Transitioning from Military Service to Law Enforcement

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As a military servicemember or veteran making the transition to a new career path, law enforcement can feel like a natural fit. Much of the training, discipline, and mental fortitude that you’ve developed during your time in the military will be of value to you as a police officer, a federal law enforcement agency, or in the wide array of other law enforcement or justice roles now accessible to you.

Indeed, many police departments and law enforcement agencies prioritize the hiring of military veterans and undertake initiatives that encourage the recruitment and hiring of those with service experience. According to Military Times, on average, for every $10 that a police department spends on recruiting, $1 will be spent on recruiting military and veteran candidates. More than half of departments and agencies surveyed by the Military Times indicated that they award extra points on exams or use other such methods to give hiring preference to military candidates.

This means that law enforcement is a professional avenue brimming with opportunities for servicemembers and veterans. But it’s also an avenue that will require you to make considerable adjustments in both your practical training and your mindset. While your military training makes you a strong candidate, the process of transitioning from military service to law enforcement is a challenging one. We’ll help guide you through this process with tips on what to expect from the transition, how you can improve your chances of being hired, and what you’ll need to know to succeed in your new environment.

Get Your VMET

In order to reference your military service background and experience in job applications and other materials, you’ll need to present your VMET, or Verification of Military Experiences and Training form DD 2586. Your service branch is required to provide you with this assessment in order 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.

Choose Your Path

Law enforcement is a broad professional field with opportunities at the local, state, and federal levels as well as in various specialized roles and leadership positions. You’ll need to make some critical decisions about which path is best for you. The Military Skills Translator is a good starting point for exploring career avenues based on your unique background and experience. This tool allows you to enter information regarding your branch of service and your military rank in order to determine the post-military jobs for which you might be best suited. Specify your interest in law enforcement and use this tool to identify the law enforcement roles for which your experience, training, and service qualify you.

Know Your KSAs

If you haven’t written your KSAs (Knowledge, Skills, and Abilities) statements, now is a good time. All federal law enforcement jobs and many at the state and local level will require this narrative summarizing the attributes that qualify you for a given position. Many of the jobs that you apply to — including all jobs at the federal level — will outline specific KSAs that apply to the vacancy. You’ll need to customize your KSAs to match the requirements for each vacancy. However, you can get started now by creating a single authoritative KSA statement that can be adapted for each application. Click here to learn more about your KSAs.

Have a Relatively Clean Background Check

The screening for law enforcement jobs is often more rigorous than the screening for military service. You will be subjected to a thorough background check that may also include several rounds of polygraph questions and drug testing. You are advised to be honest in all aspects of your background check and interview process. Getting in trouble for vandalizing a neighbor’s mailbox when you were 13 won’t lose you the job, but lying about it will. This is also the time to go ahead and personally identify any factors that might eliminate you from consideration for a position. Any convictions for violent crimes, drug-dealing, or sex offenses will put an immediate end to your candidacy, as will the failure of any drug test or the inability to pass a polygraph interview indicating your abstention from illegal or illicit drugs for a period of at least seven years. It’s important to determine your likely eligibility for a job in law enforcement before undertaking the process.

Target Military-Friendly Departments

Many police departments and law enforcement agencies take an active interest in both recruiting and supporting military veterans. In its listing of 20 military-friendly departments, Military Times notes that six in 10 departments surveyed participate in a partnership with the Defense Department’s Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR). This agency helps to ensure that both employers and veterans understand their respective rights and responsibilities under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA). This can be an important source of support for veterans seeking employment through law enforcement agencies as well as an advocate for veterans, and mediator between veterans and employers, during the course of employment.

Departments that have partnered with the ESGR have made a commitment to ensuring that veterans have the training, transitional, and mental health support needed to successfully integrate into policing and law enforcement roles. As you consider departments or agencies for application, find out if prospective employers have made this commitment and ask about both special opportunities and support services for veterans. Finding a military-friendly department or agency — one that understands and responds to the unique challenges and valuable attributes that veterans possess — can help make your transition a successful one.

Be Flexible

That said, it is important that you don’t get your heart set on a specific department. You may not have the luxury of choosing. You may have to take opportunities as they present themselves. But you can begin networking and connecting with active law enforcement officers through resources like PoliceLink, which identifies itself as the Nation’s Law Enforcement Community. Visit this outlet to find out about departments that are hiring, to learn about joint law enforcement-military career fairs, to make connections in your field, and to seek advice from others who have been through the same military-to-law-enforcement transition. Just be aware, as you go through this process, that your best job offer may not necessarily be in a department or even the region you want. Be flexible and work to advance or relocate once you’ve gotten your foot in the door.

Be Patient

On the subject of being flexible, you’ll also need to practice great patience. This could take a while. That’s one of the first things you need to know when you begin this process. Depending on the nature of your service experience and your education, your road to a job in either a police department or law enforcement agency could involve a number of steps, including training, testing, and applying. Those who have been through the process warn that you need to be patient and remain dedicated to each of the steps along the way. It could take a few years to find the right landing spot.

