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5 ways to advance your career as a police officer

Police officer advancement

You made it through the police academy and are working as a patrol officer. But you have your sights set on being promoted from beat cop to detective — or perhaps one day, even chief of police.

As with many jobs, moving up takes dedication: You need time to learn the job, a stellar work history and possibly additional schooling. But specific strategies can help you stand out among your police department colleagues.

“Once you get the job as a police officer, your learning shouldn’t stop,” says Mark Henderson, police chief of Brighton, New York, who holds a master’s degree from the University of Phoenix® administration of justice and security program and is a criminal justice instructor at his local community college.

“If you have a mindset on career advancement, that plan should include staying current on different trends in the job, and enhanced training,” he adds, as well as pursuing opportunities for higher education.

Here, Henderson offers five tips to help you advance in your law enforcement career:


Learn the beat.

Henderson’s department requires officers to work 36 months on patrol before they’re eligible to take a promotional exam. While the chief notes that three years is not a universal standard, he suggests that it’s an appropriate amount of time for a rookie to learn the job.

“You can’t start the [patrol] job thinking that in six months you’re going to be a detective,” Henderson emphasizes. “You need to have demonstrated performance on patrol and have a variety of work-related experiences before you ascend to the next [step].”

Seek a mentor.

As a newcomer, forging good working relationships with experienced officers who share knowledge and insight about the job can pay dividends down the line.

“Having a mentor is pretty key in the law enforcement profession,” Henderson emphasizes. “If you’re an officer that aspires to be a part of upper management, seeking out and developing relationships [is] very important. You need to find the officer who does the right thing — and more — to teach you.”

Hit the books.

Although most state and local agencies don’t require you to have a college degree to become a police officer, earning at least a bachelor’s degree can give you an edge if, for example, test scores are close among competitors for promotion to detective.

Federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI, do require college degrees, and many cities note that a master’s degree is preferred when they advertise to fill chief jobs.

Henderson also stresses the importance of excelling in completing police paperwork, a major part of the job. You’ll need to understand and use proper grammar, and write clear, concise and accurate reports, he says. “Those things can differentiate you,” he points out, and supervisors will take notice.

Showcase your leadership skills.

Performing your job according to the rules and handling yourself in a professional manner sound like no-brainers, but they will earn you the respect of peers and supervisors alike, Henderson says.

“Being a professional isn’t a goal — it’s expected,” he emphasizes. “Being able to interact well in dire circumstances is key,” he adds, because it shows that an officer knows how to remain calm and do what’s needed — traits of a good leader.

Become politically savvy.

If your ultimate goal is to become a police chief, the skills you’ll need to learn in order to succeed go beyond having an excellent work record, earning promotions and developing solid relationships with your peers and supervisors. You’ll need to be comfortable as an administrator, in the political arena and as a public figure.

For instance, Henderson notes, “you’ll be intimately involved with human resources and the budget, and [you’ll] have to interact with elected officials,” who have the power to fire you.

To do well as chief, he emphasizes, “you’ll have to sharpen your interpersonal skills and work on your public speaking. The department’s behavior [also] can impact community relations, so the chief has to take a [prominent] role in the community.”