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What does a police officer do?
Police officers are sometimes also known as police constables, policewomen or policemen. They maintain law and order by preventing and investigating crimes, finding and arresting criminals and building relationships with people and communities. A good police officer can help remove dangerous criminals from the street and prevent further crimes.
A police officer’s main aim is to keep people and communities safe and protect them from crime. They will work closely with them to provide reassurance and guidance. They will also support victims and witnesses of crime who are probably experiencing one of the worst days of their lives. Overall, police officers have an essential role in making a positive difference to individuals and communities and helping to bring justice to victims impacted by crime.
Police officers have many duties, including being visible in communities, providing reassurance, conducting patrols, responding to emergencies, investigating crimes, arresting/questioning suspects, interviewing victims/witnesses, policing large events/gatherings, giving evidence in court, etc. The role also involves administrative work, such as preparing case files and reports.
Police officers can work in specialist departments, teams or units, such as wildlife crime units (WCU), dog support units (DSU), firearms and drugs units, mounted branches, marine policing units (MPU), etc. Therefore, what police officers do will depend on their specialisms, the department they work in, and their day-to-day tasks.
Police officers will work with many people, including their uniformed colleagues, detectives, multi-agency teams, and police support staff. They will also liaise with other law enforcement professionals, victims of crime, suspects, witnesses, members of the public, businesses, government agencies, housing authorities, health trusts, legal professionals (i.e. solicitors, barristers, judges and court staff), the media, other agencies and others relating to cases, e.g. schools and social services.
Police officers mainly work for one of the 43 police forces in England and Wales (39 in England and 4 in Wales). Scotland (Police Scotland) and Northern Ireland (PSNI) have single police forces for their entire countries. Therefore, a police officer can work in any UK region, county or city if opportunities are available. There are also opportunities with special forces, e.g. military, nuclear and transport.
A police officer’s responsibilities will depend on many factors, including the department where they work and their day-to-day tasks.
Some examples of their duties may include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Being visible in local communities to prevent crime and provide reassurance.
- Patrolling local areas by foot, car, bicycle, horse or motorbike.
- Completing risk assessments.
- Responding to emergency calls from the public and businesses.
- Using powers of arrest, apprehending and searching suspects, conducting raids and issuing special warnings.
- Investigating crimes and offences, including gathering evidence and statements.
- Conducting interviews with suspects, victims and witnesses.
- Attending court and other hearings to provide evidence.
- Giving death notifications to families.
- Policing at large events and gatherings, e.g. football matches and protests, to control crowds and traffic.
- Providing guidance to the public, communities and schools on keeping safe and preventing crime.
- Liaising with internal and external agencies, e.g. courts, schools, social care and health teams.
- Preparing case files, writing crime reports, and completing other required paperwork.
- Respecting equality, diversity and inclusion and promoting these principles within communities.
A police officer can expect to work around 37–40 hours a week, but they can do more or fewer hours depending on where they work, their role and their specialisms. Some police forces may offer part-time, job-share or flexible jobs.
Being a police officer is not a 9–5 job, and those looking at entering this profession must be committed to working unsociable hours. There is usually a requirement to work different shifts, including evenings, nights, weekends and bank holidays. Some individuals may be on-call and will need to respond in an emergency.
The role can also involve long shifts. The length will depend on each police force’s policy but are usually between 8 and 12 hours. Individuals will typically receive overtime payments for any additional hours worked.
Travel is required, as police officers attend crimes and court and visit witnesses and other places, which may lengthen the working day.
What to expect
There are many positives to being a police officer, especially if an individual is social and enjoys working with people. Building relationships and trust with communities and helping to make neighbourhoods safer places can give police officers a real confidence boost and be a rewarding experience. They can go home at the end of their working day knowing their job makes a difference in bringing justice to victims of crime, preventing and reducing crimes, and contributing to a safer and happier society.
