Police Officer Career

Police officers perform many duties relating to public safety. Their responsibilities include not only preserving the peace, preventing criminal acts, enforcing the law, investigating crimes, and arresting those who violate the law but also directing traffic, community relations work, and controlling crowds at public events. Police officers are employed at the federal, state, county, and city level.

State police officers patrol highways and enforce the laws and regulations that gov­ern the use of those highways, in addition to performing general police work. Police officers are under oath to uphold the law 24 hours a day. There are approxi­mately 842,000 police and detec­tives employed in the United States.

Police Officer Career History

Police OfficerPeople have historically sought some form of protection for their lives and property and to help preserve their welfare. The true origins of police work, however, are virtually unknown. In medi­eval times, feudal lords employed retainers who made sure taxes were paid. These employees may have attempted to maintain some kind of law and order among the people, but at the same time, they were employed by the lords and often merely enforced their employers’ wishes.

Colonial America followed the British form of police orga­nization. A sheriff, appointed by the governor of a colony, enforced laws, collected taxes, and maintained public property throughout the colony. Consta­bles performed similar duties in the cities and towns. Night watchmen protected the cit­ies from fires and crime. However, as cities grew rapidly during the 19th century, a larger, more organized police service was needed to control growing problems with crimes and public disturbances.

In 1829 in London, Sir Robert Peel established the first modern, nonmilitary police force. The British police became known as bobbies after Sir Robert’s name. The police force in New York City was established in 1844. These new police forces wore uniforms, worked 24 hours a day, and often carried guns. They patrolled the streets and soon became a fixture in many cities. On the American frontier, however, laws were often enforced by volunteer police officers until regular police forces were established. Sheriffs and sheriff’s deputies guarded many areas of the West. An early effort to create a statewide police force resulted in the creation of the Texas Rangers in 1835. In 1905, Pennsylvania formed the first official state police department. Soon, almost every state had a state police department as well as those police units that worked for individual cities or towns.

These early police efforts were often notoriously inad­equate. Many police departments were seats of corrup­tion and abuse of authority. Police officers were generally untrained and were often appointed as agents serving the political machine of their city, rather than the people. Efforts to clean up the police departments began in the early decades of the 20th century. Police were expected to be professionals. Higher selection standards and spe­cial training programs were instituted, and efforts were made to eliminate the influence of politics on the police department. Command of the police department soon became more centralized, with a chief of police supervis­ing the operations of the entire department. Other ranks were created, such as sergeant and detective. At the same time, scientists working with the police were developing scientific advances in crime detection and prevention, such as fingerprinting.

Today every state has uniformed police. State police operations are customarily confined to unincorporated areas as a matter of policy, although a few states restrict them by statute. In addition, police operate at the federal level in such agencies as the Federal Bureau of Investiga­tion, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Drug Enforcement Agency. While the many types of police forces operate independently, they often cooperate to provide more effective law enforcement.

Police Officer Job Description

Depending on the orders they receive from their com­manding officers, police may direct traffic during the rush-hour periods and at special events when traffic is unusually heavy. They may patrol public places such as parks, streets, and public gatherings to maintain law and order. Police are sometimes called upon to prevent or break up riots and to act as escorts at funerals, parades, and other public events. They may administer first aid in emergency situations, assist in rescue operations of various kinds, investigate crimes, issue tickets to violators of traffic or parking laws or other regulations, or arrest drunk drivers. Officers in small towns may have to per­form all these duties and administrative work as well.

As officers patrol their assigned beats, either on foot, bicycle, horseback, motorcycle, or in cars, they must be alert for any situations that arise and be ready to take appropriate action. Many times they must be alert to identify stolen cars, identify and locate lost children, and identify and apprehend escaped criminals and others wanted by various law enforcement agencies. While on patrol, they keep in constant contact with headquarters and their fellow officers by calling in regularly on two-way radios. Although their profession may at times be dangerous, police officers are trained not to endanger their own lives or the lives of ordinary citizens. If they need assistance, they radio for additional officers.

