Becoming a Police
Officer or Becoming a Detective
- Police and detective work can be dangerous and stressful.
- Competition should remain keen for higher paying jobs with State and
Federal agencies and police departments in affluent areas; opportunities will
be better in local and special police departments that offer relatively low
salaries or in urban communities where the crime rate is relatively high.
- Applicants with college training in police science or military police
experience should have the best opportunities.
People depend on police officers and detectives to protect their lives and
property. Law enforcement officers, some of whom are State or Federal special
agents or inspectors, perform these duties in a variety of ways, depending on
the size and type of their organization. In most jurisdictions, they are
expected to exercise authority when necessary, whether on or off duty.
Uniformed police officers have general law enforcement duties,
including maintaining regular patrols and responding to calls for service. They
may direct traffic at the scene of an accident, investigate a burglary, or give
first aid to an accident victim. In large police departments, officers usually
are assigned to a specific type of duty. Many urban police agencies are involved
in community policing a practice in which an officer builds relationships with
the citizens of local neighborhoods and mobilizes the public to help fight
Police agencies are usually organized into geographic districts, with
uniformed officers assigned to patrol a specific area, such as part of the
business district or outlying residential neighborhoods. Officers may work
alone, but, in large agencies, they often patrol with a partner. While on
patrol, officers attempt to become thoroughly familiar with their patrol area
and remain alert for anything unusual. Suspicious circumstances and hazards to
public safety are investigated or noted, and officers are dispatched to
individual calls for assistance within their district. During their shift, they
may identify, pursue, and arrest suspected criminals; resolve problems within
the community; and enforce traffic laws.
Public college and university police forces, public school district police,
and agencies serving transportation systems and facilities are examples of
special police agencies. These agencies have special geographic jurisdictions
and enforcement responsibilities in the United States. Most sworn personnel in
special agencies are uniformed officers; a smaller number are investigators.
Some police officers specialize in such diverse fields as chemical and
microscopic analysis, training and firearms instruction, or handwriting and
fingerprint identification. Others work with special units, such as horseback,
bicycle, motorcycle or harbor patrol; canine corps; special weapons and tactics
(SWAT); or emergency response teams. A few local and special law enforcement
officers primarily perform jail-related duties or work in courts. Regardless of
job duties or location, police officers and detectives at all levels must write
reports and maintain meticulous records that will be needed if they testify in
Sheriffs and deputy sheriffs enforce the law on the county level.
Sheriffs are usually elected to their posts and perform duties similar to those
of a local or county police chief. Sheriffs departments tend to be relatively
small, most having fewer than 50 sworn officers. Deputy sheriffs have law
enforcement duties similar to those of officers in urban police departments.
Police and sheriffs deputies who provide security in city and county courts are
sometimes called bailiffs. (For information on other officers who work in jails
and prisons, see correctional
officers elsewhere in the Handbook.)
State police officers (sometimes called State troopers or
highway patrol officers) arrest criminals Statewide and patrol highways to
enforce motor vehicle laws and regulations. State police officers are best known
for issuing traffic citations to motorists. At the scene of accidents, they may
direct traffic, give first aid, and call for emergency equipment. They also
write reports used to determine the cause of the accident. State police officers
are frequently called upon to render assistance to other law enforcement
agencies, especially those in rural areas or small towns.
State law enforcement agencies operate in every State except Hawaii. Most
full-time sworn personnel are uniformed officers who regularly patrol and
respond to calls for service. Others work as investigators, perform
court-related duties, or carry out administrative or other assignments.
Detectives are plainclothes investigators who gather facts and collect
evidence for criminal cases. Some are assigned to interagency task forces to
combat specific types of crime. They conduct interviews, examine records,
observe the activities of suspects, and participate in raids or arrests.
Detectives and State and Federal agents and inspectors usually specialize in
investigating one of a wide variety of violations, such as homicide or fraud.
They are assigned cases on a rotating basis and work on them until an arrest and
conviction occurs or until the case is dropped.
