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Police Licensing and Revocation

By Thomas J. Jurkanin, PhD, Assistant Professor, Department of Criminal Justice Administration, Middle Tennessee State University

An examination of the history of policing in the United States demonstrates that the occupation traveled a rocky and turbulent developmental path in striving for professional status. In the formative years, police were most often uneducated, untrained, and selected on the basis of their political alliances. Matters of personal character and suitability for the job were often overlooked in the hiring process. Such disregard for hiring standards understandably led to the formation of police forces whose personnel were unprepared to protect the public and to safeguard their individual rights. In many cases, this resulted in widespread corruption, abuse of power, and a disregard for the law.

If one considers the developmental history of other professions (e.g., physicians, attorneys, accountants, and teachers) juxtaposed with the history of law enforcement, there is a marked difference. While the police were characteristically uneducated, untrained, and hired on the basis of political alliance, other professions developed stringent educational and training regimens and were guided by prescribed codes of professional conduct. As a result of the early disregard for imposing professional standards, many police officers committed illegal or unethical acts, which only served to establish and perpetuate the public perception of the police as uneducated, unprepared, immoral, and unregulated government hacks.

This article examines efforts by the states aimed at professionalizing the U.S. police. Such efforts started in the late 1950s and continue to be refined today. Significant developmental progress has been transforming the profession of policing in the past four and one-half decades. Such efforts focused on elevating the standards for those who seek to enter the policing profession. Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) Boards or Commissions were created in the administrative structure of every state, from 1959 to 1981, and these regulatory agencies have continued to develop and upgrade standards related to police selection and training.

The licensing of occupations by the states was increasingly imposed by law in the first half of the 20th century. In 1986, Berry reported that the Council on Licensure, Enforcement and Regulation (CLEAR) listed more than 800 occupations that were licensed in at least one state and about 50 occupations that were licensed in all states. Among those occupations licensed in all 50 states were accountants, barbers and cosmetologists, professional engineers, insurance agents, real estate agents and brokers, surveyors, and physicians and other health professionals—the list did not include policing.1 State authority to impose occupational licensure is derived from the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which grants states the authority to regulate activities affecting the health, safety, and welfare of their citizens.2

The Council on Licensure, Enforcement and Regulation (CLEAR) defines License/Registration as follows:

The recognition of competence to practice a given occupation or profession conveyed to an individual by a regulatory body (most often the state). Individuals must complete various requirements prior to registration and becoming eligible to receive a license and are held accountable for practicing in accordance with established standards of effectiveness.3

Occupational licensing requirements are most often justified as a form of “consumer protection” against incompetent occupational performance. That is, it is considered necessary for a regulatory agency to establish entry-level standards and requirements of education, training, and experience; to establish testing procedures to assess and verify the preparedness of the individual to practice within the profession; to establish a code of conduct for those practicing within the profession; to establish continuing educational requirements for continued practice; and to discipline and possibly revoke or suspend the license for violations of the law, violations of professional standards, or otherwise incompetent performance once on the job.

All professions have an established code of conduct for practice. If employees prove to be unfit for the job or commit unethical or illegal acts, then the state licensing authority must have the power to suspend or terminate their right to practice.

As state legislatures increasingly imposed licensing laws to protect citizens from incompetent practitioners, two factors were most prominent in determining which occupations should be regulated by licensure laws. Those were “the potentiality of seriousness of impact” and “the amount and scope of discretion afforded to the practitioner.”4 In considering these two factors, the rationale and justification for licensing physicians and other health professionals seems apparent and clear-cut. First, physicians have a great deal of “discretion” in evaluating and treating a patient. Based upon scientific knowledge gained through education, training, and experience, a physician might treat a patient through counseling, medication, surgery, or a combination of remedies. With regard to “seriousness of impact,” it is also quite clear that if a physician makes a mistake, that error might well result in irreversible personal harm and possibly the death of the patient.

The application of “seriousness of impact” and “amount and scope of discretion” criteria is less obvious when applied to the occupations of barber and cosmetologist, real estate agent, or surveyor. Yet, as stated previously, all 50 states require such licensure, and have done so for a long time.

Historically, police officers were not licensed by the states. Only in the past several decades have police officers come under the purview of state licensure laws, most often administered by the states’ POST Commissions or Boards.

Apply the criteria that states’ legislatures consider in imposing occupational licensure laws to the occupation of policing. Much like physicians, police officers have a “wide scope of discretion” in the course of performing their assigned duties and responsibilities, and the “seriousness of impact” of their actions or inactions can significantly affect the health, safety, and welfare of the ordinary citizen (consumer).

