Should I Become a Cop? [An In-Depth Guide Helping YOU to Decide]

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Should I Become a Cop? [An In-Depth Guide Helping YOU to Decide]

You may have considered becoming a police officer for some time. 

Maybe you know someone who’s a cop. 

Perhaps all you know about the police profession is from watching tv and movies.

We hope that this article will assist you in answering the big question – Should I become a cop or not?

This guide will make you more aware of what it takes to become a police officer. 

We will discuss the following topics: :

  • Criminal History
  • Physical & Mental Health
  • Personal & Practical Characteristics
  • Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities 

Now that we have the topics listed, let’s dive right in!

Self-examination is the first step. No one knows you better than you. 

Determining whether to become a cop or not requires some soul searching. 

You have to truly reach deep within and be honest with yourself. 

What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? 

This line of work is not for everyone.

However, there is room for many personalities and skill sets within the police force. 

If your strengths are in analysis and not physical hardship, you may not want to pursue SWAT. If it’s the other way around, you may want to try to become a Crime Scene Investigator (CSI.)

After becoming a police officer you might be eligible to specialize. 

In this article, we will discuss becoming a police officer. See our other articles that discuss career paths within the force.

There are preliminary questions you have to answer before considering becoming a cop. 

They will inquire about your criminal record, if applicable, as well as your mental and physical health. 

There are demands that must be met that are non negotiable. If you don’t meet certain requirements, you simply can’t become a police officer. 

In addition, there will be other questions that the recruiter may ask of you. It is important to know requirements vary from state to state. 

As stated before, you have to be in a good mental and physical space. In the event it gets tough discussing certain matters with a recruiter, you may have to discuss them with your physician or therapist. After speaking with them, you may be able to determine if this job is for you. 

Part One – Formal Demands

Have you been in trouble with the police? 

So, I know what you may be thinking? I wasn’t always an angel and I did some pretty dumb stuff in my teenage years? Can I become a police officer with a criminal record?

This may be disqualifying in itself, but depends on the severity and the outcome of the crime and your case. 

If you have been wrongfully charged with a crime and later, the charges have been dropped, you may still be eligible to apply to be a police officer. 

If you have been charged with a crime and the charges have been dropped due to an error or another technicality, you may not be able to continue down this career path.

You can become a police officer with a misdemeanor, but you can guarantee that the police department that you are applying to will inquire on the character of the violation and when it occurred. 

When it comes to misdemeanors such as public intoxication, public urination and the like, you should contact the police academy certain offenses it’s disqualifying. 

Here are a few examples of disqualifying misdemeanors:

  • DUI’s
  • Violence

Regardless of the crime, it’s best to reach out to the hiring department and determine what’s acceptable or not, you have to ask. Some precincts or agencies may accept a misdemeanor while some others may not.

If you are a convicted felon, there’s no need to apply. You can’t be a police officer with a felony on your record.

We aren’t saying it’s impossible for a convicted felon to do a good job. Many may have valuable experiences and perspectives, but in this line of work having a felony on your record is directly disqualifying and trying to get around that rule is time wasted.

Are you physically fit enough? 

Being somewhat fit is necessary before applying to the police academy.

When thinking of a cop’s fitness, you may think of muscular men with short hair and shorter tempers. Easy to say, this is not all that true. Women make great cops too and sometimes they can be more physically fit than their male counterparts.

Or your mind may have to you to invision what is portrayed on TV shows, morbidly obese, donut-eating officers who can barely  fit inside a patrol car. 

Whether or not the average police officer falls into either one of these categories, most look like the average Joe. 

Most police officers do have an interest in physical fitness and do spend a lot of time training; whether it’s by participating in different sports or frequently working out at the gym. 

Being a police officer doesn’t mean that you have to be in good shape, but it sure helps! 

Yes you may have to wrestle with people who may choose to resist arrest or even chase a few bad guys by foot, but being in a good physical condition can help build robustness in other situations. Let’s be honest, being physically fit can even save your life.