Boredom will never be a problem for police officers, as their work is very varied and fast-paced; no two days are the same in this job. They can face different issues and crimes and interact with many people during their shifts. One moment they could be patrolling the streets by foot or car, and the next, chasing after suspects, making arrests or interviewing witnesses to a crime. On other days, they may need to attend court or work at the police station. The role also gives police officers the ability to travel to a variety of locations and explore some new areas. There may also be opportunities to travel further afield, including overseas.
If individuals want to work in a close-knit team, then being a police officer would tick this box. Some consider the police force as their second family, and there is a lot of support between colleagues.
The salary and benefits package for police officers, even at entry level, is competitive compared to other career choices. The support, training and career development are also attractive, so there is plenty of opportunity for growth and progression in this career.
Even though there are positives to being a police officer, there are challenges and cons, e.g.:
- It can be dangerous – police officers face many dangers during their shifts, such as armed assailants, aggressive animals and high-speed chases. There is also a work-related violence risk (verbal and physical abuse). They will need to arrest suspects and deal with offenders who can be aggressive, especially when resisting arrest. Unfortunately, there have been instances where police officers have lost their lives. Whilst it is not a common occurrence, and there is training to deal with various incidents, individuals should be aware of the risks.
- Entry requirements and competition – becoming a police officer is not easy. There are specific entry requirements, the training is intensive, and individuals will need to pass tests and exams. It can be competitive, and some will not be successful.
- Physical demands – being a police officer can be physically demanding, and they will need to have a good fitness level, which can also be a positive for their health. However, their shifts can be long and at unsociable hours, increasing tiredness and fatigue. Individuals can spend all day travelling in patrol cars or on their feet in all weathers as part of the role. They also have to wear a uniform, protective clothing and equipment, which may get hot and uncomfortable.
- Mental demands – being a police officer can be mentally and emotionally demanding. They will have to deal with some disturbing cases, harrowing scenes (involving blood, deceased individuals and decomposition) and emotional situations with victims, families and witnesses. Babies and young children may also be involved, and this can be too much for some people. If an individual cannot cope with distressing and disturbing scenes or emotional situations, being a police officer would not be the right career path.
Every career choice has pros and cons, and prospective police officers must know what to expect before deciding whether it is a suitable role. There is no doubt that working in the police is challenging and stressful. It is also physically and mentally demanding, the hours are long and unsociable, and there are dangers associated with the role. However, there are many positives too, and bringing criminals to justice, helping victims and playing a part in reducing crime in communities is extremely rewarding, despite the challenges.
When considering whether to be a police officer, individuals should look at the pros and cons. They should also ensure they have the right personal qualities to carry out the role and responsibilities required.
Personal qualities needed to be a police officer
Some of the personal qualities a police officer requires will include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Sensitivity, understanding, diplomacy and empathy.
- Honesty and integrity.
- Tenacious, motivated, resilient, confident, assertive, inquisitive and determined.
- Knowledge of the law, court procedures and government regulations.
- Knowledge of public safety and security.
- Knowledge of health and safety, especially assessing risks.
- Knowledge of confidentiality, data protection and the GDPR.
- Excellent verbal and written communication skills.
- Negotiation skills, especially in challenging situations.
- Organisational and time management skills.
- Interpersonal skills.
- Literacy skills.
- Listening skills.
- Leadership skills.
- Problem-solving, reasoning and analytical skills.
- Judgement and observational skills.
- Being thorough, accurate and having attention to detail.
- Having a good level of physical fitness and eyesight.
- Having a methodical approach.
- Having cultural awareness and respect for equality, diversity and inclusion.
- The ability to take personal responsibility and ownership.
- The ability to take criticism, be open-minded and act on feedback.
- The ability to work well in a team and alone using own initiative.
- The ability to deal with traumatic situations.
- The ability to understand and tune into people’s reactions.
- The ability to be patient and remain calm and confident in challenging and stressful situations.
- The ability to work well under pressure.
- The ability to develop meaningful relationships with various people from all different backgrounds.
- The ability to be emotionally resilient and professional in distressing, disturbing and challenging situations.