Police officers are provided with a skill set through training (the recruit academy); they may be exposed to a field training program; they undergo a period of probation; and, then, they are deployed to the streets. While departmental policy may partially guide their actions on the street, departmental policy cannot be all inclusive. As such, police officers are afforded a “wide scope of discretion” in the practice of their profession. Police officers make decisions regarding citizen stops and inquiries; they make decisions regarding order maintenance (to arrest or not to arrest); and they make decisions regarding use of force.

If a police officer performs a task in an improper manner, there is a definite threat to public health, safety, and welfare, and the impact (harm) upon the citizen could very well be lasting and irreversible. Given the fact that police officers have the right to take a human life (in certain circumstances) and to deprive citizens of their individual freedoms, the potential for “seriousness of impact” is significant. Misapplying the law or using excessive force could definitely cause bodily or emotional harm or both to the involved citizen. Such harm could also cause a lasting or continued effect, such as permanent physical disability or death in the case of misapplied physical force or possible lasting emotional harm as a result of unwarranted arrest, detainment, or confinement. Furthermore, once an improper action has been taken by a police officer against a citizen, it is most often not reversible; in fact, in the majority of cases, the action will never be reviewed.5

The Model of Professional Licensure

Professional licensure is a defined and refined process that involves 10 essential components, as depicted in Figure 1.6

Figure 1: Defined Components of Professional Licensure
Component 1Defined Entry-Level Standards—moral character and criminal history background checks to verify psychological and moral fitness for duty
Component 2Education and Training—prescribed minimal level of education and training
Component 3Testing for Competence—relies on tests of competence to determine if applicants have met the prescribed education and training standards
Component 4Regulated by State (or in some cases by a professional association)—licensure is most often regulated by a state governmental agency
Component 5Mandatory Provisions—requirements are mandatory for practice within the state
Component 6Failure Prohibits Practice—failure to achieve licensing requirements prohibits practice
Component 7Minimum Standards—requirements of licensing are based upon acceptable minimum levels of competency
Component 8State Licensing Exam—required demonstration of knowledge, abilities, and skills on state licensing examination
Component 9Continuing Education—required periodic training and education to retain state licensure
Component 10Revocation or Suspension of License—license to practice may be revoked or suspended for cause

The components delineated are well-established standards for the professional licensure of traditional occupations, including physicians, attorneys, accountants, and others. However, contemporary literature has failed to address how recent developments designed to professionalize U.S. policing through licensure comport to these occupational and professional standards. To contribute to the discussion of how the policing occupation has evolved in recent years to establish itself as a profession, consistent with the defined model of professional licensure, the remainder of this article focuses specifically on police licensure.


In 2012, the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training (IADLEST) conducted a comprehensive survey of POST Boards and Commissions to determine their level of involvement in administering and regulating police officer certification or licensure. Thirty-six of fifty states (72 percent) responded to the survey. The following is a summary of state and POST Board or Commission involvement in police officer licensure and revocation processes, assessed by each of the 10 components outlined in Figure 1.7

Police Licensing and Revocation: Current Status

The 2012 IADLEST Survey indicates that 86 percent of the 36 states reporting have some form of police licensure and revocation. This finding is consistent with the research of Professor Roger Goldman who reports that 44 states authorize a state agency, typically POST, to license police officers and to also revoke such licenses.8

Component 1—Defined Entry-Level Standards
Currently, the policing profession imposes the most stringent entry-level standards of all professions with regard to assessing one’s personal character, past behaviors, and fitness for duty. Police agencies require comprehensive background checks that include criminal history checks; an assessment of prior drug or alcohol use; an assessment of incidents of conflict with others; a review of financial records, driving records, and employment records; and often, psychological and polygraph examinations. POST Commissions and Boards in all 50 states have established entry-level standards as a component of the occupational certification or licensure process.

Component 2—Education and Training
All 50 states mandate a police recruit basic training program that must be successfully passed in order to attain certification or licensure as a police officer in the state. The average length of the recruit basic training program is 600–700 hours. However, only one state, Minnesota, requires that police officers have a college degree. Some would argue that the lack of state-mandated, minimum educational standards for police officers calls into question whether police have attained professional status, particularly when compared to the educational standards required for physicians, nurses, lawyers, teachers, accountants, and other professions.

Component 3—Testing for Competence
All 50 states require that recruits be evaluated and tested for knowledge, skill, and performance as part of the basic training course. Such testing includes multiple written exams on various curriculum topics and performance testing through scenario-based assessment. Grading standards are established to determine if the student passes or fails.

Component 4—Regulated by the State
In all 50 states, the POST Commission or Board is a duly authorized agency of state government, and is legislatively responsible for certifying or licensing police officers.

Component 5—Mandatory Provisions
In all states, police officers are required by law or by administrative regulation to complete the standards and conditions set by the POST Commission or Board applicable to training and licensure.

