How Police Academies Work

By: Cristen Conger

A class of police recruits at the NYPD Police Academy. See more police pictures.
A class of police recruits at the NYPD Police Academy. See more police pictures.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

If one thing separates police recruits from full-fledged officers, it's pepper spray. On-duty officers keep a can handy in case of unruly criminals, but recruits in police academies have to stand still and a take a burning spritz in the face.

Pepper spray training is just one of the physically and mentally demanding exercises that thousands of men and women in police academies go through in pursuit of the blue uniform.


Before police academies were developed in the United States in the early 20th century, an officer's training took place on the streets. Aside from following the law, police learned by trial and error from the different encounters they came across. Now, every police officer in the nation goes through a formalized certification course at a police academy.

­Police academies are similar to basic training programs in the military. Recruits, people in training to become police officers, may live­ in dormitories for six to eight months, waking up at 5 a.m. and turning the lights out at 10 p.m. sharp. After a day of intense physical training and academic classes, they eat dinner and settle down for a few hours of studying before heading to bed.

Even in non-residential academies where recruits go home in the evenings, training is focused and regimented. After all, the basic program is an average of 720 course hours [source: Bureau of Justice Statistics].

Recruits' appearances are held to strict standards -- close-cropped hair for the men, as well as shined shoes and military fatigues. Women cannot wear cosmetics, jewelry or visible hair accessories. Personal conduct at the academy is also highly scrutinized to prepare recruits for the rigors of law enforcement. Following six to eight months of this severe lifestyle, depending on the program length, t­he recruits become certified police officers.

But what exactly happens inside these hundreds of police academies across the United States, and how do they compare with police training across the world? Read on to find out.

What is a police academy?

NYPD police recruits run laps.
NYPD police recruits run laps.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Police academies -- also referred to as law enforcement training facilities -- are specialized schools that offer a series of courses to certify people as law enforcement officers. Since the federal government delegates law enforcement to the state and local level, there are no national criteria for police certification. Instead, each state has established its own requirements for police academies. Because of these variations, police academies may offer different courses and more or fewer required hours. They can be affiliated with colleges, as well as state and local police agencies.

Senior police officers who have earned special state certification for training instruction teach the courses. Although they are on temporary duty assignments, these senior officers also serve as authority figures to the recruits.


People join police academies under various terms. Typically, people are hired at specific police departments and then sent to that department's police academy for training. In this case, it costs nothing for the recruits to attend the academy, and they also receive their salaried pay while training.

Police hiring qualifications can include:

  • passing a written exam
  • physical fitness test
  • drug and alcohol test
  • clean background check
  • 21-year-old age requirement
  • a high school diploma, or the GED equivalent
  • at least two years of higher education

You can also pay tuition to attend a police academy before being hired by a police department. These types of academies are typically affiliated with community colleges or state and county law enforcement training centers. Costs usually total less than $5,000, and some police departments will reimburse a percentage of that tuition upon employment. After receiving your certification, you can then apply to become a police officer in that state. However, you may be asked to complete an additional training course.

Police academy programs can be anywhere from 320 to 800 course hours and typically take six or eight months to complete. The length and content of the programs depends on the statewide requirements for police certification. For that reason, becoming certified in Iowa, for example, may be a shorter process than doing so in New York.

During this intensive learning period, recruits train both their bodies and their minds for police work. Next, we'll look at the physical and academic training police academies cover.

Police Academy Training for the Body

Although police officers are often portrayed gorging on donuts, academy physical training is no cakewalk. To be hired by police departments, candidates must pass physical fitness exams. But that's the easy part. Once they enter police academies, the uphill fitness challenge begins.

California, for instance, recommends a regimen of 80 push-ups and 250 crunches a day to get up to snuff. The New York Police Department Police Academy estimates that two-thirds of its recruits cannot pass the final physical fitness test when they first enter the academy [source: New York Police Department Police Academy]. For that reason, recruits take a fitness assessment at the beginning of the training and condition accordingly with regular running, weight training and other exercises. In Vermont, law enforcement hopefuls between the ages of 20 and 29 must meet these criteria:



  • Bench press: 99 percent of body weight
  • Sit-ups: 38 per minute
  • Push-ups: 29 per minute


  • Bench press: 59 percent of body weight
  • Sit-ups: 32 per minute
  • Push-ups: 15 per minute

As recruits build their strength, they must also learn how to properly use it. Restraining and handcuffing people involves muscle, as well as specific movements, to disable people without hurting them. To prepare them for taming criminals, recruits learn and practice self-defense tactics, along with ways to use other non-lethal tools, such as batons and pepper spray.

