Applying to a law enforcement position is different than just about any other job. Embellishing a resume or omitting pertinent information are not good ideas when looking for employment in the criminal justice system. The integrity of the position is paramount, and the application process is designed to test the integrity of applicants along the way. Unlike many positions, it is not just about finding the best characteristics in an applicant, but also weeding out those characteristics that are likely to lead to bad decisions in the field.

Learning Objectives
  • Think critically in seeking solutions to practical choices in the law enforcement application process.
  • Make informed decisions regarding preparation and proper behavior that will assist you in obtaining a career in law enforcement.
  • Recognize the consequences commonly associated with decisions in the law enforcement application process.

Key Terms Matching Activity

  • Professionalism
  • Integrity
  • Social Media Profile
    How you conduct yourself in your business affairs including poise, demeanor, appearance, and presentation.
      A wholeness of character that includes having a strong sense of moral behavior that does not waver.
        Connection of relationships and outward facing imagery that should reflect the professionalism desired in chosen career fields.

        Scenario Introduction

        In the weeks leading up to your college graduation ceremony, you’ve been asked the same question dozens of times: What are you going to do after college? You studied criminal justice, but lately you’ve been considering whether you really want to become a police officer or work for a police agency. You’ve studied law enforcement in at least four different classes and figure that you know the ins and outs of police work. Long hours, little respect, constantly being questioned by the media and the public, all while seemingly working in a dangerous profession for minimal pay. You want to put your degree to work in the hope of making a difference and changing the system for the better. And so the decision is made. Later that week, you look into applying to a few agencies that you’ve seen flyers for around campus.

        Where should you choose to apply?

        After graduation, you find yourself browsing local law enforcement positions on your smartphone. The disparities are striking. One agency is smaller, doesn’t pay well, but advancement is all but certain and it doesn’t require a college degree, so you would be a step above a lot of other applicants. There are a few warning signs as well: the web page is not mobile friendly and the ad appears to be dated.

        What do you do?

        Give the small agency a call

        After a few rings you are directed to the sergeant in charge of hiring. You have a collegial conversation about working in law enforcement, how you would fit in, and then the sergeant asks you a few questions you don’t feel are important. Have you ever defaulted on a credit card? Do you have a DUI? Any criminal record since you were a kid? These questions make you a little nervous because you made a few late payments on your only credit card and one time it was forwarded to collections. Was that what the officer meant? You don’t have a DUI, but you were stopped once and given a breathalyzer after driving home from a fraternity party. You were issued a warning, but never arrested; surely they couldn’t find out about that, right? Most concerning, you were in a fight in school in eighth grade and the police were called, but that record was sealed by court order.

        How do you answer the questions?

        Investigate the large agency

        The large agency you research pays very well, requires a college degree, and the description notes that advancement is reserved only for the best candidates. The web page appears to be very professional, mobile-friendly, and includes links to frequently asked questions. Three of the questions pique your interest.

        Answer: No. But we will take a very close look at your credit report and you will need to explain any delinquent payments.
        Answer: Yes. As a sworn officer you will be driving a vehicle as an agent of the state and any and all driving infractions must be explained.
        Answer: No. However, law enforcement will have access to all law enforcement activities in every location you have previously lived. Any arrests or documented contacts with police will be available in police records and accessible to law enforcement. While we cannot see the disposition of the case in a sealed court record, we can see the arrest and it will need to be explained.

        Wow. That seems strangely different from any other employer you’d ever heard of, but it seems rational. Perhaps the first agency did look into your record. You decide to dig a little deeper and call the larger agency. You reach an automated message.

        “Thank you for your interest in our agency. If you are serious about applying, please complete the preliminary online application. Be aware that all information you provide will be used in the application process and must be completely honest.”

        After hanging up, you recall a class lecture on integrity. What was it the guest speaker had said exactly? “The most important thing you can do when applying for any criminal justice job is be honest. We don’t expect you to be perfect, but if you’re dishonest in the application process, you’ll be dishonest on the job and that is dangerous.”

        Why hadn’t you remembered that before?! You worry about what you told the smaller agency. Were you now branded a liar?

        What should you do?

        Preliminary Application

        Despite your concern, you complete the preliminary online application to the large agency.

        Remember what the guest speaker said: If you’re dishonest in the application process, you’ll be dishonest on the job, and possibly risk your safety and that of others. Consider this advice as you answer the following questions.

        1. Have you ever been in trouble with the police?

        2. Were you ever in trouble with your school?

        3. Have you ever used illegal substances, including drinking alcohol while underage?

        4. Have you ever defaulted on a debt?

        5. Have you ever involuntarily left a job?

        Next Step: Written Exam

        The preliminary application had a note at the bottom: “Once your application is approved, you will be scheduled to take a written exam. You will be assigned a date and time and you should arrive with your application, two number two pencils, and no electronic devices.” Pencils!? Eight weeks later you receive an email from the city: “You have been assigned to take the written exam for the position of Police Officer III. Please report to City Hall, room 101, for your exam on Friday, Aug. 2nd, at 6:00 A.M.”

        SIX A.M.?! Your earliest class in college didn’t even start until 8:00 a.m. Your head begins to spin. Where is city hall? What will this exam entail? Should I cram?

        Written Exam Continued

        You recall a help section on the agency’s web page. You log on and click a link that reads “Applicants will be judged on three factors”:

        Simple enough. You wait for your exam date and show up that morning at 5:45 A.M. City Hall is full of people who want to become police officers. When your name is called, you turn in your paperwork, and are directed to a classroom. You are handed a piece of paper and told to complete your essay away from the others.