Component 6—Failure Prohibits Practice
In all 50 states, POST Commissions and Boards regulate standards and training for local law enforcement. Even though local agencies are responsible for hiring police officers, once hired, the officers must comply with the mandated standards and training of the state, which are administered by the POST Board or Commission. In the event that a recruit fails to meet POST standards and training requirements, he or she is not licensed by the state, and as such, is prohibited from practicing as a police officer. The local agency has little recourse but to fire the officer.

Component 7—Minimum Standards
In all 50 states, POST Commissions or Boards have set minimum standards. For example, if the state minimum level of training is 600 hours, then that is the level that an officer must meet to be licensed by the state. However, many departments, especially in larger jurisdictions, may choose to exceed the state minimum training requirement. It is not unusual for large police agencies to provide four or five weeks of recruit basic training over and above the state minimum requirement. The same is true with regard to hiring standards. While a POST Board or Commission may not require the administration of a polygraph exam upon hire, a local agency may impose such a requirement as part of its hiring process.

Component 8—State Licensing Exam
A licensing exam is a job-related comprehensive examination requiring the student or recruit to demonstrate the knowledge, skills, and abilities required to perform as a police officer in the state. The 2012 IADLEST Survey indicates that 53 percent of the 36 POST Boards or Commissions reporting require the successful completion of a state certification, licensure, or competency examination upon completion of the recruit basic training course and prior to practicing in the profession. Conversely, 47 percent of POST Commissions reporting do not administer an examination. As is consistent with other professions, the majority of POST Commissions that do administer examinations also allow for the police aspirant to retake the examination in the event of failing on the initial attempt.

Component 9—Continuing Education
The 2012 IADLEST Survey indicates that 80 percent of the 36 states reporting, via their POST Boards or Commissions, mandate some level of continuous in-service training. Completion of the mandated in-service training requirement in such states is a condition for retaining state certification or licensure as a peace officer. Continuing education requirements vary by state, but most specify the number of hours to be completed within a specific time period. For example, California requires that officers complete 24 hours of training every two years; North Dakota, 60 hours every three years; Florida, 40 hours every four years; and Maine, 20 hours per year.

Component 10—Revocation or Suspension of License
As previously noted, 43 of all 50 states (86 percent) allow for the revocation or suspension of a police officer’s right to practice. The authority of the POST Commissions or Boards and their administrative and operational structure in revoking or suspending licenses varies by state.

In examining and assessing police licensure using the 10 components outlined, it is evident that police licensure has become institutionalized within the structure of state governments, and police licensure is largely consistent with the licensing of other occupations. While not every POST Board or Commission adheres to all 10 components of the licensure model, all do comply with a balance of the components.

A Closer Look at License Revocation or Suspension

The 2012 IADLEST Survey, along with related research, provides a closer look at the process of police license revocation (Component 10) in each state. Since police license revocation and suspension is a relatively new initiative in the states and very little research and writing has addressed this topic, additional examination seems warranted.

All professions have an established code of conduct for practice. If employees prove to be unfit for the job or commit unethical or illegal acts, then the state licensing authority must have the power to suspend or terminate their right to practice; to revoke, suspend, or otherwise discipline employees based upon proven infractions.

Policing has seen its share of corrupt and abusive officers who discredit the badge.

The 2012 IADLEST Survey, with regard to revocation or suspension, relates that 52 percent of the states exercise such authority under administrative rule; 66 percent of the 36 states reporting exercise authority under the rule of law; and 13.8 percent impose rules under other regulatory authority. Obviously, state authority to impose occupational regulatory requirements often involves a combination of the methods outlined above.

POST Commissions or Boards establish formal procedures to guide the revocation or suspension of licenses and, in most cases, provide for due process protection for the officers under review. As reported in the 2012 IADLEST Survey, formal administrative evidentiary hearings for a case is conducted by the full POST Commission or Board, in 51.6 percent of the 36 states reporting; a hearing officer, in 45 percent; or, in the remaining 3.4 percent, the POST Director, an independent committee, an administrative law judge, the Attorney General’s Office, or a state court. The final decision regarding revocation or suspension of a license is most often made by the full POST Board or Commission (82 percent of the 36 states reporting) or by the POST Director (13 percent). In the remaining 5 percent, the final decision is made by an independent committee, a hearing officer, or an administrative law judge.

When there is a determination that a violation has occurred, state authority most often includes the power to impose the following sanctions: revocation, suspension, probation, letter of censure or warning, and remedial training. In the vast majority of the states, revocation of a license is final and there is no established administrative procedure for appeal or reinstatement.

