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Police Careers

Policing can be a pleasing career that offers secure middle-class employment with advancement potential. Though the opportunity for moving up the ladder is strongly related to the size of the agency, most police departments have promotional systems in place that allow for the advancement of qualified candidates based on their work history, testing, and interviews. Those best suited for a career in law enforcement are good listeners, excellent communicators, critical thinkers, perceptive of their surroundings, able to work well under pressure, able to work well with others, and possess sound decision-making skills.12 This guide will introduce readers to the typical progression through the ranks of sworn personnel in law enforcement agencies, focusing primarily on municipal police departments and county sheriffs’ offices.1

Table of Contents
Law Enforcement Jobs
Police Officer
Deputy Sheriff
Sergeant
Detective
Crime Scene Investigator
State Trooper
Federal Police
Chief of Police
Sheriff
Police Officer Salary and Career Outlook
Frequently Asked Questions
Additional Resources

Law Enforcement Jobs

The field of law enforcement offers many types of jobs, from entry-level patrol jobs to chief of police and sheriff positions. The following are job descriptions of various police officer jobs that may be available to those entering the field.

Police Job Satisfaction

“A look inside the nation’s police departments reveals that most officers are satisfied with their department as a place to work and remain strongly committed to making their agency successful.”
-Pew Research Center, “Behind the Badge

Police Officer

Following successful completion of the hiring process and survival of the police academy, virtually all new police officers will begin their careers in the patrol division. Patrol officers are often called the “backbone” of the police department and comprise nearly two out of three sworn officers in some big-city agencies.2 Being a police patrol officer is arguably one of the most complicated jobs in the world because officers must deal with human beings in a seemingly infinite number of possible situations, often when people are at their worst. On any given shift, an officer will perform multiple roles – law enforcer, psychologist, referee, social worker, teacher, and crime fighter, just to name a few. An exhaustive list of a patrol officer’s tasks is nearly impossible to put on paper, but an officer’s responsibilities almost always include:

  • Random vehicular, bicycle, or foot patrol of an assigned sector or “beat” for the purpose of deterring or displacing crime, making citizens feel safer, and allowing for quick response to calls for service.
  • Directed patrol of “hot spots” – areas where a disproportionate amount of crime occurs.
  • Responding to 9-1-1 or non-emergency calls for service, which could include criminal and non-criminal matters.
  • Preliminary investigations of crimes including control of crime scenes, identification of evidence, and initial interviews with victims, witnesses, and suspects.
  • Officer-initiated response to and reporting of suspicious behavior.
  • Conducting security surveys of businesses and/or residences as assigned for the purpose of crime prevention.
  • Coordinating neighborhood watch meetings or attending other community forums.
  • Traffic and crowd control at non-police emergency scenes; assistance of firefighters and/or emergency medical personnel.
  • Enforcing traffic laws and responding to traffic incidents.
  • Writing field activity and offense reports.
  • Testifying in court about previous incidents.
  • Providing escorts for funerals and other processions.
  • Other duties as assigned.

police-careersGenerally speaking, police try to respond to all calls and either handle the matters in question or refer the parties involved to someone else who can help them. The motto “to protect and to serve” that is emblazoned on many police vehicles is all-inclusive and results in a long list of duties from trivial and monotonous to dangerous and life-threatening. For this reason, police work can be extremely complex, so officers benefit from education, training, and on-the-job experience.

It is important to note that officers spend a great deal of time driving around waiting – for a call or for something to happen. Report writing and other administrative duties also consume a lot of time. Police work is often described as “hour upon hour of pure boredom interspersed with a few seconds of sheer terror.”3 While this is clearly a hyperbolic statement, it is nevertheless important to understand that the portrayal of policing in movies and television may not be realistic, and someone who enters this occupation thinking that it is going to be a game of “cops and robbers” is in for a rude awakening. Bona fide crime-fighting duties are relatively rare, and officers often spend more time serving people than they spend protecting them.

