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Education and Training: High school diploma
Average Salary: $51,000 per year
Job Outlook: Good

Cops have a wide variety of responsibilities on the job, depending on their area of specialty. Police officers are responsible for pursuing and apprehending criminals, giving citations for traffic violations, and maintaining and writing reports about all of their activities. Many police officers patrol certain areas to watch for traffic violators or other signs of trouble. Some cops, including detectives, investigate facts and collect evidence about criminal cases so that the district attorney can try the case.

After they get into the job, most cops specialize in a certain area, like bike or motorcycle patrol, harbor patrol, or jobs that primarily revolve around keeping order in the courthouse. Those in a sheriff’s position oversee patrol officers and detectives, usually up to about fifty in a local precinct. Cops who become detectives in large police departments will often specialize in certain types of crimes, such as gang violence, drug trafficking, murder, or sex crimes. Patrol officers who stick to one area for their entire shifts are often expected to form relationships with the locals so that they can keep a better eye on what’s going on in the area. Most cops are also trained in basic first aid and CPR, and they may also be called to stand witness at criminal trials.

Education and Training Requirements

Most police departments require at least a high school education, though more are starting to require at least one or two years of college coursework or degrees in criminal justice and related fields. Participation in sports is helpful for getting a career as a police officer, since they need to be fit and have stamina for the job.

Most of the time, cops go through on-the-job training and training through the local police academy, where they learn about local laws as well as about the more practical aspects of being a police officer. Those who are not old enough to apply to the academy straight out of high school (the application requirement is usually twenty-one) can benefit from classes in criminal justice, justice administration, law enforcement, and even technology and language classes. In urban areas, knowledge of a second language prevalent in the area is invaluable.

Getting the Job

Cop recruits must often make it through the academy training before they can officially apply for a job as a police officer. Most agencies will also pay part or all of the training for current officers to get degrees in political science, administration of justice, public administration, or criminal justice if they wish to advance beyond being a patrol officer.

To be considered for higher positions, such a detective’s positions and Federal police positions, candidates need on-the-job experience and normally a bachelor’s degree.

Job Prospects, Employment Outlook and Career Development

Growth prospects for criminal justice related jobs tend to grow in certain areas with the growth of a city. Right now, job prospects for a cop are about average, with growth looking to continue at a steady rate for the next few years. As older cops retire, new positions will open up for recruits.

Cops almost always start out on the lower rungs of the ladder, but there can be much climbing. Beat or patrol cops often advance to leadership or management positions, investigative positions, or from local to the state or Federal level.

Working Conditions and Environment

Being a cop is normally a high-stress job unless you’re just writing traffic violations in a relatively peaceful small town. Stress will vary with job specialty, but this is always a dangerous job with high rates of injury and illness. Detectives and uniformed police officers normally work forty hours a week, but they often get paid overtime. Uniformed police, particularly, tend to work in shifts, and investigators may work overtime during investigations and are normally on call around the clock. All officers, even when off duty, carry weapons and are expected to enforce the law where necessary. Local jobs don’t normally involve much travel, but state and Federal police officer jobs can involve travel on short notice.

Salary and Benefits

Lower-level cops earn normally between $38,000 and $64,900 per year, but the national average is $51,400 for patrol officers. Detectives and supervisors, on average, earn about $75,400 per year, with these rates being higher – around $89,900 – for Federal investigators. Wages vary considerably depending on specialty and rank.

Cops may work for an hourly wage or a salary, depending on position and precinct. Their jobs normally come with health and vacation benefits, as well as paid overtime and sick days.

Where to Go for More Information
To find out more about law enforcement jobs and training, check out the following organizations:

National Law Enforcement Recruiters Association
PO Box 17132
Arlington, VA 22216
(703) 277-1116

National Sheriffs’ Association
1450 Duke St.
Alexandria, VA 22314
(800) 424-7827

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesLaw and Public Service