It will assist you in withstanding physical distress, standing for long periods of time, being patient and having good focus. Studies show a correlation between physical fitness and good mental health. 

As the previous paragraph clearly states:

Good physical health has a lot of advantages working as a police officer.

Being physically fit is a requirement to get into the police academy.

Physical requirements vary across police departments, but for an example, we will take a look at the NYPD’s Job Standard Test below. The test contains these six stations and provides a brief description of what is expected.

  1. Barrier Surmount: From a kneeling, weapon-ready position, the candidate sprints 50 feet to surmount a six-foot barrier.
  2. Stair Climb: The candidate proceeds from the Barrier Surmount to a six-stair climb system, and completes three over-and-back traverses.
  3. Physical Restraint Simulation: The candidate proceeds from the Stair Climb to a tactics-and-training device that measures an applicant’s ability to resist or control force in a physical restraint situation.
  4. Pursuit Run: The candidate proceeds from the Physical Restraint Simulation to a 600-foot run around a pattern of cones.
  5. Victim Rescue: The candidate proceeds from the Pursuit Run to a simulated victim rescue involving a 35-foot drag of a 176 pound mannequin.
  6. Trigger Pull: The candidate proceeds from the Victim Rescue to a trigger-pull station, picks up an inoperative firearm, holds the firearm within a nine inch diameter metal ring and pulls the trigger 16 times with the dominant hand, and 15 times with the non-dominant hand. Once inserted, the firearm must remain within the metal ring for the completion of the trigger pull cycles. Timing is stopped upon completion of the final trigger pull.

As you can see from the different exercises, they require explosiveness, stamina, agility, and coordination. 

This is not something you have if you haven’t used your body actively since middle school, but don’t be discouraged you can still work towards it. 

If you are considering taking a police fitness test, see our article about 6 Tips for Acing the Physical Abilities Test PAT.

Do you have a physical handicap?

We’ve already established that most police academies have a physical fitness test that you have to pass but what about physical handicaps? If you have a known physical handicap such as reduced hearing or vision, cerebral palsy, or arthritis just to name a few-you may not be eligible to apply.

Do you have any psychiatric or neurological issues? 

According to an Australian study, almost half (45%) of Australians will experience mental illness during their lifetime. In addition, almost everyone will experience  some variant of depression or anxiety during their life, but it may not be severe enough to qualify as a medical diagnosis. 

Having challenging times does not equal being mentally ill and you should not rule out becoming a cop only because you had it tough for a while. 

But you have to ask yourself if you think you are resilient enough to withstand the ups and downs of life and endure the challenging lifestyle of being a cop?

If you have been diagnosed with clinical depression, severe anxiety or other serious mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, etc, you may not be able to qualify for the police academy. 

When it comes to neurological disorders such as epilepsy and multiple sclerosis, you should speak to your physician and get an honest assessment of your prognosis.This helps you decide whether you should spend your time and energy on becoming a police officer despite your disorder or if you should spend it on other career paths. 

Do you have ADHD or Tourette’s?

ADHD and Tourette’s are both neurodevelopmental disorders. The symptoms can vary greatly and some have almost no symptoms when medicated. 

Most police districts do not have a blanket prohibition when it comes to these disorders, and most applicants are evaluated on a case-by-case basis. 

Do your research

The only way of knowing what will disqualify you in your respective police academy is to do your own research and reach out to them to determine what their qualifications are.

Part Two – Attitudes

Your personal attitude is key to being a good police officer. 

We have selected a few subjects to discuss because our experiences have taught us that having the right attitudes regarding these topics will make life as a police officer a whole lot easier.

Prejudice

It is one thing to have a prejudice against a certain group of people, but to express it is a grave issue. 

What may be some things that one may be prejudiced about? One may be prejudiced against various ethnic groups, different religions, and political affiliations. This will make it hard for you to be objective, which is vital to your role as a police officer.