Time-In-Rank Promotions

The quasi-military nature of police work includes a time-in-rank promotional system that requires officers to spend a prescribed amount of time at each rank before they can move up to the next level. A police officer or deputy sheriff who has the requisite three to five years of experience in patrol and a clean record with the agency is ordinarily eligible to take a promotional exam for sergeant or detective. These tests vary by department, and study materials are available. It is not unusual for “study buddies” to get together in pairs or groups to prepare for these exams. Even though they are competing against one another for a limited number of promotions, the camaraderie among officers often outweighs their competitiveness. Officers want their “brothers and sisters” in law to succeed and often willingly help them to do so. Officers seeking promotion will also interview with superior officers and, based on their test and interview scores and an assessment of their work history, the agency will compile an eligibility roster and then promote based on each officer’s rank on the list.

Deputy Sheriff

Deputies in county sheriffs’ offices are essentially the same as patrol officers in city police departments. Although their geographical jurisdiction is different, they are full-fledged peace officers who must meet similar standards as city officers. Their job descriptions are fundamentally the same, and with rare exceptions, the progression through the ranks is similar. One significant difference is that sheriffs – in addition to their law enforcement duties – are responsible for incarcerating convicted misdemeanants as well as accused offenders who are awaiting trial, so the sheriff must assign some employees to jail duty. As a rule, these positions are held by civilians, but commissioned deputies do work as jailers in some agencies. Moreover, where jailers are civilian employees rather than deputies, these positions can provide a foot in the door for individuals who aspire to become deputies. Many deputies start out as non-sworn employees (e.g., jailers or dispatchers).

Sergeant

A sergeant is a front-line supervisor who leads a group of officers assigned to a particular unit of the agency with patrol being the most common. The sergeant is a “shirt sleeves” supervisor who typically performs all the same work that his or her officers are required to do. As such, the job description is basically the same as that of an officer, except for added supervisory responsibilities. As leaders, sergeants strongly influence their officers’ use of discretion and are ultimately held accountable for many major decisions that take place in the field. In addition to patrol, some sergeants supervise specialized field units or civilian personnel at headquarters. Regardless of assignment, sergeants take an active role in training, developing, and evaluating their employees.

Detective

“Detective” is equivalent to the rank of “Sergeant” in most agencies, but instead of supervising patrol officers as a sergeant does, a detective is a full-time criminal investigator. Detectives have long been glamorized by Hollywood, and although investigating can be interesting work, a detective will spend a lot of time at his or her desk making telephone calls and conducting Internet and database searches, as well as writing reports and preparing cases for court. A short list of a detective’s duties includes:

  • Working with crime scene investigators to gather and catalog forensic evidence.
  • Interviewing victims and witnesses and interrogating suspects.4
  • Analyzing evidence, building cases, writing reports, and working with prosecutors to prepare cases for trial.
  • Testifying in court when cases do not end in plea bargains.
  • Keeping victims and witnesses informed of case status.
  • Reviewing cold cases and following up on new leads.

Smaller agencies with lower volumes of crime do not allow for investigative specialization. Their detectives are generalists who investigate all types of crimes that occur in the jurisdiction, but in larger agencies, detectives tend to specialize in a particular category of crime.

Perhaps the most prestigious of these specializations is homicide. Homicide detectives are charged with investigating murders and aggravated assaults when it is likely that the victims will die. Homicide detectives also investigate suicides because these must be treated as homicides until evidence suggests otherwise. These detectives are usually seasoned veterans who have honed their investigative skills through many years of education, training, and experience and have generally proven themselves as investigators of other types of crime before moving up to homicides. Because of the seriousness of these crimes, homicide detectives have a greater role than other investigators in initial crime scene investigations. Their deliberate attention to detail is crucial to solving the most serious of crimes.

