How to Become a Police Officer
While a degree in criminal justice could overlap with some law certifications-such as a court reporter-there are plenty of careers within criminal justice that are strictly law enforcement-based, like a police officer. Other careers dive more into the science of solving crimes, like a crime scene investigator. Which job is right for you?
Nature of Law Enforcement Jobs
There are multiple types of positions within the law enforcement umbrella. The daily activities of police and detectives differ depending on their occupational specialty-such as police officer, game warden or detective-and whether they are working for the local, state or federal level.
Uniformed police officers have general law enforcement duties, including maintaining regular patrols and responding to calls. Much of their time is spent responding to calls and doing paperwork. They may direct traffic at the scene of an accident, investigate a burglary or administer first aid to an accident victim.
Sheriffs and deputy sheriffs enforce the law on the county level. Sheriffs are usually elected to their posts and perform duties similar to those of a local or county police chief.
State police officers arrest criminals statewide and patrol highways to enforce motor vehicle laws. State police officers also issue traffic citations. At the scene of accidents, they may direct traffic, give first aid or call for emergency equipment.
Detectives gather facts and collect evidence for criminal cases. They conduct interviews, examine records, observe the activities of suspects and participate in raids or arrests. Detectives and state and federal agents and inspectors usually specialize in investigating one type of violation, such as homicide, illegal substances or fraud.
Police and detective work is sometimes very dangerous and stressful. In addition to the dangers of confrontations with criminals, police officers and detectives need to be ready to deal appropriately with a number of threatening situations. A career in law enforcement may take a toll on private lives.
Police Officer Training and Education Requirements
Most police and detectives learn much of what they need to know on the job, often in their agency's police academy. Candidates must be U.S. citizens, usually at least 20 years old, and must meet rigorous physical and personal qualifications.
Applicants usually must have at least a high school education, and some departments require 1 or 2 years of college coursework or a college degree. Many entry-level applicants for police jobs have completed some formal postsecondary education, and many are college graduates.
FBI agents must have at least a bachelor's degree and several years of post-college experience. Most other federal law enforcement agencies require either a bachelor's degree or related work experience or a combination of the two.
To excel in this type of career, you must enjoy working with people and meeting the public. Because personality traits such as honesty, sound judgment, integrity and a sense of responsibility are especially important in law enforcement, candidates are interviewed by senior officers and investigated. Often candidates are interviewed by a psychiatrist or a psychologist or given a personality test. Most applicants are subjected to lie detector examinations or drug testing.
Employment and Job Outlook for Police Officers
Police and detectives held about 861,000 jobs in 2006. 79% were employed by local governments. State police agencies employed about 11% and various federal agencies employed about 7%.
Employment of police and detectives is expected to grow 11% over the 2006-16 decade, which is about as fast as the average for all occupations. Due to the recession in 2008 and 2009, some jobs at the city-level might be hurt due to a hiring freeze. It's uncertain how the industry on a whole might be affected.
Salary Trends of Police Jobs
In May 2006, median annual earnings of police and detective supervisors were $69,310. The middle 50% earned between $53,900 and $83,940. The lowest 10% earned less than $41,260 and the highest 10% earned more than $104,410. Median annual earnings were $85,170 in federal government, $68,990 in state government and $68,670 in local government.