Careers in law enforcement

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HomeLaw enforcement overview

Introduction to law enforcement

Considering a career in law enforcement means a commitment to the greater good. Police officers and those in similar roles pledge to use their authority to serve others, following the line of the law while treating others with respect. Successful law enforcement officers exhibit self-control, impartiality, and an intersectional approach as they work with people from varying backgrounds. Coupled with natural skills in communication and proper training, these qualities are critical for the modern law enforcement officer.

From a practical perspective, incoming officers can look forward to healthy growth in the industry at large. Over the next 8 years, the law enforcement workforce is projected to increase by 5%, a faster pace than the national average. This indicates a clear need for additional workers interested in protecting their communities, states, and country.

Law enforcement today

Law enforcement is under increasing scrutiny. As a result of several high-profile cases, there have been increased public calls for police reform. There are several emerging trends developing within the field to respond to this new landscape. New officers need to be willing to adopt these fresh approaches.

Community-oriented policing has taken the spotlight as a response to increasing tensions between the police and public. This strategy involves focusing on a collaborative approach to the relationship between local communities and their police departments. Research shows that the best way to use community policing successfully is to assure officers are trained at the college level. When new recruits have this educational background, they have been shown to use deadly force less often, exhibit tolerance, and demonstrate a deeper understanding of the criminal justice system.

Law enforcement professionals are also increasing their use of technology and tools. This includes leveraging social media, body cameras, facial recognition, drones, and even robots. Using these sophisticated tools, police officers free up time to focus on building strong relationships with the community. These tools also improve transparency, which builds public trust and cooperation.

To further evolve with the times, there is an effort in many police departments to increase workforce diversity by gender. Compared to 3% of total officers in 1970, women now make up 12.6%. Women in the force are lauded for their skills in resolving conflicts and community organizing, making this change a key piece of the puzzle when looking into the future of policing.

Complementing this trend, leadership positions are increasingly filled by younger generations. As the skills to lead in this field increase in complexity, younger officers are opting to get their master’s degree to build the competences they need to lead effectively. It follows that, in contrast to their predecessors, this generation has a more inclusive and tolerant approach to leadership.

Finally, the threat of cyber crime cannot be overlooked when considering the modern evolution of policing. This threat is growing exponentially, with losses exceeding $4 billion in 2020. As an incoming recruit, tailoring your studies with a degree in cybersecurity could put you on the front lines of this latest frontier of policing.

Getting involved in law enforcement today is an increasingly complex endeavor. Alongside these ongoing changes, however, the traditional law enforcement functions and activities continue.

Levels of law enforcement

When entering into a job in law enforcement, there are 3 possible levels of government where you can find employment. New recruits need to consider the benefits and downsides of each, including whether they would like to work in a traditional or more nuanced capacity.

Local

Local law enforcement includes police departments within municipal, county, tribal, and regional areas that are given authority by the area’s governing body. They are responsible for upholding the laws within their jurisdiction by patrolling their communities and investigating local crime. Local law enforcement agencies include city police departments, county sheriffs’ offices, district attorneys’ offices, and transit authority police.

State

State law enforcement agencies are responsible for highway patrol, state-wide investigations, and assisting local police. Agencies include state police, campus police, coast guard, military police, and park police.

Federal

Federal agencies are responsible for upholding federal laws, which apply throughout the entire United States. Responsibilities include criminal investigation and enforcement, inspections, court operations, and corrections. Those employed at the federal level may work for agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), or the Federal Bureau of Prisons.

Careers in law enforcement

Police departments have a ranking system that mimics the military. Though possibly the most well-known, the classic position of police officer is considered an entry-level role, and many officers have the ambition to climb the ranks to more advanced positions. While titles vary by department, most follow a system similar to the following:

  • Police officer
  • Detective
  • Sergeant
  • Lieutenant
  • Captain
  • Major
  • Colonel
  • Commander
  • Deputy chief of police
  • Chief of police

Unsurprisingly, moving up the ranks means taking on more responsibility and supervision of others in the department. Those at the highest levels work directly with politicians and lawmakers, setting policies that affect entire cities and regions. Listed below are descriptions of some of the most common positions.

Police officer

When most people think of law enforcement, police officers often come to mind first. People interested in this role are naturally attracted to the adventure and excitement this sometimes risky job can bring. However, the responsibilities of a police officer go further than simply hunting down criminals.

Total employment

654,900

Projected growth (2018-2028)

5%

Degree required

High school diploma or GED

On an average shift, police officers may do any of the following activities:

  • determine suspects’ identity
  • use investigatory methods
  • pursue and arrest alleged perpetrators
  • protect citizens and their property
  • respond to crises
  • enforce traffic laws
  • develop community connections
  • document evidence
  • write reports detailing criminal activity
  • administer first aid
  • inspect suspicious activities

Who is best suited to be a police officer?

