Jobs within Law Enforcement

There are numerous types of jobs available in the field of law enforcement. The types of professions are wide and varied. They range from jobs at the local or municipal level to state-level positions and federal law enforcement careers. Each field of law enforcement has different job duties, as well as specific training, education, and work experience requirements.

At the local level, many individuals begin their law enforcement careers in the field of security or as municipal or city police officers. Other jobs within law enforcement at the local level include sheriffs, detectives, corrections officers, probation and parole officers, dispatchers, and campus law enforcement.

State-level jobs within law enforcement include state police officers, state troopers, and highway patrol officers. Their job responsibilities vary and include patrolling the state roadways, working on criminal investigations, escorting elected officials, providing security services in state buildings, or working as state capitol police. In at least one state, the troopers oversee the licensing of bingo operations. Some states have their own bureau of investigations, so state police officers handle and investigate cases that are within a state's jurisdiction, for example bomb threats, weapons cases, narcotics, or those cases involving fugitives from the law.

Fields within Law Enforcement At the federal level, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigators or Secret Service agents are probably the professions most people think of first. There are, however, law enforcement jobs in most federal agencies, including the Justice, Treasury, and Defense Departments, as well as in the Department of Homeland Security. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was formed after the events of September 11, 2001, to protect the nation against terrorism. There are several agencies under DHS, each one representing a different field of law enforcement. They include Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the U.S. Border Patrol.

To illustrate the variety of jobs within law enforcement, other jobs include positions as Internal Revenue Service (IRS) agents, airport security screeners, postal inspectors, and park rangers. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives also offer law enforcement job opportunities.

Based upon the number and varieties of law enforcement jobs that exist, there are career options available to suit any aspiring law enforcement professional. While crime still exists, the ever-changing technologies and scientific advances have led to specialized areas in law enforcement that have fueled this increase in job opportunities.

  • Police Officer
  • Many people start their law enforcement careers as police officers. The role of a police officer is to protect and serve the public. Police officers' responsibilities vary greatly depending on the size, type, and location of the organization in which they work. All police officers are required to write and maintain detailed reports of the incidents in which they are involved.

    At the state and local levels of law enforcement, uniformed police officers perform similar duties. Examples of a police officer's responsibilities at the local level include directing traffic at the scene of an accident, responding to calls for assistance, investigating a robbery or home invasion, or patrolling the streets and neighborhoods. In urban areas, the police oftentimes coordinate with the people of the community in an effort to engage their support in the fight against crime. State police officers are also known as "state troopers" or "highway patrol officers." In addition to performing the above-listed duties, state police officers also assist other law enforcement agencies, for example as when a police department in a small town requests help. At the county level, sheriffs and deputy sheriffs enforce the law. The duties of sheriff are similar to those of a local police chief.

    Some uniformed police officers work within unique geographic jurisdictions such as public school districts or college campuses. Others serve in a city's transit system. Police officers also work in special units such as emergency response, harbor patrol, or special weapons and tactics (SWAT). Police officers can also work solely in courts or in performing jail-related job duties.

    Federal law enforcement agencies specialize in different areas of federal law, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), or the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF). FBI agents perform investigations, conduct surveillance, monitor wiretaps, and participate in undercover operations. They investigate criminal activities ranging from organized crime and public corruption to terrorism and espionage. Within the Department of Homeland Security, law enforcement officers can work as Customs agents, Border Patrol agents, air marshals, Customs inspectors, or Secret Service agents.

    Candidates for local police officer jobs will typically be at least 21 years of age and have some post-secondary education. They must be U.S. citizens and pass background checks and rigorous physical exams. Recruits receive 12-14 weeks of training, whether at a local, regional, or state police academy.

    Candidates for federal law enforcement jobs must hold a bachelor's degree and/or have job- related experience. These recruits receive extensive job-related training. The requirements to become an FBI agent are more stringent; they include a college degree, a foreign language, and several years of professional work experience. FBI recruits undergo 18 weeks of training at the FBI Academy.

