Introduction to law enforcement
The 3 major components of the criminal justice system in the United States are law enforcement, courts, and corrections. These components work together to identify, apprehend, assess, and rehabilitate criminals. In this system, law enforcement employees work on the front lines.
Law enforcement in the U.S. has changed dramatically since the first centralized police department was created in the city of Boston in 1838. Today, there are more than 18,000 municipal, state, and federal law enforcement agencies that employ more than 420,000 law enforcement officers. Employees include police officers, detectives, probation officers, and correctional officers, among many others.
A bachelor’s degree in law enforcement can lead to many future employment opportunities. Whether you’re already working in law enforcement or launching a new career, job growth in this field is positive. More specific information on job outlook and salaries is included below.
If you are invested in the public safety of your community members, have a passion to fight crime, and protect the ideals of justice, a career in law enforcement may be for you.
Bachelor’s degree characteristics
Most bachelor’s programs in law enforcement require the completion of 120 credits and take 4 years to complete. In many cases, this degree can be earned online, on campus, or using a hybrid approach. In today’s climate, and for those juggling work and family obligations, the option to earn a degree online could be appealing.
However, an internship or capstone project is a common requirement for this degree and will generally need to be completed in person.
Accelerated degree programs exist in some states and allow students to complete a bachelor’s degree in less time. Graduates can then either enter the workforce or apply to a graduate degree program.
Why get a degree in law enforcement?
Today’s law enforcement professionals are facing challenges unlike never before. With the advent of the internet, criminal organizations are growing more complex. Professionals need up-to-date skills to identify, trace, and mitigate criminal behavior.
Until recently, most police and other law enforcement employees did not need a college degree to embark on a career. Today, many law enforcement agencies favor candidates with credentials higher than a high school diploma or GED. These candidates typically have gained more specialized knowledge through higher education.
Which majors can you study in law enforcement
Are you an undergraduate student interested in law enforcement? Read on for information on some bachelor’s degrees that you could pursue to launch or advance your career.
Students enrolled in this major will have opportunities to learn theoretical legal concepts. They will study a general education enriched by practical applications.
These are some typical core courses in legal studies:
- Sociology of law
- Law and economics I
- Law, politics, and society
- Foundations of legal studies
- Punishment, culture, and society
- Theories of justice, law, and society
- The supreme court and public policy
- American legal and constitutional history
While this is the typical foundation degree for those going on to earn higher law degrees, an undergraduate degree in legal studies can offer students opportunities to specialize in other areas. Not only a degree for future lawyers and judges, a bachelor’s degree in legal studies may allow students to pursue diverse careers in law enforcement. These can include a law enforcement officer, a FBI agent, a paralegal, or a court clerk.
Studying law could help police officers looking for career advancement to qualify as instructors. They could work with recruits or as academy educators.
Students interested in a career in law enforcement often pursue a degree in criminal justice. The coursework for this major builds a foundation in:
- Criminal law
- Corrections facilities
- Investigation techniques
Students generally have opportunities to gain presentation and decision-making skills. They may foster an appreciation for diversity and multiculturalism and improve computer literacy.
There are many criminal justice degree programs. The following are some courses you may encounter:
- Law enforcement
- Violence in society
- Ethics in criminal justice
- Courts and judicial process
- Introduction to criminal justice
Students study the history and current structure of the U.S. criminal justice system. They may also gain a comprehensive understanding of public policy.
Graduates with a criminal justice degree may find work as police officers or detectives. Additionally, they may pursue positions as corrections officers or probation officers.
Potential law enforcement careers for candidates with a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice include police officers, detectives, corrections, or probation officers. This undergraduate degree can also lead to careers outside of this field, and positions may include:
- Court clerks
- Social workers
- Family law mediators
- Courtroom assistants
- Criminal law supervisors
- Education and training specialists
Criminology is a close relative of criminal justice but tends to study criminals and their motivations. Criminology programs usually examine crime as a social phenomenon. Courses tend to focus on the application of theories and the analysis of illegal behavior.
The study of statistics or data analysis can help equip future graduates with valuable programming and coding skills. These skills can lead to a useful examination of large data sets and a clearer understanding of criminal patterns on a national scale.
This concentration includes an emphasis on human psychology and sociology classes. Students generally develop superior analytical and communication skills. Some students may investigate methods to change illegal behavior patterns and reduce recidivism numbers.
