Becoming a police officer is an admirable career goal that allows people to serve and protect their community. However, having a criminal record can make it very difficult to join any law enforcement agency. Felonies, in particular, are considered especially problematic when seeking a job in law enforcement.
In Florida, as in most states, there are strict hiring policies regarding applicants with felony convictions. While every situation is different, it is rarely possible for a convicted felon to become a police officer. There are specific disqualifiers that would prohibit most felons from being hired. That said, there are some limited possibilities if enough time has passed and other circumstances allow.
General Requirements to Become a Police Officer in Florida
To understand why felons face barriers to becoming cops, it helps to first look at what is generally required to become a police officer in Florida. The standard prerequisites to get hired as law enforcement include:
- U.S. citizenship
- At least 19 years old
- Valid driver’s license
- High school diploma or GED
- No felony convictions
- No domestic violence convictions
- Mandatory drug testing
- Psychological evaluation
- Polygraph test
- Background investigation
- Oral interview
- Physical fitness standards met
- Completion of police academy training
As you can see, the list of qualifications is lengthy. Passing a thorough background check is one of the most critical steps for candidates. Felony convictions are an immediate red flag that often disqualifies applicants early in the hiring process.
Why Felons Are Restricted from Law Enforcement Careers
There are solid reasons why law enforcement agencies almost universally prohibit hiring felons as officers:
- Public trust: Communities need to have confidence that police have integrity and good moral character. Hiring felons risks undermining public trust in law enforcement. Citizens expect officers to have high ethics and no serious criminal history.
- Responsibilities: Police officers have immense authority and responsibilities. They have the power to detain, arrest and use lethal force when appropriate. Felons have demonstrated poor judgment and illegal behaviors that make them ill-suited for such weighty powers.
- Dangerous temptations: Law enforcement work necessarily involves access to sensitive information, evidence rooms, undercover operations and more. Someone with a criminal past may be tempted by opportunities for further illegal acts.
- Accountability: Officers must be able to testify in court and have their word trusted without skepticism about their criminal record. Convicted felons lack credibility as witnesses against lawbreakers.
- Appearances: If felons became cops, the public would see it as hypocrisy for individuals to enforce laws they themselves violated in the past.
- Recruit quality: Allowing felons would diminish the selectivity of the hiring process and discourage non-felon recruits who want the highest standards.
These legitimate concerns make sense from the perspective of police leadership and communities. The risks of hiring convicted felons typically outweigh any possible rewards.
Florida Law and Hiring Policies on Felons
Florida law specifically prohibits any law enforcement agency in the state from knowingly employing someone with a felony conviction:
“A person who, after July 1, 1981, pleads guilty or nolo contendere to or is found guilty of a felony, or of a misdemeanor involving perjury or a false statement, shall not be eligible for employment or appointment as an officer, notwithstanding suspension of sentence or withholding of adjudication.” (Florida Statutes 943.13)
This ban on hiring convicted felons includes all categories of Florida law enforcement:
- Municipal police departments
- Sheriff’s offices
- State agencies such as Florida Highway Patrol
- State law enforcement divisions
There is no distinction made between types of felony crimes, meaning all felonies would exclude candidates from hiring eligibility. The statute does specifically mention perjury and false statement misdemeanors as also disqualifying.
Beyond the state law, individual law enforcement agencies can establish their own hiring standards that restrict candidates with criminal histories even further. It is common for agencies to have zero-tolerance policies around any kind of criminal convictions or arrests.
Minor Crimes May Also Lead to Disqualification
While Florida law focuses on felony convictions, many law enforcement departments also have strict policies against hiring anyone with the following types of backgrounds:
- Misdemeanor convictions
- DUI or DWI offenses
- Serious traffic violations
- Juvenile offenses
- Arrests without convictions
- Marijuana use or possession
- Domestic violence issues
- Questionable financial history
These types of minor crimes or red flags would not necessarily prohibit someone legally, but could still result in them being rejected as an officer candidate. Agencies want to avoid any “gray area” risks when making hiring decisions.
Waiting Period to Apply for Officers with Criminal History
While Florida law does not provide for any possibility of appeal or waiver for felons, some agencies do have defined waiting periods. These guidelines specify how long after a conviction or end of sentence someone must wait before applying.
For example, the City of Orlando Police Department requires a 10-year waiting period after felony convictions. The Orange County Sheriff’s Office has a 5-year waiting period. Candidates must also fully complete any court-ordered probation or parole.
However, even after the waiting period, applicants are not guaranteed to be hired. The agency still has full discretion to evaluate the severity of the felony crime and make determinations on a case-by-case basis.
Requirements During the Waiting Period
During the required waiting period after a felony conviction, an individual who hopes to become a police officer should strive to meet the following guidelines:
- Fulfill all sentencing terms, such as restitution, rehabilitation programs, community service, etc.
- Complete probation or parole requirements.
