What to Know About Being a Police Officer

portrait of Juliann Scholl, Ph.D
by Juliann Scholl, Ph.D
Published on November 15, 2021

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More than 900,000 law enforcement officers work in the United States. Police officers perform various duties. These include investigating illegal activity, advocating for crime victims, and maintaining records. They take a pledge to protect lives and property. Community members depend on them to enforce the law and pursue individuals who break it.

Ideal job candidates tend to demonstrate attention to detail, excellent writing skills, and a preference for novelty and excitement. Most successful police officers also exhibit critical thinking and prefer flexibility in their work. Good communication skills can be an advantage when interacting with the public.

Individuals at least 21 years old can enroll in a police academy if they hold a high school or equivalent diploma. Some candidates have an associate or bachelor's degree or earn extra college credits. Candidates must also be U.S. citizens and have no drug or felony convictions.

Because police work tends to include many physical demands, police academy students need to meet specific physical requirements. The work sometimes involves danger and the risk of injury or death. It requires alertness and the ability to confront scenes of violence and suffering.

Despite the physical and mental demands, many police officers find their jobs meaningful and rewarding because they get to help people.

What Does a Police Officer Do?

Police officers are among the broad group of law enforcement professionals who preserve public safety, help crime victims, and collect evidence of criminal activity. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), police officers typically perform the following duties:

Police officers can seek positions at the city, state, or federal level. Most of them obtain full-time employment, work paid overtime on occasion, and take night shifts. Although many duties remain standard, they can vary by the employer and the specific role performed.

What Is a Police Officer's Career Outlook?

Communities will always need police officers who help maintain public safety, protect lives and property, and reduce and prevent illegal activities. Cities of all sizes require police officers and other law enforcement professionals' protection — even when crime rates appear to go down.

The BLS projects that jobs for police officers and detectives will grow 7% between 2020-2030, compared to the 8% projected growth for all occupations. Demand varies based on local and state budgets and the need to replace retiring officers. In some areas, the necessity of law enforcement will grow along with continued threats of terrorism and increased attention toward border security.

Police officers can expand their job opportunities through additional skills training and promotions. Professionals who hold a bachelor's degree or speak another language besides English may also qualify for higher-level positions. Advancement opportunities might not exist as much where there are cuts in municipal budgets.

What Is a Police Officer's Salary and Growth Potential?

According to the BLS, police officers and detectives made a median annual salary of $67,290, as of May 2020. This compares to $59,340 for other law enforcement workers and $41,950 for all occupations. Police officers working in state or federal government can make more while professionals working as fish or game wardens tend to earn less. The BLS reports that the highest-paid officers made a median annual salary of $113,860.

Police ranks look similar to hierarchical levels in the military. At the start of their careers, most individuals start as technicians or officers. They typically move up the ranks and earn more pay, with some reaching the position of police chief. Police ranks vary by region or locality, but most generally follow this progression:

After a probationary period, most officers can advance based on job performance and scores on written examinations. Individuals might need a bachelor's degree to qualify for some promotions. Career advancement might involve work in specialized areas, such as homicide, sex crimes, or juveniles.

Frequently Asked Questions About Becoming a Police Officer

Do I have to go through the police academy to become a police officer?

Most individuals must graduate from an agency's academy before becoming police officers. This requirement also includes field training with supervision. For acceptance into a police academy, candidates must have a high school or GED diploma. Some academies require an associate or bachelor's degree. Individuals pursuing work in the FBI need a four-year degree in criminal justice or a related major. Aspiring police officers must have no felonies or drug convictions on their criminal record. They should also be at least 21 years old and hold U.S. citizenship.

Is law enforcement the police?

Law enforcement encompasses the police, but it involves much more. As an umbrella term, law enforcementincludes all individuals and organizations who enforce municipal, state, and federal laws. Therefore, the category of law enforcement includes the police and other entities like courts and corrections. Professionals in this field engage in activities to prevent crime and protect life, people, and property. Other functions of law enforcement involve rehabilitation, punishment, and deterring crime.

Can I be a detective without being a police officer?

In general, a person only earns a position as a detective after they first train and work as a police officer. In addition, they must pass an examination and earn a promotion as a detective. An alternative to training as an officer is becoming a private investigator (PI). Although PIs do not work on criminal cases, they gain investigative experience, which might serve them as a criminal detective. States vary in their licensing requirements for PIs.

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