The number of officers who have sanctions imposed upon their license varies by state and, understandably, is influenced greatly by the number of officers in the state. For the one-year reporting period specified in the IADLEST Survey, larger states, such as Florida and Texas had an average of 122 licensure actions; smaller states, such as Connecticut, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, Mississippi, and Oklahoma had an average of 18 licensure actions.

The misconduct or violations that might result in decertification, suspension, or other disciplinary actions vary by state, but most often include felony and misdemeanor convictions, drug use, use of excessive force, or dishonesty in the performance of duty. Revocation or suspension of a police license most often occurs for the offenses or violations detailed in Figure 2.

Figure 2: Misconduct for which Police Officer Licensure May Be Revoked or Suspended
Offense or InfractionStates Imposing
Sanctions (%)
Conviction of a Felony80.5
Guilty Plea to a Felony—adjudication withheld63.8
No Contest Plea to a Felony—adjudication withheld61.0
Conviction of a Misdemeanor—Class A or 1st degree53.0
Guilty Plea to a Misdemeanor—adjudication withheld50.0
Felony Act—never charged39.0
Misdemeanor—Class A or 1st Degree—never charged30.5
Illegal Drug Use50.0
Violation of Officer Ethics36.0
Excessive Force on Inmates or Arrestees36.0
Dishonesty in Performance of Duty47.0
Incompetence in Performance of Duty19.5
Neglect of Duty25.0
Other Infractions*25.0
*Other infractions include lying on academy forms, departmental discipline, domestic abuse, and failure to comply with training and curriculum standards.

Conclusions and Findings

Police licensure and revocation, consistent with other occupational licensing laws, is a process for protecting the health, safety, and welfare of citizens. The process is invaluable in preparing officers for practice, in assessing and verifying their suitability to practice, and in removing officers who violate the law or commit other infractions against the established standards and ethos of the profession. The development of police licensing laws and procedures has contributed significantly to improving the quality of police personnel and the professional status of the police in society.

As a result of the foregoing analysis of police licensure, based upon information reported by POST Commissions and Boards in the 2012 IADLEST Survey, three summary findings are offered. First, POST agencies have made great progress in incrementally institutionalizing police licensing in their respective states. Second, there is some inconsistency among the states in satisfying the 10 components of the model of professional licensure. For example, it was noted that 53 percent of 36 POST Commissions and Boards reporting require the completion of a state licensing exam, while 47 percent do not. It is hoped that this article provides a template by which individual states can self-assess their current licensing laws, processes, and procedures against the 10 components outlined in the model of professional licensure. Third, the most glaring deficiency in examining police licensing in the states, with the exception of Minnesota, is the lack of a mandated minimum education requirement. While it can be argued that the recruit basic training course satisfies the education requirement of the professional model, others would argue that to be on par with other professions, there must be a state minimum educational level mandated for the police, which would include the completion of a college degree. ♦

1Francis S. Berry, “State Regulation of Occupations and Profession,” The Book of the States: 1986–1987 (Lexington, Kentucky: The Council of State Governments, 1986) 379–83.
2U.S. Const. amend. X.
3Council on Licensure, Enforcement and Regulation (CLEAR), “Glossary of Regulatory Terminology,” s.v. “License/Registration” (2013), (accessed July 10, 2013).
4James A. Cathcart and Gil Graff, “Occupational Licensing: Factoring It Out,” Pacific Law Journal 9 (1978): 147–163.
5Thomas Jurkanin, “Police Licensure: History, Concepts, Models and Current Issues,” The Law Enforcement Executive Forum 11, no. 2 (2011): 9–21.
6Morris M. Kleiner, Licensing Occupations: Ensuring Quality or Restricting Competition? (Kalamazoo, Michigan: W.E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research, 2006).
7International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Standards and Training, “2012 IADLEST Survey of POST Agency Certification Practices” Appendix A in POST Agency Certification Practices, 2011 by Matthew J. Hickman and Loren T. Atherley (Meridian, Idaho: IADLEST, 2012), (accessed January 2, 2014).
8Roger Goldman, “A Model Decertification Law,” St. Louis U. Pub. L. Rev. 32 (2012): 147, (accessed July 9, 2013).

Dr. Thomas J. Jurkanin is an assistant professor in the Department of Criminal Justice Administration at Middle Tennessee State University. Dr. Jurkanin has 39 years of experience in the policing field. He is currently senior editor of the Law Enforcement Executive Forum, and is the author of four books on policing and numerous journal articles. He has been a member of the IACP Education and Training Committee for more than 20 years. Dr. Jurkanin holds a PhD from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.

Please cite as:

Thomas J. Jurkanin, “Police Licensing and Revocation,” The Police Chief 81 (February 2014): 30–35.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXXI, no. 2, February 2014. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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