In large city police departments, officers usually have more specific duties and specialized assignments. The police departments generally are comprised of special work divisions such as communications, criminal investi­gation, firearms identification, fingerprint identification and forensic science, accident prevention, and adminis­trative services. In very large cities, police departments may have special work units such as the harbor patrol, canine corps, mounted police, vice squad, fraud or bank squad, traffic control, records control, and rescue units. A few of the job titles for these specialties are identification and records commanders and officers, narcotics and vice detectives or investigators, homicide squad commanding officers, detective chiefs, traffic lieutenants, sergeants, park­ing enforcement officers, public safety officers, accident-prevention squad officers, safety instruction police officers, and community relations lieutenants.

In very large city police departments, officers may fill positions as police chiefs, precinct sergeants and cap­tains, desk officers, booking officers, police inspectors, identification officers, complaint evaluation supervi­sors and officers, and crime prevention police officers. Some officers work as plainclothes detectives in criminal investigation divisions. Internal affairs investigators are employed to police the police. Other specialized police officers include police commanding officers, who act as supervisors in missing persons and fugitive investi­gations; and officers who investigate and pursue non­payment and fraud fugitives. Many police departments employ police clerks, who perform administrative and community-oriented tasks.

A major responsibility for state police officers (some­times known as state troopers or highway patrol officers) is to patrol the highways and enforce the laws and regu­lations of those traveling on them. Riding in patrol cars equipped with two-way radios, they monitor traffic for troublesome or dangerous situations. They write traf­fic tickets and issue warnings to drivers who are violat­ing traffic laws or otherwise not observing safe driving practices. They radio for assistance for drivers who are stopped because of breakdowns, flat tires, illnesses, or other reasons. They direct traffic around congested areas caused by fires, road repairs, accidents, and other emergencies. They may check the weight of commercial vehicles to verify that they are within allowable limits, conduct driver examinations, or give safety information to the public.

In the case of a highway accident, officers take charge of the activities at the site by directing traffic, giving first aid to any injured parties, and calling for emergency equipment such as ambulances, fire trucks, or tow trucks. They write up a report to be used by investigating officers who attempt to determine the cause of the accident.

In addition to these responsibilities, state police offi­cers in most states do some general police work. They are often the primary law-enforcement agency in com­munities or counties that have no police force or a large sheriff’s department. In those areas, they may investigate such crimes as burglary and assault. They also may assist municipal or county police in capturing lawbreakers or controlling civil disturbances.

Most police officers are trained in the use of firearms and carry guns. Police in special divisions, such as chemi­cal analysis and handwriting and fingerprint identifica­tion, have special training to perform their work. Police officers often testify in court regarding cases with which they have been involved. Police personnel are required to complete accurate and thorough records of their cases.

Police Officer Career Requirements

High School

The majority of police departments today require that applicants have a high school education. Although a high school diploma is not always required, related work expe­rience is generally required.

If you are interested in pursuing this career, you will find the subjects of psychology, sociology, English, law, mathematics, U.S. government and history, chemistry, and physics most helpful. Because physical stamina is very important in this work, sports and physical educa­tion are also valuable. Knowledge of a foreign language is especially helpful, and bilingual officers are often in great demand. If specialized and advanced positions in law enforcement interest you, pursue studies leading to college programs in criminology, criminal law, criminal psychology, or related areas.

Postsecondary Training

The best chance for advancement is by getting some post-secondary education, and many police departments now require a two- or four-year degree, especially for more specialized areas of police work. There are more than 800 junior colleges and universities offering two- and four-year degree programs in law enforcement, police science, and administration of justice. Many police departments require a two-year degree to make lieutenant and a bach­elor’s degree to make captain. The armed forces also offer training and opportunities in law enforcement that can be applied to civilian police work.

Newly recruited police officers must pass a spe­cial training program. After training, they are usually placed on a probationary period lasting from three to six months. In small towns and communities, a new officer may get his or her training on the job by working with an experienced officer. Inexperienced officers are never sent out on patrol alone but are always accompanied by veteran officers.