The best police officers apply their skills creatively to find solutions to solve problems. Along with this positive mindset when dealing with difficult situations, officers need to cooperate well with others. Successful police officers have an outgoing personality as they come into contact with a variety of people throughout their day.

It is important for police officers to approach their daily work with integrity and self-control. This job can be stressful and even dangerous at times, so managing your reactions and emotions is critical when attempting to diffuse tense situations. Officers should likewise show consistency in their ways of working to build and maintain trust with their colleagues and community.

Police officers are results-oriented and find satisfaction in setting and completing goals with the support of their team and supervisors. They are also independent workers, capable of thinking on their feet and making decisions without input from others when needed.

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If you want to pursue a career as a police officer, you need a high school diploma or GED. New recruits need to go through basic training before they begin working, which usually lasts several months. Some departments require applicants to have an associate degree in criminal justice, especially those looking to enter into specialized roles such as hostage negotiation. Those interested in joining a federal organization or progressing to leadership roles will also do well to earn a degree.

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Detective

After spending a few years building experience as a police officer, many choose to move into a detective role. With traditional 9-5 weekday-only hours, this common career progression is appealing to those ready to move into a more comfortable, senior position in their police department.

Total employment

105,980

Projected growth (2018-2028)

2.5%

Degree required

Bachelor’s

An average day for a detective utilizes and builds on skills learned as a police officer, and includes the following responsibilities:

  • talking to witnesses, the accused, and accusers
  • securing and investigating crime scenes
  • collecting, documenting, and cataloging evidence
  • overseeing the investigatory process
  • adding information to witness and suspect files
  • updating superiors on case progress
  • testifying in court on investigation findings

Who is best suited to be a detective?

Being naturally curious and open to surprises are only the most basic traits needed to do your job well as a detective. The best know how to think outside the box, imagining new scenarios that allow them to make connections others may miss. Simultaneously, you will only be successful in this job if you are scrupulous. From writing reports, following protocols, and noticing subtle comments during an interview, detectives know the importance of paying attention to the details.

While detectives typically work in a relatively safe environment compared to police officers, they nonetheless need the same strong moral compass, self-control, and tolerance for stress. Both their colleagues and civilians involved in investigations need to know that they can depend on the detective to be consistent, trustworthy, and prepared to follow through.

People who find the most success as detectives are driven by a desire to work autonomously. Most are not only self-sufficient, but also place a high value on comfortable working conditions with good job security. In these favorable conditions, they can use their innate drive to perform to the highest degree.

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It is rare to go immediately into the role of detective without first spending a few years gaining experience as a police officer. Even after getting this experience, the process is relatively competitive. Most law enforcement agencies require applicants to have a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. After that, applicants need to pass the National Detective/Investigator Test to rise in rank to a detective position.

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Police sergeant

After spending some time in a detective or police officer role, you may be eligible to become a sergeant. Sergeants supervise police officers, getting briefs on incidents from previous shifts and deducing trends in crime. They monitor the police radio to make sure officers’ shifts are running according to regulations and review officers’ reports.

Similar to detectives, sergeants do a lot of administrative work, though they are required to work night shifts as police officers do. In addition to standard policing activities, sergeants are also involved in community outreach efforts such as teaching at local schools. They may also train police officers in areas like handling DUI (driving under the influence) incidents.

Total employment

122,310

Projected growth (2018-2028)

4.8%

Degree required

High school diploma or GED

One of the most important characteristics of police sergeants is their ability to engage with others. Compared to the other ranks in law enforcement, these professionals interact the most with the local community. Sergeants use their communication skills to convey the values of their department to the officers under their supervision, assuring the department works cohesively. As this is a leadership position, these professionals require a great deal of self-confidence and strong management skills.

While there are external factors that can influence a sergeant’s level of success in their role, an ability to remain professional is critical. Police sergeants who demonstrate fairness, adaptability, a sense of duty, and a genuine motivation to continually improve the department are most successful.

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For many police officers and detectives, getting promoted to sergeant is a significant career goal. To be considered for this role, you need several years of experience working as a police officer or similar roles like patrol officer or deputy sheriff. Some departments have additional requirements such as completing field assignments or specialized training. While it is possible to enter into this role without a degree, some sergeants have a bachelor’s degree.