        You sit down and read the only question: How did you spend your last summer vacation? This is ridiculous. What a simple question! Anyone could answer it. Then it dawns on you: That was the point. Anyone could and should be able to write a comprehensive, coherent, answer to that question. The content was irrelevant; only the writing mattered. Channeling your inner college freshman writing professor, you detail a five paragraph essay introducing the topic, three supporting ideas, and a conclusion.

        You look around the room and think about something else you read online: 50 percent of applicants don’t make it past the writing exam.

        The Waiting Period

        Three weeks after taking the exam, you still haven’t heard anything from the agency, so you:

        Next Steps: Background Check and Polygraph Test

        A month later you are informed that you passed the writing exam. The next step in the process is a comprehensive background check and a polygraph test. You recall from class that the results of polygraph tests are not admissible in court. Why would they be used?

        Background Check and Polygraph Test Continued

        In your research, you discover that the use of polygraphs became common in the 1990s in hiring for law enforcement positions largely because applicants believed they worked and would change their answers once in the test. Simple questions like, “Have you ever had a DUI?” would be answered as “no” on the preliminary application, but during the polygraph test the answer would change to “yes.” Honesty again! They weren’t looking for lies, they were looking for consistency. As for a background check, much more comprehensive information is required: every prior address, every prior roommate and their current contact information, information on all schools attended, all prior employers, and more, including a potential examination of your social media profiles for inappropriate content. Click here to read more about the police background check process. Background checks take between six to nine months on average. What can you do in the interim to work towards your goal?

        Next Step: Sitting for the Polygraph Test

        Months go by. You’re settling in nicely at your job at the cell phone store, making decent money, and you’re on track for the management leadership program in the fall. Some of your friends mentioned that the local police had called asking for references, but nothing out of the ordinary. In the spring, you learn that a hiring freeze was lifted and the city was cleared to hire 100 new police officers. Finally, you get a call: You’ve been cleared for the polygraph test on May 15th and scheduled for the fitness exam on May 20th. On the day of the polygraph test, you enter a quiet room and sit down. The polygraph examiner walks in, explains the process and what is expected during the test, and hooks you up to the machine. Chest strap, pulse monitor, electrodes. First, you’re asked some baseline questions: Is your name Tom? Did you go to school at Central High? Have you ever had a DUI?

        How do you answer? The polygraph machine is monitoring your heart rate and breathing and changes in them may indicate a lie.

        Sitting for the Polygraph Test Continued

        Your breathing accelerates and your heart beats faster. How did they know about Paul? You remind yourself to be honest and calm down. You tell the examiner that Paul lied to the police that night. He had at least six beers and you only had two because you got there late.

        The examiner asks another question. Why didn’t you pay your Home Depot card on time in 2016? You are impressed by the agency’s thoroughness, and remind yourself again to be honest. You tell the examiner that you chose to help your roommate pay rent that month because he had lost his job, and needed the money more than you needed clean credit. “One more question,” the examiner says. “In eighth grade did you intend to cause serious physical harm to others as charged in the arresting officer’s report?”

        The examiner thanks you, and says that the agency will be in touch.

        Next Step: The Personal Interview

        After completing your fitness exam, which you were fully prepared for, June comes and goes, and you continue to work diligently on getting into the leadership academy at work. You are stunned when an officer walks into the store in July and asks if you are ready for the next phase of the application, the personal interview. It would consist of standing before a panel of five command staff and answering questions about motivation, interpersonal skills, and communication. The city was in a hurry because they had an academy class starting in October. You tell the officer you would love to continue and ask when the interview would be scheduled. Tomorrow, the officer replies; 8:00 A.M. at City Hall.

        The next morning, you put on your best professional attire and head to City Hall. You are escorted to a room with a crowd of officers, all in dress uniforms. The interview begins. A blur of questions follows: What’s your goal in life? Why this agency? Why now? Why were you so nervous during the polygraph? Surely you knew we’d ask. Would you leave a person in danger or will you dedicate yourself to this job? You answer everything honestly. At this point, you are convinced you’re done and that you’ll never become an officer. You are dismissed and informed that the agency would be in touch.

        Next Steps: Medical and Psychological Exams

        The Tuesday morning after Labor Day, the city calls and asks if you are ready for the final two tests in the application process, the medical and psychological exams. You’ve done your research and hoped the day would come that you could advance. That October class loomed large on the horizon. The psychological evaluation is a 1,200 question multiple choice exam that takes five hours to complete. How do you plan to tackle this next hurdle?

        Medical and Psychological Exams Continued

        The psychological exam was brutal, but you took your time and answered everything thoughtfully and honestly. A later meeting with the psychologist is pleasant and informative. He explains the test to you and what it found, including the part that says you are suitable for a career in law enforcement. You are thrilled.

        The next day you complete eight hours’ worth of medical tests; ears, eyes, heart, stress, joints, flexibility, blood. Poked and prodded, you leave the facility exhausted. The doctor reports that everything is fine, but you may want to change the strength of your contact lens prescription. You put in your notice at the cell phone store because you believe change is imminent. Whether you get the job or not, this is the career path you want to pursue. In the meantime, you:

        Decision Time

        As September waned, you receive a certified letter from the agency. It has been 18 months since you first thought about this career, and now it was decision time: would you be admitted to the academy or start the application process anew with another agency? You open the letter and read “You have been selected to join the academy. Your class begins on October 15th at 6:00 A.M., at the training facility.” Six A.M., you think...of course!

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