    As the population grows and police officers retire or leave for jobs at the federal level, there will be job opportunities for qualified officers at the local and state levels. The most qualified candidates for local police jobs will have either military experience or college training in law enforcement, and be bilingual. State and federal jobs will be more competitive; in addition to having a bachelor's degree, candidates should also be bilingual and have law enforcement and/or military experience, as well as investigative experience.

    Police officers at the local and federal levels have median annual salaries of approximately $52,000 and $58,000, respectively. Federal law also provides separate salary rates to federal law enforcement employees, rates known as "law enforcement availability pay," which is equal to 25 percent of the federal agent's salary grade and step. Police and law enforcement officers usually work significant overtime; this results in a much higher salary.

  • Police Dispatcher
  • Police dispatchers, also known as "emergency dispatchers," are also referred to as "emergency call takers" or "911 operators." The general responsibilities of a police dispatcher are to receive emergency calls from the public and broadcast orders to police units in the vicinity of the crime to investigate the matter. This requires the operation of radio, telephone, and/or computer equipment. A dispatcher also receives reports of fire and medical emergencies, and must then relay the relevant information and/or orders to the appropriate officials for handling. Sometimes dispatchers work in a jail or prison and can have the additional duty of processing inmates. Police dispatcher is one of the few "non-sworn" law enforcement careers.

    An emergency dispatcher oftentimes works for a police department, although many emergency dispatchers work in call centers. Based upon the information provided by the caller, such as the type and location of the emergency, the dispatcher then determines which emergency unit should respond and alerts the appropriate unit. Many dispatchers are certified to provide medical instruction, so after dispatching the appropriate medical unit, the dispatcher may stay in contact with the caller and offer medical support, such as how to perform CPR.

    Another part of the police dispatcher job is to write incident reports. Accurate reports detailing the emergency or incident and police officer activity are very important, as these reports could be required as evidence in a court trial, along with the recording of the emergency call.

    Although training and certification to become a police dispatcher vary by state, individuals who wish to become police dispatchers need have only a high school diploma. On-the-job training involves having the trainee sit with an experienced dispatcher and observe while the dispatcher takes calls. The observation period can last from three to six months. Applicants for federal-level dispatching positions must pass a civil service examination.

    The job of police or emergency dispatcher can be very stressful. Inbound calls come from people reporting a crime or providing the whereabouts of a criminal or information about a stolen or missing vehicle. The dispatcher must quickly retrieve information from teletype networks and computer databases regarding wanted persons, stolen vehicles, or missing property. The dispatcher scans status charts and computers to determine which emergency unit is available to be dispatched.

    Dispatchers also receive inbound alarm system calls that can require emergency police or fire service, for example for a fire or illegal home invasion. The dispatcher must scan maps to determine the service area of the emergency and maintain the status and location of police and emergency units at all times. Other calls a dispatcher must handle are those from other local or city departments, as well as routine, non-emergency inquiries that need to be referred to the appropriate department or agency.

    Effective dispatchers possess good listening and speaking skills, to comprehend fully what the caller is saying and then appropriately convey that information to emergency personnel. Dispatchers must have critical thinking and decision-making skills to use logic and reasoning to determine the most appropriate course of action. Dispatchers should be customer service focused and have knowledge of public safety and security policies and procedures. They should be familiar with telecommunications, radio, and computer equipment.

    Police and emergency dispatchers work on a revolving 24-hour schedule. The median annual salary for dispatchers is approximately $34,000. More experienced dispatchers can earn approximately $63,000 annually. Because of the high levels of stress associated with the dispatcher job, turnover is high. The growth and job opportunities for police and emergency dispatchers are favorable.

  • Corrections Officer
  • Corrections officers are responsible for supervising convicted criminals who are serving their sentences in jails and penitentiaries, and detention officers are responsible for overseeing people who have been arrested and are awaiting trial. The primary roles of individuals in both of these law enforcement careers is to enforce the policies and procedures of the facility where they work and also to ensure proper order and security so as to thwart escapes, assaults, and disturbances in general.

