Becoming a Police Officer
Police officers are entrusted with public safety, handling firearms, critical situation management, tens of thousands of dollars in equipment, and using good judgment. Each municipality or jurisdiction is responsible for setting hiring requirements that are centered on:
Most departments seek candidates who are between the ages of 21 and 40, have clean driving records, and some college credits. Being a veteran or having related job experience is a plus, and physical fitness qualifications are stringent: most departments will only accept those in good physical condition who do not have deformities such as deafness, blindness, or other limitations.
More difficult is finding candidates with the right attitude and skills to handle people in sometimes high-stress situations. A person’s temperament speaks to the way he responds to situations. Police officers are frequently required to break up fights, to step into ongoing disputes, and even to aid the public when a dangerous situation is still unfolding. Similar to a military career, officers must also follow orders from their superiors, including being flexible with changes to their working habits and complying with the requirements for reporting incidents. In order to sift through candidates for a job opening, the hiring authority and police chief may use the following methods for determining temperament:
interviews with friends, family, neighbors, and other acquaintances;
hypothetical situations in the police academy, and
interviews with past employers.
Critical Situation Handling
The best police officers are adept in dynamic situations. Critical situation handling are those most dangerous scenarios when there is a risk to human life, either from a dangerous individual or an out-of-control incident such as a fire, auto accident, or natural disaster. These are the situations that test an officer’s judgement and reactions.
In such cases, police officers are expected to act humanely and heroically, anticipating how the situation will unfold and keeping bystanders safe while simultaneously quelling the source of the danger. Few rise to that level but those who are well-trained and have the right temperament know when to prioritize one aspect of the situation over the other, whether that means helping bystanders run for cover or stepping forward to confront the danger.
Also important in a critical situation is an officer’s ability to play his role. Most departments will have training scenarios that spell out how officers are expected to respond to particular issues, whether a shooting, a mass casualty event, or a bomb threat at a school. Each are assigned roles and should understand when to participate in the leadership of the event and when to step back and let others with authority assume their roles as spokesmen. The willingness and ability to train for such situations is an indication of the officer’s future role in the department.
Experts caution that police officers are prone to burnout due to the ever-changing role they must play, as well as to the nature of their public identity as an officer. Some may feel scrutinized while wearing the uniform as well as during non-work hours. Many departments have requirements that officers must live within city limits, further heightening the feeling of always being at work.
Police work is more than keeping order according to the law. Officers who excel are those who can step beyond by-the-books rules and take in the entirety of a situation. The F.B.I. lists at the top of an officer’s most important skills the ability to adjust to the situation at hand, to grasp the connections between people and incidents that may indicate a larger pattern of behavior.
Humility and civility are equally important in an officer: he should remember that his job is in service to the community and to maintain decorum at all times. That includes keeping his temper and focusing on common-sense solutions when faced with complex or dangerous situations. A survey of officers revealed that many have been verbally assaulted on the job and feel that the public does not understand the variety of challenges an officer faces.
The most sought-after officers are those with leadership potential. Some leadership traits can be learned while others are innate, such as the ability to empathize with others. The best officers are those who are a bit of both, being willing to learn from others as well as expanding their own set of communications and interpersonal relations skills.
Sample police recruit requirements
Along with age and fitness, jurisdictions set a variety of standards for officers in their ranks. These may include:
Dallas, Texas requires that candidates for its police department be of good moral character and must be judged as psychologically fit by a staff psychologist, among other requirements.
Candidates for Orlando, Florida police must pass polygraph tests, have a clean driving record, and not have any felony or misdemeanor convictions for domestic abuse or other charges involving moral character.
In Chicago, it’s not necessary to be a citizen of the United States to become a city police officer but individuals who apply must be under age 40 to attend the police academy, must pass a drug screening test, and must have an acceptable level of physical fitness according to something called the power test.
In quiet Weymouth, Massachusetts, a well-to-do suburb of Boston, an officer was killed when responding to a car chase early one morning. After the suspect crashed and fled his vehicle and the officer pursued him, the suspect knocked the officer to the ground and grabbed his gun, firing multiple shots at the police officer. He was mortally wounded as was a resident of a nearby house who was hit by stray bullets. Residents of the area were shocked by the rare sound of gunfire and spectre of violence.
In a surprise mass casualty incident, a shooter perched on a Dallas parking garage fired down at officers doing crowd control in the street, killing five and wounding nine. The officers had been keeping peace at a rally and march against police violence and the shooter was a war veteran angry about the random shootings of black men across the country. The streets erupted into chaos briefly as police and citizens struggled to isolate and track the shooter before he was able to injure additional victims.