"Law enforcement" is a broad term. The act of enforcing the law involves compelling others to obey and/or observe the laws and regulations of a specific jurisdiction. The ultimate goal of law enforcement careers is the protection, safety, and security of people and property. Law enforcement occurs at local, city or county levels, at state levels, and at the national or federal level. Law enforcement careers include jobs that monitor the actions of others and make arrests in order to enforce laws. They also include jobs that investigate violations of the law and maintain investigative and arrest reports.
Law enforcement careers range from entry-level clerical positions and investigative-type jobs to supervisory and leadership roles. At the local and state levels, the most common law enforcement jobs are patrol officer, police detective, state trooper, corrections officer, probation officer, and law enforcement officer. Law enforcement careers at the federal level include careers as FBI and Secret Service agents, Border Patrol agents, and Customs officials.
Each type of job in law enforcement has specific age, education, and experience requirements. With advances in science and technology, law enforcement has become complex and specialized. In the past, a high school diploma was the only educational requirement needed for anyone interested in entering a police academy to train to become a police officer. Today, however, most law enforcement careers require post-secondary training and education, as well as a specific amount of professional job experience.
There is a variety of law enforcement and criminal justice study programs available, ranging from certificate-level programs to associate and undergraduate degree programs to specialized graduate-level studies. Educational institutions have recognized the demand for law enforcement programs; today many accredited schools and colleges have implemented degree programs in criminal justice and law enforcement. Trade or career-oriented schools, as well as community colleges, offer programs that help students obtain certificates and degrees to get them started in a variety of law enforcement careers. Four-year colleges and universities have programs for both undergraduate (bachelor's) and graduate (master's and doctorate) degrees. In many cases these studies can also be completed online.
Law enforcement careers can be dangerous and difficult. Skilled law enforcement professionals face and address the dangers of their jobs appropriately and safely, thanks to the extensive training they receive. By effectively handling situations in their roles to protect and serve, many in law enforcement also find their chosen careers challenging, fulfilling, and rewarding.
As with many jobs, law enforcement careers include on-the-job training, regular salary increases, good benefits, and opportunities for career advancement. The advantages of a career in law enforcement do not end there, however.
The variety of jobs from which to choose makes law enforcement an attractive career option. For someone who wishes to work at the local government level, law enforcement career options include municipal police officer, private security guard, and corrections officer positions. State-level law enforcement jobs include positions as state troopers and as highway patrol officers. Federal law enforcement jobs can either be investigative or uniformed in nature. Federal investigative-type jobs are performed within the federal agencies that enforce United States Code, such as the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). Uniformed jobs, such as those in the Secret Service or Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), are those that provide for the safety and security of government officials, federal buildings, and land.
Another of the advantages of a law enforcement career is the level of job security involved. Although it is unfortunate that crime and security concerns persist in the United States, these issues, combined with increases in our population, generate consistent demand for competent, qualified police officers. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has provided information indicating that there will be approximately 100,000 police officers employed in the United States by the year 2016. Police officers have opportunities for career advancement, along with an increased salary. They have generous pension plans that allow them to retire in their forties if they so choose. And although local budgets dictate the number of police positions available in a given municipality, any officer who is laid off can immediately apply for work in another agency.
Law enforcement jobs are generally worked in shifts. Although a police officer can be required to rotate among three eight-hour shifts, many police forces work 12-hour shifts where union and local laws permit. Scheduling for 12-hour shifts allows for a three-day weekend every other weekend, which contributes to an increase in employee morale.
Law enforcement careers also offer financial benefits. Federal law enforcement employees receive special salary rates, and because of the overtime hours they are expected to work, some receive law enforcement availability pay (LEAP), equal to 25 percent of the employee's salary grade. Local and state police frequently earn more than their stated salary, also as a result of overtime worked. Most police departments provide their officers with a special allowance for their uniforms. Many police officers retire at half-pay after completing 20 years of service; this relatively early retirement allows these individuals to go on to pursue second careers if they wish and is one of the strongest advantages of a law enforcement career.
To say law enforcement and criminal justice careers can be fulfilling is probably an understatement. A person who enters law enforcement does so because of the opportunities available for an interesting, meaningful career that allows the individual to be in a position to protect, help, and serve the public. Although the risks and dangers of the job can be high, the challenges presented, the teamwork, and the sense of accomplishment can be very rewarding. People who work in law enforcement do so because they want to, not because they have to.
Every job has its disadvantages, but the negative attributes of law enforcement jobs have probably persuaded more than one potential recruit to change career paths. The dangers, stress, and emotional demands are many, and anyone considering entering a career in law enforcement should think them through very carefully.
Few would disagree that law enforcement jobs can be dangerous. In fact, police officers and detectives have very high rates of illness and on-the-job injuries. By their very nature, law enforcement jobs entail involvement with crime and criminals, responding to calls, and investigating suspicious activity. Officers face assaults, shootings, falls, and even accidental discharges of their guns. They face possible death by automobile due to the amount of time they spend in their police cars, whether on routine patrol duty, responding to a call, or conducting a high-speed chase. Further, police officers are responsible for directing traffic and working alongside roadways during traffic stops, all of which contribute to an increased risk of death by automobile accident.
Law enforcement careers can be mentally and emotionally demanding and draining. In situations of extreme danger, the officer must remain calm and in control. An officer cannot show fear or nerves at any time. An officer must remain stoic in the midst of the most emotional of circumstances. This emotional constraint requires tremendous mental stamina and energy, which can eventually drain the officer physically to the point that the officer withdraws from social and family life.
Law enforcement careers can be extremely stressful. A police officer must be able to handle immediate and dramatic environmental changes in that the officer must be prepared to transition from a completely calm situation one minute to one of high activity, stress, and danger the next. Police officers must be on high alert at all times.
In spite of the dangers and demands of the job, the salaries of law enforcement officials can differ greatly from one geographic area to another. Officers who work in a potentially dangerous location such as a large, crime-ridden city, will earn more than those who work in small, rural towns. For example, the crime rate is very high in Los Angeles, California, so police officers there receive the highest salaries. In contrast, police officers in rural North Carolina earn less than half the salary of their California counterparts. In some locations the average starting pay for a rookie police officer is below $25,000 per year.
Work schedules can be hard on junior officers, whose shift work frequently requires them to work on weekends, holidays, and nights. In the course of an investigation, police officers and detectives work long hours. Some federal agents, for example special agents of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) or those in the U.S. Secret Service, must travel extensively, often on short notice, in the course of performing their job duties. They can even be required to relocate several times throughout their careers. All of these schedule requirements upset the routines that are needed for healthy marriages and family growth and development.
As a result of the dangers and demands in law enforcement jobs, statistics point to high divorce rates, high levels of alcoholism, and sadly, high rates of suicide among police officers. Anyone considering a career in law enforcement should be made fully aware of the negative attributes of these jobs before deciding to enter the field.
Last Updated: 07/28/2014
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