- Avoid any subsequent interactions with law enforcement.
- Maintain consistent employment.
- Pursue higher education related to law enforcement.
- Obtain character references from reputable community members.
Following these steps shows maturity, personal development and rehabilitation during the waiting period. This can help convince an agency the past mistakes will not be repeated. However, even a perfect record during the waiting period provides no guarantees of being hired.
Extensive Background Checks for Police Applicants
All agencies conduct in-depth background investigations looking at many aspects of the candidate’s history, such as:
- Past employment – including reasons for termination or discipline
- Financial history – bankruptcies, unpaid debts, responsible use of credit, etc.
- Driving record – speeding tickets, license suspensions, DUIs
- Criminal record – both adult and juvenile
- Substance abuse screening – drug and alcohol testing
- Education history – verification of claimed degrees
- Military service record – discharge status and disciplinary issues
- Social media posts – concerning online comments and behavior
- Personal references – interviews with family, friends, colleagues
- Lie detector test
These background checks will uncover any past felonies. But they can also reveal other sorts of red flags that cause a negative hiring decision.
Full disclosure is required on the application. Any attempt to hide past convictions or disciplinary issues could lead to immediate disqualification for deceit about one’s background.
Can Felons Become Police Officers in Florida? – The Exceptions
Given all the stringent laws and hiring practices previously covered, it may seem impossible for any felon to actually become a cop in Florida.
And that is mostly accurate – the chances are extremely slim. But there are certain scenarios where a prior felon overcoming the odds to be hired as a police officer is not entirely impossible.
Sealing Criminal Records in Florida
One option that could potentially help is having your criminal record sealed or expunged in Florida. When a record is sealed:
- The public is unable to view it.
- Many employers cannot ask about sealed or expunged records.
- You can legally deny the record exists on job applications.
However, there are exceptions to these protections provided by record sealing. For candidates applying to work in law enforcement, the record remains fully available and discloseable throughout the hiring process.
So sealing a criminal record does not actually improve the chances for felons to become police officers later. But it can help in pursuing other career paths unrelated to law enforcement or security roles.
Appeals Process in Limited Cases
Some law enforcement agencies may consider appeals requesting special waivers to allow hiring specific felons. This would typically require extenuating circumstances and strong evidence the individual no longer poses any risk, such as:
- Felony conviction from more than 15+ years ago
- Felony was a non-violent crime unrelated to integrity (drug possession, etc)
- Model conduct since serving sentence without further offenses
- All parole/probation terms fully completed
- College education acquired since conviction
- Strong record of steady employment
- Impeccable character references
- Prior experience in law enforcement or military
- Wrongful conviction that was overturned or pardoned
Even in these circumstances that demonstrate completely reformed character and dedication to public service, a special waiver remains very rare. But it could be possible under the most extraordinary conditions.
Expungement to Eliminate a Felony Conviction
One other hypothetical possibility would apply if a felon had their conviction expunged from their record. Expungement erases the offense entirely, as if it never happened.
Florida law does allow some felony expungement options, but only for lower level non-violent offenses such as drug possession. The expungement process is not easy or quick, but could allow someone to truthfully claim they have a clean record.
However, even expungement may still not satisfy law enforcement agencies doing extremely thorough background checks. The arrest and conviction may still surface even if officially expunged. Or candidates may be required to fully disclose expunged offenses.
Best Alternatives to Becoming a Police Officer
With the odds stacked heavily against becoming a cop if you have a felony, the better options are to pursue careers that are more realistic. Some good alternatives include:
- Security Guard – More flexibility for people with records
- Private Investigator – Can sometimes accept felons with good records
- Loss Prevention – May allow some felony convictions after waiting period
- Forensic Science – Lab analysis roles away from crime scenes
- Victim Advocate – Help protect and support victims of crimes
- Paralegal – Assist lawyers with legal research and documents
- Crime Scene Cleanup – Remediate scenes once police work is done
All of these related occupations offer the chance to use an interest in law enforcement to help communities or the justice system. With determination and perseverance, former felons may be able to gain respectable and rewarding careers serving the public good without actually becoming police officers.
Becoming a police officer comes with great responsibilities and powers that require individuals of utmost integrity and ethics. Applicants undergo rigorous selection to ensure only those of strong moral character are hired.
In Florida, state laws prohibit knowingly hiring any police officer with a prior felony conviction. Additionally, individual law enforcement agencies establish strict qualification standards that usually exclude those with any criminal record.
While very rare exceptions are possible under unique circumstances, it remains extremely difficult for convicted felons to join law enforcement in Florida. A criminal record presents an almost insurmountable obstacle for those individuals aspiring to become police officers.
The best path forward for felons is to seek alternative careers helping society or the justice system. With hard work and determination, many other rewarding opportunities exist in public service. By focusing energy toward redeeming oneself through legal employment, felons can still make positive impacts in their local communities.