If you are struggling to respect various groups, you should consider a different career field  and reevaluate yourself and your biases.

You should educate yourself on learning about different groups.It would be wise to engage in literature, articles, or other material provided by people you have failed to understand. 

Educating yourself may challenge your current views and you may begin to understand the sentiment of people’s choices, even though you may not agree with them.

We are not saying you have to change your personal beliefs, but getting to know people with very different beliefs makes interactions more tolerant and peaceful.

The same goes for people who have lived a hard life; drug abusers, gangsters, homeless people, troublemakers, convicted felons, etc. Your prejudice against them can often predict the outcome of your encounters with them even before it has started. Ridding prejudices allows you to treat people fairly no matter who they are and where they may be in life. If you choose not to get rid of your prejudices, you have to be very aware that this can hinder you from being fair and successful at this job. Treating people fairly and with kindness is the essence of true professionalism and should be the characteristic of every cop.

Defending and Enforcing Laws

As a public servant you have to stay objective, neutral, and more importantly – professional. 

This sounds easy, we get it!

But it can be hard for some. 

You may have seen protests where the mob yells offensive slurs at police officers and we‘re not talking about typical insults that most people use (eg. pig, bacon, etc). We’re talking about hateful slurs regarding the officer’s skin color, physical appearance, and even family. 

Protecting an individual’s freedom of speech is an important role for the police in a democracy, whether you agree with what is being said or not. 

Legislation varies greatly from state to state. In some states public intoxication is illegal, but in others it’s legal. 

In some states cannabis possession is legalized/decriminalized, but in others it can lead to prison time. 

There are states where you can openly carry a firearm without a permit, yet in others, obtaining a permit to own a gun can be callous, despite being a model citizen.

Depending on your political position, many laws may be too archaic or too progressive for your taste. This is something you should think about thoroughly before applying to be a police officer.

If you can’t enforce nor abide by certain laws because of your political stance or personal beliefs, you should reconsider becoming a cop. 

Laws are constantly changing. 

What was illegal yesterday may become legal today and vice versa.

If you experience that the laws are changing in a way that you feel that you can’t conscientiously enforce without destroying your own integrity, you should quit or relocate to a place where the legislation is more in line with your personal views. 

There are legitimate ways to influence legislation in a democracy. Defying laws you disagree with when you’re a cop is not one of them.

Are you ready to use force?

Are you sure?

Everybody understands that police officers sometimes have to use force. 

Very often we have to do this to vulnerable people.

Vulnerable people can consist of individuals with a mental illness, physical disability, or an individual who has misused various substances.

More often than not, you may face a version of yourself that made the wrong decision. Having these thoughts in mind will keep you humble.

You may also have to use lethal force. Are you ready to take somebody’s life if necessary?

For the unprepared, this can lead to a life of remorse and trauma. 

Taking somebody’s life isn’t just incredibly hard on an emotional level. 

The aftermath after a decision as such is tough, not to mention your mental state during a   rough internal investigation, views and pressure  from the media and the lack of support from your superiors. 

Are you ready to face these challenges, potentially all by yourself? 

Facing ethical dilemmas

During protests, you may have to use force on people who advocate views you agree with. As a servant of the state, you don’t get to decide what orders you follow.

That being said, we strongly encourage everyone to think about ethical dilemmas they may meet in the line of duty. 

There are  orders you could refuse and your moral compass may hinder you from executing legal orders, but beware that this may lead anywhere  from a written reprimand to demotion or dismissal.

Part Three – Personal Skills

A lot of different skills are valued in the police force. Being logical or having a sense of creativity are just a few. It’s important to know that a team can’t be successful if everyone shares the same thoughts, so a versatility of skills are always welcomed. Also note, different colleagues often complement each other’s skills thus making a successful team. However, there are some skills we believe every police officer should possess.

Withstanding emotional toll

Many police officers experience traumatic impressions from dangerous situations, crime scenes, traffic incidents, accidents etc. These situations may have victims who are women, children, elderly or other vulnerable groups. 

