Career: Police Officer/Manager
For all of Hollywood’s portrayal of police officers, few provide an accurate picture of the demands and rewards of a career on the police force. Police work comes in many forms. Sheriffs, state troopers, bailiffs, detectives, and cops on the beat are all part of the local law enforcement community. (If you’re interested in federal law enforcement, see FBI agent.) A police officer’s basic tasks are keeping public order and protecting lives and property. A police officer must be alert for any number of threats, human or otherwise. Once a crime has been committed, detectives seize the reigns and engage in sleuthing that ranges from routine questioning to DNA analysis. Sheriffs and state troopers maintain order in bigger bailiwicks: large, thinly populated districts and major highways. Once selected for the force, many officers specialize in a particular aspect of law enforcement or investigation. Most are assigned to patrol a specific area. As police officers rise in the ranks, their duties become more specialized. All police officers, because of their unique role in society, are responsible for maintaining the trust of the public they serve.
Because of the responsibilities and prerogatives that come with police work, the pressure on officers can be enormous. “As a police officer, you’re called upon to do everything. You need to be a social worker, a psychologist, an officer of the peace and a soldier,” one officer reported. Being the first line of defense between criminals and their victims can be very stressful. Nevertheless, police work is mostly a series of routines: patrols, investigations, and paperwork. Even in America’s biggest and most violent cities, police officers seldom have occasion to draw their guns, much less fire them. Perhaps the most common burdens of police work are filling out forms in triplicate and enduring long, uneventful hours walking a beat or riding around in a patrol car. Local law enforcement is a demanding job, but one that most police officers find worthwhile. As one officer commented, “It’s interesting to map out strategies to solve community problems.”
Police officers are expected to be in good physical shape. A candidate’s insufficient height, weight, strength, or vision can lead to disqualification. Most police forces require only a high school diploma, although some expect their officers to have taken college courses or encourage them to pursue higher education while serving on the force. Character is also an important consideration. Some applicants to law enforcement jobs undergo psychological evaluation. All are tested for drug use.
Because law enforcement is a local concern, the path to the police force differs from community to community and state to state, but as the world becomes more complicated, so does the training required to become a police officer. Smaller communities may require new officers to complete an apprenticeship program. Large cities maintain police academies where aspiring officers are trained in the various aspects of police work, including investigative procedures, self-defense and the law, while fulfilling more minor duties such as directing traffic. Officers can pursue a managerial track and advance to become a sergeant, lieutenant, captain, or even a police chief or commissioner. Generally speaking, you must serve on the force five years before you are eligible to sit for the lieutenant’s exam, and after two years as a lieutenant, you can take the captain’s test. Each post requires increased education as well. You must have a two-year associates degree to advance to sergeant, 96 credits towards a bachelor’s degree to be considered for a lieutenant position, and a bachelor’s degree to make captain.
There are many law enforcement tasks that the police leave to civilian personnel. Psychologists, chemists, biologists, photographers, and many other specialists can find employment with larger police departments. Although none of these specialties is essential to police work all the time, in some situations, expertise can be the key to cracking a case.
Since police officers can and often do retire at an early age, many former police officers find good work providing private security for corporations or individuals.