Why Be a Police Officer?

By Eric Hammer

There are lots of reasons to be a police officer - the prestige, the retirement plan (many city police forces offer half pay retirement after just twenty years on the job) and, yes, the feeling of power. However, while all of these things sound like great reasons to be a police officer, they are all at best ancillary reasons for taking on such a job.

Instead, the real reason to be a police officer is because it is a truly noble job and one where you get to do a lot of good for society. Even though we sometimes don't like them and sometimes wish they would go away, cops have a vital role to play in all of our lives and without good cops, our cities would quickly decay into utter anarchy.

If your reason for wanting to be a cop is a noble one, then congratulations - you are making a great choice. However, if you want the prestige or the power (or the retirement benefits), you are likely to end up disappointed. While all those things do come with the job, they are not what drives most cops to take on what can be a very difficult job.

Ask anyone who does a job simply because it's a way to pay the bills rather than because it's something they enjoy doing how they really feel about their job and then multiply that times 100 to see what it would be like trying to be a police officer for the wrong reasons.
Don't forget that along with all those perks comes the very real chance of being shot on the job, beating beat up, pulling duty which can be dirty and or boring and often being the one who is asked to jump first into danger.

How Much Can You Make?

According to the bureau of labor statistics, the average salary for a police officer is between $46,000 and $92,700 per year, though this can be lower or higher depending on your departments hiring policies. New York City for example at one point was offering extremely low starting salaries ($25,000 per year) in exchange for rapid advancement to higher salaries later on, once your training was complete. Check with your local police recruiter to find out details.

Remember that you can also pull extra duty when there are shortages (which happens more and more these days as cities tighten their belts and hire fewer cops - this means that those who get in often end up with more demanding schedules but do earn the overtime for taking extra work which might have gone to additional cops in better times.

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If you want to be a police officer, you're going to need more than just a willingness to protect and serve. You'll also need to be someone who is patient and willing to listen to all sides in an argument. Often, cops are asked to become on the spot mediators rather than enforcers of the law.

You'll also find yourself at times doing things you really would rather not do, like arresting a teenage kid in front of his crying mother because the kid is accused of murder or dealing with elder crime, where you have to arrest the 90 year old great grandmother who decided to supplement her Social Security check by dealing drugs to kids on the side.

Finally, you are also often the person who has to make the first condolence call - it is often the job of a police officer to knock on someone's door and inform them that their loved one is dead.

If you want to earn more money on the side from various other jobs, such as security or detective work, it's important to check with your union before making any commitments. Police officers are required to make sure they don't have a conflict of interest before they take on extra jobs and some departments forbid their officers to take side jobs for payment for that very reason.

Qualifications / Requirements

Each city, state and federal agency will have their own requirements for police officers working for them (don't forget that an FBI agent is technically a police officer as well - so is a secret service agent, though a CIA operative isn't one). As a rule, you'll need to be a U.S. citizen, be in excellent physical shape and able to pass a number of physical and written examinations (for example, many police forces require their officers to pass an eye exam and will disqualify those who are color blind). You'll also need a least a high school diploma (some jobs will require a college degree) and most police forces will require that you are 21 or older.

If you are accepted, you'll start out in the Police Academy, where you'll learn the basics of the job of being a cop and then be assigned a training officer who will work with you for the first year that you are a cop to show you the rounds.

First Steps

Start by purchasing your local civil service employment newspaper (in New York City for example, it's called The Chief) and look for exams for the incoming police cadet class. Some cities and states have rolling exams where the exams are offered all the time while others will require you to wait until they issue a tender to hire more police officers.


Check out these helpful resources to learn more about how to be a police officer:

Police How - Everything about how to be a police officer. However, in spite of the picture currently on their front page, you will not working for CTU (Counter Terrorism Unit) since it and Jack Bauer are both fictional.

WiseGeek: How to Become a Police Officer - another good discussion of what it takes to be a police officer.

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