Fish and game wardens enforce fishing, hunting, and boating laws. They
patrol hunting and fishing areas, conduct search and rescue operations,
investigate complaints and accidents, and aid in prosecuting court cases.
The Federal Government maintains a high profile in many areas of law
enforcement. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents are the
Governments principal investigators, responsible for investigating violations
of more than 200 categories of Federal law and conducting sensitive national
security investigations. Agents may conduct surveillance, monitor
court-authorized wiretaps, examine business records, investigate white-collar
crime, or participate in sensitive undercover assignments. The FBI investigates
organized crime, public corruption, financial crime, fraud against the
Government, bribery, copyright infringement, civil rights violations, bank
robbery, extortion, kidnapping, air piracy, terrorism, espionage, interstate
criminal activity, drug trafficking, and other violations of Federal statutes.
U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents enforce laws and
regulations relating to illegal drugs. Not only is the DEA the lead agency for
domestic enforcement of Federal drug laws, it also has sole responsibility for
coordinating and pursuing U.S. drug investigations abroad. Agents may conduct
complex criminal investigations, carry out surveillance of criminals, and
infiltrate illicit drug organizations using undercover techniques.
U.S. marshals and deputy marshals protect the Federal courts and
ensure the effective operation of the judicial system. They provide protection
for the Federal judiciary, transport Federal prisoners, protect Federal
witnesses, and manage assets seized from criminal enterprises. They enjoy the
widest jurisdiction of any Federal law enforcement agency and are involved to
some degree in nearly all Federal law enforcement efforts. In addition, U.S.
marshals pursue and arrest Federal fugitives.
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives agents regulate
and investigate violations of Federal firearms and explosives laws, as well as
Federal alcohol and tobacco tax regulations.
The U.S. Department of State Bureau of Diplomatic Security special agents
are engaged in the battle against terrorism. Overseas, they advise ambassadors
on all security matters and manage a complex range of security programs designed
to protect personnel, facilities, and information. In the United States, they
investigate passport and visa fraud, conduct personnel security investigations,
issue security clearances, and protect the Secretary of State and a number of
foreign dignitaries. They also train foreign civilian police and administer a
counter-terrorism reward program.
The Department of Homeland Security employs numerous law enforcement
officers under several different agencies, including Customs and Border
Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and the U.S. Secret
Service. U.S. Border Patrol agents protect more than 8,000 miles of
international land and water boundaries. Their missions are to detect and
prevent the smuggling and unlawful entry of undocumented foreign nationals into
the United States; to apprehend those persons violating the immigration laws;
and to interdict contraband, such as narcotics.
Immigration inspectors interview and examine people seeking entrance
to the United States and its territories. They inspect passports to determine
whether people are legally eligible to enter the United States. Immigration
inspectors also prepare reports, maintain records, and process applications and
petitions for immigration or temporary residence in the United States.
Customs inspectors enforce laws governing imports and exports by
inspecting cargo, baggage, and articles worn or carried by people, vessels,
vehicles, trains, and aircraft entering or leaving the United States. These
inspectors examine, count, weigh, gauge, measure, and sample commercial and
noncommercial cargoes entering and leaving the United States. Customs inspectors
seize prohibited or smuggled articles; intercept contraband; and apprehend,
search, detain, and arrest violators of U.S. laws. Customs agents
investigate violations, such as narcotics smuggling, money laundering, child
pornography, and customs fraud, and they enforce the Arms Export Control Act.
During domestic and foreign investigations, they develop and use informants;
conduct physical and electronic surveillance; and examine records from importers
and exporters, banks, couriers, and manufacturers. They conduct interviews,
serve on joint task forces with other agencies, and get and execute search
Federal Air Marshals provide air security by fighting attacks
targeting U.S. airports, passengers, and crews. They disguise themselves as
ordinary passengers and board flights of U.S. air carriers to locations
U.S. Secret Service special agents protect the President, Vice
President, and their immediate families; Presidential candidates; former
Presidents; and foreign dignitaries visiting the United States. Secret Service
agents also investigate counterfeiting, forgery of Government checks or bonds,
and fraudulent use of credit cards.