    Specific duties of corrections officers include monitoring inmates' activities, supervising their work assignments, and enforcing discipline, ensuring inmates follow the rules of the facility. Corrections officers inspect inmates' mail as well as their visitors for contraband. Corrections officers perform searches of inmates' cells for drugs and weapons. Corrections officers also perform routine inspections of all doors, windows, vents, and locks to make sure their building is secure. They check for fire hazards or any other unsafe condition. Lastly, corrections officers escort prisoners as needed for court, medical attention, or to receive visitors.

    Corrections officers typically keep a daily log of activities. They document and report on disturbances, rules violations, and any unusual or suspicious occurrence. Corrections officers typically supervise a cellblock of 50 to 100 inmates. Although these officers do not carry firearms, help is just a radio call away if needed. In maximum-security facilities, corrections officers monitor inmates' activities from a centralized monitoring station.

    To be a corrections officer, an applicant must be at least 18 years of age, or in some cases 21, and have never been convicted of a felony. The applicant must be a U.S. citizen, have a high-school level education, and two years of demonstrable employment. Applicants must pass a background check and applicable drug and physical tests. They must also pass written and standardized tests. A college degree will help any officer interested in being promoted.

    Corrections officers receive both formal and on-the-job training that can last for several months after being hired. This training includes security procedures, custodial practices, facility regulations, and prison operations. Officers learn the legal requirements of their job, self-defense, and how to use firearms. Newly-hired federal corrections officers must complete 200 hours of training within one year of being hired, or they will face termination. Veteran officers receive in-service training to keep them abreast of new and/or changing practices.

    Some crisis situations, such as prison uprisings or hostage scenarios, require tactical response on the part of the prison corrections officers. In order to be prepared to address these ad hoc situations, some officers receive specialized training in areas such as emergency management techniques and forced entry procedures.

    A well-qualified corrections officer can be promoted to a correctional sergeant position, where he or she supervises other corrections officers. There are other supervisory and administrative-type jobs for qualified corrections officers, up to the position of warden.

    There are many employment opportunities for corrections officers. As a result of the rural locations of state and local facilities, as well as the shift work and relatively low pay, state and local corrections facilities have historically had difficulty in finding and keeping qualified officers. Mandatory sentencing requirements will contribute to an increase in prison populations. This, in turn, will create additional supervisory and corrections officers positions.

    The median annual wages for corrections officers in the public sector is approximately $38,000 at the state and local levels, and approximately $51,000 at the federal level. Supervisors earn a median annual wage of approximately $58,000. Corrections officers receive typical benefits, including uniforms and/or a clothing allowance. Corrections officers can be eligible for retirement at age 50, depending on their years of service.

  • Probation Officer
  • Probation and parole officer positions are two law enforcement careers that specialize in working with and monitoring criminal offenders. Their objective is to prevent offenders from committing new or additional crimes. Although parole officers supervise offenders who have been released from prison, probation officers are responsible for supervising those offenders who have been sentenced to probation rather than being sent to prison. In some states, probation officers are called community supervision officers.

    Probation officers typically work either with juveniles or adults, but not with both. However, in small, rural jurisdictions, the probation officer could be required to monitor and support both juveniles and adults. Probation officer jobs are most typically county-level jobs. In some states, probation officers also perform the job of parole officer.

    Probation officers must remain in contact with the offender during the offender's probationary period. This is done through direct contact with the probationer at home or at work. The probation officer might also contact the probationer's family or solicit the support of community groups, churches, and local residents in monitoring the probationer's behavior. In circumstances where a probationer is unemployed or has a substance abuse problem, the probation officer will arrange for the probationer to enter a job training or substance abuse rehabilitation program.

    The normal caseload of a probation officer can be anywhere from 50 to 100 probationers or more at a given time. As a result, it is not unusual for a probation officer to be awakened in the middle of the night by a call from the police to advise that his or her probationer has been arrested or with some other emergency situation. These officers must be flexible, as their daily work schedule can change at a moment's notice. They are expected to spend more time working with high-risk probationers, or with those who require a lot of counseling. To manage their workload as efficiently as possible, probation officers make use of mobile monitoring devices and all the latest computer technologies.

