By: Tim Dees

Cops may come into your store, but people who want to be cops will come in, too. Although it’s never been a secret, the qualifications to become a police officer are not well understood.

Most states require law enforcement officers to be U.S. citizens, although there are a few exceptions. Those with permanent visas are turned away. The usual minimum age is 21, and a few places have an upper age limit for hire, typically around 37.

Only about 12% of the law enforcement agencies in the U.S. require a college degree, but more require a minimum number of college credits. The credits generally need to come from a regionally accredited college or university, which a lot of the for-profit outfits that have sprung up in recent years are not (and they won’t tell you this unless you ask very specifically).

It’s not so much that police work is so complex that a college education is required, but rather than the high school diploma has ceased to be any kind of meaningful credential of basic skills like reading, writing, and arithmetic. Even a college diploma is no guarantee of these skills, but it’s a surer bet than the high school sheepskin.

Good writing skills are critical. One of the most common reasons for trainee officers to wash out is their inability to write a simple report. Even though most reports are composed on a computer these days, the new officer still has to be able to spell most of the words correctly, use reasonably good grammar, and organize facts into a coherent form. Speaking as a former college professor teaching criminal justice, I can’t begin to tell you how rare it is to find a student who can do this reliably.

Most agencies have some type of physical fitness test that all recruits must pass. These vary tremendously, but running 1.5 miles in 12 minutes or less and the ability to scale a six-foot wall are very common requirements. Almost anyone can get in good enough condition to do these things, but for many it requires a degree of effort they have not previously expended.

Using illegal drugs used to be a bar to employment, but now it’s rare to find a candidate who hasn’t experimented with drugs at some point. The use of hallucinogens or injected drugs is usually a red flag, but smoking a joint once or twice in high school is usually no big deal. If the candidate fires up a bowl to get into the mood for the interview, that’s another story.

Many applicants are rejected for bad driving records, criminal history, or bad credit. The last one might be a surprise, but cops who can’t live within their income become ripe targets for bribes and other corruption.

Contrary to popular belief, criminal offenses do not drop off one’s record automatically at age 18 or after a set number of years. Even if an arrest or conviction has been sealed or expunged, the police candidate has to disclose it to their potential employer.

The precise requirements vary from place to place, but these are standard guidelines. If your customers have questions, the final authority will always be the agency where they plan to work.