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Many college students think of their criminal justice degree as a means to obtain police employment. Alternatively, if they are already on the job, they think in terms of how the job will enhance their promotional opportunities. What most don’t think about is how classroom instruction relates directly to doing the job. In other words, yes, a criminal justice degree will make you a more prepared candidate during the police officer selection process, but it will also make you a better police officer. Here are three ways the classroom is going to help you on the street.

Every good investigation, undercover operation, and street bust ends with paperwork. Police work involves reams upon reams of paper. Often, the better the arrest, the more complex the arrest report. Just making that good arrest isn’t enough; police work is about documenting what we saw, heard, collected, or did. Good police work is about writing clear, concise, and comprehensive reports that ensure the district attorney will file charges and a jury will convict.

Qualifying for the job

1) Complete high school and earn your diploma

The first step in becoming a police officer is obtaining your high school degree or GED. Some agencies may prefer graduates from bachelor’s programs, but a high school diploma is often the minimum requirement for agencies around the country.

2) Review your local agencies criminal background requirements

Depending on where you live and the individual requirements of law enforcement agencies in your area, there may certain restrictions concerning criminal backgrounds that can prevent you from becoming a police officer. Misdemeanor crimes, speeding tickets, and past drug use are some crimes that can often be dismissed when applying to enter into the force. However, more serious convictions such as felonies, recent drug-related charges, and domestic abuse are often deal-breakers for upcoming applicants.

3) Taking and completing the Police Enforcement Entrance Exam

One of the major requirements for becoming a police officer includes the police entrance exam. This examination is required for all upcoming police officers and contains items that test a person’s ability in math, reading comprehension, writing, and grammar. Since a lot of the knowledge required for the examination is covered in bachelor’s programs that focus on criminal justice, students that complete this degree program may find the exam easier than those taking the examination right after a high school education. Regardless of which path you take, taking the time to study for the examination is suggested.

4) Enroll in and complete the Police Academy

Probably one of the most hands-on requirements for becoming a police officer is completion of the Police Academy. At the academy, recruits may be expected to spend time in the classroom learning more about weapon usage, police strategy, mental awareness, and community partnership. The layout of courses in the police academy is similar to what is seen in a college course, including the administration of tests and reviews. In addition to these lessons, participants must also be active in physical training. This portion of the academy may include physical exercise, running, wall climbing, strength building, and obstacle courses.

5) Find your career path

Once you have completed all of the requirements to become a police officer, your experience as a uniformed officer can lead to even more diverse opportunities in the field. There are numerous opportunities within law enforcement for you to exhibit your skills and knowledge. Depending on your level of education and experience in the field, you may have opportunities open to you within specialized divisions of law enforcement, such as becoming a detective, working in specialized drug units, fish and game wardens, or even for SWAT teams. At higher levels, police officers may even be eligible to find careers in immigration, The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, or even the U.S. Secret Service.

Common questions for upcoming police officers

  • Is there a physical that I will need to pass?: As part of police academy training, recruits may have to take part in physical testing in order to pass successfully. Most academies require that applicants complete 20 or less sit-ups and pushups, as well as a 1 to 1.5 mile run. In addition to this requirement, applicants must also take part in a routine health physical that screens for issues with the individual’s personal health and wellness.
  • Should I expect my hours to be like a normal work week?: Police officers are often scheduled around the clock. In this line of work, it is vital that officers are available at all hours of the day, making it reasonable to assume that you might have unusual shifts at some point during your career. Police officer are sometimes given multiple opportunities for over-time throughout their career, which is a great way to gain extra earnings and more experience while employed. As a new police officer, you should be open to working different types of shifts as you learn the ropes in the police force.
  • Are there vision and/or hearing requirements?: Due to the nature of the position, most agencies have vision requirements that applicants must meet before being approved to work in the field. Most standards for vision include 20/20 binocular corrected, a minimum of 20/40 uncorrected, and no color-blindness or other pathological conditions. Hearing requirements may vary depending on the agency, but most require that applicants to not have hearing loss that exceeds 30 decibels.
  • Are there age requirements for becoming a police officer?: In terms of a minimum age, some police departments require that applicants be 21 or over prior to becoming eligible. However, there are police departments that allow applicants at the age of 18 with an appropriate high school diploma or GED. Our team encourages you to review the requirements of your local police agency to ensure that you are aware of their specific requirements. There are currently no maximum age limits for most police departments in the U.S.

Every undergraduate, as well as graduate, paper you write begins with a thesis. In the police work, the thesis is that a certain suspect committed a certain crime. Just as in college, you have to find research that supports your thesis. On the job, you record, order, and explain evidence that supports your thesis that the suspect committed the crime. All the writing you do in college will prepare you to write good police reports and, thus, make you a better cop.

Cop work is about one thing—talking to people. You will interview victims, informants, suspects, and witnesses. The list of people you are going to be talking to is endless. The people you are going to be talking to come from all walks of life. They are going to be different races and different genders. Some are going to be wealthy and some are going to be hooked on heroin. The best cops can talk and listen to everyone.

All college curriculum provides components that are going to strengthen your ability to listen and speak with a wide variety of people. Coursework on different cultures, or how cultures relate, will help you develop a wider base of listening and understanding skills. These skills will help you better interview a victim, suspect, or witness. Coursework on public speaking or giving presentations will assist you in developing your ability to communicate.

Writing and interviewing will remain critical skills for police officers; however, as we move further into the 21st century, a police officer’s ability to understand and use technology will become essential. We are not talking about the ability to use a word processor, a radio, or search some database—those skills are essential now. Cops must do crime analysis. Police work is moving to become more data driven and much more data predictive. Terms such as “directed patrol” flow directly from research and theories developed in the classroom. As data become more important, so will data analysis. Even the cop on the beat is required to understand what the data about crime on his or her beat means.

The deeper your understanding of how crime analysis theories work, the better your understanding of the tasks your sergeant is going to give you. The better you understand the tasks, the better your performance. Pay attention in your psychology, sociology, and economics courses. Someday, when you are trying to figure out why a robbery suspect is committing crimes on certain days you will wish you had.

Still Looking for a Criminal Justice Program?

Below are some of the top criminal justice degree writeups. You can review the program page, or schools by state to find detailed information about the degree or career.