By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski
Faculty Member, Criminal Justice
Law enforcement is an excellent career field that provides opportunities to help others, drive change within a community, gain experience in specialized units and seek leadership opportunities. Getting hired as a law enforcement officer, however, is much different than other career fields, and there are several steps you’ll need to take for the law enforcement hiring process.
Step #1: Talk to Current Law Enforcement Officers
One of the first steps that you should take is to learn about the profession. Talking to family, friends or neighbors who are police officers about their daily activities is a good way to gain insight into whether this career is right for you.
Step #2: Learn about Specific Law Enforcement Agencies and Their Internal Cultures
The next step is to learn about a specific agency or agencies in which you’re interested. Police agencies and their internal cultures can be significantly different and may provide different opportunities.
For example, smaller police agencies may not provide the opportunity for their officers to experience specialized units commonly available in larger agencies. These specialized units include different detective divisions, marine patrols, dive teams, mounted horse units, aviation units and many other areas of specialization. If you are interested in a specific area of policing, then select a law enforcement agency that offers that area of specialization for its officers.
Police cultures within agencies can also differ. To find an agency culture that provides the most job satisfaction, talk with police officers currently employed there and ask them questions about internal morale, career development opportunities, and job happiness. Steer clear of law enforcement agencies where officers feel they are not cared for or supported by the administration.
Step #3: Get the Right Kind of Education, Especially If You Plan to Specialize
If you have an interest in a specialization within policing, obtaining education or training in that area prior to applying for the job may be helpful. For example, if you are interested in digital forensics, you may wish to earn a degree such as our online bachelor of science in criminal justice that offers a focus on digital forensic science.
In addition, developing a knowledge of investigative techniques, digital evidence and other areas of policing – also covered in our criminal justice degree – can make you a much more appealing candidate for a law enforcement agency.
Developing skills in technology is also particularly helpful for law enforcement job candidates. Much of today’s policing is now based on technology, such as advanced computer-aided dispatch systems, evidence collection technologies, the use of various computer software programs and many other areas of technology.
The Law Enforcement Hiring Process: Background Investigations, Tests and Interviews
Once you select a law enforcement agency, it is a good idea to contact its recruiting office and research hiring information on the internet about the agency. Most agencies require a background investigation, some type of polygraph test, a psychological exam, and one or more interviews.
The background investigation is usually standard. A full account of your employment history, address history, past criminal activities and drug use are common.
Police agencies don’t expect everyone to be perfect, so honesty is the best policy. In many cases law enforcement agencies will permit the hiring of applicants who have committed minor criminal or minor drug infractions in their past.
Based on the questionnaires used to collect your background information, you can expect to be asked questions about your past during the polygraph test. The polygraph involves several devices such as a blood pressure cuff and sensors that measure various physiological changes, including your heart rate and breathing.
Polygraphs look for deception in your answers as yes or no questions are administered by the polygraph examiner. While you may have already provided a lot of background information on your questionnaire, you may only be asked 10-12 questions during the polygraph test. Polygraph questions are usually based on categories that summarize sections of the background questionnaire.
For example, a polygraph examiner may ask, “Other than what you answered on your background questionnaire, have you ever used any other drugs that were not previously disclosed?” or “Have you ever stolen anything other than what you disclosed on your background questionnaire?” There may be 10 different questions on the drug or theft sections of the background questionnaire, but they are summarized in one question on the polygraph.
To pass the polygraph, you should remain calm, control your breathing, avoid fidgeting in your seat and maintain a normal heart rate. You can accomplish all of these goals by being truthful on your background questionnaire.
The Psychological Exam and Psychologist Interview
The psychological exam consists of a long exam where similar questions are framed slightly differently to see if you provide the same answers, in my experience. Following the written psychological exam, you can typically expect to be interviewed by a psychologist.
During that interview, you may just be asked straightforward questions from the written psychological exam or the psychologist may test your emotional intelligence. For example, the psychologist may ask questions to see if you get angry and are able to control your temper. To get through the psychological exam, remain professional and control your emotions.
In the interview process, you are likely to be interviewed by a panel to evaluate whether you are a good fit for their agency. Ideally, dress professionally, maintain eye contact, avoid being nervous and research everything you can about the agency prior to the interview.
Interviewers can easily determine if you have taken the time to research the agency and if you are properly prepared for the interview. During a panel interview, law enforcement panel members look to see if you have confidence without being overconfident, as well as your ability to maintain eye contact and a proper posture.
In addition, they are observing your decision-making skills. It is common for some scenario questions to be asked during these panel interviews. It is not expected that you will necessarily know how to handle different scenarios if you have not yet attended a police academy, but these types of questions test your problem-solving skills.
Preparedness Is Key for Starting a Law Enforcement Career
Overall, preparedness is the key to starting a career in law enforcement. Attaining physical fitness, the right knowledge and strong communication skills will all be helpful as you seek a career in policing.