Police departments are not famous for providing good mental health programs for officers who have experienced trauma and many suffer quietly. 

As the matter of fact, police officers are at a higher risk of suicide than any other profession.

How do you think you would react to a crime scene with traumatic impressions? Do you have the resilience to withstand this year after year? What about day in and day out?

Lead by Example

People often take shortcuts and do activities that aren’t exactly legal. 

For instance, fishing without a permit, driving above the speed limit, or being publicly intoxicated and so on. 

For you to be legitimate in your role as an officer of the law, you have to obey the rules that you may have to enforce on the job.

Issuing a citizen a ticket for speeding, but ignoring the speed limits yourself is hypocritical and unprofessional. 

Patience

Being a police officer involves a lot of patience. In some bigger cities, you may be dispatched  between assignments all the time, whereas in smaller cities you often wait for something to happen.

Even if you are sent from assignment to assignment, the mission in itself often involves patience alone.

Transporting a suspected DWI to the hospital for blood tests involves patience. 

Being on guard duty, monitoring traffic, or being on a stake-out all involves patience. 

Even if you are scrambling to grab adequate personnel to make a high-risk arrest there can be a long wait. 

First, you have to complete the formal things in order. For example, you may have to obtain a valid warrant. Then there’s the possibility of waiting  for your colleagues to arrive so you can be briefed together and get the same understanding of the situation. 

You may also have to wait for others to successfully locate the suspect. 

When all of this is done, the mission in itself typically takes about one to ten minutes from the time you initiate the operation until the suspect is detained. 

Regardless of the time it takes to plan and execute the mission, police officers often find these types of missions very rewarding, especially early in their career.

Being patient is a virtue when you work as a cop but there is a difference between patience and laziness. 

If there isn’t anything to do during a slow shift, there are activities you can engage in on your own to build your skillset. For example, conducting traffic stops, investigating minor offenses, talking to civilians, etc will help you develop into a better cop. 

Work Life Balance

Having friends on the wrong side of the law can be challenging for a police officer, especially if they struggle with mental health problems and/or drug addictions. 

On one hand, you want to support your friends. 

On the other hand, knowing about their involvement in criminal activities, whether past or present, may trigger a duty to do something about it. 

This can put you in a moral squeeze. 

There are no easy solutions to these types of situations and being a cop will show you that moral/ethics and law don’t always correlate.

It is important to remember that regardless of where you go and what you do, you must remember who and what you represent. In larger cities, you can leave work and no one knows who you are.

But if you are a cop in a small town or rural area, everyone knows you’re a cop and will expect you to act accordingly ALL THE TIME. 

You’re a cop when you’re shopping at the supermarket, when you’re dropping your kids off at school and when you’re drinking with your friends at the local bar. 

People may try to test you and your integrity in situations where you aren’t expecting them to. 

Can you imagine someone picking a fight with you at the bar or deliberately committing a minor offense in front of you to provoke a reaction? 

Your kids and spouse may also experience being called the cops kid or the cops spouse. It can be somewhat restricting what your family can and cannot do without being scrutinized by everyone around them.

A Cop of Integrity

When you’re a cop you will be offered gifts and/or discounts at different places throughout your community whether on the job or in your spare time. 

This is because the one offering knows you are a cop. 

In the long run, this may cause some dilemmas if you have to enforce the law against the same person who gave you said advantage earlier. 

We strongly recommend not accepting any gifts or discounts if you suspect it is linked to your profession. 

For further reading about skills police officers should have or aquire, check out in-depth article about 23 skills and qualities you should have when working in law enforcement.

Part four – practical aspects of being a police officer

A lot of different skills are valued in the police force. Being logical or having a sense of creativity are just a few. It’s important to know that a team can’t be successful if everyone shares the same thoughts, so a versatility of skills are always welcomed. Also note, different colleagues often complement each other’s skills thus making a successful team. However, there are some skills we believe every police officer should possess.

