A police officer and detective protect lives and property. They pursue individuals who break the law and arrest them or issue citations. A police officer typically patrols a jurisdiction while a detective investigative duties and collect evidence.
In this free career guide, you will learn how to have a successful career as a police officer or detective.
Police Officer Summary
- Police work can be dangerous and stressful.
- Education requirements range from a high school diploma to a college degree or higher.
- Job opportunities in most local police departments will be favorable for qualified individuals, while competition is expected for jobs in State and Federal agencies.
- Bilingual applicants with college training in police science or with military police experience will have the best opportunities.
Working as a Police Officer
Police officers and detectives protect lives and property. Law enforcement officer’s duties depend on the size and type of their organizations.
Police and detectives pursue and apprehend individuals who break the law and then issue citations or give warnings. A large proportion of their time is spent writing reports and maintaining records of incidents they encounter. Most police officers patrol their jurisdictions and investigate any suspicious activity they notice. They also respond to calls from individuals. Detectives, who often are called agents or special agents, perform investigative duties such as gathering facts and collecting evidence.
The daily activities of police and detectives vary with their occupational specialty—such as police officer, game warden, or detective—and whether they are working for a local, State, or Federal agency. Duties also differ substantially among various Federal agencies, which enforce different aspects of the law. Regardless of job duties or location, police officers and detectives at all levels must write reports and maintain meticulous records that will be needed if they testify in court.
State and Local Law Enforcement. Uniformed police officers have general law enforcement duties. They maintain regular patrols and respond to calls for service. 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 give first aid to an accident victim. In large police departments, officers usually are assigned to a specific type of duty.
Many urban police agencies are involved in community policing—a practice in which an officer builds relationships with the citizens of local neighborhoods and mobilizes the public to help fight crime.
Police agencies are usually organized into geographic districts, with uniformed officers assigned to patrol a specific area. Officers in large agencies often patrol with a partner. They attempt to become familiar with their patrol area and remain alert for anything unusual. Suspicious circumstances and hazards to public safety are investigated or noted, and officers are dispatched to individual calls for assistance within their district. During their shift, they may identify, pursue, and arrest suspected criminals; resolve problems within the community; and enforce traffic laws.
Some agencies have special geographic jurisdictions and enforcement responsibilities. Public college and university police forces, public school district police, and agencies serving transportation systems and facilities are examples. Most law enforcement workers in special agencies are uniformed officers.
Some police officers specialize in a particular field, such as chemical and microscopic analysis, training and firearms instruction, or handwriting and fingerprint identification. Others work with special units, such as horseback, bicycle, motorcycle, or harbor patrol; canine corps; special weapons and tactics (SWAT); or emergency response teams. A few local and special law enforcement officers primarily perform jail-related duties or work in courts.
Sheriffs and deputy sheriffs enforce the law on the county level. Sheriffs usually are elected to their posts and perform duties similar to those of a local or county police chief. Sheriffs’ departments tend to be relatively small, most having fewer than 50 sworn officers. Deputy sheriffs have law enforcement duties similar to those of officers in urban police departments. Police and sheriffs’ deputies who provide security in city and county courts are sometimes called bailiffs.
State police officers, sometimes called State troopers or highway patrol officers, arrest criminals Statewide and patrol highways to enforce motor vehicle laws and regulations. State police officers often issue traffic citations to motorists. At the scene of accidents, they may direct traffic, give first aid, and call for emergency equipment. They also write reports used to determine the cause of the accident. State police officers frequently are called upon to render assistance to other law enforcement agencies, especially those in rural areas or small towns.
State highway patrols operate in every State except Hawaii. Most full-time sworn personnel are uniformed officers who regularly patrol and respond to calls for service. Others work as investigators, perform court-related duties, or carry out administrative or other assignments.
Detectives are plainclothes investigators who gather facts and collect evidence for criminal cases. Some are assigned to interagency task forces to combat specific types of crime. They conduct interviews, examine records, observe the activities of suspects, and participate in raids or arrests. Detectives usually specialize in investigating one type of violation, such as homicide or fraud. They are assigned cases on a rotating basis and work on them until an arrest and conviction is made or until the case is dropped.
