Law enforcement careers can be exciting, rewarding, and even fun. In fact, there are countless reasons to be a police officer. From fringe benefits to job security, the attraction to policing is easy to understand. Before you take the leap and pursue a career fighting crime, though, there are some things you probably ought to know about becoming a police officer.
The Hiring Process Will be Long
You're not going to walk into your local police station one day, hand in a job application, then be patrolling the streets within days or even weeks. While different departments and different levels of government have varying standards, the process of going from new recruit to full-fledged police officer can take 4, 6, or 12 months—or even longer.
The Background Check Will Be Thorough
Be prepared to share any skeletons in your closet. The background check for police employment will be detailed and in-depth. It most likely will include a criminal history check, a credit check, and a look into your previous employment. You'll be asked questions about any past drug use and any undetected criminal behavior.
On top of that, you'll probably be subjected to a polygraph exam, a medical physical exam, and a fitness test. And all of that will often be just to see if the department should consider giving you an opportunity.
Academy Training Will Be Tough
Smaller communities often will hire new recruits who have not completed police academy training, but attending such training likely will be required to advance past probationary status. Larger cities or state police forces likely won't consider candidates who have not attended an academy.
Expect the training to be difficult. Maybe you'll succeed academically, but you'll find the physical fitness grueling. Or you're physically strong but have trouble passing tests.
Add to that the stresses associated with having to qualify with a firearm, or demonstrate proficiency in defensive tactics, first aid, and driving, and you easily can understand why law enforcement training can take its toll.
On top of that, there's a higher than average chance of getting hurt; plenty of recruits and cadets across the country wash out of their academy classes due to injuries sustained during normal training.
Field Training Will Be Tougher
As difficult as academy training is, field training can be even harder. Here's where you put everything you learned into practice, and if you don't meet muster, all of the waiting through the hiring process and time and effort in the academy will be for naught.
Field training is as much about transitioning from academy life into a full-time law enforcement career as it is about figuring out who has what it takes and who doesn't. In field training, every move you make will be scrutinized and evaluated to make sure you're ready for the road.
You Will See Things You Wish You Didn't Have To
It's the nature of the job. Once you get out of the academy, and probably while you're still in field training, you'll start responding to all sorts of calls, many of which will be tragic. Accidents, injuries, abuse, and death all will become a regular part of your week, if not your day.
Dealing with victims of crime and families of lost loved ones is difficult and painful, but it's perhaps the most important part of the job of a police officer—and one you'll have to get used to pretty quick once you begin your career.
The Hours Are Irregular and Long
The bad guys don't call it a day at 5 p.m., so neither can the cops. Police departments are responsible for patrol 24 hours a day, and that means officers need to be staffed at all hours.
You may work permanent shifts or rotating shifts, but no matter how you slice it, shift work can be hard on your social life and your family life.
On top of the late nights or early mornings, you'll have to give up a lot of weekends and holidays, so when the rest of your buddies are enjoying that Memorial Day barbecue, you'll probably be on patrol.
The Job Can Fatigue You
Those long and irregular hours can take even more of a toll than just interfering with a Christmas gathering or a weekend get-together.
Law enforcement fatigue is a real problem, and it's brought on by excessive overtime, poor sleep habits, bad dietary choices, and too much stress.
The effects of fatigue can't be understated. In fact, fatigue often mimics impairment and can lead to even greater dangers both on and off the job.
The Work Can Influence Bad Habits and Health Problems
Researchers out of The University of Buffalo have drawn a strong correlation between police work and poor health, and it has a lot to do with the bad habits officers often develop. Because of the odd hours and the necessity to eat quickly and on the fly, lots of officers turn to fast food to fuel them through their shift.
On top of the less than stellar food choices, officers develop bad sleeping habits and suffer the effects of such a high-stress job. All of this can lead to dangerous health problems if you don't take steps to combat the issue.
You Won't Get Rich
In most cases, the salary is decent, but the chances are slim that you'll get rich working as a cop. At first, you probably won't mind, but sooner or later, you'll probably become frustrated that you're not making more. Police officers, after all, are public servants, and public service is largely about sacrifice.
Often, that sacrifice starts with your wallet. If you're looking for a job that's going to let you keep up with the Joneses, you probably want to look elsewhere.
The Job Is Not for Everyone
The fact is, not everyone can—or should—be a police officer. A day in the life of a cop can be hard and full of heartache, and it shouldn't be entered into lightly. Some people simply aren't suited for the work, for a number of reasons.
If you're thinking about joining the police force, you really need to do some research and soul-searching to make sure it's a step you really want to take. At the end of the day, there's no shame in deciding that it's not for you, after all.