Joseph Libowsky,
former Special Agent

Becoming a police officer is a desired career for many people, regardless of their age and current occupation. It is a job that you can start right after graduation or at a later stage of your life, provided that you meet the age criteria of the agency you want to work for.  

As a police officer, you have the chance to serve your community in many different ways – the police officers are the first who respond to an incident such as a robbery, domestic violence or other type of crime, they patrol the streets and maintain order, apprehend criminals and help citizens in case of an emergency or other critical situation. There are many possibilities for career growth depending on the education and experience of the candidate and their readiness for advancement. 

Becoming a police officer, however, doesn’t happen at the drop of a hat. Most agencies require a certain level of education on top of the high school diploma, plus there is a training once you get hired and the hiring process itself is quite lengthy. So, how long does it take to become a police officer? The answer really depends on the department you want to join and their specific training procedures and requirements as well as on your career ambitions. Still, you can get a rough idea how much time you need to invest in pursuing this career path by having a look at how long does it take to complete five of the basic steps to become a police officer. 

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Education requirements for police officers 

Aspiring police officers have the possibility to choose whether to start their career right after high school, provided the agency they want to work for allows it, or to proceed with their education and get a degree prior to joining the law enforcement forces. The education requirements for becoming a police officer vary by state and by department – generally, agencies require a high school diploma or an equivalent for entry-level positions but as of lately, most departments include in their requirements an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. In addition to that, if you have the desire to grow in your career and move to a federal law enforcement agency at some point, it is better to first invest some time in education and then apply for a law enforcement position.  

Police officers who want to work in more specialized divisions or are looking forward to advancing in their career, should be able to offer at least a bachelor’s degree in a law enforcement-related discipline and possibly a master’s degree. The level of education also can affect the salary an officer receives. The good news is that you can start your career as a police officer and then proceed with getting a degree either as a part-time student or online. 

Regardless of the approach you are going to choose, here is roughly how much time you need to get a law enforcement degree that can help you with your career: 

  • Getting an associate’s degree usually takes two years if you decide to complete a full-time traditional program. There are options to accelerate or slow down the process by taking more or fewer classes. You can pursue an associate’s degree online as well.  
  • Earning a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement takes four years if you attend a regular on-campus program. There is an option to max out classes and finish in three and a half years or to study part-time and complete the program in about five and a half years. There is also a great variety of online law enforcement degrees that you can complete, depending on your preferences.  
  • master’s degree in law enforcement usually takes two or three years to complete. You can choose between on-campus and online formats depending on your availability, resources, and job/family responsibilities. 
  • The investment in a doctoral degree in law enforcement is four to five years. There is an option to get a Ph.D. online as well, which can be completed in two and a half to four years.  

As the bachelor’s degree is one of the most common programs pursued by aspiring police officers, we can conclude that you need four years to meet the educational requirement for the job.

Police officer application process 

The application process itself also requires some time in order to be completed. First of all, you need to go through the job openings in order to find the best option for you. Once you land on the right offer, you need to make sure that you meet all the listed criteria and then submit your application. Follow strictly the requirements about the application submission and fill in your details correctly and completely. Failing to do so may disqualify you at the very beginning of the hiring process or at a later stage.  

The processing time of your application depends on the agency you have chosen. Note that there are a lot of applications, so it takes time to process them all and get back to the candidates. Each police department has its own time-frame and procedures but generally, it takes about three to four months for an application to be fully reviewed, checked and a decision to be taken whether the applicant shall proceed with the hiring process or not. 

It is advisable to utilize this time for getting prepared for the next steps of the hiring process – the exams that you need to take. You can enroll in an online police exam preparation course like the one offered by PoliceExam911. You can learn how to master the polygraph test or check the Mastering the Police Interview course so that you are ready for those elements. You can also start your physical training and be ready to pass the physical abilities test.  

Police officer hiring process 

The police officer hiring process is much different than that of any other job. It is not simply attending an interview and then being approved for the position. In order to become a police officer, you need to undergo a series of tests and each of them can disqualify you. The entire process is quite competitive and each police department can put more importance on a single element of the process rather than on the other. Nevertheless, the hiring process consists of several elements that are common for each agency no matter if we talk about local, state or federal law enforcement. 