    Probation officers spend a significant amount of time investigating their probationers, writing reports, and developing recommendations on how the court should handle them. The officer reviews the recommendation with the probationer and the probationer's family prior to filing it with the court. The officer then updates the court as to the probationer's compliance with the stipulations of the individual's probation and any progress the probationer might have made during the rehabilitation period. If needed, the probation officer will testify in court regarding the report and the recommendations provided.

    To prepare for a career as a probation officer, you should have a four-year degree in criminal justice or social work, along with a working knowledge of laws and statutes relating to correctional issues. State requirements vary, with some requiring a master's degree in psychology or a related field (or comparable work experience). The job application process includes written, oral, physical, and psychological tests. There can be other training or certifications required. Applicants must be minimally 21 years of age, and no older than 37 for new officers. On-the-job training can last up to one year after one is hired, with permanent employment granted after the officer successfully passes the probationary training period.

    The growth rate for probation officers will be average for the next several years. Projected retirements will create new job opportunities, as will efforts to ease prison overcrowding. The average annual salary for probation officers was approximately $51,000 as of 2009, although salaries are higher in urban areas and for those with higher levels of education in the field of criminal justice.

  • Postal Inspector
  • The position of postal inspector is one of several postal law enforcement careers. Postal inspectors are responsible for investigating all criminal activity as it relates to the security and integrity of the United States postal system. They investigate not only criminal but also civil and administrative violations of some 200 laws pertaining to crimes that can negatively impact mail service. Postal inspectors are also responsible for protecting postal employees and postal facilities, investigating prohibited mailings such as bombs or child pornography, investigating mail fraud, conducting audits of the Postal Service, and more. In general, postal inspectors are responsible for protecting the revenue and assets of the Postal Service.

    The day-to-day duties of a postal inspector include serving subpoenas, testifying in court, and making arrests. The inspector is required to carry firearms and operate a motor vehicle. In the course of performing this job, the inspector might need to remain in a cramped space for an extended period of time, and pursue and restrain another person in the course of an arrest. The inspector must also complete detailed reports of all relevant activities. Frequent, extended travel, irregular work hours, and potentially hazardous work conditions make the job of postal inspector a demanding one.

    Individuals interested in becoming postal inspectors can apply for jobs only during open recruitment seasons. There are relatively few postal inspector positions available, so the recruitment process is extremely thorough, and the competition is intense. You can apply by submitting Form 168, Application for U.S. Postal Inspector. You can also apply online at the Inspector Recruitment Application System (IRAS) page of the United States Postal Inspection Service website (postalinspectors.USPIS.gov).

    Applicants should be U.S. citizens between the ages of 21 and 36 and have a four-year degree from an accredited college or university. You should be proficient in English and have good writing and spelling capabilities. You will also need to be able to understand and follow directions. You must meet specific vision and hearing requirements. You will be required to pass an exam and polygraph test. You should be in good physical and mental health. You cannot have any felony convictions or misdemeanor convictions for domestic violence. You must have a valid state driver's license. You will need to pass a drug screening test, as well as a criminal background check.

    In addition to the above-listed general requirements, applicants might need to fulfill special requirements such as competency in a foreign language, previous specialized postal experience such as computer analysis or EEO investigation, or previous specialized non-postal experience such as a law degree or specialized computer education. Once hired, new recruits attend 16 weeks of basic training at the Inspection Training Center in Potomac, Maryland.

    The salary of a postal inspector is based upon the Inspection Service Law Enforcement (ISLE) pay system, which has pay grades and steps that correspond to those in the General Schedule pay scale for law enforcement officers. In general, the annual salary range for a postal inspector is between $54,000 and $70,000.

  • State Trooper
  • State-level law enforcement careers include those in the State Highway Patrol. Officers who work in highway patrol are known as "state troopers." State troopers operate under the jurisdiction of a state's law enforcement agency. They are responsible for enforcing laws across the state to protect people's rights and provide citizens with a safe environment in which to live and work. While state troopers' work involves primarily patrolling and enforcing the state's motor vehicle laws on state highways, state troopers also provide assistance to other law enforcement agencies by performing miscellaneous investigatory duties as required.

