There's no script for the job of police officer - it's always unpredictable. You need to empathise with people and keep your head. Clare Dwyer Hogg reports on a role that requires courage, an open mind and physical fitness

Well, it is if you get your information from television dramas. "People see us on The Bill and think we're making it up as we go but there's lots of knowledge behind what we do," laughs Sheila Gabriel, sergeant in charge of student support, based at Hendon Police Training College in north London. "But then," she continues, " If dramas were to portray it accurately, they'd have to use up a few episodes showing officers doing paperwork."

Gabriel has been in the police force for 25 years, and is more than aware of the reality check that prospective police officers face when they begin training with her. "They sometimes don't have a realistic view - when you arrest a shoplifter, for instance, you have to sit down and write it up afterwards." It is, she says, a great job, a rewarding job, but it helps to go in with your eyes as open as they can be.

That depends on whether you get through the rigorous application process. Some 35,000 people apply each year but only 5,000 make it. While the police service does not require formal educational qualifications for application, the training process involves study, and candidates have to show aptitude for this, as well as passing a numeracy and literacy test.

Urban myth would have candidates worrying that they have to be a certain height to join - you don't - but neglecting to think about important things such as their level of physical fitness. Lack of fitness is the reason many candidates fail the application process.

Aside from the basics, what else is the force looking for in an applicant? Successful candidates should have an open mind - a willingness to learn - and a personality that lends itself to daily demands of the job. "We look for someone with integrity," says Gabriel. "When everyone else is running away from something, they've got to have the courage to run towards it. If something is going wrong for someone on the street, they'll want to know why and if they can help; they're not going to step over the rape victim, not going to say they didn't think they could get involved."

It is not, she emphasises, about turning up to the application process fully formed, but about having the right motivation. The officers in command will shape and mould the potential. "We'll teach you how to police the streets," she says. "It's about having the courage to stand up and be counted."

Police training begins with a 15-week residential training programme at a National Police Training Centre. Different forces (there are 43 in England and Wales, and more than 126,000 police officers) have variations on the form training takes, but the core principles remain the same.

The intensive course provides recruits with the skills that will underpin their new career. As well as learning the law, they're taught how to be "street safe", which includes lifesaving and self-defence; how to deal with theft and burglary, and get an insight into the criminal mind; crime prevention, such as searching for drugs and dealing with offensive weapons; traffic offences such as drink driving. Every scenario will be different, and so each area of learning covers a gamut of tangents and possibilities.

For this reason, perhaps, some officers who have been in the force for a while advise that having some life experience before joining is helpful. There is upper no age limit for applicants and people commonly enter the force as a career change (most officers do, however, retire at 55). Whatever your age, what a police officer can witness in an average day takes preparation. "I'm hard to shock," says Jules Winfield, 22, who joined the Police Service of Northern Ireland when he was 19. "But near the start of my career I dealt with a bad traffic accident where the people had 60 per cent burns. One was under the influence of an illegal substance, and I had to physically wrestle him to get him into the ambulance. We fought all the way to the hospital."

Winfield found the effects afterwards difficult to deal with. "I had the horrible smell of burnt human flesh all over me; when I had a shower at home, it was still there. That was hard."

There can be rewards, though. The nurse at the hospital told Winfield that without his help, the burns victim would have died. "You get a minimal amount of thanks," Winfield says. "But the times you do get it, it's absolutely brilliant."

You learn the principles of policing on the intensive course; putting them into practice comes on the beat. The first experience outside the classroom that a trainee will have is with the support of someone who knows the job inside out: an experienced constable will be by your side until you are deemed suitable for independent patrol.

"The tutorship scheme which teaches you how to handle errors and go over the common legislation is a really good idea," Winfield says. "It's a chance to employ training in a safe environment outside the classroom. I definitely appreciated it."

After two years of probation, trainees will find that they are fully fledged constables, stepping up a rung on the career ladder. This travels sideways as well as up. Once you have passed probation, you are eligible to sit the qualifying examination to be promoted to sergeant. Some police officers want to stay on the beat and so they do that, honing those particular skills. Others choose to specialise in a different area, and although the competition is extremely high, the choice of roles is diverse.

The Criminal Investigation Department (CID), for instance, is a popular field - around one in eight police officers are in the CID - and requires intensive training to equip them to deal with serious crime. The horizons within the force are much broader than that: there are opportunities to work as a police dog handler, or in the traffic police, Special Branch, firearms units, drug squad, fraud squad, mounted police and even under-water search units, indispensable in the search for missing persons.

Within this, an important part of the structure of the police force is the High Potential Development Scheme, which is designed to develop individuals who feel they could be future leaders in the service. What makes this scheme unusual is that you do not have to be in any designated rank to apply: anyone within the organisation is eligible, provided that they display the right skills. Whatever area of policing officers decide to settle in, they carry the same essential skills with them. The ability to understand people, empathise with them, keep their head in what seem to be impossible situations, and leave preconceptions behind. It is certainly one career that is not predictable.

The lowdown

How do I apply?

Contact the force you wish to join to see if they are currently recruiting; apply online at www.policecouldyou.co.uk.

How long is the training?

A standard 15-week residential course - possibly more, depending on the particular force - and then two years' probation to become a fully fledged constable.

What is the pay scale?

Start of training: £19,803.

Completion of initial training: £22,107.

Completion of two years' probation: £23,388.

After probation: salary rises year-on-year.

Sergeant: £31,092, increases year-on-year.

Inspector: £39,840 (in London £41,586); will increase with service.

What is the working week?

Usually a 40-hour week on shift basis; part-time work sometimes available.

Marching orders: what it takes to get through police college

'My family all thought it was a strange decision - but I'm glad I stuck with it'

Charles Walker, 50, is a police sergeant based atTower Hamlets, east London

"My first job after school was in a bank. I hated it. I decided to go to university to study for a degree in Botany Landscape and Architecture for three years. By the time I graduated, though, there was a recession and it wasn't easy to get jobs. One of my friends was in the police: anything that involved being out and about dealing with people, not stuck in an office, appealed to me at the time. So, in 1982, I joined the force. My family thought it was a strange decision, and while they didn't try to dissuade me, I think they thought I could do better.

"Arriving at Hendon for the training, though, made me think twice. I hated it. I was 25, and was being bossed around by everyone. I had to march everywhere! I considered leaving, but it was comparatively well paid, and I felt that I'd nothing to lose. I decided to give it a go and see how I got on. I'm glad I stuck with it.

"As a probationer for two years in central London, it was quite hard. You're the rookie, so you have to do the horrible things: sudden deaths, standing on insecure premises. The sudden deaths can be quite difficult, depending on the circumstances. Once you've got over the shock of your first death, the smell and everything, you have to deal with the deceased's family. That can be hard.

"The strangest experience I had was working with an officer who had a photographic memory. We were sitting at traffic lights, and he looked at the car registration in front, and knew that it was stolen. The driver saw us, got out and started running. I chased him over hedges, up streets, all across St John's Wood - I had no idea where I was, and I wasn't giving a running commentary over the radio like I was supposed to because I was so focused on catching him. Eventually, I caught up with him, and he just stopped and said, 'I'm knackered.' Only then did I get on the radio, and they worked out where I was.

"I was a PC for 22 years before I decided to become a Sergeant. I wanted to move on at that stage. I've always said it's important to keep your integrity, what you believe is right and wrong." CDH

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