Fish and game wardens enforce fishing, hunting, and boating laws. They patrol hunting and fishing areas, conduct search and rescue operations, investigate complaints and accidents, and aid in prosecuting court cases.
Federal Law Enforcement. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents are the Government’s principal investigators, responsible for investigating violations of more than 200 categories of Federal law and conducting sensitive national security investigations. Agents may conduct surveillance, monitor court-authorized wiretaps, examine business records, investigate white-collar crime, or participate in sensitive undercover assignments. The FBI investigates a wide range of criminal activity, including organized crime, public corruption, financial crime, bank robbery, kidnapping, terrorism, espionage, drug trafficking, and cybercrime.
There are many other Federal agencies that enforce particular types of laws. U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents enforce laws and regulations relating to illegal drugs. U.S. marshals and deputy marshals provide security for the Federal courts and ensure the effective operation of the judicial system. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives agents enforce and investigate violations of Federal firearms and explosives laws, as well as Federal alcohol and tobacco tax regulations. The U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security special agents are engaged in the battle against terrorism.
The Department of Homeland Security also employs numerous law enforcement officers within several different agencies, including Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Secret Service. U.S. Border Patrol agents protect more than 8,000 miles of international land and water boundaries. Immigration inspectors interview and examine people seeking entry into the United States and its territories. Customs inspectors enforce laws governing imports and exports by inspecting cargo, baggage, and articles worn or carried by people, vessels, vehicles, trains, and aircraft entering or leaving the United States. Federal Air Marshalsprovide air security by guarding against attacks targeting U.S. aircraft, passengers, and crews. U.S. Secret Service special agents andU.S. Secret Service uniformed officers protect the President, the Vice President, their immediate families, and other public officials. Secret Service special agents also investigate counterfeiting, forgery of Government checks or bonds, and fraudulent use of credit cards.
Other Federal agencies employ police and special agents with sworn arrest powers and the authority to carry firearms. These agencies include the Postal Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Law Enforcement, the Forest Service, and the National Park Service.
Work environment. Police and detective work can be very dangerous and stressful. Police officers and detectives have one of the highest rates of on-the-job injury and illness. In addition to the obvious dangers of confrontations with criminals, police officers and detectives need to be constantly alert and ready to deal appropriately with a number of other threatening situations. Many law enforcement officers witness death and suffering resulting from accidents and criminal behavior. A career in law enforcement may take a toll on their private lives.
Uniformed officers, detectives, agents, and inspectors usually are scheduled to work 40-hour weeks, but paid overtime is common. Shift work is necessary because protection must be provided around the clock. Junior officers frequently work weekends, holidays, and nights. Police officers and detectives are required to work whenever they are needed and may work long hours during investigations. Officers in most jurisdictions, whether on or off duty, are expected to be armed and to exercise their authority when necessary.
The jobs of some Federal agents, such as U.S. Secret Service and DEA special agents, require extensive travel, often on very short notice. These agents may relocate a number of times over the course of their careers. Some special agents, such as those in the U.S. Border Patrol, may work outdoors in rugged terrain and in all kinds of weather.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Education requirements range from a high school diploma to a college degree or higher. Most police and detectives learn much of what they need to know on the job, often in their agency’s training academy. Civil service regulations govern the appointment of police and detectives in most States, large municipalities, and special police agencies, as well as in many smaller jurisdictions. Candidates must be U.S. citizens, usually at least 21 years old, and meet rigorous physical and personal qualifications.
Education and training. Applicants usually must have at least a high school education, and some departments require 1 or 2 years of college coursework or, in some cases, a college degree. Physical education classes and participation in sports are also helpful in developing the competitiveness, stamina, and agility needed for many law enforcement positions. Knowledge of a foreign language is an asset in many Federal agencies and urban departments.
State and local agencies encourage applicants to take courses or training related to law enforcement subjects after high school. Many entry-level applicants for police jobs have completed some formal postsecondary education, and a significant number are college graduates. Many junior colleges, colleges, and universities offer programs in law enforcement or administration of justice. Many agencies pay all or part of the tuition for officers to work toward degrees in criminal justice, police science, administration of justice, or public administration and pay higher salaries to those who earn one of those degrees.