    The specific job duties of state troopers include enforcing traffic laws, issuing traffic tickets, responding to emergencies, investigating accidents, conducting maintenance and safety checks of highways, and community education and awareness. Some troopers work in specialized police units such as the canine unit or the mounted police. Some might pilot police aircraft. Individuals in state trooper positions face danger and stress on a daily basis. At the same time, they can derive great satisfaction and reward from the work they perform.

    Anyone considering a law enforcement career as a state trooper must first meet the civil service requirements of being a U.S. citizen and at least 20 years of age. Some state law enforcement agencies require applicants to have only a high school diploma. Preference will be given, however, to those applicants who have a post-secondary degree in law enforcement or criminal justice. In addition, applicants for state trooper positions will need to complete several levels of testing and examination.

    Applicants must first pass an entrance exam that tests general knowledge and their ability to comprehend certain concepts. They must pass a physical strength and endurance test as well as an eyesight and hearing test. Applicants will also need to pass a background check to ensure they do not have prior criminal convictions that could impede their ability to perform the state trooper job at the high standards expected. Depending on the applicant's state, the applicant could be required to pass a polygraph test. Once the applicant has passed the necessary checks and testing, he or she can then interview for open positions.

    If a recruit has successfully passed the interview step, the recruit will then be required to pass three more tests: a medical exam, a drug test, and a psychological evaluation. (In some states these three exams might be done prior to the job interview.) The next step will be attending a state trooper academy for initial training, which includes instruction on civil rights, firearms use, constitutional law, emergency response, accident investigation procedure, first aid, and more. Recruits will probably live at the academy during this initial training period, which can last several months. Academy training requirements vary by state. Graduation from the academy means you are fully prepared to become a state trooper.

    While the employment outlook for state troopers is good, the competition for state trooper positions is very high. The average median salary for state troopers is approximately $45,000, although salaries can vary widely depending on the location of the job as well as the applicant's education and work or military history. State troopers can earn significant pay raises year over year, as they gain more experience on the job.

  • Forensic Scientist
  • Forensic science is one of the law enforcement careers that does not involve direct interaction with criminals, but rather entails the collection and analysis of physical evidence to help investigate and solve crimes. Forensic scientists use the principles and theories of mathematics and science to conduct their research and draw conclusions. In the role of expert witness, forensic scientists apply their scientific knowledge and provide conclusions to assist juries, lawyers, and judges in understanding science.

    The American Academy of Forensic Sciences is divided into 11 sections that represent the different areas of forensics expertise: Criminalistics, Digital & Multimedia Sciences, Engineering Sciences, General, Jurisprudence, Odontology, Pathology/Biology, Physical Anthropology, Psychiatry & Behavioral Science, Questioned Documents, and Toxicology. Each area has different education and expertise requirements, as well as different day-to-day job activities.

    Criminalists most typically work in laboratories where they operate and maintain their laboratory instruments and equipment, although on occasion they visit crime scenes. These scientists, who often specialize in a specific area such as DNA analysis or firearms examination, develop and monitor experiments, documenting their observations in detail. Using the results of their experimentation, they are then able to develop objective, scientific conclusions. Forensic laboratories must first identify evidence, and second, link the crime suspect, victim, and scene through physical evidence.

    Forensic scientists must properly collect and store physical evidence so that it remains protected. Examples of the types of evidence they collect include hair, tissue, bodily fluids, fiber, and glass. They might need to restore smeared markings, or compare bullets. Once evidence is collected, the forensic scientist performs tests on the evidence, identifying and classifying the substances and materials found at the crime scene, in order to determine their significance as it relates to the investigation. Forensic scientists use traditional laboratory equipment as well as computers and electronic measuring equipment.

    To become a forensic scientist you need at least a bachelor's degree in either forensic science or some other natural science, such as chemistry, biology, or physics. Coursework should also include math and English composition. Other qualifications for aspiring forensic scientists include understanding legal procedures, and also good written and oral communication skills so as to be able to provide well-written scientific reports and speak publicly regarding findings. Candidates should also have strong computer skills and an aptitude for mechanics, along with analytical thinking skills, intellectual curiosity, and excellent attention to detail. In the future, forensic scientists might be required to obtain a master's degree. Throughout his or her career, the forensic scientist will need to take ongoing courses in order to remain abreast of advances in science. Further certifications and accreditations are available.

