How to Advance Your Law Enforcement Career

Law enforcement is one of few career choices that are more likely to be guided by altruism than the prospect of a handsome salary. Maybe you want to be at the forefront of positive change in your community. Perhaps you enjoy the idea of being able to save lives on a daily basis. Many police officers simply wanted a more meaningful career.

These are certainly among the most noble reasons for choosing a profession. However, they shouldn’t stop you from taking the initiative to move up the ladder and pursue a more senior position. This is especially true when you consider the abundance of advancement opportunities available in the law enforcement sector.

The benefits extend far beyond a bigger paycheck. Advancing your career can bring a refreshing change to your daily routine, with new challenges to face and experiences to learn from. You can also enter a more fulfilling position where you can better utilize your knowledge and skills.

That’s not even mentioning how it can improve your resume and subsequent employability. But how do you reach the next level in your law enforcement career? Let’s start by taking a look at what to expect along the way.

Law Enforcement Career Timeline

The nature and availability of advancement opportunities can be influenced by factors such as departmental structure and preferred specializations. In any case, your law enforcement career path will likely resemble the following timeline:

Police Academy and Training:

Aspiring officers usually begin their journey at a police academy where they’ll participate in a six month basic law enforcement training course. Successful candidates will advance to the field officer training course. This involves between two and three months of assessments that will determine whether you can apply your knowledge.

Year One:

After completing all the necessary training, you’ll spend around a year on probationary solo patrol. This is when you’ll learn how to make your own decisions and take responsibility for whatever happens next. Your performance will be closely monitored by a supervisor during this phase.

Specialty Post:

You can expect your first opportunity to choose a specialty post within two years of passing probationary solo patrol. Options will vary. Perhaps you can join the SWAT team or K-9 unit. If you value comfort, you might be able to work as a training officer. Investigator and detective positions may be offered to those who are better at practicing than preaching.


It will take between five and ten years of experience before a department will consider your suitability for the first major supervisory position. Police sergeants are tasked with the monitoring and assistance of supervising officers. They also provide guidance on handling day-to-day tasks and will carry out disciplinary action when necessary.

Middle Management:

Middle management marks the point where advancement opportunities usually proliferate. It’s not uncommon for officers to spend less than a year at a particular rank before moving up. The main positions here are lieutenant and captain. The former oversees their district, while captains typically handle the overall operations of a precinct.

Upper Management:

Those who work in upper-management positions have gained between 15 and 25 years of law enforcement experience to earn their rank. Among them are lieutenant colonels, commanders, majors and assistant chiefs. Their strong management skills are used to provide leadership and direction in their department.


As the highest-ranking member in the department, the chief of police answers to no man. But don’t be mistaken as the position holds a great deal of responsibility. An extensive education and resume backed up by decades of experience is a must. Rest-assured that the dedication required to reach this point is compensated for accordingly.

With a better idea of where your efforts can take you, let’s explore how you can advance your law enforcement career.

Further Your Education

It wasn’t long ago when the qualifying criteria for a promotion seldom exceeded some basic training and proof of your competence. Try that approach today and you’ll be living on a patrolman’s wage until your job is replaced by robots. In a modern law enforcement setting, moving up the ranks requires a relevant degree from an accredited institution.

Depending on where you work, a number of options for furthering your education might be available. The convenience and affordability of online degrees have made them a popular choice. Consider the Honors Bachelor of Arts in Policing from Wilfrid Laurier University, which is uniquely suited to officers who want to continue working while studying.

These types of degrees are a great way to improve your credibility while also learning a number of important skills. Listed below are just some of the things a police degree can teach you:

-Identifying and dealing with trauma

-Psychology and criminology

-Leadership and conflict resolution

-Critical thinking and research skills

-Important aspects of Canada’s justice system

Policing degrees have been instrumental in helping graduates obtain positions in just about every sector of law enforcement, from the likes of inspector and detective, all the way up to commissioner and chief of police.

Consider Lateral Moves

While your sights are likely set on a senior position, making some lateral moves along the way can actually bring you closer to reaching your goals. As the name suggests, lateral moves will never transfer you to a rank that is higher or lower than that of your current job. Despite that, making one can contribute to your advancement in numerous ways:

-Obtaining new skills

-The opportunity to identify where you can best utilize your skills

-Forming connections with valuable contacts who can help you in the future

-Exposure to units of the police department that were previously unseen

-Making a good impression on your superiors by showing your willingness to take on new challenges

Improve Your Soft Skills

Just about every law enforcement job requires competence with certain soft skills that you can work on to improve your performance. This is especially true for the skills that are valued by your superiors. If you’re outperforming everyone else in your rank, the right people are going to take notice. Here are some key skills to consider:

Communication: An absolute must for dealing with civilians and cooperating with fellow officers

Diplomacy: Recognizing the best way to approach different people and situations

Decision-Making: Making quick and clear decisions under pressure

Writing: Knowing how to write an accurate report

Fitness: Essential for self-defense, restraining suspects and avoiding burnout

Cultural Awareness: Demonstrating respect and courtesy to different people

Problem-Solving: Finding solutions in a quick and logical manner

Conflict Resolution: Using tact and diplomacy to solve disputes and de-escalate conflict

Persuasion: Getting noncompliant people to follow instructions or provide a statement

Mastered them all? Worry not, as there are plenty more soft skills for you to work on that can help you move forward in your career. Take a moment to identify where there is the most amount of room for improvement.

Once you know which skills to focus on, you can start looking for ways to improve them. More often than not, a bit of practice and some mindfulness is all it takes to make an impact.


Pay attention to those who currently work in the positions you’re aiming for. What did they do to get there? Analyze how they communicate. What do they do when they’re faced with conflict? How do they go about their daily tasks? Do they have certain habits or routines?

If you haven’t already, consider asking them for advice on your career advancement goals. For all you know, they might be able to provide a wealth of useful information. This is also a great way to express your interest in moving up, giving your superiors another reason to consider helping you get where you want to go.


Did you know that networking is responsible for the fulfilment of 85 percent of jobs? Even in the law enforcement sector, having a strong professional network can benefit your career in a number of ways. This includes:

-Forming relationships with like-minded individuals who share your goals

-Staying informed about the latest trends

-Exposure to potential future employers, colleagues and mentors

-Discovering industry-relevant events where you can further expand your network

Mentoring is a particularly useful aspect of networking that is often overlooked despite its incredible potential. What qualifies as a mentor may vary from person to person, but they can generally be defined as someone who can provide advice, insight, feedback and assistance to guide you through your career.

With a bit of luck, you might be able to find a mentor in the law enforcement sector who has already moved through the ranks you’re looking towards. That said, your mentor doesn’t have to be in the same line of work to make an impact. Anyone who has achieved a degree of success that you can look up to is bound to know something you don’t.


Coming this far means that you’ve already invested the time and energy into preparing yourself for a career advancement. All you need to remember now is that real change will only happen once you step outside your comfort zone. Good luck!

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