- The ability to make decisions, sometimes quickly, even in difficult situations.
- The ability to use IT equipment, e.g. computers and hand-held devices.
There are many different routes to becoming a police officer. Individuals could go to university or college, apply for an apprenticeship or apply directly. They could also do work experience to help them enter the role.
Degree holder and graduate programmes
An individual does not need a degree to become a police officer. However, if they want to do a degree or already have a degree (in any subject), they could apply for the degree holder programme. This is a two-year work-based training programme, including off-the-job learning, and individuals will gain a Level 6 Post-Graduate Diploma in Professional Policing Practice.
Alternatively, individuals could apply for the POLICE NOW National Graduate Leadership Programme, a two-year on-the-job training programme. Once complete, individuals will gain a Graduate Diploma in Professional Policing Practice. Details on how to apply are here.
Individuals will need to meet the eligibility criteria and other requirements detailed on the websites of the individual police forces accepting recruits and POLICE NOW.
Individuals may choose the self-funded option and pay to do an undergraduate degree in professional policing before joining the police.
These degrees usually take three years to complete, and individuals must apply for a probationary police constable role within five years of graduation. The entry requirements will depend on each university, but they usually ask for two or three good A Levels.
Undertaking a college course can help individuals become police officers when applying for apprenticeship programmes or directly to police forces.
Some examples are as follows (this list is not exhaustive):
- Level 2 Diploma in Policing, Criminology and Law.
- Level 3 National Diploma in Uniformed Protective Services.
- Level 3 Certificate in Public Services.
- Level 3 Diploma in Policing.
Individuals usually need:
- Level 2 – two or more GCSEs grades 9 to 3 (A* to D), or equivalent.
- Level 3 – four or five GCSEs grades 9 to 4 (A* to C) or equivalent.
Individuals are not guaranteed success with university and college courses and qualifications. However, it will demonstrate to police forces that they are keen on the job and may give individuals a competitive edge. Always check the entry requirements before applying.
There is also an apprenticeship route to becoming a police officer for those who do not have a degree. Individuals can apply for a Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship and will usually need 4 or 5 GCSEs, grades 9 to 4 (A* to C), and A Levels (or equivalent). However, this will depend on the entry requirements for each police force.
Further information on apprenticeships can be found on:
- UK Find an apprenticeship.
- The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.
- Individual police force jobs web pages.
- Joining the Police.
An individual can become a police officer by applying directly to the police force they want to work with, also known as the Initial Police Learning and Development Programme (IPLDP). Individuals will need A Levels, an equivalent Level 3 qualification or relevant experience.
The IPLDP route requires individuals to apply to one police force at a time. If they are successful, they attend an interview and undertake written tests at an assessment centre. They will undergo physical fitness tests, medicals, and security and background checks if they pass the assessment centre stage.
It is important to note that this route is being gradually replaced by the apprenticeship, degree holder and self-funded degree routes. However, some police forces are still offering this as an option. Information can be found on Joining the Police.
Work experience and volunteering
Having work and life experience that can help individuals develop essential skills for the police officer role will be beneficial and make them stand out from the crowd. Individuals could apply to become a police community support officer (PCSO) before applying for police officer training to see if a career in the police is right for them.
There is no substitute for practical experience. Volunteering as a special constable in the police can also help individuals understand what is involved in being in the police force and help them build their knowledge and skills. Individuals could also volunteer in the community with the public, e.g. charities, community schemes, religious groups and schools. It would be useful if volunteering roles involved working with people from different backgrounds, cultures, religions and ethnicities. Alternatively, they may want to become a Police Cadet if between 13 and 18 yrs. There is information on volunteering and local opportunities on Do-IT, NCVO and Volunteering Matters.
Any work experience relevant to law enforcement, security and working with the general public can be beneficial and help an individual work towards becoming a police officer. More relevant work experience will boost an individual’s application and give them a competitive edge when applying for programmes and roles.