    There is a variety of places where forensic scientists can work: forensic laboratories, medical examiners' or coroners' offices, toxicology laboratories, police departments, hospitals, or even independently as a forensic science consultant. Jobs are available at the federal, state, and local government levels, where the individual can start as a bench scientist and subsequently advance through work experience and further education. Forensic scientists working in the federal government could be called upon to assist other forensic teams as part of a Disaster Mortuary Operations Response Team (DMORT). DMORTs are sent anywhere in the world when mass disaster strikes or a large crime is committed.

    With an ever-increasing application of forensic science techniques, the job outlook for forensic scientists is good, with growth of about 20 percent expected over the next several years. The average annual salary for forensic scientists is approximately $50,000. The different areas of forensic sciences offer opportunities for personal and professional growth and advancement, along with an accompanying increase in financial compensation.

  • Detective
  • Police detectives investigate and solve crimes. Detectives are plainclothes investigators who pursue, arrest, and take criminals who have broken the law into custody. Also referred to as "agents," detectives usually start their law enforcement careers as police officers who, after a probationary period, can be eligible for promotion to the position of detective. Detectives are employed by local, state, and federal agencies. Because different agencies enforce different aspects of the law, the daily responsibilities of a detective can vary from one agency to another.

    Many detectives specialize in a particular field of crime, such as fraud or homicide. The primary job duties of detectives include interviewing witnesses and suspects, gathering facts, and collecting evidence as it relates to a specific crime. Because they are involved in raids and arrests of criminals, a detective's job can be both stressful and dangerous. Detectives must be constantly on alert and prepared to deal with a threatening situation that could arise at a moment's notice.

    At the federal level, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) employs U.S. government agents who investigate violations of more than 200 different categories of U.S. law, including corruption, financial crime, organized crime, kidnapping, bank robberies, and more. FBI agents also conduct highly sensitive investigations involving national security.

    Much of a detective's time is spent simply observing and following a suspect. This work is usually performed during non-standard working hours for days or weeks at a time, including nights and weekends. Detectives and agents must write detailed reports and maintain careful records as they relate to their investigations. Accurate, comprehensive record-keeping is important in the event that detectives need to testify in court.

    Civil service regulations govern the appointing of detectives in many states. Applicants must be U.S. citizens and at least 21 years of age. Applicants must have at least a high school diploma; however, more and more law enforcement agencies are requiring applicants to have some post-secondary education in law enforcement. To be equipped to handle the job of detective better, or to improve the chances of getting a job, many individuals earn an undergraduate degree in criminal justice, sociology, or psychology. Recruits also attend police academy training.

    Individuals interested in becoming FBI agents must be between the ages of 23 and 37 and have minimally a post-secondary degree and three years of employment. Their college degree should be in computer science, accounting, information technology, or electrical engineering. They should be fluent in a foreign language and have a degree from an accredited law school. New FBI agents are required to attend an 18-week training course at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.

    Job opportunities for police detectives are expected to grow by approximately 20 percent over the next several years. Although the most opportunities will be found at smaller, local law enforcement agencies, many detectives are interested in working in large police departments in metropolitan areas, where there can be greater variety and challenge in the workload. The median annual salary for detectives is approximately $61,000. Detectives at the state and local levels frequently earn significant additional pay due to the amount of overtime they work.

    Because of the FBI's stringent job requirements, the FBI is constantly recruiting new agents. In addition, a mandatory retirement after completing twenty years of service creates openings for new agents. Federal agents are paid in accordance with the General Services (GS) pay scale. FBI agents enter at the GS-10 scale, with a base salary of approximately $49,000, but thanks to the law enforcement availability pay (to compensate for overtime hours worked), will earn closer to $61,000 a year.

    Last Updated: 07/28/2014

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