Joseph Libowsky,
former Special Agent

Being a police officer carries tremendous responsibility. When a law enforcement agency hires a new officer, it is vital that the agency makes certain that this person can handle that responsibility. One of the ways the hiring agency does this is by looking at the past behavior of the prospective hire. If they have a history of making poor life choices, this person may not be the appropriate candidate to be hired as a new police officer.  

Therefore, the background check is one of the quite important elements of the overall police hiring process. Keep in mind that even if you pass the written exam with flying colors and you are in perfect shape to perform more than well on the physical ability test, your past or current behavior might be an obstacle to the dream job of a police officer.  Passing the police psychological exam is another key step. There is an online preparation package, Mastering the Psychological, which includes a study guide, question and answer analysis, practice exams, and helpful testing strategies.

Below you can find the main factors that may stop you from becoming a police officer: 

Criminal History  

Criminal history is a major factor in deciding whether you are appropriate to be hired as a police officer and felony convictions are the most significant. Lesser crimes, misdemeanors, can also be detrimental if they are related to honesty and especially if they are domestic abuse/violence crimes. 

If you have history of domestic abuse, you won’t be trusted to be able to fairly solve such problems or react adequately when summoned for such a call. In addition to that, a person convicted for a domestic abuse crime is prohibited from owning or possessing a firearm, which is one of the requirements of being a police officer.  

Note that during the background check any unreported past criminal behavior might come to light as well.  

Drug Use 

Each agency has their own policy regarding drug use including how long ago the drug use was, the type, and amount of drugs used. Note that any current drug abuse is an automatic disqualifier. 

Some agencies do not disqualify applicants for prior marijuana use as long as that has not occurred within the past several years. Most agencies remove candidates who has used drugs such as cocaine, hallucinogens, modern designer drugs, heroin, etc.  

In most of the cases the requirement is that the candidate has not had any drug use for the past two or three years and in most departments any prior drug abuse may be a disqualifier. Some departments do not disqualify applicants for some experimental use. That use only applies to certain drugs and during a certain time frame in that persons past. 

If you want to apply for a higher position or start work at a federal level, the requirements might be even stricter.  

Alcohol and Tobacco Use 

While alcohol use is legal, excessive use is a risk most police departments would prefer to avoid with new hires. Some agencies do not allow tobacco use, on or off duty as well. While the decision varies on the specific case and department, the reason behind the restrictions are studies that reveal that police officers may consume alcohol and tobacco at rates higher than the general population. Hence, the agencies are trying to curb this problem and therefore might demand their new hires to avoid alcohol and tobacco.  

Driving History 

A clean driving record is also required from the prospective police officers. Once again, the requirements may differ between the various agencies. There are departments that are not going to hire someone even if they have a single speeding ticket within the past year, while others may make a compromise depending on when the ticket was issued and what it was for.  

The reason behind this requirement is that police officers spend a lot of time driving, and may be in situations where they drive at a high speed. This can pose a high risk for the officers and those around them. It is vital that the new hire know how to handle a car and has not demonstrated history of poor driving.  

Of extreme importance for your application will be any type of violations related to driving under the influence or while impaired. This can certainly disqualify you from a law enforcement job.

Credit History 

Poor credit history can be an indication of making poor life choices. While not having great credit isn’t an issue, someone who has a history of missing payments or has civil judgments against them, is an applicant most departments would rather pass on. The ability to manage your finances is directly related to your sense of responsibility and making good life choices. Another purpose of the credit history check is to show whether you will be able to cover your debts (if any) with your salary you are going to receive at the department. Otherwise you might be tempted to take bribes in order to “earn” more money.  

Poor Work History 

Someone who has trouble holding down a job is a red flag for a department. Agencies spend a lot of time and money hiring and training a new applicant. An applicant who has a demonstrated problem keeping a job is too high risk of a candidate. In addition to that, if you have lost your previous job because you have caused problems or showed inability to follow orders, your place is definitely not in a police department where law and order need first to be observed and then enforced.  


Recently tattoos have become not as much of the disqualifier as they used to be. Nevertheless, they still might stop you from becoming a police officer. Every department has their own policy regarding tattoos. Some allow them if they are covered with long- sleeved shirts, some require that they be covered with short-sleeved shirts. Some departments prohibit tattoos on the face, neck, or hands. And most departments prohibit tattoos that are racist, sexist, or obscene. 

Inappropriate Social Media Postings 

In today’s world when everything is posted on social media, anything you post can get you in trouble. Photos of you engaged in excessive drinking, drug use, making obscene gestures or simulated sex acts, show poor judgment not consistent with being a law enforcement officer. Photos or postings which may be racist, sexist, or discriminatory in any way can certainly be an issue. Do not be surprised if one of the first things the police background investigator asks you to do is log in to your social media account. That way they can see what you post, and what your friends post. Yes, if you are friends with people who are clearly racist, that may certainly be an issue. Inappropriate photos of you posted on friends’ pages are relevant just as if they were on your page. Hence, it is important to try and keep your virtual presence in the same good order as your actual life.  

There is an online preparation package, Mastering the Psychological, which includes a study guide, question and answer analysis, practice exams, and helpful testing strategies.

Becoming a police officer is not such an easy task and requires a lot of effort on behalf of the candidate. First, you need to browse the job openings in order to find the most suitable for you. Then you need to properly prepare for the written exam with Police Exam practice tests and learn how to cope with the oral interview and the polygraph. It is of paramount importance, however, to also check the specific requirements of the department you have chosen in respect to the most common disqualifiers we have listed above. Thus, you will make sure that you are eligible to apply for and pursue a career as a police officer.