Careers in Law Enforcement

By Matt Krumrie

Many men and women have aspired to work in law enforcement. They aspire to help protect and serve, and to be an integral part to the safety and security of a community. While a career in law enforcement is far different than what you see on the many TV shows and movies, it is a career that offers new challenges each and every day, and plenty of opportunities to thrive in a service-oriented environment, says Tracy Phillips, senior project specialist with Alexandria, Virginia-based International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP), the world’s oldest and largest nonprofit membership organizations of police executives.

Female Police Officer Photo

“Policing requires one of the most diverse skills sets around,” says Phillips, who has 6 years experience in law enforcement and recommends the IACP’s nationwide recruitment resource and career center for aspiring law enforcement professionals –

“Officers must be caring and compassionate but also able to make snap decisions and apply use of force. Good communication skills, both written and oral, are essential. The ability to think and work independently is also important.”

While TV shows like CSI Miami, The Shield and Law and Order portray careers in law enforcement one way, Phillips points out that life in law enforcement is not like life on TV.

Misconceptions about the Profession

“Misconceptions about policing tend to fall on two ends of the spectrum – the job is routine and boring – all you do is drive around and write tickets – or the job is filled with wall-to-wall excitement, as shown in TV and movies,” says Phillips. “In reality, the job is generally somewhere in the middle. Officers should be prepared to deal with both ends of the spectrum and everything in between, often switching gears at a moment’s notice.”

Another misconception often perpetuated by the media, says Phillips, is that law enforcement is fraught with corruption and misconduct. On the contrary, officers caught up in these indiscretions represent a very tiny population. Most officers are devoted to their jobs and their communities.

“Unfortunately, the countless stories of good-natured, caring acts do not make news,” says Phillips.

As for opportunities in this career, most people recognize the state police or local city/county law enforcement agency not realizing there are many other local departments with distinct jurisdictions, says Phillips. Those job opportunities include policing opportunities at/as:

  • Colleges/universities
  • Hospitals
  • Housing developments
  • Airports
  • Capitol police
  • Tribal police

Phillips says the variety of “jobs within the job” is also overlooked. Being a police officer offers far more than writing speeding tickets. From forensics and investigations to dive teams and computer crimes, the opportunity for unique training and specialization abounds. How about a job defusing bombs or negotiating for hostage releases?

Keys to Law Enforcement Success

If someone is considering a career in policing, Phillips recommends these 5 key tips:

  1. Policing is a service career and is about helping people and communities – simple facts, often overlooked.
  2. Get experience if you can – do ride-alongs, volunteer, connect with and ask questions of real officers – to make sure this is right for you.
  3. The hiring process can be long and intensive, but stick with it.
  4. If at first, you don’t succeed, try again. Officer selection is competitive. Just because you don’t make the cut in one department does not mean you aren’t meant for police work. The perfect match may be one jurisdiction over.
  5. Get fit. Review the physical requirements of your prospective agency and start working towards them now.

Job Opportunities

Hiring in the law enforcement field is mixed, says Phillips. The economy has forced some agencies to layoff or furlough officers, while the stimulus bill has funded positions elsewhere. No one area of the country has better job prospects than another. Overall, candidates may find that larger agencies, just because of their sheer numbers, are continually recruiting, while smaller law enforcement career graphicagencies may hire only when a spot is vacated.

“Generally, policing is a very stable field with a good outlook for continued hiring into the future,” says Phillips.

Many police departments are actively and aggressively recruiting candidates from broad and diverse backgrounds says Phillips. That’s why candidates with diverse language skills are also in high demand.

“Having an officer corps that accurately reflects community demographics is very important,” she says.

Salary Information

Entry-level salaries vary widely depending on the local area and may range from less than $30,000 annually in rural areas to over $50,000 in urban metropolitan areas, says Phillips. Command staff, particularly in mid-size to large cities, easily make over $100,000. Here is another example: A current campus police officer at the University of Minnesota with 8 years of experience is making $73,000 according to Minnesota state public employment data.

“The law enforcement field is rich in supplemental pay and benefits – particularly retirement – that augment base pay,” says Phillips. “It’s important when comparing departments, to look beyond salary to other benefits offered by a hiring agency.”

Here is a sampling of the latest salary information from

Life at Police Academy

Candidates are amply trained and will leave the academy with the skills necessary to do the job, says Phillips. This is where one will also learn the tactical side of things, such as handling and using firearms and weapons, self-defense, and driving a police car.

However, potential applicants can do a number of things to prepare and gain advance experience in advance. Interning or volunteering with the department can be an excellent way to gain experience while also getting a sense of the department and its culture. Most agencies allow ride-alongs, another great way to see police work first hand. Citizens’ police academies are another means of getting an inside look at a department. Connecting with and asking questions of actual officers is another way to make sure this is the right job for you.

Getting an Internship

Contact the recruiting office or the human resources office for more information. Agencies have varying requirements and application procedures. Even if a department isn’t advertising an internship, they may be able to make one for you, especially if you’re willing to consider an unpaid experience.

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