Job Environment

Some of the biggest threats in this line of work have already been mentioned. As a cop, you are at risk of experiencing mental trauma and the apparent physical harm associated with the job.

Most people think of the obvious when they think of being a cop, the chance of being shot in the line of duty. 

It is true that police officers face the risk of being killed on the job. The average number of intentionally killed officers in the United States in the last 20 years has been between 50 and 75. There are about 700,000 police officers in the United States. This means that the percentage of police officers killed each year is between 0.007% and 0.01%. 

In 2018, the rate of fatally injured police officers in the US was 13.7 per 100,000. The rate for all occupations was 3.5. This shows that being a police officer is much more deadly than having a comfy office job. 

However, a study by the University of Delaware shows that being a police officer isn’t even on the top ten list of deadliest professions in the United States. 

According to this study, the deadliest profession is a logging worker with an astonishing death rate of 111 per 100,000 workers. 

Nevertheless, the main difference between being a logging worker and a police officer is that the cause of death for loggers isn’t intentional violence, as is the case with many police deaths.

With this in mind, you have to think about what risks you are willing to take. Being an accountant may be safer, but is that your passion? 

Everyone defines risks differently and you have to determine what those risks look like to you.

You may have a different view of how you define risk altogether

After a few years of service, you may experience that the unlikely happens all the time; unfortunate accidents, robberies, fires, sexual assaults, and even murders. 

If these tragedies can happen to others, they can certainly happen to you. Many officers become so concerned with road and fire safety, self-defense, and self-protection and to others it can look like they are a bit over the top.

Many seasoned police officers would argue that the average person is blissfully ignorant of the dangers that lurk everywhere. 

And yet other cops would say that these officers have become paranoid and probably aren’t cut out to be a cop. 

How do you think you would react to seeing terrible things happen to innocent people all the time just to realize that it could happen to you or a loved one?

You can make some enemies

You may have to arrest gang affiliated individuals, violent offenders, and other high-risk suspects. 

Are you ready for that? 

Many of us have experienced that some of these people have taken an arrest personally, which may result in both subtle and death threats.

In addition, seemingly normal people that are arrested for less-serious crimes can sometimes make up in his or her mind that YOU, the arresting officer, is at fault for his or her life problems; even though you’re not at all involved in the investigation leading to his or her arrest.

We have been threatened in a bar by multiple people. 

Have been called on our private number hundreds of times by one person.

Have been reported to internal affairs several times without a just cause by another person.

Had criminals at our door.

These incidents can do something to your mind. 

You may even go to your favorite restaurant and realize that you always have to sit where you can see both the entrances and exits.

You scan every place you visit. 

You can become more vigilant, not being able to enjoy yourself the same way you did before when you’re out with friends. 

Or you stop doing things you used to do out of fear of meeting the person who has it out for you. 

If you experience this, it will, to some degree, worsen your quality of life. Are you ready for that?

You work odd hours

First things first, working shifts can shorten your lifespan

Research shows a significant difference in life spans between people who do shift work and people who don’t. 

Cops often work either night shifts or day shifts and they’re typically between ten and twelve hours.

Night shifts can be challenging in itself. It disrupts your sleep cycle and you may be operating at a slower pace whereas others have reached their daily peak.

You may not be available to other people as much as you wish because you’re asleep when they are awake. 

Working day shifts has its advantages and is better for your sleep cycle. You are awake when most people are awake and chances are you won’t be working twelve hour shifts.

If you have young children, you may have to work a majority of the time that your kids are awake during the day. 

You have to work weekends

Most people use the weekend to cool down after a long week. For most, this is a time for socializing. 

When your friends are at parties or doing something you’d love to attend, you may have to work guard duty at a local hospital. It may not be as entertaining as hanging out with your friends.

You have to work during the holidays 


Everyone who has worked in law enforcement has experienced working shifts when they’d rather celebrate the holidays with their family. 

