A statement we often hear in the news is that police need "more training." The reality is that police have far more training than most people realize. I’m often met with a lot of suprised faces when I give my annual training presentation to our department’s citizen academy. That presentation goes into detail about not only how often we train and the types of training we receive, but also what it takes just to become a police officer, because I think that’s a topic that many people (non-cops) are genuinely curious about. So, in an effort to provide more insight into these topics and contribute to a more informed public, here is an outline of what it takes to become a cop, along with the ongoing training required to maintain our licenses.
I can’t speak on every single issue currently facing law enforcement. But as an officer of 10 years, head of our department's training unit, field training officer, lead combative tactics instructor, college use-of-force instructor, firearms instructor and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Brown belt, I can for sure speak on the topic of police training. I don’t list my credentials to convince you that I’m amazing, rather to let you know you're getting credible information.
First, it should be known that each state has what is called a P.O.S.T. Board, which stands for Peace Officer Standards and Training. They are the governing agency that mandates all of our training and licensing requirements. Individual departments can and often do, go above and beyond the board’s minimum requirements, but there are standards in place by each state that need to be met.
Second, please note the training regimens and processes I refer to below represent those of the state of Minnesota (where I work) and most major metropolitan departments here. I also use examples from my own department. However, most states and individual agencies have similar requirements and operations.
The Long Process of Becoming a Police Officer
Basic Educational Requirements
In MN, you need at least a two-year college degree, but many department’s prefer a four year degree. If you have a degree in something other than criminal justice, you need to go back to school for one year and earn a law enforcement certificate. This is basically attending the state’s police academy, where you learn about case law, criminal and traffic laws, firearms, defensive tactics, emergency vehicle operations and other related topics. You also get the pleasure of being sprayed with OC and being Tased. Both are required in many states. Both suck.
Criminal History Check
To ensure there aren't convicted criminals polciing the streets, we're subject to a criminal history check before ever applying for a job. You cannot be a police officer in the state of MN, or pretty anywhere, if you have any felony convictions, or a conviction of any crime outside of the state that would be considered a felony here. You also cannot have any convictions of crimes relating to assault, domestic assault, theft, disorderly conduct, sleeping with or pimping out prostitutes (not verbatim from the statute), making false reports to the cops or exploiting and taking advantage of vulnerable adults.
State Licensing Exam
After completing your degree requirements and ensuring you didn’t do anything stupid when you were younger, you’re eligible to take the state licensing exam, which is required before you can begin applying for a job. This test lasts about four hours and consists of questions relating to case law, constitutional amendments and other legal matters. Candidates need a score of at least 70% or higher to pass. If you fail, you can try again one month later.
Once you’ve passed the exam, you are still not licensed, but rather “eligible to be licensed.” This basically means you can begin applying to police departments. However, that’s just the beginning of a very, very long journey before ever wearing a uniform and hitting the streets.
Just applying for the job of police officer is an overwhelming process, consisting of the basic application, a written exam, physical fitness test, interview panel, throrough background investgiation, Chief's interview, psychological evaluation, physical exam and drug test. You have to pass them all.
Step 1: The Basic Application
After completing the initial application for my department, I was given a take home questionnaire that I had one week to complete. There were 10-20 questions, which asked specific things like, “Describe in detail a time when you had to make an unpopular decision and what effects that had on your relationships with those involved.” Not only did my answers to these questions need to be thorough, each of them also needed at least one reference with contact information, who the department could call to verify my answer and ensure I wasn’t completely making it up.
Step 2: Written Exam
Several candidates were weeded out after the initial application and take-home questionnaire. Those of us who advanced were invited to take a written exam. At the time, I believe there were at least 300 candidates, including myself, who were invited to take this. It consisted of over 200 questions, designed to gauge whether or not you tell the truth, or just give answers of what you think they want to hear.
Step 3: Physical Fitness Test
After passing the written exam, the application pool is cut down by roughly half, and the remaining candidates are invited to come in for a physical fitness test. We use the Cooper standard, which consists of 1.5 mile run, 300m sprint, pushups, pullups and vertical leap. Each of these has a time and rep requirement. If you fail one, you’re done, and have to do the walk of shame back to your personal vehicle. You can apply again the next time there is a hiring process.
Step 4: Interview Panel
Once you’ve passed the take home exam, written exam and physical fitness test, you’re invited to come in for an oral interview. This usually consists of you sitting in a chair, looking across a long table of several cops in uniform, who drill you with questions for an hour. It’s as intimidating as it sounds.
Step 5: Background Investigation
If they like you after the oral interview, you begin the background investigation process. This is where the department will find out literally everything about you. Aside from basic information, they also require things like bank account information and balances for each account, social media accounts and passwords, a full criminal history check, fingerprinting, and interviews with your spouse, immediate family, friends, past employers and even your neighbors. If you have any skeletons in your closet that you never want to be exposed, don't apply to become a cop.