Changing Community Relations

A recent survey from the Pew Research Center conducted by the National Police Research Platform interviewed nearly 8,000 police officers from departments with 100 officers or more. The survey, one of the largest of its kind, asked officers to discuss their attitudes towards their jobs and the public in light of the high-profile fatal incidents involving black citizens that have taken place over the past few years, causing growing tensions between officers and the public. “Police work has always been hard. Today police say it is even harder,” the report explains. “Overall, more than eight-in-ten (86%) say police work is harder today as a result of these high-profile incidents.”

Crime Scene Investigator

Over the last several decades, crime scene investigators (or “criminalists”) have evolved as a specialty apart from regular detectives. In some agencies, these are full-fledged police officers who have received special training in criminalistics, but increasingly these are civilians with degrees in biology and/or chemistry and highly specialized training in processing crime scenes. Particularly important are the identification and proper handling of trace evidence, i.e., hairs, fibers, fingerprints, blood, and other evidence, that are often left behind at crime scenes. Often just a “trace” of this evidence is left behind, but even the smallest piece of evidence, particularly blood or semen that can be analyzed for DNA, can be crucial to solving a case. This specialty has developed in recent years in conjunction with scientific advances that require expertise beyond that of regular police officers and detectives, so colleges and universities have created specialized degree programs to meet this need. People who are interested in this specialty should seek out degree programs in forensic science that combine criminal justice education with courses in the natural sciences.

State Trooper

State police troopers have a broader geographical jurisdiction than city police officers and county sheriffs’ deputies, but their duties are similar. They focus much more on traffic enforcement, but they are still commissioned peace officers who provide comprehensive law enforcement services. In some states, patrol and investigations are broken out into separate divisions. For instance, the Texas Department of Public Safety has a Highway Patrol Division that is responsible for traffic and criminal law enforcement in rural areas and the Texas Rangers Division (the oldest state police agency in the US) that handles criminal investigations.6 There is considerable variation in rank structures and career progression in state police agencies, but they are hierarchical quasi-military organizations with time-in-rank promotional schemes that are very similar to those already discussed.

Federal Police

The federal government also has a number of law enforcement agencies. According to the most recent data available from a 2008 Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) census, there are approximately 120,000 law enforcement officers with firearm and arrest authority working in 73 federal agencies, with approximately 96,000 of those officers working for the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice.8 Federal agencies have limited subject matter jurisdiction. They are generally responsible only for federal laws, and each agency handles cases that are unique to its mission. As such, the work of federal police agents is highly specialized. The Secret Service, for instance, has only two areas of responsibility: financial crimes (predominantly counterfeiting) and executive protection (their more well-known role). Interestingly, the US Postal Inspection Service, the law enforcement arm of the US Postal Service, which investigates mail fraud and crimes against postal employees, predates the republic; its special agents (originally called surveyors) date back to 1772.7. In addition to the suit-and-tie investigators that Hollywood often romanticizes, many federal agencies employ uniformed police officers (e.g., the Border Patrol and the Capitol Police). The number of federal agencies and divisions within those agencies are too numerous to mention, and the number of federal police personnel has grown substantially since 9/11 and continues to grow. Still, compared to city, county, and state law enforcement, the number of federal officers is relatively low, and the competition for these positions is high. Therefore, most people interested in law enforcement careers will find employment at the state or local levels rather than at the federal one.

Higher Ranks

American law enforcement agencies borrow a great deal from the military, including the basic rank structure that exists in most agencies. After the rank of Sergeant and Detective, the next level up is Lieutenant, and then Captain. Up to this level, ranks are fairly consistent, but after Captain, agencies begin to diverge. Some may continue with military ranks such as Major and Colonel, but others do not. It depends on how big the agency is and how tall its organization structure happens to be. In the Houston Police Department, for example, the rank structure above Captain is:

