Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

How to Become a Police Officer After the Military [A Transition Guide]

Erik Fritsvold, PhD

Erik Fritsvold, PhD

Academic Director, M.S. Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership

If you are active duty military or a veteran looking for a second career after the armed services, a career in law enforcement or criminal justice often seems like a natural choice. Not only do many vets find law enforcement extremely appealing but employers are typically eager to hire former military personnel and will often offer incentives in order to attract them.

Why Veterans Make Good Police Officers

There are many reasons why law enforcement agencies actively seek veterans to employ within their ranks and why veterans are attracted to the field of law enforcement after their military career. For one, the structure of a police force is very similar to that of the military. Additionally, many of the same traits that make a person successful in the military are also required for success in a law enforcement agency:

  • A high level of discipline
  • Integrity
  • Personal and professional responsibility
  • Extensive tactical training, including the safe and responsible use of firearms
  • Ability to work toward a single mission as a member of a team
  • Ability to deal with difficult situations and problem solve
  • Strong critical thinking skills
  • Ability to make good decisions, quickly and under stress

 Finally, attention to detail and the desire to serve are vital characteristics of a successful police officer — traits that are shared by most members of the military.

 Overall, the qualities one learns to embody in the military translate well to a career in criminal justice. An invaluable resource for vets considering a career in law enforcement is discoverpolicing.org, which was created by the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) to highlight the benefits of a career in law enforcement, communicate what a career in the field is really like and review what it takes to get hired.

How to Become a Police Officer After the Military

1. Start Planning Early (Especially if Enlisted)

If you are an active service member who is interested in a law enforcement career, it is never too soon to begin your research into determining whether this is something you truly wish to pursue. If the answer is “yes,” consider creating a rough timeline for when you wish to complete the necessary steps, which might include getting the Verification of Military Experiences and Training form, applying for a job, preparing for exams, applying to college and more. 

You should also begin planning and writing your KSA (Knowledge, Skills and Abilities) statement. While only federal law enforcement jobs require this narrative summarizing the attributes that qualify you for a given position, the exercise of creating this statement will prove valuable for any law enforcement position — including with a municipal, county or state agency.

2. Understand the Transition & Seek Out Transition Assistance

The Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program (TAP) is designed to prepare you for some of the most important aspects of civilian life, including post-military careers. TAP provides information, tools and training to help you and your family prepare for and navigate the experience of transitioning from military service to civilian life.

The Transition GPS Curriculum

The TAP curriculum is designed to be applied at key points in a military and post-military career. This outcome-based curriculum — called Transition GPS (Goals, Plans, Success) — helps military service members transition to civilian life while identifying and pursuing career goals. This educational resource can be accessed in an actual classroom or in a Transition GPS Virtual Classroom as well.

Meeting Career Readiness Standards (CRS)

Those preparing to move into civilian life must prove their readiness to pursue “post-separation goals.” The Department of Defense defines this readiness using a metric called Career Readiness Standards. The CRS is a mandatory rating designed to ensure that you are leaving the military with the skills and knowledge you’ll need to succeed in civilian life. The Department of Defense outlines 9 steps that retiring vets should take to meet CRS standards:

  • Completion of an Individual Transition Plan
  • Development of a 12-month post-separation budget
  • Registration on the VA’s eBenefits website
  • Completion of Continuum of Military Service Opportunity Counseling
  • Completion of a Military Occupational Code (MOC) Crosswalk
  • Research into training and certification requirements in a chosen professional field
  • Completion of individual testing assessments
  • Receipt of a Department of Labor (DOL) Gold Card for American Job Centers.
  • Development of an employment package including resume, references and at least two submitted job applications

3. Gather Information About Different Agencies and Departments

Once you have a rough idea of where you want to begin your career in law enforcement, you should start researching different departments, municipal vs. state vs. federal law enforcement, job descriptions, shift options, training requirements, upward mobility within departments and additional factors that might influence your decision. 

4. Get Your VMET (Verification of Military Experiences and Training form DD 2586)

Your service branch is required to provide you with this assessment to verify your experience and training. The assessment details your knowledge, experience and skills as they relate to your civilian career prospects. To download your VMET, create an account or login with the Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program.   

5. Apply for the Job

Most law enforcement agencies accept applications on an ongoing basis, and you can usually apply online or at least find application forms online by visiting the department’s website. There is also usually a physical fitness requirement, background check and mental aptitude/fitness test. Some agencies require several documents with the application, including:

  • A letter of interest
  • Resume
  • Completed application
  • Recommendation letters

You should also strongly consider going for ride-alongs with on-duty officers, possibly even from different agencies you might be considering . Ride-alongs provide an opportunity to see the job in action, to observe how decisions are made and to ask questions that can inform your choice of agency as well as your test preparation. 

6. Prepare for Exams

All prospective law enforcement officers must take a number of exams on their path to a career in this field. Some standard subjects to review to prepare for the exam include:

  • Basic math (addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, percentages, fractions)
  • Memory and observation
  • Facial recognition
  • Spatial and directional orientation
  • Situational judgment and reasoning
  • Decision making and problem solving
  • Reading comprehension
  • Grammar, vocabulary and spelling

Consider Continuing Education Opportunities

Whether you’re currently serving or are a veteran, receiving additional education upon exiting the armed forces is an important step in beginning the next chapter. In order to support veterans looking to further their education some universities, such as the University of San Diego, participate in the Yellow Ribbon Program through the Department of Veteran Affairs (VA).

The Yellow Ribbon Program can help reduce your out-of-pocket expenses through scholarships offered by participating universities. The VA will match whatever Yellow Ribbon funds you receive from your university up to a certain yearly maximum. Additionally, the VA offers a $1,000 per year book allowance that is prorated based on credit hours taken. 

Many additional educational benefits are also available for veterans such as:

 With all of these scholarship and financial aid options available to you, the next question becomes, “what type of degree will best position me for success in a law enforcement career?” Many police officers have bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice, but there are other options that also prepare you for success in this career, such as communication, history, psychology, sociology or even political science.

If you already hold a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree is a logical and wise choice to diversify your skills and position yourself for a leadership role. The University of San Diego Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership program offers a unique curriculum designed to supplement your military experience with enhanced organizational leadership, analytical skills, and critical thinking strategies required of police leaders. “The University of San Diego LEPSL program provided a unique experience of learning and collaboration with other public safety professionals,” said Rainer Navarro, Chief of Police of the Santa Rosa Police Department. “The program was thought-provoking and innovative and has assisted me in my new role as Chief. I believe it will help me better serve my department and community in the years to come.”

This nationally-ranked law enforcement degree is designed to help you hone your skills in

leadership, management, organizational theory, community assessment, budget and finance, public safety law, conflict resolution and additional criminal justice topics. The innovative online learning platform not only enables you to complete your degree in just 20 months while working on your own schedule, it also offers invaluable opportunities to engage with and learn from law enforcement professionals from agencies around the country. 

Transitioning from the military to a civilian job can be a bit of a culture shock. By choosing a civilian law enforcement career, you can build on many of the skills you developed during your time in the service, while continuing to serve your nation and community. 

You Served Your Country — So What Comes Next?

For those considering a law enforcement career, check out the University of San Diego, where you can earn your master's degree in law enforcement and public safety leadership.
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