Before their first assignments, officers usually go through a period of training. In State and large local police departments, recruits get training in their agency’s police academy, often for 12 to 14 weeks. In small agencies, recruits often attend a regional or State academy. Training includes classroom instruction in constitutional law and civil rights, State laws and local ordinances, and accident investigation. Recruits also receive training and supervised experience in patrol, traffic control, use of firearms, self-defense, first aid, and emergency response. Police departments in some large cities hire high school graduates who are still in their teens as police cadets or trainees. They do clerical work and attend classes, usually for 1 to 2 years, until they reach the minimum age requirement and can be appointed to the regular force.
Fish and game wardens also must meet specific requirements. Most States require at least 2 years of college study. Once hired, fish and game wardens attend a training academy lasting from 3 to 12 months, sometimes followed by further training in the field.
Federal agencies require a bachelor’s degree, related work experience, or a combination of the two. Federal law enforcement agents undergo extensive training, usually at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, or the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia. The specific educational requirements, qualifications, and training information for a particular Federal agency can be found on its Web site. Many of these agencies are listed as sources of additional information at the end of this statement.
To be considered for appointment as an FBI agent, an applicant must be a college graduate and have at least 3 years of professional work experience or must have an advanced degree plus 2 years of professional work experience. An applicant who meets these criteria also must have one of the following: a college major in accounting, electrical engineering, information technology, or computer science; fluency in a foreign language; a degree from an accredited law school; or 3 years of related full-time work experience. All new FBI agents undergo 18 weeks of training at the FBI Academy on the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia.
Other qualifications. Civil service regulations govern the appointment of police and detectives in most States, large municipalities, and special police agencies, as well as in many smaller jurisdictions. Candidates must be U.S. citizens, usually must be at least 21 years old, and must meet rigorous physical and personal qualifications. Physical examinations for entry into law enforcement often include tests of vision, hearing, strength, and agility. Eligibility for appointment usually depends on one’s performance in competitive written examinations and previous education and experience.
Candidates should enjoy working with people and meeting the public. Because personal characteristics such as honesty, sound judgment, integrity, and a sense of responsibility are especially important in law enforcement, candidates are interviewed by senior officers and their character traits and backgrounds are investigated. A history of domestic violence may disqualify a candidate. In some agencies, 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. Some agencies subject sworn personnel to random drug testing as a condition of continuing employment.
Although similar in nature, the requirements for Federal agents are generally more stringent and the background checks are more thorough. There are polygraph tests as well as interviews with references. Jobs that require security clearances have additional requirements.
Advancement. Police officers usually become eligible for promotion after a probationary period ranging from 6 months to 3 years. In large departments, promotion may enable an officer to become a detective or to specialize in one type of police work, such as working with juveniles. Promotions to corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, and captain usually are made according to a candidate’s position on a promotion list, as determined by scores on a written examination and on-the-job performance.
Federal agents often are on the General Services (GS) pay scale. Most begin at the GS-5 or GS-7 level. As agents meet time-in-grade and knowledge and skills requirements, they move up the GS scale. Promotions at and above GS-13 are most often managerial positions. Many agencies hire internally for these supervisory positions. A few agents may be able to enter the Senior Executive Series ranks of upper management.
Continuing training helps police officers, detectives, and special agents improve their job performance. Through police department academies, regional centers for public safety employees established by the States, and Federal agency training centers, instructors provide annual training in self-defense tactics, firearms, use-of-force policies, sensitivity and communications skills, crowd-control techniques, relevant legal developments, and advances in law enforcement equipment.
Employment as a Police Officer or Detective
Police and detectives held about 883,600 jobs in 2008. About 79 percent were employed by local governments. State police agencies employed about 11 percent. Various Federal agencies employ police and detectives.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, police and detectives employed by local governments worked primarily in cities with more than 25,000 inhabitants. Some cities have very large police forces, while thousands of small communities employ fewer than 25 officers each.