  • Assistant Chief
  • Executive Assistant Chief
  • Chief

Each of the above ranks is an appointed position and, therefore, does not follow the same process that exists up to the rank of Captain – namely, a formal time-in-rank promotional structure based on testing, interviews, and job history. As noted previously, most police officers must spend three to five years at that level before testing for Sergeant or Detective. Similarly, someone must hold the rank of Sergeant or Detective for one to three years, depending on the agency, before testing for Lieutenant and then must hold that rank for another one to three years before taking the test for Captain. The length of time required at each rank before becoming eligible to test for the next higher rank varies from agency to agency, but it is almost always a strict requirement. This time spent waiting for a promotion can be difficult for some individuals, especially those with advanced education and other strong credentials, but the tradeoff is that promotion is based on a more objective and less political process than exists in the private sector.

Chief of Police

The top rung of the ladder in a municipal police department is the rank of Chief. In general, police chiefs are appointed by the mayor or city manager and approved by the city council, and of course, they can be removed by the same. Since the beginning of professional policing, the debate has raged about whether it is better to hire a chief from outside the agency or to promote from within, and there is no clear answer to that question. It depends on a number of variables. Agencies with a stated preference for promoting from within point to the need to reward proven and loyal employees, but other departments believe it is necessary to bring in “new blood” with a fresh perspective. An outsider is not committed to the status quo and is sometimes better able to identify areas in which the department can improve. Promoting from within is the more common preference, but even these agencies will sometimes go outside if circumstances warrant doing so, especially in the wake of a major scandal or pattern of corruption when reform is the top priority.

Sheriff

At the county level, the chief executive is usually an elected official. In fact, sheriffs are typically selected in partisan elections in which they are identified by – and supported by – their political parties. Why are sheriffs partisan politicians? It is because of tradition and nothing more. This longstanding tradition is somewhat controversial because, in theory, the most important job qualification is popularity. With the exception of convicted felons, virtually anyone can become Sheriff if he or she is able to get enough votes. History is full of examples of a county’s favorite son or war hero coming home and becoming Sheriff, and some of these have had questionable qualifications. That said, in actual practice, it is difficult for anyone without substantial law enforcement experience to be elected Sheriff. In some cases, sheriffs are experienced – perhaps even retired – municipal police officers or supervisors, and it is not uncommon for a sheriff to have been a ranking deputy from within the same office. In any case, the political component is the primary difference between a city Police Chief and a county Sheriff. Other than that, their jobs are very similar, except that the Sheriff has wider jurisdiction and must run the county jail as well. Some counties around the country have created county police departments to take over the law enforcement duties of sheriffs’ offices, but this is an exception to the rule.

Police Officer Salary and Career Outlook

The number of police and detectives is expected to grow 4% in the decade between 2014 and 2024.9 That rate of growth is slower than the average for all occupations and translates to over 30,000 additional jobs; however, these numbers do not take into account the potential impact of retirements.9 Police agencies added many new officers in the eighties and nineties, and these officers are now eligible for retirement. This is happening in departments all across the country, and this indicates that qualified young men and women who hope to begin law enforcement careers in the near future should be able to find work. Although some governments face intense pressure to cut their budgets and police layoffs are not unheard of, the loss of police jobs is rarely supported by the citizens who expect service and protection from those officers. All things considered, for the foreseeable future, the job outlook for police officers should remain bright. For example, in San Francisco, 150 new entry-level officers are expected to be hired by the end of the 2017-2018 fiscal year.10

The average pay for police and sheriff’s patrol officers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is $62,760 per year, or $30.17 per hour.11 California police officers are paid the highest salaries, with an average mean wage reported of $96,660, followed by New Jersey cops at $87,490 and Alaska police officers at $$79,510.11 But average salary is not the only factor that makes a state a good one to work as a police officer; other factors to consider are property prices, the cost of living, projected employment of officers, and the projected growth rate for cops. To find out more, check out our Police Officer Salary Index and Outlook by State table, with a comprehensive ranking of the best states to be a police officer.

