Why Become a Police Officer?

A question that is asked of virtually every police candidate at their job interview is, “Why do you want to be a law enforcement (police) officer?” The answers are somewhat similar; generally something to the effect of, “Because I want to help people,” or “I want to make society a safer and better place”, etc. As a detective, I personally have sat on over 250 oral boards for police applicants. I found the answers to be familiar, bordering on redundant, if not actually trite. So, I directed my doctoral dissertation research toward answering that question.

The research, which involved six police agencies in two different states, yielded a surprising and insightful picture. The results of surveyed officers revealed that about 27 percent self-reported to entering the profession for altruistic reasons. In other words, to help others. The remaining 73 percent indicated myriad other reasons. The top ones being: a family history of law enforcement, a childhood desire to become a police officer, a friend who was an officer, the need for any job, the attraction of an early retirement and pension, a military background which caused them to gravitate toward this field, and a desire be in a job that was active and not sitting at a desk. Two officers were candid enough to indicate that they joined the ranks because of the power and prestige of wearing a uniform and badge.

Some research indicates there is a distinct “police personality”: that set of characteristics and traits which cause a person to be drawn to the type of work and lifestyle of an officer. Others feel that despite what a person brings to the job, their personality is shaped by the work, the police subculture, and their indoctrination into a group which resides behind a “blue curtain.”

For whatever reasons they join, it appears that most officers are satisfied with their job and feel fulfilled. Others, especially if promotional opportunities are not readily forthcoming, tend to become disheartened and either quit, or become a potential liability to their department. Some officers become disillusioned because the image they saw portrayed of the job when they were a civilian are not always representative of the actual work they must do. Unfortunately, celluloid heroes, the media, and the “CSI Effect” have not helped portray police work as a socially oriented, helping profession. For that reason, it is easy to see how many new officers can be misled, and ultimately self-terminate their careers. However, for the remaining almost 1.2 million police officers, state troopers, sheriffs, federal agents, and correctional officers in this country, the job tends to be fulfilling and, at times, a great adventure.