Get a Degree

One of the reasons that this process could take a while is because most law enforcement jobs will require you to have at least a bachelor’s degree. Your G.I. Bill gives you access to a wide range of opportunities for higher education. If you’re planning on moving into law enforcement, contact the police departments or agencies that interest you and find out more about their degree requirements. Your G.I. Bill should cover most or all of your expenses on the way to this degree. To enroll in the right college program for you, take a look at our Complete Guide to Using the G.I. Bill, our Tips for Making the Transition from Military to College, and our list of The Best Schools For Military Service Members and Their Families.

Study Something Unique

You don’t necessarily need to study criminal justice or law to transition into law enforcement. In fact, the military is increasingly seeking applicants who bring a wide diversity of educational backgrounds to the table. This is because law enforcement agencies are interested in candidates who bring a depth of knowledge and a range of experience to the job. Your military background certainly qualifies, but your education can also set you apart from other applicants and help create unique pathways to professional advancement. In addition to degrees in Law and Criminal Justice, you can also consider seeking a degree in computer science, psychology, social work, and a host of other areas. In addition to qualifying you for specialized areas of law enforcement, a unique degree could put you on pace to advance to an administrative position or a leadership role like lieutenant, captain, or chief.

Prepare for Written Tests

Even after you’ve earned your degree, you’ve got a lot of tests ahead of you. You’ll take a number of exams on your path to a role in law enforcement. These will vary depending on your locality and the type of position you’re pursuing. Most police departments, for instance, will require you to complete and pass an exam that G.I. Jobs describes as “uniquely absurd.” The sometimes abstract nature of questions makes it difficult to “study” for your department exam in the traditional sense. But PoliceLink suggests that one effective way to prepare for your exams is to go for a ride along with an on-duty officer. This is an opportunity to see the job in action, to observe how decisions are made, and to ask questions that can inform your test prep.

G.I. Jobs also notes that most departments will award you some mandatory bonus points for your military service, another demonstration of the preference that many law enforcement outlets place on hiring veterans.

To learn more about the testing and educational requirements for a wide range of law enforcement opportunities, find out What You Can do With a Degree in Criminal Justice or Law.

Prepare for a New and Different Training Experience

Military veterans often enter into police training ahead of the curve. As a veteran, you’ll bring a degree of experience working within a regimented code of conduct, under a chain of command, and in service to the public, all of which translate directly to your work in law enforcement. However, there are numerous aspects of the job are quite different, and will require you to shift your approach. PoliceLink points to a few common hurdles for military veterans, most particularly the experience of starting as a “rookie” after earning advancement within the military. You will be starting from the bottom in your training, and working your way back up. Be prepared to unlearn some of the tactics of aggression and occupation that apply only in military contexts. Also be prepared to learn new tactics specific to policing, including conduct during routine non-criminal encounters, adherence to constitutional rights, and the parameters for use of force — either lethal, less-than-lethal, or non-lethal.

Become Part of Your Community

This is another distinction from military service. Your role as a part of a community is quite different from the role that you’ve been trained for in a combat zone, in hostile enemy territory, or as a visitor in a host nation. As an officer, you are now part of a community, and your ability to simultaneously serve and protect this community will depend on your willingness to connect with law-abiding citizens, to make a positive impact on the neighborhoods under your watch, and to uphold the responsibilities of your job with compassion, equality, and fairness. As a soldier or service member, your ability to be a part of a community is often secondary to the demands of your mission. As a police officer or law enforcement agent, being part of the community is your mission.

Manage Your Mental Health

As part of your community, and one armed with considerable power and responsibility, it is absolutely essential that you take steps to protect your own mental health. Policing demands level-headed and rational decision-making in the face of practical challenges, high-pressure situations, even dangerous confrontations. Your emotional stability will be one of your most important faculties as you move into this role. As a veteran, you are in a category of individuals who are uniquely vulnerable to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety, and substance abuse. It is essential that you take steps to manage these conditions so that you can better serve your community with sound judgment and safe execution of your duties.

Begin by seeking support through the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VA, and a host of related agencies, offer a spectrum of resources that are designed to help military veterans cope with mental health challenges and transition into various dimensions of civilian life.

Among them:

For direct professional, educational and mental health support as you make the transition to law enforcement, you can also reach out to the Department of Defense Transition Assistance Program (TAP). This program provides information, tools, and training to help you and your family prepare and weather the experience of transitioning from military service to law enforcement. Start by visiting the Department of Defense website and selecting your branch of service or by contacting your local Transition Assistance Office.

Or you can jump directly to the Best Online Colleges for Military Personnel & Families and begin earning a degree on your way to a career in law enforcement.

For more information and resources on getting a quality education, earning a degree, or getting a great job, return to the Military Education Headquarters.

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