Other Federal agencies employ police and special agents with sworn arrest
powers and the authority to carry firearms. These agencies include the Postal
Service, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Law Enforcement, the Forest
Service, and the National Park Service.
Police and detective work can be very dangerous and stressful. In addition to
the obvious dangers of confrontations with criminals, police officers and
detectives need to be constantly alert and ready to deal
appropriately with a number of other threatening situations. Many law
enforcement officers witness death and suffering resulting from accidents and
criminal behavior. A career in law enforcement may take a toll on their private
Uniformed officers, detectives, agents, and inspectors are usually scheduled
to work 40-hour weeks, but paid overtime is common. Shift work is necessary
because protection must be provided around the clock. Junior officers frequently
work weekends, holidays, and nights. Police officers and detectives are required
to work at any time their services are needed and may work long hours during
investigations. In most jurisdictions, whether on or off duty, officers are
expected to be armed and to exercise their authority whenever necessary.
The jobs of some Federal agents such as U.S. Secret Service and DEA special
agents require extensive travel, often on very short notice. They may relocate a
number of times over the course of their careers. Some special agents in
agencies such as the U.S. Border Patrol work outdoors in rugged terrain for long
periods and in all kinds of weather.
Training, Other Qualifications, and Advancement
Civil service regulations govern the appointment of police and detectives in
most States, large municipalities, and special police agencies, as well as in
many smaller jurisdictions. Candidates must be U.S. citizens, usually must be at
least 20 years of age, and must meet rigorous physical and personal
qualifications. Physical examinations for entrance into law enforcement often
include tests of vision, hearing, strength, and agility. Eligibility for
appointment usually depends on performance in competitive written examinations
and previous education and experience. In larger departments, where the majority
of law enforcement jobs are found, applicants usually must have at least a high
school education, and some departments require a year or two of college
coursework. Federal and State agencies typically require a college degree.
Candidates should enjoy working with people and meeting the public.
Because personal characteristics such as honesty, sound judgment, integrity,
and a sense of responsibility are especially important in law enforcement,
candidates are interviewed by senior officers, and their character traits and
backgrounds are investigated. In some agencies, candidates are interviewed by a
psychiatrist or a psychologist or given a personality test. Most applicants are
subjected to lie detector examinations or drug testing. Some agencies subject
sworn personnel to random drug testing as a condition of continuing employment.
Before their first assignments, officers usually go through a period of
training. In State and large local departments, recruits get training in their
agency's police academy, often for 12 to 14 weeks. In small agencies, recruits
often attend a regional or State academy. Training includes classroom
instruction in constitutional law and civil rights, State laws and local
ordinances, and accident investigation. Recruits also receive training and
supervised experience in patrol, traffic control, use of firearms, self-defense,
first aid, and emergency response. Police departments in some large cities hire
high school graduates who are still in their teens as police cadets or trainees.
They do clerical work and attend classes, usually for 1 to 2 years, at which
point they reach the minimum age requirement and may be appointed to the regular
Police officers usually become eligible for promotion after a probationary
period ranging from 6 months to 3 years. In a large department, promotion may
enable an officer to become a detective or to specialize in one type of police
work, such as working with juveniles. Promotions to corporal, sergeant,
lieutenant, and captain usually are made according to a candidates position on
a promotion list, as determined by scores on a written examination and
Most States require at least two years of college study to qualify as a fish
and game warden. Applicants must pass written and physical examinations and
vision, hearing, psychological, and drug tests similar to those taken by other
law enforcement officers. Once hired, officers attend a training academy lasting
from 3 to 12 months, sometimes followed by further training in the field.
To be considered for appointment as an FBI agent, an applicant must be a
graduate of an accredited law school or a college graduate with one of the
following: a major in accounting, electrical engineering, or information
technology; fluency in a foreign language; or three years of related full-time
work experience. All new agents undergo 18 weeks of training at the FBI Academy
on the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia.
