What Does a Police Officer Do?
Learn About the Salary, Required Skills, & More
Law enforcement personnel are needed at all levels of government. Federal agencies enforce federal law; state agencies enforce state and federal laws; and local agencies enforce federal, state, and local laws. While police officers may go by different names, such as officer, investigator agent, they protect the public by investigating crimes and apprehending criminals.
The federal government’s principal law enforcement agency is the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Other federal law enforcement agencies include the Drug Enforcement Administration; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives; Bureau of Diplomatic Security; Border Patrol; Federal Air Marshals; and Secret Service. Other agencies, such as the United States Postal Service and Forest Service, employ law enforcement personnel, but their primary missions are not law enforcement.
State police agencies operate within the boundaries of their states. Similar to the federal government, state agencies perform non-law enforcement duties but may also employ sworn officers. State universities have police departments that have jurisdiction over the campus and assist city police departments in cases and incidents around the campus.
Local police officers are employed by cities, counties, school districts, and community colleges. An average citizen typically comes into contact with police officers during routine traffic stops, so local police officers are what most people think of when they hear the term police officer.
A career as a police officer is extremely dangerous, but it can be very rewarding. Officers make their jurisdictions safer every day. By simply making their presence known, police officers can prevent many crimes. When crimes do occur, police officers are the first responders who assess the situation, mitigate any remaining danger, secure evidence, and assist victims and witnesses.
Police Officer Duties & Responsibilities
A police officer’s duties vary by the type of law enforcement agency. Other than FBI agents, federal police officers stick to their niche. For example, federal air marshals stick to preventing crimes aboard commercial flights.
State police officers assist federal and local law enforcement in executing their duties. There are also specialized law enforcement groups such as the Texas Rangers that investigate particular types of crime.
Local police officers have a wide variety of duties including the following:
- Patrolling areas by car, motorcycle, horse, or on foot
- Directing traffic for special events, traffic signal malfunctions, and traffic accidents
- Issuing traffic citations
- Apprehending criminals
- Controlling crowds
- Transporting prisoners
- Serving arrest warrants and subpoenas
- Testifying in courts of law
- Assisting detectives, crime scene investigators, and evidence technicians in processing crime scenes
- Writing reports
Do not underestimate the proportion of time writing reports will take. Officers at all levels must report their activities to their superiors, fellow officers, and the public. In many cases, these reports become key pieces of evidence for prosecutors.
A common misconception about police officers is that they frequently use their guns. On television, this may be the case, but in real life officer rarely draw their sidearms, and most officers fire their weapons only a few times over their careers. To the greatest extent possible, police officers use words to diffuse tense situations.
This fact is underscored by how police departments account for their supplies. Police departments keep an inventory of bullets not by the box but by the bullet. When officers write reports about incidents where they discharge their weapons, they must account for each shot. Crime scene investigators and evidence technicians can tell where the bullets went, what they hit and the damage they caused, but only the officer who fired them knows the reason.
Police Officer Salary
According to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, police officers earned the following salary:
- Median Annual Salary: $63,380 ($30.47/hour)
- Top 10% Annual Salary: $106,090 ($51.00/hour)
- Bottom 10% Annual Salary: $36,550 ($17.57/hour)
Education, Training, & Certification
There is no standard education requirement across law enforcement agencies, as education and experience requirements vary:
- Academia: Some agencies require only a high school degree, while others require a bachelor’s degree. A bachelor’s degree is required to be a federal police officer. Advanced degrees are not necessary for entry-level police officer positions.
- On-the-Job Training: Prior experience is not necessary to become a police officer. However, you must be a U.S. citizen and at least 21 years of age. In addition, the hiring agency will teach new hires everything they need to know.
- Training program: Once new officers are hired, their employers send them through an extensive training program. Larger police departments conduct these training in-house, but most departments send their new recruits to state or regional training and certification programs. The training programs combine classroom instruction with practical application. These programs typically last several months. The curriculum covers a wide variety of topics including law, civil rights, investigation techniques, traffic control, emergency response, self-defense, first aid, and firearms. New officers should come out of the program with knowledge and skills they can apply immediately on the job. Their departments will likely have them paired with veteran officers until they are ready to perform their duties on their own.
Police Officer Skills & Competencies
In many law enforcement agencies, there are different rules governing how law enforcement personnel are hired. In most states, civil service regulations dictate certain parameters that agencies must work within during the hiring process.
In addition to normal hiring procedures, candidates must go through written and physical tests. The written tests may measure a variety of items including a candidate’s aptitude for police work, as well as the following:
- Critical thinking skills: The ability to determine the best way to solve a range of problems
- Empathy: The ability to understand the perspectives of many people and have a willingness to help the public
- Psychological stability: The ability to withstand emotional, physical, and mentally taxing experiences
- Strength and agility: The ability to keep up with the daily rigors of the job, such as apprehending offenders
- Leadership skills: The ability to be in a highly visible position in the community, as the public looks to you for assistance
- Communication and negotiation skills: The ability to deal effectively with others who may be frightened or irrational, such as a kidnapper or burglar
Failure on either type of test means elimination from the hiring process. Background checks, drug tests, and lie detector tests are also likely to be part of the hiring process.
Police officers should be in good physical condition. A habit of regular exercise and experience in competitive sports are helpful both in the training process and once on the job. If you plan on eating a lot of donuts, you’ll have to hit the gym harder than your colleagues. Bilingual skills are also a plus because quick and clear communication can make the difference between life and death in emergency situations.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018, employment opportunities for police officers is projected to grow 7% until 2026, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Job applicants may face competition due to low levels of job turnover, however, military experience is helpful on an application, as is experience in private security, private investigation, and auditing, which can all increase your chances of finding a job.
Police work can be physically demanding, stressful, and dangerous. Officers must be alert and ready to react throughout their entire shift. They mainly work at crime and accident scenes and encounter suffering and the aftermath of violence. Although the job can be difficult, it can also be rewarding to help people in need.
Travel may be required if you work for a federal agency. While you may spend some time in an office writing reports and performing administrative tasks, you will likely be outdoors in all kinds of weather.,
Police officers usually work full time. A significant benefit to a career in law enforcement is overtime pay. Police officers have frequent opportunities to earn overtime. Some departments offer shift differential pay for officers who routinely work overnight and weekend shifts. If you do not mind working long or odd hours, you can make a lot of extra money doing the same job you do during normal business hours.
How to Get the Job
Contact your local police precinct to inquire about job opportunities. (Note that minimum and sometimes maximum age requirements must be met.) In addition, look at job boards such as Monster and Indeed, or job sites in your state. For example, PoliceApp advertises job listings in New Jersey. These sites may also provide assistance with resume and cover letter writing, as well as interview techniques.
GET RELATED EXPERIENCE OR AN APPRENTICESHIP
Consider other similar open positions to get in the industry, such as investigative work perhaps assisting an investigator or providing security at a night club.
Comparing Similar Jobs
People who are interested in a career as a police officer may want to consider these similar careers, along with their median annual salary:
Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Police and Detectives." Accessed January 13, 2020.