The decision to become a police officer is for some a career goal decided upon at a very young age, while for others the decision is made in later years after careful deliberation. Either way, getting there is part of a highly competitive process which includes a number of important steps one will need to take. A law enforcement career can be dangerous and stressful but also challenging and fulfilling with numerous opportunities for a dedicated individual with a strong sense of duty. Anyone who wishes to start a career as a police officer should know what to expect in terms of everyday duties and measurements of success.
What does a police officer do?
Law enforcement can be done at the local, state, or federal level. About 80% of police officers are employed by local governments, about 12% by state agencies, and the remainder by various Federal agencies. The common denominator at all three levels is protection of lives and property. Officers will perform their duties in a variety of ways depending on the size and type of their organization. Careers with state and federal agencies tend to be higher paying and, as such, competition for those positions is keener. Opportunities tend to be better in local police departments that offer relatively low salaries or in urban communities where crime rates are relatively high.
Uniformed police officers have general law enforcement duties, including maintaining regular patrols and responding to calls for service. They may direct traffic at the scene of an accident, investigate a robbery, or give first aid to an accident victim. Police agencies are usually organized into geographic districts, with uniformed officers assigned to patrol a specific area or neighborhood, either alone or with a partner. In large police departments, responsibilities become more specialized as officers are often assigned to a specific type of duty. Some examples include chemical and microscopic analysis, training and firearms instruction, and handwriting or fingerprint identification. Some officers are assigned to specialized units, such as horseback, bicycle, motorcycle or harbor patrol; canine corps; special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams; or emergency response teams. Others may work in courts or perform mostly jail-related duties. Regardless of their specific duties, police officers at all levels are required to write reports and maintain meticulous records that may be needed later if they testify in court.
Special types of law enforcement officers exist at all levels. Some of the specializations include the following:
- Sheriffs: They act as the chief law enforcement agent at the county level. Sheriffs are usually elected to their posts and perform duties similar to those of a local or county police chief.
- State troopers: Also known as highway patrol officers, these officers patrol state roads and highways to enforce motor vehicle laws and regulations, and also take part in criminal arrests at the state level. Some officers work for the state as investigators, court officers, or administrators.
- Detectives: These are plainclothes investigators who gather facts and collect evidence for criminal cases. Typical duties include conducting interviews, examining records, and participating in raids or arrests.
- Fish and game wardens: They enforce fishing, hunting, and boating laws; and aid in search and rescue operations.
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents: As the principal investigators of the Federal Government, they are responsible for investigating violations of Federal law and conducting sensitive national security investigations.
- U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents: They enforce laws and regulations relating to illegal drugs.
- U.S. marshals: They are involved in Federal law enforcement efforts. Duties include protection of the Federal judiciary and ensuring the effective operation of the Federal courts.
- Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives agents: They regulate violations of Federal firearms and explosives laws, as well as Federal alcohol and tobacco tax regulations.
- Department of Homeland Security officers: Working under the auspices of several different agencies (e.g., the U.S. Secret Service, Customs and Border Protection, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement), these agents guard U.S. boundaries, provide air security, and protect high-ranking officials.
Uniformed officers and detectives usually work 40-hour weeks, although paid overtime is common. They are required to work at any time their services may be needed and may put in long hours during investigations. Some Federal officers (such as U.S. Secret Service agents) are required to travel extensively, often on very short notice. They may relocate a number of times over the course of their careers. Some others (such as the U.S. Border Patrol) work outdoors in rugged terrain for long periods and in all kinds of weather. Law enforcement officers in many agencies may retire with a pension after 25 or 30 years of service, allowing them to pursue a second career while still in their 40s or 50s. Because of relatively attractive salaries and benefits, the number of qualified candidates exceeds the number of openings in Federal law enforcement agencies and in many state police departments. Opportunities tend to be better in local police departments, especially in those that offer relatively low salaries.
What steps should one follow to become a police officer?
How can a person become a GREAT police officer?
These are some of the important things to know in order to become a first-rate police officer. Police work requires a high state of physical and moral fitness. Depending on the actual type of law enforcement being practiced, the profession will require some degree of higher education and the ability to pass both written and physical tests. A career in law enforcement can be diverse, challenging, and fulfilling for those who are able to understand the nature of the work and are committed to following the steps required to succeed.
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