Sometimes, brute force isn't enough to catch a criminal, and officers have to use their guns. When that happens, they can't just start shooting willy-nilly. Police officers must understand precisely when, how and where to shoot to prevent unnecessary death or injury. Likewise, firearms training is a major component of most police academy physical training programs. Recruits must pass marksmanship tests with up to 90 percent accuracy with a variety of guns, including pistols, handguns and shotguns. The New York State Police Academy recruits, for example, must have 84 percent pistol accuracy on three back-to-back target tests [source: New York State Police Academy]

Have you ever seen a high-action police chase in a movie or on television? The police car zips around curves at dangerous speed, sometimes even flying in the air. While police don't encounter intense chases every day, they must be prepared for them. This is called Emergency Vehicle Operations Course (EVOC) and is standard among police academies.

It's basically an extreme version of the civilians' driver's license test, except recruits have to practice controlled skidding, car chasing while using a two-way radio and avoiding crashes. Next time you see a squad car whizzing through traffic, you'll know that officer is putting EVOC training into practice.

Now that the recruits are physically prepped to join the force, let's find out how they train their brains.

Police Academy Academics -- Brain Training

Police academy academic work usually covers law, ethics and law enforcement rules and regulations.
Police academy academic work usually covers law, ethics and law enforcement rules and regulations.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Imagine performing the duties of a police officer with no knowledge of the law. It probably wouldn't be hard to recognize when someone was breaking it if, say, you witness a break-in or a hit-and-run accident. But what about the murkier issues? For example, can you burst into a suspect's home unannounced and beat a confession out of him? And what if you come across a domestic violence situation where children are involved?

As you can see, the daily demands of police work constantly raise questions about how to properly enforce the law. It takes some muscle to shoot a target or wrestle someone down, but it's knowing when do so that defines a good police officer. For that reason, you need brains to go with the brawn. In fact, that's essentially why police academies were started in the United States a century ago [source: Dantzker] -- to give officers the intellectual tools to back up their physical ones.


Today, a significant portion of police academy time is devoted to academic and legal instruction. Los Angeles Police Department recruits, for example, take 105 hours of law classes, covering topics such as search and seizure, crimes against children and the California Penal Code [source: Los Angeles Police Department Police Academy]. Also, because of the large Spanish-speaking population in Los Angeles, some LAPD recruits learn Spanish as part of their training.

For a clearer idea of the required training courses, here's a sample from the New York Police Department Police Academy:

  • Looking Closer: Enhancing Observation Skills at the Frick
  • Police and the Media
  • Courage Under Ire: Responding to Adversarial Questioning
  • EEO: Fact, Fiction & the Issue of Civil Liability
  • Hostage Negotiation

[source: New York Police Department Police Academy]

Academic classes also cover a topic that remains at the forefront of law enforcement: ethics.

A 1997 survey conducted by the International Association of Police Chiefs found that more than 80 percent of police departments devote time to ethics education during recruit training [source: International Association of Police Chiefs], highlighting use of force and cultural diversity. Without ethics training, officers are more at risk for lawsuits alleging excessive use of force, civil rights violations and racial discrimination [source: International Association of Police Chiefs]. One of the most common examples of this is racial profiling, when police officers apprehend suspects based on their race.

Ethics training also involves understanding how to make wise decisions in the heat of duty. Difficult situations constantly arise, such as belligerent arrestees or brutal violence, with little time to reflect before acting. Learning the police department regulations during this coursework can also guide new officers.

In the next section, we'll examine how police academies are regulated to ensure that their physical and academic training will produce qualified, able officers.

Life After the Police Academy

NYPD Police Academy graduation
NYPD Police Academy graduation
Stephen Chernin/Getty Images

Congratulations! You've endured the months of exhaustive exercises and academic work at your police academy. Now, you're ready to become a police officer -- almost.

