Two of the most highly visible members of the law enforcement industry are police officers and detectives. Although many of their duties overlap, people in these two professions approach law enforcement in different ways. Police officers enforce local, state, and federal laws and stop crimes in progress. Detectives investigate crimes.
Duties of Detectives
- Collect evidence and information about crimes
- Track down and interview witnesses and suspects
- Arrest suspects
- Write reports and fill out appropriate paperwork
- Testify in court
Duties of Police Officers
- Patrol assigned areas
- Respond to service calls
- Enforce local, state, and federal laws
- Apprehend people who break the law
- Issue citations
- Conduct searches
- Fill out paperwork
- Testify in court
The titles of police officers and detectives differ depending on which agency they work for and if they specialize in a particular type of crime. The most recognizable group is uniformed police officers that work in local and state agencies. Typically they wear uniforms, drive specially marked vehicles, and are most likely the ones to answer service calls. A uniformed officer may work on a task force that addresses a specific type of crime (narcotics) or crime prevention (SWAT team). Other law enforcement categories include:
State police: If you have ever been pulled over for speeding on the highway, then you’ve met a state police officer. Generally they spend a lot of time enforcing traffic laws. However, they can work anywhere in the state and often help local law enforcement agencies, particularly in small towns.
Transit police: These officers work on public transit stations and railroad yards. Their job is to patrol the area and keep employees, passengers, and the property safe from criminal activity.
Sheriffs: They typically work on county levels and often handle running the county jails, prisoner transportation, and court security. Sheriffs are usually elected into their positions but deputies are hired.
Fish and game wardens: They mainly work in wildlife and outdoor areas enforce the state’s fishing, hunting, and boating laws. Like uniformed officers, they patrol their assigned areas and answer service calls. However, they also participate in search and rescue operations and public education programs.
Federal law enforcement officers do the same job as local and state police offices, except on a national level. Their jurisdiction covers the entire United States and some of its minor territories. The different subcategories are:
- Federal Bureau of Investigation – Responsible for national security matters and enforcing federal laws.
- U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration – Investigate crimes and enforce laws involving illegal drugs.
- U.S. Secret Service – Their primary duty is to protect elected government officials and their families including the President, Vice President, senators, and other public officials.
- Federal Air Marshals – They provide security on air planes.
- U.S. Border Patrol – They protect the country’s land and water borders.
Law Enforcement Training
The type of education and training you need to begin a career in law enforcement depends on the occupation you want to enter. Almost all law enforcement agencies have their own training academies that candidates must graduate from before they can apply for positions on the force. In general, all you need to enter is a high school diploma or GED (General Educational Development) certificate. However, you must also be a United States citizen, at least 21, and meet minimum physical and psychological requirements.
For the most part, every person that graduates from the academy begins at the same level and only qualify to advance to other positions after several years of service. For example, detectives and criminal investigators start out as uniformed police officers. After a few years experience, additional training and/or education, they can apply for a promotion.
Some state and federal agencies, like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the FBI, require applicants to have a college education in a related field. Many community colleges and universities offer degrees in law enforcement, natural resources management, and other subjects that prepare students for careers in law enforcement.
In addition to education and training, you must pass a background check and drug testing. Some federal positions require you to obtain security clearance which usually involves a probe into your life as well as the lives of your friends and family members.
Communication skills: Police officers and detectives work with a wide variety of people. You must be able to communicate instructions and information clearly both verbally and in writing.
Good physical fitness: As a police officer you will be required to chase and physically restrain people. You must have the stamina and strength to go the distance.
Good judgment and decision-making skills: You will be presented with a wide variety of problems and issues. You must be able to figure out the best way to solve them and make snap decisions while under duress.
Perceptiveness: Being able to judge and anticipate people’s reactions and behavior can assist you in doing your job effectively and save lives.
Task management skills: Police officers and detectives must handle multiple tasks. Being organized and detail oriented will go a long way towards helping you manage the demands of your job.
Law enforcement is a dangerous job. The industry as a whole has the highest rate of injuries and fatalities than any other. Police officers and detectives often find themselves in volatile and unpredictable circumstances that require them to be alert and ready at all times. Additionally, you will encounter all manner of traumatic events from traffic accidents to murders. Despite these disadvantages, many find the work rewarding because it keeps communities safe.
Uniform police officers mostly work outdoors. Detectives spend equal amounts of time outdoors and at a desk. Federal agents travel extensively. Fish and wildlife officers and Border Patrol officers typically work in the rugged outdoors.
All of these jobs are full time and paid overtime is common. Law enforcement is a 24/7 job, so you can expect to work mornings, evenings, overnight, holidays, and weekends; wherever there is a need. To supplement their income, some police officers provide private security services in their off hours.
Law Enforcement Salary
The average salary of police officers and detectives is $55,010. The top 10% is $88,870 while the bottom 10% is 32,440. They also typically enjoy additional benefits such as health insurance, life insurance, pensions, retirement contributions, and paid time off.
There were about 794,300 detectives and police officers in 2010. Although the job growth for the industry is slow (only 7% by 2020), there is a high turnover rate for police officers and detectives. This means there will always be opportunities for people looking to enter the field. However, there is a lot of competition for state and federal jobs and those with the right combination of education and law enforcement experience have the best chances of getting into these positions.