On the upside, you will likely receive holiday pay, which always comes in handy but what is more important? Being paid a bit more or being with your loved ones?

Work schedules in most precincts are extremely rigid and changing shifts with a co-worker can be challenging. Many sergeants won’t hear word of your complaints until you aren’t a rookie anymore.  

You work a lot

Most law enforcement officers work at least 40 hours a week. On top of that, there’s often a lot of overtime. You can’t just leave an assignment when your shift has ended if there isn’t anyone to relieve you. On the upside, you get overtime pay from the first minute you work after your shift has ended.

There are also many places where they require you to be on call on your off days.

In a typical week, police officers may work between three to five days, depending on the length of their shift. 

You sit down a lot more than you would think

We often think about police work as an active job. 

Unfortunately, this is rarely true. 

Police work is mainly spent sitting on your butt. 

Most of your time is spent in the patrol car; driving around waiting for something to happen, driving to and from crime scenes, driving to get lunch, etc. 

If you are on highway patrol you may sit in your car for long periods of time before you get to pull someone over.

Working the graveyard shift, especially in smaller places, often involves sitting in your patrol car waiting for something to happen. And when something does happen, it tends to be less trivial assignments than the ones that typically happen during the day.

When you have done something gratifying, like arresting a wanted criminal, solving a case and so on, a lot of time is spent sitting down writing reports. 

Solving minor (or major) cases and writing reports is often the best way to figure out if you are cut out for being a detective.

When it comes to making arrests, waiting for the suspect to get booked often takes longer than you’d expect. In most cases, the arresting officer is in charge of the suspect until he or she has been successfully booked and processed.

If you are on a stake-out, waiting for long periods of time is more the rule than the exception. Most of the waiting is spent sitting down. 

Other places police spend a lot of time sitting are at the hospital, in court, and in briefings.

If you want an active police career, we’d recommend you becoming part of a K9 unit or joining SWAT. 

K9s do A LOT of training and their missions often involve moving over larger areas searching for people or things. 

SWAT teams do a combination of both tactical and physical training during their work hours and you will need a good physique to meet their physical requirements. 

The pay

The salary for a police officer varies drastically from state to state. 

According to Forbes, the average salary for a police officer in Mississippi in 2019 was $36,290, while their California colleagues made an average of $105,220. 

This means the monthly salary for police officers can range between $3,000 and $8,770, depending on locality.

The pay gap between these two states is huge, even if you take cost of living into consideration. 

The median pay for police officers in 2022 was $60,200.

Before you consider being a police officer, you should consider the numbers. 

Can you live the life you want to live with the salary your local police department has to offer? 

If you have inherited a lot of wealth and money isn’t an issue, then it’s case closed and you don’t have to think about these things. 

But for most aspiring police officers, they don’t have this luxury. 

Many of us became police officers out of passion. After you spend some time in the force, you do become more cynical and realize that you should get paid what you’re worth regardless of how rewarding you may or may not find the job. 

Another factor that makes police officers more occupied with salary over time is having a family. Family changes your perspective on different aspects like risk, work conditions, and money.

You want to provide a good and stable home for your family and it’s an undeniable fact that money is a very important ingredient in being able to do so. 

Joining the force with a financial strategy is paramount. There are several different ways to attack this. One or more of these strategies below may work for you:

  • Moving to a police district with a higher salary.
  • Setting up a budget, living frugally and saving/investing as much as you can.
  • Renting an apartment below market price from someone who prefers the safety and stability a police officer tenant (almost always) offers. 
  • Getting a second job/having a side hustle.

Conclusion

There are many factors to take into consideration before becoming a cop.  Whether it’s evaluating where you are physically,  being able to establish some form of work/life balance, or putting your body to the test by working various hours, you definitely should make out a list of the pros and cons.

Only you can answer these questions, but we hope this article helps you along the way. 

Good luck!

There are several other articles on our site that give you more information about being a police officer, be sure to check them out. 

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