Law Enforcement Careers: Tips for becoming a Correctional Officer
For many areas, there may be 300 people applying for one or two positions, so it is important you make yourself competitive
By Barry Evert
In the last few months, I have received a lot of requests regarding prerequisites for joining my department, and many other Law Enforcement departments across the country. On our sister site, PoliceOne, countless questions are asked about how to best prepare yourself for a career in Law Enforcement/Corrections.
Before we start the battle of whether Corrections is Law Enforcement or not, let me clarify; Corrections is Law Enforcement in those states that require you to be a Peace Officer. My home state happens to be one of them. This article does not just apply to Corrections, but to anyone trying to get a career in Law Enforcement.
Most departments in our country have become more and more selective towards certain candidates. For many areas, there may be 300 people applying for one or two positions, so it is important you make yourself competitive.
However, even if you're already in Law Enforcement, there's a lot of valuable information here for you, too. If you're applying for a new position at a different facility – or even going for promotion at your current organization – there's a number of pitfalls to avoid and best practices to be aware of in order to increase your chances of success.
If you have any inclination to be in Law Enforcement, you have to begin your preparation at a very young age. Childhood sins were once forgiven when background investigators looked into your past, but in today’s job market, you cannot afford blemishes (more on this later).
If you have it in your heart that you want this career, you will have to make the right choices early in life. This means that drinking and marijuana are not options for you.
You will have to make a clear choice to live the right way. The things you say and do now could come back to haunt you later in life. You do not want to be one of the many people who come on the forums and tell us they went through the academy, have a college degree in Criminal Justice, but now cannot get a job because of their past drug use or a theft charge when they were young.
Quite often these things are not automatic disqualifiers, but, as we will discuss next, you are up against a lot of candidates.
While in college, good decisions can be even tougher. Binge drinking is the norm at many colleges and universities in the United States. Mostly harmless, these parties can unfortunately get out of hand quickly. You definitely do not want police contact, so use good judgment if you decide to attend a party.
You can always leave the party if drugs are present, or if the alcohol use rises to an unreasonable level. This can be tough, but well worth the final result.
Although many departments require a college degree at a minimum, they really do not care what your major is. Unless your department specifically wants a Criminal Justice degree, do not choose this as your major. The Criminal Justice major will not really prepare you for a career in Law Enforcement anyway. Many officers have degrees in Communication, Liberal Arts, Psychology or Business.
There are several reasons to steer clear of the Criminal Justice degree. First and foremost, many of the classes are not taught by anyone who has ever worked the job. Many of these professors use theory or educated guesses when instructing.
There tends to be an unrealistic, utopian slant to their teachings that can get you hurt in the field. If you do find some classes being taught by real life Law Enforcement Officers, take these classes as your electives and try to learn from them.
The second reason to stay away from the Criminal Justice degree has to do with your future. An unfortunate part of our job is that we do get hurt. One good whack to the knee can end your career. Although most departments can get you a decent disability retirement, it will not be enough to maintain your lifestyle. With inflation, especially if you are still young, that retirement will be worthless within a decade.
If you have a backup degree, you can always get a job in a different field, or at least be prepared to finish a higher degree anytime you want. Most departments are requiring a two year degree at minimum, something you can build on as you progress through your career.
It’s no big deal!
Let’s talk about today’s job market for a minute. Unemployment is still close to 9 percent, and that’s just the people who haven’t given up looking for a job. This, coupled with the return of our brave men and women from their tours overseas, has clogged many Law Enforcement agencies with applications. Many of our veterans are starting their careers now, and they definitely have an advantage over the average applicant.
The veteran has life experience that cannot be learned in school. They are often more mature, and usually better grounded than many coming straight out of college. Their attitude and training makes them perfect candidates for our field. If you are not a veteran, you have your work cut out for you.
Because of the competitiveness of today’s market, you cannot afford any strikes against you. Imagine yourself a recruiter or board member looking at two applications for one job.
One applicant is a war veteran, with a college degree, who has never had any run-ins with the law. He is confident, aware, and socially mature. The second candidate holds a degree in Criminal Justice after two years of college. This applicant has only held menial jobs, and had some problems as a teenager.
Let’s imagine this second applicant had something as innocuous as a “disorderly conduct” arrest. Who are you going to pick for the job?
This is the way you have to think when you try to come into the hiring pool. I am not suggesting that if you are not a veteran that you shouldn’t apply; but realistically, you better have your act together.
Speeding tickets, parking tickets, Minor in Possessions, or any drug charges reek of immaturity to a recruiter or board member. It is not an uphill battle you need. Keep your nose clean. The easiest way to do this is to obey the law. The same laws that you hope to enforce someday, you have to obey every day.
If you take nothing else from this article, take that to heart. From an employer’s standpoint, how can I expect you to enforce laws that you refuse to obey?
If you do have a blemish on your record, don’t act like it’s no big deal! Be humble, and take ownership of your mistakes. I have had several people go on for paragraphs, trying to explain their mistakes away.
