Fast cars, big guns and making bad guys pay. Thanks in part to Hollywood, television and video games, those are the concepts most often associated with becoming a police officer and law enforcement careers. The truth of the matter is that the job of police officers, sheriff's deputies and state troopers involves so much more, and is also so much more rewarding, than the trumped up action scenes we see in the movies.
True, working as a police officer can be incredibly exciting, scary, fun and rewarding at different times. The day-to-day job functions, however, involve a much deeper commitment to service and public safety than pop culture portrays.
Job Functions and Work Environment
Police officers are first and foremost tasked with enforcing the law. Put simply, this means their primary job is to make sure that state laws and local ordinances are being obeyed. The overall goal of law enforcement is to obtain voluntary compliance with the law from citizens.
In general, the job duties of police officers, sheriff's deputies and state troopers include:
- Issuing traffic citations
- Helping disabled motorists
- Investigating minor crimes
- Directing traffic
- Making arrests
- Investigating traffic crashes
- Serving warrants
- Providing court testimony
- Providing first aid
- Securing crime scenes
- Identifying and protecting evidence
- Writing reports
- Responding to calls
Of course, there are a number of other duties that may be required of police officers in addition to those listed above. Aside from enforcing the law, the single most important role police officers serve is in helping other people.
In many cases, law enforcement officers are the first on scene of tragic accidents or incidents. They may even be flagged down by citizens while they are simply driving from point 'A' to point 'B.' The type of assistance officers may be called upon to render can range from simply giving directions to taking action to save someone's the life. The job is truly that diverse.
There is a darker side to police careers, as well. At any time, police officers may be called upon to assist at gruesome scenes. They must be able to handle the sight of blood and death.
Education And Skill Requirements
Law enforcement certification boards set minimum requirements in order to get hired as a police officer in each individual state. Different departments, however, will have different educational requirements over and above the state minimums. A high school diploma or equivalent will always be required.
Law enforcement agencies may require prior military service, some college-level education, or related work experience. Check with the individual agencies you would like to work for to determine whether you need an associate's or bachelor's degree.
In addition to the education requirements, police officers must have very strong communication skills and should enjoy dealing with people. A deep desire to help others is necessary to succeed and to make a difference as a police officer.
There are also stringent physical requirements that law enforcement candidates must pass in order to be considered for employment. Many departments impose weight standards that officers must comply with throughout their career.
Job Growth and Salary Outlook
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, law enforcement jobs are expected to increase by about 10% through 2018, which is in line with the national average for most careers. In 2008, there were approximately 665,700 police officers employed in the United States. Annual salaries for law enforcement officers ranged from $31,000 to $90,000, depending on location and length of service.
The rank structure of most departments allows for great opportunities for advancement. Most agencies use objective promotional assessment tools, such as written tests, in-basket exercises and oral boards to rank candidates.
Is a Career As a Police Officer Right for You?
A willingness to help other people is vital to any career as a police officer. If your primary career goal is to help make your community a better place, than you may want to consider law enforcement. Strong people skills are required, as are interpersonal communication skills.
It must also be recognized that the police profession is inherently dangerous. While academy training will provide the tools necessary to overcome most adverse situations, you must be able to accept the grave reality that you can be injured or killed in the performance of your duties.
A career as a police officer is certainly rewarding, but it is by no means for the faint of heart. If you have a strong constitution and a desire to help others, than you may enjoy working as a police officer. If you decide a law enforcement career is not the direction you want to go, you can still find your passion and serve your community in plenty of other areas within criminology.
- Find out more about popular jobs in criminology and criminal justice.