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  • Median salary: $49K

    Crime scene investigators, or CSIs, are known by many names. These include titles like evidence technician, forensic investigator, crime scene analyst, or forensic science technician. While specific duties are defined by individual departments and thus vary, these investigators typically collect and analyze evidence from crime scenes. Their job is to support the detective in charge of the case by performing the following tasks:

    • keeping records and reports on findings, methodology, and techniques
    • collecting and storing evidence
    • testifying in court about methodology and techniques used in a given case
    • using equipment to document evidence or crime scenes
    • examining crime scenes
    • contacting sources to get evidence for investigations

    Who is best suited to be a crime scene investigator?

    There are several skills and abilities that make someone a great CSI. A detail-oriented approach to all aspects of their job allow CSIs to assure the information they catalog and report is highly accurate and easy to understand. This quality extends to their communication skills as well. The best CSIs give their full attention to those they are interviewing, asking open questions that allow them to gather the most valuable information they can.

    As CSIs spend a lot of time documenting and recording evidence, it is important that they write in clear, complete prose so that others working on a given case can easily understand their findings. They need a high degree of accuracy when transcribing accounts or entering data.

    There is a great deal of specialized knowledge required in this role. A strong background in chemistry is key to success, as CSIs analyze compounds to be used as evidence in criminal investigations. CSIs use a variety of tools, such as evidence collection kits, footprint lifters, lasers, specimen collection containers, and ultraviolent UV lamps.

    Successful CSIs enjoy a varied working environment that includes both administrative and field activities. This job offers some freedom to make decisions and work independently, though it is still necessary to follow specific protocols where required. Most CSI roles involve working indoors in a laboratory, so those in this position tend to thrive in this predictable, controlled environment.

    Education requirements

    While some CSIs start as police officers, many civilians also enter into the role. Degree requirements depend on individual departments. Smaller or rural agencies often do not require a degree compared to larger ones. If you decide to get a degree, finding a program that helps you learn the specific skills involved in crime scene investigation will assure you are prepared for the role. A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice or forensic science are some of the most common degrees earned by CSIs.

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Other careers

There are plenty of options for those interested in going into law enforcement outside of the list above. Some positions have no direct connection to crime and criminals, while others specialize in the details of solving investigations. Regardless, opportunities abound at the local, state, and federal levels.

State trooper

State troopers are employed and managed by the state. They are mainly responsible for enforcing traffic laws on state-run highways and handling motor vehicle accidents. They may be first responders to other emergencies.

TSA agent

Transportation security administration (TSA) agents are responsible for security in airports, train stations, and shipping areas. They screen passengers, luggage, and any other cargo to confirm they comply with transportation requirements.

Immigration or customs agent

Working under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are responsible for preventing illegal immigration and defending the country against illegal goods being trafficked.

Fraud investigator

Fraud investigators are responsible for examining fraudulent criminal activity for both civil and criminal investigations. These investigators typically find employment within the corporate world or the government.

Emergency dispatcher

An emergency dispatcher answers calls for police, fire, and ambulance services.  Their responsibility is to coordinate a response team while keeping the caller on the line.

Should I go into law enforcement?

It is helpful to consider your personal and professional goals when deciding whether a career in law enforcement is the right choice. If you want to jump into a career as soon as possible, you can start out as a police officer after only a few months of training. Training and field experience mean a lot in this field, so the sooner you get started, the faster you can move up the ranks.

If you are looking for the highest-paid positions in law enforcement, aiming for a role in the federal government is your best bet, with average annual salaries of $92,080. Those who work for state and local governments earn $70,280 and $65,850, respectively, on average. Detectives earn a healthy $86,940 on average, whereas police officers come in at $65,540. With robust bonus and retirement packages at most departments, going into law enforcement ensures a stable financial future.

Getting into law enforcement is a big decision. To be good at these jobs, you need to be committed to serving your community with compassion and willing to learn and grow as you move through the ranks. If you are driven to this call, it may be time to start your career in this exciting and rewarding field.

U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)

The DOJ is the chief enforcer of U.S. federal laws. This department also provides resources to criminal justice professionals.

U.S. Marshals Service

As an official bureau of the DOJ, this organization represents federal marshals and court officers in the U.S. Their website offers job postings for deputy U.S. marshals. Information is also available for detention, aviation, and law enforcement agents and administrators.

Police1

This site allows police officers and departments across the U.S. and the world to exchange information. It provides coverage of breaking news and expert analysis of law enforcement topics. Job postings, product pages, and online training resources are also available.

National Criminal Intelligence Resource Center (NCIRC)

This center provides criminal justice professionals with opportunities for training and continuing education. These resources are primarily concerned with law enforcement intelligence operations and practices.

National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives (NOBLE)

This member-based organization represents black CEOs, municipal and command-level officers, and criminal justice professionals serving in law enforcement. It offers its members educational services, mentoring, and career opportunities, among other things.

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