To me, and many others, this reeks of immaturity. You have to truly take ownership of your mistakes. Don’t bother trying to feign regret; most recruiters and board members are current or former Law Enforcement, and have an internal B.S. meter.
Really? OMG! LOL!
I once joked in a forum post that I would smack the first officer that submitted a report with texting shorthand. The sad reality is that many of our youth today cannot write, speak or comprehend basic English.
We can blame it on social networking sites and texting, but the reality is that you have to be proficient in the English language to write your reports and document incidents.
What you write in those reports can make it to the highest courts in the country. You do not want to be in a Federal Appeals court (especially my circuit) and come in with a report that sounds like it should have been written in crayon.
These reports also protect you in the case of investigations into conduct. This lack of command of the English language has to be the most prevalent problem I see with the newer officers coming into the department now.
Here are some tips from someone who reviews many reports:
Know the difference between “there, their and they’re.” You look pretty foolish if you use the wrong one, and it can completely change the meaning of a sentence.
Understand punctuation, and when to use it. I was handed a report last year that was two pages long, and did not have one comma or period in it. I thought the officer was joking; alas, he was not. If needed, dig out some elementary school grammar books and look it up. Remember that if you use quotation marks, the punctuation goes inside of the quotation marks.
Learn the meaning of the words you use. I have seen many reports where the wrong words are used in an effort to sound intelligent. Remember that the average jury reads at a 7th grade level, so follow the old acronym K.I.S.S.:” Keep It Simple, Stupid!” One officer wrote the sentence: “…he then flounced away from me…” I had to look that one up. It turns out this word means “to strut.” I can never see a good reason to describe someone walking away from you as “strutting.”
Most departments will have an entrance exam of some type. Many require written essays or paragraphs in response to a question they randomly select from a pool. Take some time and ask around to get an idea of what type of things may be asked. It is entirely possible that the questions have nothing to do with Law Enforcement, but are posed as a test of your writing skills. If you already know you are not a great writer, take some classes and improve your skills before you take the test.
For the love of all that is holy and right, pull up your damn pants before you show up to pick up an application, or go before a board. My recommendation is that anytime you have contact with your prospective employer, wear business attire.
A full suit is not always necessary unless required by the agency; however, a button-down shirt, tucked in, with a tie and dress shoes are a minimum. If you are wearing black pants, please wear black socks. If you show up in white pants, you better be interviewing for a role in Miami Vice. Dress conservatively, and speak normal English.
One kid that came to our institution for testing was dressed in baggy shorts (sagging to where you could see his underwear), an oversized football jersey tucked into his underwear and sneakers with no socks.
As I walked by to turn in some paperwork the kid yelled at one of his friends loudly, acting much like the people I deal with on a daily basis inside the prison. And no, I never saw him again.
Here is a shocker for some people: Many background investigators will require that you “friend” them on social websites so they can take a look at your commentary and friends. This has harmed more applicants than anything.
Don’t bother claiming free speech; you completely have the right to behave like an idiot, but the department has the right to not hire you based on your behavior. There have been a lot of candidates that have lost eligibility due to their rants or the people they associate with.
Don’t bother trying to erase your social networking page; any investigator worth his salt can dig it up.
Google your name and see what comes up: You can bet that any agency you apply with will do the same.
Hair and tattoos
Here comes the free speech thing again. Yes you have the right to look like a billy goat, or the lead singer for ZZ TOP; however, the agency has the right to pass right over you for it. If you wear a mustache, keep it neat and clean.
Don’t let the bottom of your mustache travel to your chin. Not only is it not as cool as you think it is, most departments do not allow it. A full beard may be allowed in some jurisdictions, but they are few and far between.
There are practical reasons for this besides appearance: Many people with a full beard are unable to get a good seal on a protective mask because of facial hair. This is crucial to officer safety, so beards, goatees and that stupid thing under your lower lip need to come off.
If you have a chronic condition that prevents you from shaving, let the agency know this, and make sure you bring a note from your physician indicating such. This will not apply to goatees though, because if you can shave your cheeks, you can shave your chin.
In a time when even the suburban kids are getting tattoos, they have started to become a little more mainstream. However, that tribal you got on your wrist, or the “ love/hate” you had tattooed on your fingers will be an issue in most of the country.
Many agencies will not care about tattoos that will be covered by your uniform, but the unicorn you have on your neck may be an issue. If you have the letters SUR or the number 13 or 14 on your neck, pick another career option. If you have some serious tattoo regret, you may have to get it removed professionally.
Even if a department may allow some tattoos that are visible, it is very likely that it will take you down a position on the list.
I think I’ve covered most of the questions I have been asked regarding employment with a Law Enforcement Agency. I sigh because I know a lot of people will not listen to the advice here, and show up to their board interview in baggy pants, oversize jerseys and white sneakers.
If you want to become a Law Enforcement Officer, prepare now for the future. Feel free to ask current officers for their opinions on your personal situation, and if you would make a good candidate. The forums on PoliceOne are a great resource also. As always, be safe out there and watch yer six!