The state of California currently employs the highest number of cops, 70,790 in 2016 to be exact.11 The state of Texas employs the second-highest number of police officers (62,580) and New York comes in third (47,870).11 To find law enforcement jobs in your area, check out our Police Jobs page.

Law Enforcement Shortages

“…most police (86%) say their department does not have enough officers to adequately police the community. Police who work in larger agencies (with 1,000 officers of more) are more likely than those working in smaller agencies to say that there is a shortage of officers in their department (95% vs. 79%).”
-Pew Research Center, “Behind the Badge

Frequently Asked Questions

What do police officers do?

Police officers perform a wide variety of tasks. As a law enforcement officer, you can expect to patrol by car and on foot, investigate crime scenes, respond to emergency and non-emergency calls, respond to traffic incidents and violations, write reports, and be present to control crowds and escort funeral processions. These are only a few of the tasks that you will be responsible for as an officer of the law. You should be prepared to go above and beyond your assigned duties as a cop.

How much do cops make?

The average US salary for a police officer and sheriff’s patrol officer in 2016 was $62,760.11 Entry-level officers will likely make significantly less than this amount on average, but can count on a graduated pay increase based on time-in-rank promotions. Read more about police salaries on our Police Officer Salaries page.

What kind of education do I need to start a police officer career?

The education requirements to become a police officer vary widely among departments. Most police officer jobs require a minimum of a high school diploma or GED, but others require a two- or four-year degree. Check with the department(s) in your area to find out specific requirements.

Is it worth it to start a career in law enforcement?

The answer to this question is up to the individual, but a career in law enforcement can certainly be a solid job path with plenty of opportunities for advancement, providing job security and personal satisfaction through serving others. If you are considering entering a career in law enforcement, you should read more about becoming a police officer and seek expert advice from others who have worked in the field.

Police Pride

“A majority of all officers say their work in law enforcement nearly always (23%) or often (35%) makes them feel proud. About half say their work nearly always (10%) or often (41%) makes them feel frustrated.”
-Pew Research Center, “Behind the Badge

Additional Resources

  • Arrested Development – A book by the former police chief of the Madison Police Department (Wisconsin), David C. Couper, discussing police subculture and how to overcome common obstacles to improve policing.
  • Behind the Badge” – A Pew Research Center national survey and analysis that discusses the recent challenges and tensions in policing.

This guide was written by William Prince, Adjunct Instructor of Criminal Justice at Wharton County Junior College.

References:
1. Sworn personnel are authorized to make arrests, to carry firearms, and to use reasonable force when necessary. Non-sworn personnel are civilians who lack police authority.
2. Gaines, L.K., & Miller, R.L. (2013). CJ2. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning. p. 102.
3. Many variations of this popular saying exist, and its precise origin is unknown.
4. Although “interview” and “interrogate” are often used interchangeably, their definitions in the context of the criminal law are distinct. In general, police interview victims and witnesses, and they interrogate suspects who are the focus of criminal investigations. This distinction has important legal ramifications.
5. Houston Police Department: http://www.hpdcareer.com/opportunities.html
6. Texas Department of Public Safety: http://www.dps.texas.gov/
7. US Postal Inspection Service, A Chronology of the United States Postal Inspection Service: https://postalinspectors.uspis.gov/aboutus/History.aspx
8. Bureau of Justice Statistics, Federal Law Enforcement Officers, 2008: https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=pbdetail&iid=4372
9. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Police and Detectives: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/Protective-Service/Police-and-detectives.htm
10. Hooldine.com, “Your SFPD Is Hiring”: http://hoodline.com/2017/05/your-spfd-is-hiring-here-s-how-to-apply-sponsored
11. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational and Employment Wages, May 2016, Police and Sheriff’s Patrol Officers: https://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes333051.htm
12. O*NET Online, Police Patrol Officers: https://www.onetonline.org/link/summary/33-3051.01