Applicants for special agent jobs with the U.S. Secret Service and the Bureau
of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms must have a bachelors degree, a minimum of
three years related work experience, or a combination of education and
experience. Prospective special agents undergo 11 weeks of initial criminal
investigation training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco,
Georgia, and another 17 weeks of specialized training with their particular
Applicants for special agent jobs with the DEA must have a college degree
with at least a 2.95 grade point average or specialized skills or work
experience, such as foreign language fluency, technical skills, law enforcement
experience, or accounting experience. DEA special agents undergo 14 weeks of
specialized training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
U.S. Border Patrol agents must be U.S. citizens, be younger than 37 years of
age at the time of appointment, possess a valid drivers license, and pass a
three-part examination on reasoning and language skills. A bachelors degree or
previous work experience that demonstrates the ability to handle stressful
situations, make decisions, and take charge is required for a position as a
Border Patrol agent. Applicants may qualify through a combination of education
and work experience.
Postal inspectors must have a bachelors degree and 1 year of related work
experience. It is desirable that they have one of several professional
certifications, such as that of certified public accountant. They also must pass
a background investigation, meet certain health requirements, undergo a drug
screening test, possess a valid State drivers license, and be a U.S. citizen
between 21 and 36 years of age when hired.
Law enforcement agencies are encouraging applicants to take postsecondary
school training in law enforcement-related subjects. Many entry-level applicants
for police jobs have completed some formal postsecondary education, and a
significant number are college graduates. Many junior colleges, colleges, and
universities offer programs in law enforcement or administration of justice.
Other courses helpful in preparing for a career in law enforcement include
accounting, finance, electrical engineering, computer science, and foreign
languages. Physical education and sports are helpful in developing the
competitiveness, stamina, and agility needed for many law enforcement positions.
Knowledge of a foreign language is an asset in many Federal agencies and urban
Continuing training helps police officers, detectives, and special agents
improve their job performance. Through police department academies, regional
centers for public safety employees established by the States, and Federal
agency training centers, instructors provide annual training in self-defense
tactics, firearms, use-of-force policies, sensitivity and communications skills,
crowd-control techniques, relevant legal developments, and advances in law
enforcement equipment. Many agencies pay all or part of the tuition for officers
to work toward degrees in criminal justice, police science, administration of
justice, or public administration, and pay higher salaries to those who earn
such a degree.
Police and detectives held about 842,000 jobs in 2004. About 80 percent were
employed by local governments. State police agencies employed about 12 percent,
and various Federal agencies employed about 6 percent. A small proportion worked
for educational services, rail transportation, and contract investigation and
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, police and detectives
employed by local governments primarily worked in cities with more than 25,000
inhabitants. Some cities have very large police forces, while thousands of small
communities employ fewer than 25 officers each.
The opportunity for public service through law enforcement work is attractive
to many because the job is challenging and involves much personal
responsibility. Furthermore, law enforcement officers in many agencies may
retire with a pension after 25 or 30 years of service, allowing them to pursue a
second career while still in their 40s or 50s. Because of relatively attractive
salaries and benefits, the number of qualified candidates exceeds the number of
job openings in Federal law enforcement agencies and in most State police
departmentsresulting in increased hiring standards and selectivity by
employers. Competition should remain keen for higher paying jobs with State and
Federal agencies and police departments in more affluent areas. Opportunities
will be better in local and special police departments, especially in
departments that offer relatively low salaries, or in urban communities where
the crime rate is relatively high. Applicants with college training in police
science, military police experience, or both should have the best opportunities.
Employment of police and detectives is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all
occupations through 2014. A more security-conscious society and concern about
drug-related crimes should contribute to the increasing demand for police
services. However, employment growth will be hindered by reductions in Federal
hiring grants to local police departments and by expectations of low crime rates
by the general public.
The level of government spending determines the level of employment for
police and detectives. The number of job opportunities, therefore, can vary from
year to year and from place to place. Layoffs, on the other hand, are rare
because retirements enable most staffing cuts to be handled through attrition.
Trained law enforcement officers who lose their jobs because of budget cuts
usually have little difficulty finding jobs with other agencies. The need to
replace workers who retire, transfer to other occupations, or stop working for
other reasons will be the source of many job openings.