Step 6: Chief’s Interview
If you don’t get washed during the background investigation, which many people do, you’re invited to meet with the Chief of Police. If he/she likes you, you’ll get a conditional job offer. What are the conditions? Glad you asked. Just because the Chief said he/she wants to hire you, doesn’t mean you have the job. You first have to pass a psychological evaluation, physical exam and drug test.
Step 7: Psychological Evaluation
This lasts about four hours, in which you take several written tests, as well as have a face to face interview with the psychologist, who shows absolutely no emotion whatsoever. If you go into this meeting thinking you’re sane, you’ll certainly leave feeling crazy. You then get to wait several weeks for your results, which doesn’t help. It should also be noted that many agencies around the country also require a polygraph exam. I didn’t have to take one, but lots of cops have.
Step 8: Physical Exam & Drug Test
The final step of the conditional job offer is the physical exam. This is a basic exam that tests your eyesight, hearing, blood pressure and other vitals to make sure you're in good health. You also take a drug test, where they test your blood and urine to ensure you haven't smoked, snorted or injected any illegal substances.
AFTER all of the above requirements have been completed, you can start your new job, sort of.
Many larger cities, including the one I work for, have their own academy for new recruits before they’re allowed to be sworn in and start the field training program. Our academy lasts six weeks and others may last up to 16 weeks. Our academy consists of daily fitness training, combative tactics, firearms, scenario based training, investigative procedures, case law, city ordinances, how to inventory evidence and training in cultural diversity, racial bias, domestic assaults and crisis intervention. We also get to be sprayed with OC and hit with a Taser, again.
Once you’ve completed the new officer academy, you’re sworn in and can begin the field training process. However, you’re still not a Police Officer. Your title is Probationary Officer and you can be fired at any time, for any reason.
The field training process usually lasts 16 weeks, consisting of four phases, each of which are four weeks long. This process involves you and a field training officer (FTO), who sits in the passenger seat and critiques every single thing you do, all day, every day. He/she then writes a report at the end of each day about your performance and reviews it with you, to tell you about all of the inevitable things you did wrong. Most rookies lose about 10 pounds during this process.
If you successfully pass the field training program, you’re able to start working on your own. Usually, you’re still on probation with the department for a period of one year, so just because you’re done with field training doesn’t mean you can’t still be fired for any reason.
Now that we got the basic requirements to become a police officer out of the way, let’s discuss what it takes to maintain your peace officer license in most states.
Annual Training Requirements
Each state has their own requirements for the number of hours police officers are required to train, commonly known as continuing education credits (CE). In Minnesota, we are required to complete 48 hours of mandatory training during our three year licensing period. This training must consist of cultural diversity, implicit bias, mental health and crisis response and defensive tactics. We must also train and show proficiency with our intermediate weapons such as baton, OC and Taser, as well as qualify with our handgun and patrol rifle at least once per year. We also need to recertify each year as first responders, which includes training and proficiency in CPR and other emergency medical services.
Smaller departments may not have the time or resources to train above and beyond their state’s requirements, but most larger agencies I know go way above and beyond their state’s mandates. My agency, for example, typically has some type of in-service training every month, which means all sworn officers must complete it. This training usually consists of officer wellness, legal updates, scenario based training, online training, combtative tactics and firearms. Our state may require 48 hours of training every three years to maintain our license, but we easily triple that amount with all the montly training we do.
In addition to state mandates and department in-service training, almost every agency I know of sends their officers to specialized training. For example, if you work as a full-time detective, you might attend a course on how to use social media to help better investigate certain types of crimes. If you’re a combative tactics instructor, you may attend a ground fighting course to learn new skills to teach. There are literally an infinite number of courses out there to make us better, and almost all agencies take advantage of these learning opportunities.
This is probably the most overlooked aspect of police training. Despite everything else I’ve discussed in this article, the most effective training we receive as Police Officers comes from actually doing the job. I remember being in phase one of field training, where my FTO told me that this job is mostly, “learning by doing.” As I progressed throughout my career, I’ve found this to be very accurate. Going through scenarios, sitting in classrooms and watching videos is great, but nothing compares to actually responding to 911 calls, day after day, year after year. Most cops have thousands of contacts each year, ranging from suicidal people, babies not breathing, domestic assaults, fatal car accidents, and yes, even neighbor disputes over leaves blowing into each other’s yards. How do you train for all of these situations? By doing them. Over, and over, and over, and over again.
If nothing else, I hope this article provides a little more insight into the world of police training and informs those who are genuinely curious on the topic. I also hope it provides a little more perspective so we can think more logically the next time we hear blanketed statements like, “the police need more training." While there are certainly areas we need more training in, such as personal wellness and arrest and control tactics, policing is a very, very complex job and more training is not always the solution to the many problems we face.