By Dr. Jarrod Sadulski  |  06/10/2022

law enforcement

Earning a promotion in law enforcement is a common goal that requires some planning and preparation. Law enforcement promotions are highly competitive, and it is essential to have a plan in place.

Depending on the size of an agency, there may only be a select few who get promoted at a time. Generally, the higher in rank an officer goes, the more intense the competition becomes.

New Police Officers Should Be Willing to Learn from Experienced Leaders

Preparing for career advancement starts at the beginning of a police officer’s career, long before that officer has the length of service necessary to take the promotional exam. One thing that new officers can do to better their chances for promotion is to take every available learning and training opportunity.

These educational opportunities may include voluntarily taking courses to strengthen the officer’s law enforcement skills and volunteering to learn from others in specialized units. For example, new road patrol officers who wish to become narcotics sergeants should learn everything they can about counternarcotics and seek opportunities to learn from experienced narcotics leaders whenever possible.

Developing a Good Reputation within a Law Enforcement Agency Is Equally Useful

Another important concept in being awarded a promotion is a good reputation, commonly developed at the beginning of an officer’s career. A good reputation can be useful in helping police officers to attain their career goals, while a bad reputation can sometimes limit advancement opportunities.

For example, if new officers do not hold themselves accountable for mistakes, struggle with controlling anger and do not get along well with other employees, it is highly unlikely that these officers would be selected to supervise other people. On the other hand, if a road patrol officer has the reputation of being a hard worker, supports coworkers and the community, and is liked by peers and supervisors, it is far more likely that officer will be selected when eligible for a promotion.

Preparing for Promotional Tests and Interviews

Promotions in law enforcement agencies often involve an exam and interviews to judge an applicant’s critical thinking and leadership abilities. Scenario-based tests in conjunction with a written exam may also be used to rank an applicant.

Agencies that use scenario-based testing may run applicants through different scenarios where they must make split-second decisions. Applicants are then ranked by their responses and judgment.

To prepare for the promotion process, it’s useful to study potential questions on the police promotional exam. It may also be helpful to find a mentor who has successfully undergone the promotion process and read literature on leadership. During interviews, it is critical for police officers seeking promotion to describe how their past experiences on patrol, education, leadership and judgment have prepared them to become police supervisors.

Using specific examples from one’s field experience is essential. For example, a patrol officer who serves as a field training officer (FTO) has a lot of leadership experience; that officer can then discuss specific FTO leadership examples during the promotional interview.

For instance, a FTO could talk about a time when he or she applied leadership skills and critical thinking to help a trainee through a complicated case. Displaying high ethical standards that would be used as the basis of a supervisory role is also useful during the promotion process.

Proper Education Is Useful to Grow an Officer’s Knowledge

Many law enforcement agencies have education requirements for their officers. New officers may wish to prepare for the demands of a law enforcement career by determining what college degree will be required and taking the courses necessary for that degree.


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About the Author
Dr. Jarrod Sadulski

Dr. Sadulski is an Associate Professor within our School of Security and Global Studies. He has over two decades in the field of criminal justice. His expertise includes training on countering human trafficking, maritime security, effective stress management in policing and narcotics trafficking trends in Latin America. Jarrod frequently conducts in-country research and consultant work in Central and South America on human trafficking and current trends in narcotics trafficking. He also has a background in business development. Jarrod can be reached through his website at for more information.

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