Attending relevant training courses and having additional certifications can help police officers enter the profession, enhance their employability and give them a competitive edge. Many colleges and accredited private training companies can provide training courses.
Some examples of courses that may be useful for prospective and current police officers include (this list is not exhaustive):
- Equality, diversity and inclusion.
- LGBTQ+ awareness.
- Disability awareness.
- Modern slavery.
- Conflict management.
- Sexual exploitation.
- Prevent and radicalisation.
- Customer service skills.
- COVID-19 awareness.
- Drug and alcohol awareness.
- Mental health and capacity.
- Data protection and the GDPR.
- Health and safety, e.g. risk assessment, work-related violence and hazardous substances.
- First aid.
Professional bodies and federations, such as the College of Policing (England and Wales), Police Scotland College, Northern Ireland Police College, the Police Federation of England & Wales (POLFED), the Police Federation For Northern Ireland (POLICEFED-NI) and the Scottish Police Federation (SPF), , can also advise on relevant training courses. Some also provide events and support to help individuals become police officers, giving them the means to continue their professional development. There are also other specific police associations and charities.
The training a police officer requires will depend on the police force they want to work for, the specialist area/department/unit they want to work in and continuing professional development (CPD) requirements. As well as looking at professional body websites, it is worth looking at several job advertisements to identify any qualifications and training that can help to become a police officer and those needed for specialist roles. Jobs can be found on individual police forces’ websites and Blueline Jobs, Police Oracle Jobs, AllPoliceJobs, Joining the Police, GOV.UK find a job service, Indeed, LinkedIn, Glassdoor and other job sites.
More relevant work experience, training and competence will open up more opportunities for police officers. Refresher training will also be required, as laws and standards are constantly changing, and it keeps knowledge and skills up to date.
Individuals will need to undergo background checks. Therefore, it is essential to declare any previous spent and unspent convictions. If they have any cautions, convictions or reprimands, other than some motoring offences, or fail to supply details in the application form, their application may not be accepted. Some minor offences may not automatically exclude an individual from joining, but this will be decided during the vetting process.
Fitness, health and eyesight
Individuals who want to become police officers will require a good fitness level and pass a Job-Related Fitness Test (JRFT). They will need to be medically fit and meet the minimum acceptable medical and eyesight standards for entry.
Police officers must have a full UK manual driving licence (usually within six months of their start date). A good driving record and a clean licence will be preferred, as this will be in the vetting process. Some forces may also stipulate a maximum number of points, so it is important to check before applying.
Other factors can result in disqualification, e.g. substance misuse, offensive/intimidating tattoos, current County Court Judgments (CCJ)/Individual Voluntary Agreements (IVA)/bankruptcy, extreme political views, and business conflicts of interest. Each police force will detail its requirements on its website. Individuals should check the eligibility criteria carefully before applying, as some police forces may have additional requirements.
Where do police officers work?
Police officers will work for one of the 43 police forces in England and Wales, Police Scotland or Northern Ireland (PSNI).
There are also police officer roles in special forces, such as the:
- British Transport Police.
- Civil Nuclear Police Authority.
- Ministry of Defence Police.
Police officers mainly work outside in the communities, patrolling on foot/in cars or at police stations.
They may also visit many different places during their working day, such as (this list is not exhaustive):
- Courts to testify.
- Schools and village halls to give talks.
- Crime scenes, events and gatherings in various indoor and outdoor locations.
- Residences of victims, suspects and witnesses.
- Businesses, e.g. commercial and industrial premises.
Some police officers may also work overseas.
How much do police officers earn?
A police officer’s salary will depend on their experience, location (i.e. London supplement) and specialist area.
- Basic starting salary – £23,556 per year, potentially rising to £43,032 within the first seven years (may include a location allowance too).
- A new police officer in the Met – over £33,500 per year (including London allowances), increasing to £37,000 on successfully completing the probationary period. Their salaries can go up to £50,000 after six years of service.
With experience and promotion through the ranks, there is the potential for the following annual salaries:
- Sergeants – £45,867–£48,129 per year.