Job opportunities in most local police departments will be favorable for qualified individuals, whereas competition is expected for jobs in State and Federal agencies. As fast as average employment growth is expected.
Employment change. Employment of police and detectives is expected to grow 10 percent over the 2008–18 decade, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Population growth is the main source of demand for police services.
Job prospects. Overall opportunities in local police departments will be favorable for individuals who meet the psychological, personal, and physical qualifications. In addition to openings from employment growth, many openings will be created by the need to replace workers who retire and those who leave local agencies for Federal jobs and private-sector security jobs. Jobs in local police departments that offer relatively low salaries, or those in urban communities in which the crime rate is relatively high, may be the easiest to get. Some smaller departments may have fewer opportunities as budgets limit the ability to hire additional officers. Bilingual applicants with military experience or college training in police science will have the best opportunities in local and State departments.
There will be more competition for jobs in Federal and State law enforcement agencies than for jobs in local agencies. Bilingual applicants with a bachelor’s degree and several years of law enforcement or military experience, especially investigative experience, will have the best opportunities in Federal agencies.
The level of government spending determines the level of employment for police and detectives. The number of job opportunities, therefore, can vary from year to year and from place to place. Layoffs are rare because retirements enable most staffing cuts to be handled through attrition. Trained law enforcement officers who lose their jobs because of budget cuts usually have little difficulty finding jobs with other agencies.
Projections data from the National Employment Matrix
|Police and detectives
|First-line supervisors/managers of police and detectives
|Detectives and criminal investigators
|Fish and game wardens
|Police and sheriff’s patrol officers
|Transit and railroad police
|NOTE: Data in this table are rounded.
Earnings for Police Officers and Detectives
Police and sheriff’s patrol officers had median annual wages of $51,410 in May 2008. The middle 50 percent earned between $38,850 and $64,940. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $30,070, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $79,680. Median annual wages were $46,620 in Federal Government, $57,270 in State government, $51,020 in local government and $43,350 in educational services.
In May 2008, median annual wages of police and detective supervisors were $75,490. The middle 50 percent earned between $59,320 and $92,700. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $46,000, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $114,300. Median annual wages were $89,930 in Federal Government, $75,370 in State government, and $74,820 in local government.
In May 2008, median annual wages of detectives and criminal investigators were $60,910. The middle 50 percent earned between $45,930 and $81,490. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $36,500, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $97,870. Median annual wages were $73,170 in Federal Government, $53,910 in State government, and $55,930 in local government.
In May 2008, median annual wages of fish and game wardens were $48,930. The middle 50 percent earned between $37,500 and $61,290. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $30,400, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $81,710. Median annual wages were $48,960 in Federal Government, $50,440 in State government, and $35,810 in local government.
In May 2008, median annual wages of parking enforcement workers were $32,390. The middle 50 percent earned between $25,400 and $42,000. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $20,510, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $50,470. Median annual wages were $33,130 in local government and $27,640 in educational services.
In May 2008, median annual wages of transit and railroad police were $46,670. The middle 50 percent earned between $37,640 and $57,830. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $31,300, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $72,700. Median annual wages were $49,370 in State government, $43,720 in local government, and $56,300 in rail transportation.
Federal law provides special salary rates to Federal employees who serve in law enforcement. Additionally, Federal special agents and inspectors receive law enforcement availability pay (LEAP)—equal to 25 percent of the agent’s grade and step—awarded because of the large amount of overtime that these agents are expected to work. Salaries were slightly higher in selected areas where the prevailing local pay level was higher. Because Federal agents may be eligible for a special law enforcement benefits package, applicants should ask their recruiter for more information.
Total earnings for local, State, and special police and detectives frequently exceed the stated salary because of payments for overtime, which can be significant.
According to the International City-County Management Association’s annual Police and Fire Personnel, Salaries, and Expenditures Survey, average salaries for sworn full-time positions in 2008 were as follows:
||Maximum salary w/o longevity
In addition to the common benefits—paid vacation, sick leave, and medical and life insurance—most police and sheriffs’ departments provide officers with special allowances for uniforms. Many police officers retire at half-pay after 20 years of service; others often are eligible to retire with 30 or fewer years of service.