Upon graduation from police academies, recruits become certified police officers. However, they must then complete a field training program with a senior officer to transition them from the academy to real police life. It's kind of like driving around with a parent in the car while you have your driver's permit.


Each rookie officer is paired with a field training officer who acts as a one-on-one guide to law enforcement. Since the new officer's training took place within a controlled environment, the field training program adds a safety net for the first few months on the job. During this time, rookies get a firsthand taste of the ethical issues that crop up as well. For this reason, the International Association of Police Chiefs urges field training officers to receive specific training to properly handle these situations and teach their assigned officer.

After completing the probationary period, most police officers can select a specialization area. These areas at the Houston Police Department, for instance, include criminal Intelligence, bike patrol, missing persons or narcotics [source: Houston Police Department]. Also, to rise through the ranks, you will likely take additional courses to get higher police certification levels, depending on the state in which you work.

Unless there is a gap in your law enforcement work history, your certification should remain valid indefinitely. Again, since each state varies in its police certification requirements, some may request re-certifications after a certain number of years of service. To learn about these specifications in your city or state, visit their respective Web sites. For more information on the ins and outs of life in the force, read How Police Work.

To learn how police training works in other countries, go to the next page.

Police Academy Regulations and Oversight

How do the more than 600 police academies dotted around the United States maintain quality? Remember that state governments mandate their own set of police certification requirements, not the federal government. Many do so through Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) Councils or comparable groups, which monitor the implementation of the regulations and curriculum in police academies in their respective states.

But that doesn't mean that the federal government doesn't support state and local law enforcement. In 2005, the federal government spent nearly $20 billion on police protection (source: Bureau of Justice Statistics).


The federal government can also lend teaching resources to enhance police training. The Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Ga. certifies officers in federal agencies and also offers supplementary training for state and local police departments, particularly those in small towns and rural areas. However, this is not a police academy, since the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center and its satellite locations reserve its police-related courses for officers, not recruits. Their courses focus on topics including antiterrorism, drugs and gang violence.

On a national scale, the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) can provide additional accreditation for police academies. CALEA was created in 1970 through the joint effort of various law enforcement professional organizations. Its accreditation process examines the academies' management and administration quality to ensure that they meet the high standards in compliance with those set forth by POST councils or their equivalents. Originally, CALEA only accredited police departments but was expanded in 2002 to accrediting law enforcement academies as well.

To find out what happens after you graduate from a police academy, read the next page.

International Police Academies

From bobbies in Britain to jakes in Japan, similarities exist in police training programs across the world because officers share a common objective: to enforce the law. The differences arise in which training areas are emphasized and qualifications. States in the U.S., as we've discussed, balance both physical and academic training over an average six-month to eight-month period. After that, new police officers must complete a field training program and probationary period before moving into a specialized area.

Great Britain has a similar system for its Metropolitan Police force. Its training program covers law, police procedure, communication, emergency life-saving techniques and physical fitness [source: Metropolitan Police]. However, age restrictions are lower, allowing training to begin at 18 and a half years old. There are also no education prerequisites, and the probationary period lasts for two years.


In the Middle East, Palestine opened the Fatah Police Academy in 2007 with major funding from Saudi Arabia and the European Union [source: Gradstein]. Although this police academy is initially training current police officers in an effort to reestablish security in Palestine, it covers the same basic physical and academic training with which we're familiar. Before the academy opened, police officers received little instruction. Now, their classes teach computer and technical skills, as well as management and negotiation tactics. Like the Los Angeles Police Department's Police Academy that teaches Spanish, the Fatah academy recruits learn Hebrew, the language of their Israeli neighbors.

On the other side of Asia, Japanese police training is supervised through the National Policing Agency. Its training has a more comprehensive, educational approach since more recruits have high school diplomas or college degrees, compared with the United States [source: Bayley]. New recruits go through a classroom training period and time in the field, followed by more classroom training. Interestingly, their academic instruction also reflects the Japanese history and culture by integrating Confucian principles and samurai fighting traditions [source: Bayley].

To learn more about how to become a police officer and law enforcement, investigate the links on the next page.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


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