- Inspectors – £54,600–£59,064 per year (£56,907–£61,392 in London).
- Chief Inspectors – £60,234–£62,634 per year (£62,556–£64,950 in London).
These figures are from the Police Federation (England, Wales and Northern Ireland). There is a different pay scale structure for Police Scotland. The figures are subject to annual changes and may differ between police forces.
Police officers also receive many allowances and benefits on top of their salaries.
As an apprentice, the salary will depend on an individual’s age and how long they have been in their apprenticeship. Apprentices must earn at least the current National Minimum Wage (NMW). The Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship (PCDA) has a starting salary of around £19,164 a year, but some police forces may pay more.
Types of police officer roles to specialise in
There are various opportunities for police officers to specialise in different departments/units, for example (this list is not exhaustive):
- The dog support unit – police officers train and handle dogs for various purposes, such as drug, weapon and explosive detection, crowd control, maintaining public order, tracking and searching for suspects and missing people, etc.
- Mounted police/branch – police officers handle and ride horses at large events and gatherings, e.g. sports, ceremonial parades, protests and riots.
- Traffic or roads policing unit – police officers are responsible for policing the road network. They have an important role in preventing road collisions by addressing dangerous driving and other causes.
- Marine policing units – police officers patrol waterways and coastlines in various vessels, such as boats. They can be involved in search and rescue, pollution prevention, security, etc.
- Underwater search unit – police officers are trained to conduct underwater searches for evidence, e.g. missing people, weapons and stolen property. It is a highly skilled role that requires training in search and rescue and the use of specialist equipment.
- Wildlife crime unit – police officers specialise in preventing wildlife crime, e.g. hare coursing, badger baiting, trading in endangered species, and bringing those who break associated laws to justice.
There are too many specialist units to mention here. They will also differ between police forces. It is advisable to contact individual police forces to find out what specialisms are available to police officers.
Various police officer roles will require differing knowledge, skills, experience and qualities. However, all police officers need to be able to communicate with people from all walks of life and whole communities, work with colleagues and multi-agencies as a team, respect diversity, question everything, and be empathetic, sensitive and understanding. Any additional areas of expertise will depend on what the police force is looking for in a police officer and the type of work an individual wants. Further training will usually be necessary for specialised departments, and competition can be fierce as opportunities are limited.
If police officers do not carry out their role correctly, it can cause upset and distress to victims and their families. In worst cases, it may even result in suspects not facing justice and further crimes committed by perpetrators. Serious offences can put other people’s lives at risk, as some individuals are a threat to society. If police officers do not work well with the communities and people they serve, it can lead to a lack of respect for police, making their role in enforcement more challenging. Therefore, whatever the type of role, police officers must have the necessary competence and personal qualities to carry out the work professionally, safely and effectively. They should also know the limits of their competency, i.e. asking for help when something is beyond their expertise.
Standards, codes, technology, techniques and laws are updated regularly. Therefore, police officers must keep abreast with the latest developments and changes in legislation to remain legally compliant and ensure they carry out their roles effectively and safely. Continuing professional development (CPD) gives them the knowledge and skills to keep up to date with these changes and understand their responsibilities. It also helps them to be the best possible police officer and progress in their career.
Professional bodies can help prospective and current police officers enhance their skills and overall career. The College of Policing (England and Wales), Police Scotland College, Northern Ireland Police College and various associations/federations offer support, guidance, CPD and events.
There is ample opportunity for career progression for police officers. With more qualifications, training, experience and promotion, a police officer can move up the ranks within the force, transfer to other police forces or become a detective. They can decide to work in a specialist unit, e.g. dog unit, mounted branch or marine policing. Alternatively, they may choose to move to a non-policing post, e.g. teaching and training trainees or crime scene investigation.
Knowledge, skills and experience being a police officer can also lead to a career in different areas. For example, they could use their experience in enforcement and apply for jobs in security, public protection or emergency planning.
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