Police and sheriffs patrol officers had median annual earnings of $45,210 in
May 2004. The middle 50 percent earned between $34,410 and $56,360. The lowest
10 percent earned less than $26,910, and the highest 10 percent earned more than
$68,880. Median annual earnings were $44,750 in Federal Government, $48,980 in
State government, and $45,010 in local government.
In May 2004, median annual earnings of police and detective supervisors were
$64,430. The middle 50 percent earned between $49,370 and $80,510. The lowest 10
percent earned less than $36,690, and the highest 10 percent earned more than
$96,950. Median annual earnings were $86,030 in Federal Government, $62,300 in
State government, and $63,590 in local government.
In May 2004, median annual earnings of detectives and criminal investigators
were $53,990. The middle 50 percent earned between $40,690 and $72,280. The
lowest 10 percent earned less than $32,180, and the highest 10 percent earned
more than $86,010. Median annual earnings were $75,700 in Federal Government,
$46,670 in State government, and $49,650 in local government.
Federal law provides special salary rates to Federal employees who serve in
law enforcement. Additionally, Federal special agents and inspectors receive law
enforcement availability pay (LEAP) equal to 25 percent of the agents grade and
step awarded because of the large amount of overtime that these agents are
expected to work. For example, in 2005, FBI agents entered Federal service as
GS-10 employees on the pay scale at a base salary of $42,548, yet they earned
about $53,185 a year with availability pay. They could advance to the GS-13
grade level in field nonsupervisory assignments at a base salary of $64,478,
which was worth $80,597 with availability pay. FBI supervisory, management, and
executive positions in grades GS-14 and GS-15 paid a base salary of about
$76,193 and $89,625 a year, respectively, which amounted to $95,241 or $112,031
per year including availability pay. Salaries were slightly higher in selected
areas where the prevailing local pay level was higher. Because Federal agents
may be eligible for a special law enforcement benefits package, applicants
should ask their recruiter for more information.
According to the International City-County Management Associations annual
Police and Fire Personnel, Salaries, and Expenditures Survey, average salaries
for sworn full-time positions in 2004 were as follows:
||Minimum annual base salary
||Maximum annual base salary
Total earnings for local, State, and special police and detectives frequently
exceed the stated salary because of payments for overtime, which can be
significant. In addition to the common benefits paid vacation, sick leave, and
medical and life insurance most police and sheriffs departments provide
officers with special allowances for uniforms. Because police officers usually
are covered by liberal pension plans, many retire at half-pay after 25 or 30
years of service.
Police and detectives maintain law and order, collect evidence and
information, and conduct investigations and surveillance. Workers in related
occupations include correctional
officers, private detectives
and investigators, and security
guards and gaming surveillance officers.
Sources of Additional Information
For general information about sheriffs and to learn more about the National
Sheriffs' Association scholarship, contact:
Information about qualifications for employment as a FBI Special Agent is
available from the nearest State FBI office. The address and phone number are
listed in the local telephone directory. Internet:
Information on career opportunities, qualifications, and training for U.S.
Secret Service Special Agents is available from the Secret Service Personnel
Division at (202) 406-5800, (888) 813-8777, or (888) 813-USSS. Internet:
Information about qualifications for employment as a DEA Special Agent is
available from the nearest DEA office, or call (800) DEA-4288. Internet:
Information about career opportunities, qualifications, and training to
become a deputy marshal is available from:
- U.S. Marshals Service, Human Resources DivisionLaw Enforcement
Recruiting, Washington, DC 20530-1000. Internet:
For information on operations and career opportunities in the U.S. Bureau of
Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives operations, contact:
- U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives Personnel
Division, 650 Massachusetts Ave. NW., Room 4100, Washington, DC 20226.
Information about careers in U.S. Customs and Border Protection is available
- U.S. Customs and Border Protection, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave., NW.,
Washington, DC 20229. Internet:
Information about law enforcement agencies within the Department of Homeland
Security is available from:
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook
Handbook, 2006-07 Edition,
Police and Detectives, on the Internet at
(visited April 06, 2006).