A former police officer answers your questions about American law enforcement

Ask a Cop: What does it take to become a police officer?

A behind the scenes look at the making of a police officer

R. Justin Freeman
Sep 6, 2019 · 7 min read

As a former patrol officer for the Springfield, Missouri Police Department, I’ve written about law enforcement issues since 2011. In this series I answer the most frequently asked questions I’ve gotten over time about police officers and law enforcement. Got a question you’d like my take on? Email me at rjustinfreeman@gmail.com.

You see them all the time. Maybe every day. On foot, on bicycles, in cars: Police officers. Have you ever wondered how they got to be behind their badges? What’s the onboarding process like? There’s no nationally standardized recruitment and training process, but I can give you a firsthand account of the process I went through in becoming a sworn municipal police officer.

First, the barrier to entry is high. I began the entire process with a lengthy application. I don’t have access to it anymore, but I do remember it taking several sittings to finish. After that was accepted by the city, I was invited to a physical tryout, consisting of a circuit of physical challenges.

This is your first opportunity to wash out (fail the process), and the first of many separate days of testing and evaluation overall. There was a vertical leap test, pushups, situps, a sprint (100 yards I believe) and a 1.5 mile run. There were benchmarks for all of these tests, and if you failed to reach them you were thanked for coming and shown the door.

Next was a written exam. This didn’t deal with law enforcement — as they didn’t expect proficiency in the field before you started — but dealt more with general reasoning and decision making, as well as some functional math and reading comprehension. This test had a threshold as well; they were graded on the spot, and if you failed you were notified immediately. Only if you cleared the score threshold were you given clearance to the next phase of the process — the oral board interview.

Performing this interview in my case was a patrol sergeant, the recruiting officer, and the director of human resources for the city. This was not a wink and nod exercise — they asked some very penetrating questions about items on my application, how I would approach certain situations, philosophies of civil service, and so on. As a department, this is the first opportunity to sit one-on-one with a new potential recruit. The physical and written tests were taken simultaneously by dozens of people, so this is their first glimpse into your psyche — and they will reach as far into your brain as possible. There are a lot of people they have to guard against (incompetent wannabes just in it for the gun and badge, patient homegrown terrorists looking to infiltrate law enforcement, people with power and control issues who want sanction and authority, and on and on), so they’re going to ask very penetrating questions.

After this I had an extensive background check. I filled out another packet that was over twenty pages long on personal and professional history, and then the department hired a professional investigator to check everything. When I say everything, I mean everything. They had been known to send investigators to Europe to personally meet a contact whose authenticity they questioned. If you list someone on an application to become a police officer, they will be called, at the very least.

Once the background check was completed, I underwent a physical examination by a doctor (vision, hearing, vitals, fitness, etc.). Each test had certain parameters that either had to be corrected in a specified period of time or would result in dismissal from consideration.

After this I had a polygraph examination, which is as stressful as they make it out to be on television. Bear in mind, I had already invested untold hours into this process — the thought of washing out because I inhaled too deeply following a question was frightening. They hook you up to the gadgetry and begin with simple yes or no questions. Is your name Justin Freeman? Do you have a sister?

This establishes a baseline for the more piercing (and, frankly, odd) questions — such as, “Have you ever participated in sexual activity which would be generally perceived as deviant?” Then the mind games come: “Even though I have told you I will not deceive you during the testing, do you trust that I will hold to that assertion?” Given you get through this, you’ll go to the last preliminary test — the psychological evaluation.

This is not a five minute Rorschach test. I was given two exams with questions of different types (yes/no, 1 to 6 scale of agreement, and so on); the two exams combined had almost a thousand questions. Once that was finished, you had an interview with a contracted psychologist, who gave you word association tests, IQ puzzles, scenarios to solve, and so on. It took, literally, all day.

Once I passed all of that, I was invited to attend the police academy; at that point, I was a ‘police recruit.’ My academy was five and a half months (1,008 hours) long, but my city required many more hours than the State of Missouri did. During the academy I had coursework and training in a number of different areas:

  • Constitutional Law courses. These started early on, and gave you early working knowledge of how the law should be enforced.
  • Family balance courses. The divorce rate of police officers is stratospheric (near 75% in some studies), so they invest time in training new recruits about the rigors of the job and how to establish boundaries.
  • Defensive tactics training. This involves ground fighting, takedowns, control maneuvers, pressure point manipulation, use of tools (TASER, OC [pepper] spray, batons, handcuffs, etc.), and more. Periodic testing is done in this area; if you can’t coordinate yourself to complete these tasks effectively, they will wash you out.
  • Physical workouts multiple times a week. This involved running through the city military style using cadence calls to stay in step, as well as strength training, team building, and other cardio workouts. If you fell out of step and had to be accommodated, the training staff was all over you like white on rice. Plus, the rest of us detested stragglers, because we had to loop back and get them on our runs, adding precious steps to our already grueling run. I personally had to carry a failing recruit during a run in the middle of summer, and I was slightly less than happy about it.
  • Firearms training. Maybe less than some might expect from watching television, but you will put many, many rounds down range. In my department, you qualified with a sidearm (pistol) and a shotgun — you couldn’t qualify for a rifle until you were out of the academy. There were State of Missouri thresholds and departmental thresholds on shooting acumen — and if you failed and couldn’t be remediated, they had to wash you out. In addition to simple range work, this also involved building searches in low-light environments (using simulated, paint-marking ammunition…which hurts slightly less than the real thing).
  • Driving training. A course was set up at a national airport nearby, which involved a number of tactics being tested (backing correctly, weaving lane to lane, violent serpentine cornering (S-turns), backing through S-turns, brake-and-escape, three point turns, and so on. There were 178 cones on the course — and cone violation wasn’t just for knocking them over. Merely displacing a cone was a fault. You could only have three faults in the entire course, which also included touching your brake in unapproved braking areas and going over the allotted course time. This was difficult, but it’s the bulk of the job, and multiple people in my class washed in this area.
  • Practical scenarios. Toward the end of the academy, you would be placed in scenario situations with actors, which would gauge your response acumen. These scenarios ranged from the minor (mediating a disagreement between siblings) to the moderate (an escalating bar fight) to the major (another officer taken hostage). You would be critiqued and scored by instructors, who were watching the scenario as you worked it. Also included in this were being hit with a TASER (the most acute pain I’ve ever felt), being pepper sprayed and having to engage multiple combatants (maybe the most miserable I’ve ever been), and gun retention drills (after which your forearms were completely purple from bruising).

If you get through five and a half months of that, then you graduated, got your badge, and got to face the real test — field training. I had nine weeks of training in the field, during which you have a training officer riding shotgun in the patrol car with you, grading absolutely everything you do. During this time, you are a commissioned officer and can perform all police actions fully, but you’re also under your field training officer’s direction. You will make mistakes — I certainly did — but your FTO is there to make sure you don’t incite a disaster. If your grades were acceptable after three phases of three weeks each, you were “released from FTO” and allowed to go solo. From there, it’s just a learning process on every shift.

Adapted from an answer I originally provided at Quora.

R. Justin Freeman

Written by

American ex-pat in Yukon Territory, starting small farm as a SaH dad. Founded a nonprofit. Former police officer (not that kind). Former pastor (not that kind).

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