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. Other career options for those interested in law and criminal justice include probation officer, corrections officer, security guard, or private investigator.
What steps should one follow to become a police officer?
- Get the proper education. "Proper" depends on what level of law enforcement a person wants to aspire to. At the local level, almost all police departments require a basic high school education, and a higher education such as an associate's or bachelor's degree is recommended and can help in the competitive application process. Federal and State agencies typically require a college degree. To be considered for appointment as an FBI agent, an applicant must be a graduate of an accredited law school or a college graduate with one of the following: a major in accounting, electrical engineering, or information technology; fluency in a foreign language; or three years of related full-time work experience. Applicants for special agent careers with the U.S. Secret Service and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms must have a bachelor's degree as well as a minimum of three years related work experience. A number of colleges offer criminal justice programs for individuals interested in becoming a police officer. Most of these programs involve education in human behavior, legal issues, computer systems, and a variety of other subjects which are especially pertinent to law enforcement officers.
- Be physically fit. Policing requires a high state of physical fitness. Participating in organized sports will definitely help prepare for application to a police department.
- Keep a clean nose. Applicants will need to undergo a background check and will likely be rejected for multiple traffic violations, drug offenses or similar indiscretions. Convicted felons are ineligible for consideration.
- Pass the written and physical exams. Applicants will have to sit for a civil service examination, administered through the police department itself. Many study guides and classes are available which can help candidates get a higher score. The civil service exam is offered whenever a department has openings, and some departments also offer it on a regular basis to establish a pool of eligible recruits. Applicants will also take a physical exam which tests agility, strength, vision, and hearing.
- Attend a police academy. If the exams are passed successfully, the applicant will attend a police academy, usually for about 3-4 months. The training at a police academy includes classroom instruction, physical training, situational training, safe use of firearms, self-defense, and first aid.
How can a person become a GREAT police officer?
- Before applying, consider a period of military service. Two years in the armed forces is excellent mental and physical conditioning for police work.
- Pursue continuing education. Attend periodic seminars and workshops to maintain proficiency in current legal procedure and cultural sensitivity. Take advanced training in self-defense tactics, firearms, use-of-force policies, sensitivity and communications skills, crowd-control techniques, and advances in law enforcement equipment. Work toward higher degrees in criminal justice, police science, administration of justice, or public administration.*
- Maintain and improve personal integrity. Characteristics such as honesty, sound judgment, and a sense of responsibility are especially important in law enforcement and should be honed and nurtured. It is important that a police officer always "does the right thing".
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.
Resources for Police Officers
- Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Careers, https://www.fbijobs.gov/index.asp
- Department of Homeland Security Careers, http://www.dhs.gov/careers
- PoliceLink, http://policelink.monster.com/
- Officer.com, http://www.officer.com/
- Directory of International Police Websites, http://police.sas.ab.ca/homepage.html
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition, Police and Detectives, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/police-and-detectives.htm
Program outcomes vary according to each institution's specific curriculum, and employment opportunities are not guaranteed.
*"The Bachelor of Science in Criminal Justice Administration, Bachelor of Science in Organizational Security and Management, and Master of Science Administration of Justice and Security programs are educational degree programs and do not guarantee that a student will meet the particular requirements or qualifications to become a law enforcement, corrections, or peace officer at the state, national, or international level. Students who are interested in pursuing such professions are encouraged to check with the applicable agencies for a list of requirements."