Police Officer Job Description & Career Outlook

Choosing to pursue a career as a police officer is a wise decision, but not one to be taken lightly. Although working in law enforcement under any capacity is a noble path, the nature of the job often involves a high level of stress and potentially dangerous situations. It’s commonly said that an officer’s job is to “serve and protect” the community, however a police officers daily responsibilities include a variety of tasks such as patrolling their jurisdiction, writing reports, developing community relations, testifying in court, and more.

Once police cadets finish their training period and start working for a department, officers tend to specialize in a particular area, such as fingerprint identification or chemical training. Others may work with emergency response teams or SWAT teams, and others may work in the court system and in jails. One recent movement in policing is the idea of “community policing”, in which police officers fight crime by building trust within their patrol neighborhood.

For anyone looking to become a police officer, Criminal Justice Degree Schools has more information available at our law enforcement degree resource, a law enforcement leader interview series and officer requirements for police departments by metro area.

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Police Officer Requirements

The educational requirements to become a police officer are quite varied and often depend on location. The required educational standards vary by state and in most cases, by city department. The minimal level of education often accepted by most police departments is a high school diploma or G.E.D certification. However, many departments around the country require at least a couple of years of college coursework such as an associate’s degree in criminal justice.

However, even if it’s not a specific requirement in the hiring process, having some college experience or a bachelor’s degree works strongly in an aspiring police officer’s favor when applying for an officer position and throughout their career. There is a lot of competition within the law enforcement sector and those with college experience will certainly stand out more in the hiring process. Additionally, a college degree is usually a requirement for many promotional opportunities once accepted into the force.

Besides education, there are other requirements a person must meet in order to become a police officer. A police officer candidate must be a U.S. citizen, be 21 years old, and meet rigorous physical criteria. This includes having stamina, agility, adequate vision and hearing and strength. In many cases, candidates that speak a second language are preferred. Further, those with military police experience are often placed at the front of the line in the hiring process.

Working as a police officer means protecting a community, but it also means having a certain level of respect for working with the public. Future officers must have a personable demeanor and should enjoy working with people. Applicants must be honest, responsible, and demonstrate integrity. Backgrounds are investigated during the interview process and most applicants are asked to undergo polygraph exams and submit to drug testing.

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Police Officer Training

Once hired, new police officers go through an extensive training period. Recruits are usually trained at a police academy for a period of approximately three months. The training they receive at the police academy includes classroom instruction on topics such as state and city laws, legal processes, and accident or crime investigation. They receive hands-on training in traffic control, weapons use, first aid, and emergency response.

As well as hands-on training, aspiring police officers must pass a written exam before being eligible to serve as a police officer. Although the training program is physically intensive, the written exam for becoming a police officer can also be quite daunting. However, final scores are a major factor in the hiring process. In fact, according to Norman Hall’s Police Exam Preparation Book, there is typically a lot competition for police officer positions around the US and “Civil Service personnel have the luxury of screening only top-ranking applicants and can afford to pass up other qualified applicants.” Therefore, although passing the exam might be acceptable, scoring above the rest of the cadets is what may make or break your future career as a police officer.

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How Much Do Police Officers Make?

Police officer salaries range significantly, depending on whether a police officer works in a rural area or an urban setting, etc. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports a median annual salary of $56,980 per year for police and detectives.1 The top 10% of police officers earned more than $93,450.1 Earnings may increase significantly with overtime. Those in a police officer career typically enjoy benefits like paid vacation, sick leave, medical and life insurance, and uniform allowances.

Top Paying States for Police and Sheriff Patrol Officers:

State Employment Average Annual Salary
New Jersey 21,130 $88,220
California 68,340 $86,040
Alaska 1,100 $73,990
New York 50,390 $70,670
Washington 8,160 $70,640

*Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics as of May 2013.

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Police Officer Career Outlook

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job growth of 5% nationally for police officers from 2012-2022.1 This projected growth is on the low side for such a typically stable occupation. However, this outlook depends heavily on city and state budgets, which have been fluctuating over the last few years.

