Los Angeles County Sheriff uses the LASD to test its candidates. The test consists of 60 multiple choice questions and tests abilities such as writing clarity, spelling, grammar, vocabulary, reading comprehension, reasoning, and data interpretation. Studying for this test is a lot easier using the LA County Sheriff Test Prep. 
  • The San Diego Police Department distributes the San Diego Police Recruit Written Exam. The test checks the reading and writing abilities of the applicant along with their decision making and map reading skills. One of the most popular study guides is the San Diego Police Test Prep. 
  • The San Francisco Police Department uses the Frontline as part of its hiring process. The test is divided into three sections: video-based human relations test, reading test, and incident observation and report writing test. There is a strict time-frame to complete each component.  
  • The Orange County Sheriff’s Department distributes the National Police Select Test to candidates to check critical human relations skills along with reading comprehension, writing ability, mathematical reasoning, and reasoning/analysis skills. The test is available both in paper-and-pencil format and online.  

As a whole, the prevailing test used by the agencies is the PELLETB, followed by Frontline, and several written exams developed specifically by the police department. In some cases, there are two types of written exams and the candidate can choose which one to take. It is necessary to double check with the department to find out which test they use so that you can prepare properly for it.  

How to pass the California police exam? 

In order to pass the written exam in California, it is necessary to prepare well. As the PELLETB is the most common exam in the state, it is advisable to include it in your preparation even if you have chosen an agency that uses a different exam. 

A piece of good advice to follow is to apply to more than one department as this gives you more chances to be hired. As you may decide at a later stage which department you prefer, it is good to be ready for the hiring process for a variety of agencies. If you will be looking for a job in California, preparing for the most popular police exam in California – the PELLETB is a good investment. 

You can purchase exam guides, do a few practice tests or enroll in an online course, which is one of the best options to prepare well for most of the entry exams used by police departments. There are several steps that you can follow in order to make sure that the process is successful and you will pass the exam with flying colors: 

  • Discover the basics 

It is necessary to find out which is the written exam used by the agency that you are applying with and what it contains. It is fair to say that most of the written exams are similar and check basic skills such as reading, writing, reasoning but still each of them has its own specifics. The best thing is to contact your department and get any preparation kits they may have. You can also google the type of the exam and see what it contains so that you know what to expect. 

  • Get familiar with the testing process 

It is also necessary to find out how the test process goes. In most of the cases, the written exam is one of the most important components in the hiring process, used by the agencies to shortlist only the best candidates. The higher the score you get, the better the chances that you stand. 

You need to find out if the test is computer-based or paper-and-pencil format (in case there are such options) and which is the minimum score required in order to pass. It is good to be familiar with how the test day goes and when you need to arrive, what you are allowed to take with you in the test room and what is forbidden. 

This type of information will make you feel less stressed on the actual day of the exam and can help you focus more on the questions. 

  • Check with peers 

It is a good idea to ask someone who has already taken the test about information. Thus, you will get valuable first-hand information. It is great to find someone who has applied with the same department but anyone with experience with the type of exam will be of use. There are many groups online where you can ask for assistance and find information. 

  • Prepare for the written exam 

The last step, after you have done your research, is to prepare for the actual exam. One of the best options is to use a prep package with tutorials, explanations and practice tests. A good source is JobTestPrep who offer a myriad of tests and study guides at affordable rates.  

Major law enforcement departments in California  

According to the US Bureau of Justice Statistics’ 2008 Census of State and Local Law Enforcement Agencies, there were 509 law enforcement agencies in the state of California that employ 126,538 people, 79,431 of whom were sworn personnel. As per the PPIC report (Public Policy Institute of California), there were over 119,500 full-time law enforcement employees in the state in 2017. 78,500 of them were sworn officer with full arrest powers, while the rest were civilian staff. The highest number of sworn officers, 48%, worked as municipal police officers followed by county sheriff officers representing 39%. California Highway Patrol employed 10% of the sworn officers in the state. The rest of them, nearly 3%, worked for other agencies such as universities, ports, and the State Department of Parks and Recreation. 

There are seven types of law enforcement agencies in California: 

  • State agencies 
  • County agencies 
  • Municipal agencies 
  • College and university agencies 
  • School agencies 
  • Special district agencies 
  • Federal law enforcement agencies  

Each of them has its specific requirements and can offer different conditions to its employee. In the bigger agencies, generally, the pay and bonus systems are higher, while the smaller agencies offer a more peaceful work atmosphere.  

Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department are some of the biggest departments in the state and offer all possible specialized units. Work there is intense and often dangerous but rewarding and with many possibilities for career growth. Some of the local departments in Los Angeles County are also a good place to work with many opportunities. The same is valid for the agencies in Oakland, San Bernardino, and Riverside.  

San Diego Police Department and San Diego Sheriff’s Department are also great options to start your career in a well-established department and a safer working atmosphere.  

California Highway Patrol is also a great agency to work for. It offers good pay and options to be part of specialized units such as SWAT. The downside is that you do not get to choose where you will be deployed as it is a state agency.  

Working for any California State or University of California school police departments will give you the option to receive almost the same pay as in the busy LA departments but without so much intensity and violence.  

Note that California is one of the states with highest levels of employment in the field of law enforcement and it also pays one of the highest salaries.  

Metropolitan area  Employment   Employment per thousand jobs  Location quotient  Hourly mean wage  Annual mean wage  
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA  3,810  3.50  0.75  $59.53  $123,810 
San Francisco-Redwood City-South San Francisco, CA Metropolitan Division  4,610  4.13  0.89  $54.94  $114,280 
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA  680  4.99  1.07  $53.39  $111,050 
Napa, CA  240  3.36  0.72  $52.61  $109,430 
Oxnard-Thousand Oaks-Ventura, CA  1,340  4.32  0.93  $52.35  $108,890 
Santa Rosa, CA  630  3.09  0.66  $51.99  $108,130 
Santa Cruz-Watsonville, CA  430  4.39  0.94  $51.62  $107,370 
Anaheim-Santa Ana-Irvine, CA Metropolitan Division  4,360  2.70  0.58  $51.04  $106,160 
Oakland-Hayward-Berkeley, CA Metropolitan Division  4,770  4.19  0.90  $50.96  $106,000 
Los Angeles-Long Beach-Glendale, CA Metropolitan Division  26,050  5.88  1.27  $49.67  $103,320 

Metropolitan areas with the highest employment in this occupation, source: BLS 

This is the basic information that any candidate needs to know about California police exam. It gives you details about the main written tests used in the state, along with some suggestions about the best agencies to work for. The final choice is yours!