Large city police departments give classroom instruc­tion in laws, accident investigation, city ordinances, and traffic control. These departments also give instruction in the handling of firearms, methods of apprehension and arrest, self-defense tactics, and first-aid techniques. Both state and municipal police officers are trained in safe driving procedures and maneuvering an automobile at high speeds.

Other Requirements

Police job appointments in most large cities and in many smaller cities and towns are governed by local civil ser­vice regulations. You will be required to pass written tests designed to measure your intelligence and general aptitude for police work. You will also be required to pass physical examinations, which usually include tests of physical agility, dexterity, and strength. Your personal history, background, and character will undergo care­ful scrutiny because honesty and law-abiding charac­teristics are essential traits for law-enforcement officers. Another important requirement is that you have no arrest record.

To be a police officer, you must be at least 20 years of age (or older for some departments), and some munici­palities stipulate an age limit of not more than 35 years. You must have, in some cases, 20/20 uncorrected vision, good hearing, and weight proportionate to your height. You will also be required to meet locally prescribed weight and height rules for your gender. Most regula­tions require that you be a U.S. citizen, and many police departments have residency requirements.

If you hope to be a police officer, you should enjoy working with people and be able to cooperate with oth­ers. Because of the stressful nature of much police work, you must be able to think clearly and logically during emergency situations, have a strong degree of emo­tional control, and be capable of detaching yourself from incidents.

Physical fitness training is a mandatory, continuing activity in most police departments, as are routine physi­cal examinations. Police officers can have no physical disabilities that would prevent them from carrying out their duties.

Exploring Police Officer Career

Police OfficersA good way to explore police work is to talk with vari­ous law enforcement officers. Most departments have community outreach programs and many have recruit­ing programs as well. You may also wish to visit colleges offering programs in police work or write for informa­tion on their training programs.

In some cases, high school graduates can explore this occupation by seeking employment as police cadets in large city police departments. These cadets are paid employees who work part time in clerical and other duties. They attend training courses in police science on a part-time basis. When you reach the age of 21, you will be eligible to apply for regular police work. Some police departments also hire college stu­dents as interns.


Police officers hold approximately 842,000 jobs in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, approximately 81 percent of police officers are employed by local governments. State police agencies employ approximately 12 percent of officers, and about 6 percent of officers work for federal agencies.

Starting Out

If you are interested in police work, you should apply directly to local civil service offices or examining boards to qualify as a candidate for police officer. In some locations, written examinations may be given to groups at specified times. For positions in smaller communities that do not follow civil service methods, you should apply directly to the police department or city government offices in that community. If you are interested in becoming a state police officer, you can apply directly to the state civil ser­vice commission or the state police headquarters, which are usually located in the state capital.


Advancement in these occupations is determined by sev­eral factors. An officer’s eligibility for promotion may depend on a specified length of service, job performance, formal education and training courses, and results of written examinations. Those who become eligible for promotion are listed on the promotional list along with other qualified candidates. Promotions generally become available from six months to three years after starting, depending on the department. As positions of different or higher rank become open, candidates are promoted to fill them according to their position on the list. Lines of promotion usually begin with officer third grade and progress to grade two and grade one. Other possible promotional opportunities include the ranks of detec­tive, sergeant, lieutenant, or captain. Many promotions require additional training and testing. Advancement to the very top-ranking positions, such as division, bureau, or department director or chief, may be made by direct political appointment. Most of these top positions are held by officers who have come up through the ranks.

Large city police departments offer the greatest num­ber of advancement opportunities. Most of the larger departments maintain separate divisions, which require administration workers, line officers, and more employ­ees in general at each rank level. Officers may move into areas that they find challenging, such as criminal inves­tigation or forensics.