Criminology majors often find work as detectives, researchers, and corrections officers.
Some schools combine criminal justice and criminology into one major with different tracks. Others allow students to select courses from both areas of study. Either major can position graduates for rewarding positions in law enforcement and corrections.
Forensic professionals build objective frameworks that investigators can use to examine crimes. This information can also assist law enforcement officials in identifying suspects. Forensics is one of the central jobs for which law enforcement agencies are responsible.
Many forensic positions require at least a bachelor’s degree. This undergraduate degree can focus on sciences like chemistry, physics, or biology. Students can take courses in criminology and criminal justice, depending on their interests.
Bachelor’s degrees in engineering or psychology may also prepare students for careers in forensics.
Positions in this field can include:
- Forensic engineer
- Forensic pathologist
- Forensic psychologist
- Forensic ballistics expert
- Forensic science technician
Forensics professionals may work at crime scenes, in an agency’s lab, or interviewing criminal suspects. Forensic science technicians ensure that colleagues follow proper crime- scene and evidence-handling procedures.
On-the-job training is often required for those who work in labs and investigate crime scenes.
Other areas of study for those desiring to work in law enforcement include:
- Public safety
- Political science
- Computer science
- Homeland security
- Finance and accounting
Financial aid and cost
The average published tuition and fees for full-time students in the 2020-21 school year are:
- $3,770 – public 2-year in district
- $10,560 – public 4-year in state
- $27,020 – public 4-year out of state
- $37,650 – private non-profit 4 year
There are various federal and state grants, loans, and scholarships available. A free application form for federal student aid opens on October 1st at the Federal Student Aid website. This site provides information on types of aid, eligibility, and loan repayment options.
Grants, scholarships, and loans are often provided by colleges directly. Additional information, including deadlines, is generally viewable on a school’s website.
Schools must gain accreditation from an independent accrediting agency. This process ensures that a degree program or institution meets a standard for quality.
Accreditation certification gives its graduates and institutions clout with employers and other institutions. Some law enforcement degree programs receive accreditation from the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) or the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators (IACLEA). Accreditation is a voluntary process.
Studying at a regionally accredited university can keep the door open for future studies. Additionally, it may be easier to qualify for financial aid for an accredited school.
The job outlook for graduates
According to the BLS, protective service workers had a median annual wage of $41,580 in May 2019. This salary was slightly higher than the median yearly wage for all occupations.
Police and detectives are one of the fastest-growing occupational groups within protective services. The BLS has projected a job growth rate of 5% between 2019 and 2029 for this group. In May 2019, the median annual salary for police and detectives was $65,170.
Here is a breakdown of the salaries earned by this occupational group in May 2019:
- Detectives and criminal investigators earned $83,170
- Transit and railroad police earned $71,820
- Police and sheriff’s patrol officers earned $63,150
- Probation and correctional officers earned $52,290
- Forensic science technicians earned $59,150
A master’s degree and other advanced law enforcement degrees can take your law enforcement education or career to new levels. Even if you are already employed as a police officer or law enforcement professional, the flexibility of many online graduate degree programs can allow you to further your studies while continuing to work. Some master’s degrees can be earned in 1 to 2 years.
A career in a federal law enforcement agency like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) or the Counter Intelligence Agency (CIA), usually requires a minimum of a bachelor’s degree. However, these agencies often prefer candidates to have a master’s degree in criminal justice.
Master of Science of Criminal Justice (M.S. of CJ)
This program could benefit those who wish to work as a police captain or chief. There are choices within most MS of CJ programs for specialized study in areas such as forensic psychology, homeland security, and public administration.
Master of Arts in Criminal Justice (M.A. of CJ)
This program may offer a specialization in intelligence and research analysis. In this program, coursework could focus on the structure and function of the U.S. Intelligence Community at the federal, state, and local levels. Students may study law, policy, and the use of social media platforms relevant to intelligence professionals.
Students do not need to hold a bachelor’s degree in law enforcement to be eligible for admission to a graduate degree program in this field. However, your undergraduate transcript will usually need to reflect a cumulative GPA of 3.0 or higher.
Some qualified undergraduate students may be able to earn a bachelor’s and a master’s degree at the same time. Credits earned in this type of program can apply to both degrees, allowing for completion of the master’s degree in an accelerated time frame.