Once your application is accepted, you need to be tested in order to prove that you have what it takes to do the job. This includes checking both your general knowledge, writing skills, physical abilities, and your background. Here are the steps that you need to successfully pass through, in order to become a police officer: 

  • Written test  

The police written test aims to check whether the applicant possesses the basic knowledge to become a police officer. The exam covers reading comprehension, spelling, math, grammar, and analytical skills. It may also include a report writing section. Each part is timed and you need to answer as many questions as possible within the given time-frame. There are several types of questions: open-ended questions, multiple-choice questions, true/false questions, spot-the-error questions, and which answer best completes the sentence type of questions. You need at least 70% to pass the test successfully. The higher your score, the better your chances to be selected for the job. You can check some tips on How to Pass the Police Exam.  

  • Physical ability test 

The physical ability test (PAT) checks the fitness of the candidate and their readiness to face the physical challenges of the police officer job. Basically, there are two approaches adopted by the agencies into performing the PAT: the job simulation method and the fitness-based method. In both cases, it is a pass/fail test and the applicant must meet certain criteria in order to pass. Check with the department which of the two approaches they use and train for the test.  

  • Medical exam 

The medical exam aims to confirm that there are no medical reasons to prevent you from doing your duties as a police officer.  

  • Background check 

The background check is yet another highly important part of the hiring process. As the background investigators need to check all the information you have previously provided, this is the part of the process that takes most of the time. Usually, it takes between several weeks to a couple of months for the background check to be completed. It includes checking your friends and family, employment history, education, any criminal record, financial situation, and drug abuse events.  

  • Polygraph test  

The polygraph test aims to determine whether the information provided by the candidate is correct. The exam is conducted by a polygraph examiner, who asks the questions and also interprets the results based on the readings of the machine and their personal experience and judgment of the candidate’s behavior.  

  • Psychological screening 

The psychological screening is usually the last part of the process and the candidate sees a psychologist and/or takes a psychological screen test. The aim of the evaluation is to make sure that you are ready to face the challenges of the job and not to check your general sanity. In order to pass the psychological screening, you need to remain calm and answer honestly all of the questions you are asked.  

  • Oral board interview 

If you have passed successfully through all the tests, you are invited to an oral interview where an interview panel will ask you several questions to determine whether you shall be offered the position or not. Here, you have the chance to present some of your competitive advantages such as experience and/or education and convince the panel that you are the best candidate for the job. 

Passing through all of these steps takes time, so we can sum up that the whole hiring process is about three or four months and the length depends on each agency.  

Completing the Police Academy 

When you have successfully completed the hiring process, you are a few steps closer to becoming a police officer but you still have two more phases to go through. The first one is the Police Academy. There you will undergo a lot of physical and theoretical training and learn how to use guns and apprehend criminals. You will receive knowledge about different laws and law enforcement procedures as well as acquire practical skills in driving, first aid, etc.  

Not all candidates who enter the Academy finish their studies. You may be rejected due to bad performance, while some candidates give up themselves as they find it too difficult to complete.  

The duration of the training in the Police Academy varies for the different agencies. It usually takes about 13 to 19 weeks on average but can last up to six months. 

Note that it is possible to complete the Police Academy prior to applying for a police officer. Getting POST certified is one of the secrets to getting quickly hired as a police officer so, you can investigate this option as well.  

Probation period  

Once you graduate from the Police Academy, you start your job as a police officer in the department you have chosen. In order to become a full-fledged member of the staff, however, you need to undergo a probation period. During that time, you work with a senior partner and receive on the job training. The probation period is usually about six months but can reduced or increased. In case you have some difficulties, the probation period may be extended to a year or even two years. You may be suspended at any time during probation in case you fail to perform.  Once the probation period is over, you are now officially a police officer. 

We can sum up that it takes about five to six years to become a police officer given that you decide to complete your education prior to applying for the job. The duration of the application and hiring process depends on the state and even the agency that you choose for your career, and time you will spend at the Police Academy and on probation.