Once a month, sometimes once a week I get an email message from a person asking how to become a police psychologist. The requests are hopeful, optimistic, altruistic. Some are personal, the writer knows a cop; is or sometimes was married to a cop; very often was or still is a cop. The field of police psychology is growing along with the increased awareness that a career in law enforcement is highly stressful and occasionally toxic. There are several hundred police psychologists in the US and more around the world practicing in one or more of the following core domains: Intervention, Organizational Consulting, Operational Support, and Assessment.
Most police psychologists have PhD degrees although there are many exceptions, especially in the intervention domain. I was a clinical social worker when I started working in the field. If your aim is to specialize in assessment, you will need a Ph.D. If your aim is to specialize in therapy, consulting or operational support, a Ph.D. would be helpful, but not required. If you are still an undergraduate and wondering about graduate schools or student placements, check these two links for further information — The Society for Police and Criminal Psychology and The Wright Institute.
Law enforcement is a closed culture, skeptical of outsiders. In order to build a therapeutic alliance with a cop, you must be culturally competent; meaning you understand what cops do, why they do it, and the culture in which they work. The following three suggestions will help you get your foot in the door.
1. Be a self-starter and reach out to your local police agencies. There are two main ways to do this — police community activities and volunteering.
Community Activities. Many police departments offer the following. If your local agency does not, widen your search.
- Attend a citizen’s police academy
- Go on a ride-along; vary the shifts from busy to boring
- Attend a police funeral
- Tour your local detention center or prison
- Tour the 911 dispatch center
Volunteer Activities. Volunteering is a great way demonstrate your interest and your willingness to get involved, plus you get the satisfaction of helping your community.
- Help out with fleet maintenance, clerical duties, youth activities.
- Apply to be a reserve police officer. You’ll need to qualify first and then attend an academy.
2. If you are already a licensed clinician think about volunteering to teach classes in a subject you know well. It will give you a chance to learn about police work and give the department a chance to get to know you. Before you do, read more about cops as students (Counseling Cops: p. 247). The following is only a partial list of ideas for ways to share your clinical skills.