Becoming a Police Officer

Becoming a Police Officer

Written by Peter Moskos, PhD
Peter MoskosPeter Moskos is an associate professor in the Department of Law and Police Science at John Jay College of Criminal Justice and the City University of New York's Doctoral Program in Sociology. Moskos is a Harvard and Princeton trained sociologist and former Baltimore, MD police officer who has written two books – Cop in the Hood and In Defense of Flogging.

There’s nothing wrong with watching cops on TV or in a movie and thinking, “I wouldn’t mind doing that kind of job.” I’ve got nothing against cop shows. I loved “The Wire,” which aired on HBO from 2002-2008. It showed the rough streets of Baltimore, the same ones I policed as an officer. “The Wire,” by far, was the most realistic police show ever made.

But even “The Wire” was only about 75 to 80 percent realistic. Most TV shows and movies hover closer to 10 to 15 percent. The problem with any cop show–be it “Law and Order,” “CSI,” or “The Shield,” just to pick three–is that they have as much in common with policing as Superman does with newspaper reporting.

Even “COPS,” edited in a documentary style, manages to portray a world that is too heavy on helicopter searchlights and chases through backyards and rather light on the day-to-day mundane aspects that form the majority of police work. Good policing, done right, is boring–and safe. It also involves a lot of paperwork.

Still, I hope you’re enthusiastic about becoming a police officer. Be aware, however, that enthusiasm alone won’t get you straight into the FBI, which demands a four-year college degree and three years’ professional work experience. A crime lab supervisor needs an advanced degree in chemistry. Even most evidence-collection units are staffed with police officers with many years’ experience. And in the real world, alas, the “Silence of the Lambs” job of psychological profiler doesn’t actually exist.

To become a police officer, along with a clean record and (depending on the department) a high school diploma or two years of college, you need realistic expectations. Once you get through the slow hiring process, you’ll start at the bottom of an organization that is–more often than not–short on money, officers, equipment, and good morale. After six paid months of police academy training, you’ll spend the first few years on patrol. Unlike the detectives shown on television, officers on patrol are the ones most people deal with. They’re the men and women driving around and answering 911 and 311 calls for service. Patrol is often called the “backbone of the department,” and yet, truthfully, nobody ever gets promoted to patrol.

When you hit the streets, you’ll likely be assigned to the least desirable (and most dangerous) posting in your department. There’s a lot more downtime than most people expect, even in the busiest police station, and the nature of 911 calls for service will vary greatly depending on the area you police. No matter where you police, you’ll be amazed at the strange and unnecessary things people think demand police attention. You’ll deal with a lot of people who, at some very basic level, have lost control of their lives.

Nevertheless, for all its faults, policing can be a great job. You don’t save many lives just sitting on your ass. Best of all, you’ll be working with people who really do “have your back.” Your colleagues will risk their lives for you–and you, for them. How many jobs can you say that about?