In terms of the future hiring cycles, this low rate of projected growth will create a more competitive demand for police applicants that hold a bachelor’s degree. Additionally, prior experience in law enforcement or military experience is also heavily valued, as well as those aspiring officers who speak more than one language.

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Pros and Cons of Becoming a Police Officer

If you are considering a career as a police officer, it’s always a good idea to research the various pros and cons associated with the job. Working in law enforcement can be very rewarding, but there are many factors to consider in what many consider to be a fairly dangerous job.

First and foremost, the dangers associated with law enforcement vary throughout the US. The level of danger varies quite a bit depending on location and crime rates. According to the FBI’s latest Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) report, 27 law enforcement officers around the nation were killed in 2013 as a result of felonious incidents in the line of duty. 3 That number is 44% less than reported police officer deaths in 2012.

Further contributing to the advantages of becoming a police officer is the stability of working for the government. Police officers work for the government and local, state, and federal governments continue to be the biggest employers in the United States. Additionally, as a government job, there are often better benefits than jobs in the private sector. Furthermore, the retirement track is usually much shorter in public service than the private sector.

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Additional advantages of becoming a police officers include:

  • Law enforcements officers receive excellent training that can be used beyond their careers in police work including problem identification, problem solving and public relations.
  • You gain a sense of pride and accomplishment from being a police officer. Police officers are literally that “thin blue line” between law abiding citizens and criminals. As a police officer, you make up that barrier that protects the public.
  • Working as a police officer means that you are part of a tightly-knit team. No matter where you work, your law enforcement colleagues become like a second family, providing support throughout your career and many times after leaving the force.
  • Opportunities for advancement are abundant in law enforcement work. As individuals retire or move up in the ranks, there are more chances of promotion. Also, because police departments are usually divided in several divisions, there are a number of choices as far as available career tracks (whether it be working homicides, sex offenses, property crimes or moving up the patrol ranks).

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There are many advantages to becoming a police officer; however, there are some disadvantages to being a police officer as well.

  • Law enforcement work can be very stressful. With departmental policies; local, state and federal laws; and other regulations, you may find it difficult at times to stay abreast of all that is required of you as a police officer.
  • Law enforcement work requires a great deal of documentation. With the move to computerization, officers who have been working in this field for many years are finding it stressful to learn the new technology.
  • You will see some of the more horrendous acts committed against individuals imaginable. Law enforcement work can be extremely heartbreaking. Officers not only deal with the offenders, they are the first person in the criminal justice system that the victim will see. This has led to cases of post traumatic stress disorder among police officers. In 2012, there were 126 suicides among police officers in the United States.6
  • Work schedules are another disadvantage of law enforcement work. Most departments have 12-hour rotating shifts. Your schedule may vary from day to night shift. Police work doesn’t take a holiday and you will most likely have to work weekends, nights, and holidays quite often. Shift work can be very stressful on your family life.
  • Some families cannot deal with the stress of having an officer in the family and divorce rates among police officers are high.

The decision to become a police officer should not be taken lightly. It is important that you weigh all the pros and cons before making this commitment. You must have the desire to serve the public, protect others and work as a team in order to be a successful police officer.

Related Careers

Interested in a career similar to a police officer? Check out these related careers:

O*Net Law Enforcement Occupation Information:

Law Enforcement Resources:
1. Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers: http://www.fletc.gov/
2. National Sheriff’s Association: http://www.sheriffs.org/
3. Bureau of Justice Assistance: https://www.bja.gov/
4. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives: http://www.atf.gov/
5. Drug Enforcement Agency: http://www.justice.gov/dea/index.shtml
6. Federal Bureau of Investigation: http://www.fbi.gov/
7. US Marshals: http://www.usmarshals.gov/

References:
1. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/protective-service/police-and-detectives.htm
2. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/ooh/Protective-Service/Police-and-detectives.htm
3. FBI: http://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases
4. Bureau of Labor Statistics: http://www.bls.gov/oes/current/oes_nat.htm
5. Hall, Norman. Police Exam Preparation Book. Avon, Mass: Adams Media, 2002. Print.
6. The Badge of Life: http://www.badgeoflife.com/suicides.php

Page Edited by Charles Sipe.