Categorized | Job Hunting

You might find a law enforcement career arresting

Posted on 20 November 2008

Kids pretend to be them; every other television show is about them. They are overworked and underappreciated; still, more people than ever are applying to become law enforcement officers.

Getting in isn’t easy. Besides requiring rigorous mental and physical training, law enforcement has one of the lowest turnover rates of any career. But law enforcement employment is projected to grow, and there are a number of outlets for would-be heroes to investigate. Law enforcement work goes far beyond directing traffic on the corner. Besides your own city, county, and state departments, federal agencies such as the FBI, U.S. Marshals, CIA, ATF, Customs and even National Park services, need officers.

Just the Facts, Ma’am
It is no secret that law enforcement work is demanding, both physically and emotionally. Officers may have to witness gruesome crime scenes and interact with criminals. It also takes its toll on personal and family time. Working overtime and unexpected travel are almost guaranteed, even for a longtime officer.

You don’t have to be 22, perfectly fit, and educated in criminal justice to enter law enforcement

“I have missed my share of anniversaries and birthdays,” says Tony Siedl, a 21-year Special Agent with the FBI’s Bloomington, IN, office. “It’s a wonderful job, but you are on-call 24-7.”

Much of officers’ time is spent not “on the street,” but in the office, especially early in their careers. Law enforcement agents push paper, make phone calls, and file documents just as in any other office job. They must meticulously document cases as they may be called upon to testify in court.

Compensation for new police officers is adequate but low (median salary was $37,310 in 1998). However, pension plans are strong, often allowing officers to retire in their 50s and start second careers. Overtime pay can also offset lower salaries, and senior officers can do quite well. Larger agencies tend to offer higher salaries; however, the most employment opportunities are in urban communities with low salaries and high crime rates. Federal agencies also offer slightly higher pay, on a government scale.

False Impressions
You don’t need to be 22, perfectly fit and have a criminal justice degree to enter law enforcement. These traits help, of course, but aren’t necessities. If you are between 20 and 36, have a high school degree, are a U.S. citizen, and meet minimum physical requirements, you can probably apply. Federal agencies are more stringent, but with the increase of terrorism, fraud, and Internet crimes, people without traditional law enforcement backgrounds, but with college degrees, work experience, or language skills, make desirable candidates.

“I was working in pathology at Indiana University when the FBI recruited me,” says Siedl. “I thought they wanted me to do lab work, but now I am on the street investigating. Law enforcement requires resourceful people with leadership qualities more so than a specific background.”

You don’t have to be a white male, either.

“The FBI is trying to attract more women and minorities because it helps the Bureau,” says Special Agent Niambi Robinson, a female, African-American recruiter for the FBI’s Washington, D.C., Field Office. “The important thing is not what race or gender you are, but that you are willing to push yourself to the max and do the work you are sworn to do.” You won’t face gunfights every day, if ever. Police in more immediate-risk areas of law enforcement (violent crimes, SWAT teams) may encounter these situations more often, but overall the likelihood of having to use one’s firearm is small. Still, officers are expected to be armed on-, and sometimes off-, duty, and exercise proper judgment as to when such force is necessary. Proper firearms training is required on a continual basis.

“I think people are misinformed about law enforcement,” says Robinson. “Movies and TV are so far from the truth. You have training and backup; law enforcement officers are very supportive of each other.”

Police work involves more than writing tickets and chasing bad guys; officers can specialize in areas such as forensics, firearms instruction, or handwriting and fingerprint identification. Others work with special units such as horseback, bicycle, motorcycle or harbor patrol, and canine corps.

And you can be a part of law enforcement without actually becoming an officer. Support personnel include office workers, computer operators, and psychological counselors.

America’s Most Wanted
If you are considering a career in law enforcement, you’ll want to get into good physical shape as well as continue working during what can be a lengthy application process. Membership in professional organizations can also be helpful as well as a college degree; a master’s degree in any discipline is even better.

“Make yourself as academically, personally and professionally competitive as possible,” says Siedl. “The needs are constantly changing. You never know what they will hire next.”

And if you haven’t considered a career in law enforcement, but care about your community, have work experience and are physically capable, you might want to give it some thought.

“I love the opportunity I have to tangibly contribute to the country, to make the streets better and safer,” says Siedl. “It is a source of great pride.”

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