Jobs in law enforcement, while not recession-proof, tend to maintain stability even during economic downturns. And while hiring may slow, it rarely stops completely. San Diego, being a sizeable metropolitan area, has a number of police departments, a large sheriff’s department, and a federal law enforcement presence. That is encouraging, right? Not entirely–because even with lots of jobs, the competition is extremely stiff and the hiring process is long and complicated.
But if you are determined and make it through, a career in law enforcement can be rewarding. The pay is decent. Most departments start recruits somewhere around $50,000, though some are as low as the mid to high thirties and some in the sixties. The work is varied. Once you do your obligatory time in patrol, there are any number of specializations that you can go into: canine, helicopter, SWAT or SRT, hostage negotiation, bomb squad, training, criminal investigations, etc.
So how does one get started in the application process? And what should one expect as they continue?
The first thing that you will do is take a written test. Each department offers their own and at different times. Generally, if you check their city web page under departments–police, there will be a careers link that will have times and dates for tests listed and instructions on how to sign up. Often there is limited space in the tests, so do not wait until the last minute to sign up and expect to get in–every step of the law enforcement application process expects you to be prepared and squared away. When you go to the test, make sure that you have whatever forms of ID are required, or you will not be able to take the exam. The exams generally take about three hours and prep books are out there if you look, check out Amazon to see what’s available.
Once you take the written test, you wait for them to tell you if you passed. Generally, during this initial period, the department will be compiling an eligibility list, based on test scores and whether or not you pass the agility test–more on that in a minute. Several things can effect your test scores, the most common being military service. Veterans almost always get a small bump up on the test scores, say about five points. Sometimes, possession of a college degree will also provide a point bonus. Initially though, they will probably only tell you if you pass or fail and when to come take the agility test.
Some departments do this in a weekend, some take weeks to determine eligibility and then administer their agility test. Most departmental agility tests are moderately demanding, but if you are in halfway decent shape, you can pass. Find out what is involved before you go, so that if you have a weak area–push ups or sit ups, for instance, you can work on it before you go. DO NOT assume that if you are able to pass the agility test, that you are in good enough shape for the academy. Without fail, what you will do in the academy will be ten times more demanding than the department’s agility test. The agility test is the bare minimum for consideration. If you are hired and in the academy, the expectations go way up. A chief complaint coming out of departments all across the country, and San Diego is no exception, is that recruits are more out of shape than ever before. Many people get hired and then fail the academy, simply because they cannot keep up with the physical demands.
After the agility test, you may have another lengthy wait before hearing from the department. This can be a few weeks to months. Do not be idle during this time. This is an excellent time to make sure that you have your work history, references, address history, educational information, credit information, every ticket that you have ever received, criminal history, etc. Know everything. Have phone numbers for at least three references per job you have worked, plus an additional ten besides. Know everything. If the department is interested in you, the next thing that you will be doing is a background check. They will have you compile stacks of information on your background. San Diego PD requires a typing test at this point. (A large part of law enforcement consists of writing reports.) You will be amazed at how much documentation and detail that you will need. Preparation is a huge time saver.
Once the background check is complete, if you are still in the running, a number of steps follow. The order can vary by department. Oral board interviews, physical exams, polygraph or voice stress analysis examinations, and psychological testing are the major final hurdles.
The process of getting a job in law enforcement is one of the most invasive. During the background check, investigators have been known to interview childhood neighbors and elementary school teachers. Every aspect of your life will be questioned. Departments have different requirements. For some, minor drug use that occurred fifteen years ago is forgiveable, for others it is a deal breaker. Do your research to save yorself time. Everything will be questioned during the polygraph portion.
When you finally succeed and receive an offer, a whole new challenge opens up. But when you get beyond all of this, you will feel as if you have accomplished something.