Most city police departments offer various types of in-service study and training programs. These programs allow police departments to keep up-to-date on the lat­est police science techniques and are often required for those who want to be considered for promotion. Train­ing courses are provided by police academies, colleges, and other educational institutions. Some of the subjects offered are civil defense, foreign languages, and forgery detection. Some municipal police departments share the cost with their officers or pay all educational expenses if the officers are willing to work toward a college degree in either police work or police administration. Independent study is also often required.

Intensive 12-week administrative training courses are offered by the National Academy of the Federal Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C. A limited number of officers are selected to participate in this training program.

Advancement opportunities on police forces in small communities are considerably more limited by the rank and number of police personnel needed. Other oppor­tunities for advancement may be found in related police, protective, and security service work with private compa­nies, state and county agencies, and other institutions.


According to the U.S. Department of Labor, police offi­cers earned an annual average salary of $46,290 in 2005; the lowest 10 percent earned less than $27,150 a year, while the highest 10 percent earned $70,330 or more annually. Police detectives earned median salaries of $55,790 a year in 2005, with a low of less than $32,920 and a high of more than $88,570. Salaries for police offi­cers range widely based on geographic location. Police departments in the West and North generally pay more than those in the South.

Most police officers receive periodic and annual sal­ary increases up to a limit set for their rank and length of service. Police departments generally pay special com­pensation to cover the cost of uniforms. They usually provide any equipment required such as firearms and handcuffs. Overtime pay may be given for certain work shifts or emergency duty. In these instances, officers are usually paid straight or time-and-a-half pay, while extra time off is sometimes given as compensation.

Because most police officers are civil service employ­ees, they receive generous benefits, including health insurance and paid vacation and sick leave, and enjoy increased job security. In addition, most police depart­ments offer retirement plans and retirement after 20 or 25 years of service, usually at half pay.

Work Environment

Police officers work under many different types of cir­cumstances. Much of their work may be performed out­doors, as they ride in patrol cars or walk the beats assigned to them. In emergency situations, no consideration can be made for weather conditions, time of day or night, or day of the week. Police officers may be on call 24 hours a day; even when they are not on duty, they are usually required by law to respond to emergencies or criminal activity. Although they are assigned regular work hours, individuals in police work must be willing to live by an unpredictable and often erratic work schedule. The work demands constant mental and physical alertness as well as great physical strength and stamina.

Police work generally consists of an eight-hour day and a five-day week, but police officers may work night and weekend shifts and on holidays. Emergencies may add many extra hours to an officer’s day or week. The occupation is considered dangerous. Some officers are killed or wounded while performing their duties. Their work can involve unpleasant duties and expose them to sordid, depressing, or dangerous situations. They may be called on to deal with all types of people under many types of circumstances. While the routine of some assigned duties may become boring, the dangers of police work are often stressful for the officers and their fami­lies. Police work in general holds the potential for the unknown and unexpected, and most people who pursue this work have a strong passion for and commitment to police work.

Police Officer Career Outlook

Employment of police officers and detectives is expected to increase about as fast as the average for all occupa­tions through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Strong competition for jobs will exist at the federal level and in most state police departments. Opportuni­ties will be best in local police departments, especially those which are located in high-crime areas or that offer relatively lower pay than other departments.

The opportunities that become available, however, may be affected by technological, scientific, and other changes occurring today in police work. Automation in traffic control is limiting the number of officers needed in this area, while the increasing reliance on computers through­out society is creating demands for new kinds of police work. New approaches in social science and psychological research are also changing the methodology used in work­ing with public offenders. These trends indicate a future demand for more educated, specialized personnel.

This occupation has a very low turnover rate. How­ever, new positions will open as current officers retire, leave the force, or move into higher positions. Retirement ages are relatively low in police work compared to other occupations. Many officers retire while in their 40s and then pursue a second career. In response to increasing crime rates and threats of terrorism, some police depart­ments across the country are expanding the number of patrol officers; however, budget problems faced by many municipalities may limit growth.

In the past decade, private security firms have begun to take over some police activities such as patrolling public places. Some private companies have even been contracted to provide police forces for some cities. Many companies and universities also operate their own police forces.

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