The growing field of law enforcement offers several exciting career paths. Law enforcement professionals may analyze evidence in a lab, interview criminal suspects, or maintain order in a courtroom. Many law enforcement careers offer strong earning potential and job growth projections, with the ability to advance with experience.
This article introduces common careers in law enforcement, including career outlook and salary data for police officers, correctional officers, and forensic science technicians. Read more about these and other law enforcement jobs to see if a career in law enforcement aligns with your aspirations.
What is the best degree for law enforcement?
A bachelor’s degree in criminal justice prepares graduates for careers in state, local, and federal law enforcement. Candidates can also obtain law enforcement jobs with a degree in law, criminology, psychology, or forensics.
What is the average police officer salary?
Police officers and detectives earn a median salary of over $65,000 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The highest-paid police officers earn six-figure salaries.
Several factors can disqualify potential police officers, including a felony conviction, a misdemeanor conviction, and a federal restriction on owning a firearm. Dishonorably discharged military service members also cannot usually work as police officers.
Career Paths in Law Enforcement
Law enforcement career paths include jobs as police officers, criminal investigators, correctional officers, and forensic science technicians. This section introduces the duties and educational requirements for several law enforcement jobs.
Police officers conduct patrols and respond to emergency calls to maintain order. While patrolling, police officers may arrest suspects, conduct searches, or respond to nonemergency calls. Some police officers specialize in an area like narcotics. In larger law enforcement agencies, police officers may work on the SWAT team, in the K-9 corps, or as motorcycle officers.
The educational requirements for police officers vary depending on the agency. Some agencies require a college degree, while others only require a high school diploma. Federal law enforcement agents need a bachelor’s degree. After meeting the educational requirements, police officers must also complete on-the-job training.
Forensic Science Technician
Forensic science technicians visit crime scenes to collect evidence and analyze that evidence in a laboratory. They create records at crime scenes by taking photographs and recording their observations. Forensic science technicians also collect and preserve evidence for analysis. In the lab, they use technology to analyze evidence and draw conclusions.
Most forensic science technicians hold a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, biology, or forensic science. They also complete on-the-job training to strengthen their skills. While most forensic science technicians work for law enforcement agencies, they may also work in testing laboratories.
Detectives and criminal investigators conduct investigations to solve criminal cases. They collect evidence, interview suspects, and assist prosecutors when bringing a case to trial. Detectives and criminal investigators often specialize in an area like homicide, robbery, or criminal intelligence.
Most detectives and criminal investigators work for state and local law enforcement agencies. They can also work for federal agencies like the FBI or the Secret Service. Federal law enforcement careers require a bachelor’s degree. Other career paths may require attending a police academy or earning an associate degree or high school diploma.
Correctional officers work in prisons and jails where they supervise accused and convicted criminals. Depending on where they work, correctional officers may work with arrested individuals waiting for trial or those serving sentences. Correctional officers maintain order in the correctional system by supervising inmates, inspecting facilities, and keeping reports on inmates.
Most correctional officers attend a training academy. Some positions, particularly those in the Federal Bureau of Prisons, require a bachelor’s degree. Most correctional officers work in state and local correctional facilities. The career can require rotating shifts and overtime work.
Private investigators perform background checks, investigate accusations of infidelity or theft, and search for missing persons. This law enforcement career requires strong investigative skills, since private investigators must search for documents, records, and other information. They also conduct interviews and surveillance.
Although they do not work for law enforcement agencies, private investigators must carefully follow the law. Private investigators may work for investigation services, financial services organizations, insurance agencies, or the government. Some are also self-employed. While some private investigation jobs require a college degree, most do not. Private investigators primarily train on the job.
Law enforcement jobs include roles like detective, private investigator, bailiff, correctional officer, forensic science technician, and federal agent. In many of these fields, the median salary exceeds the national average.
Police and Detectives
Police officers and detectives protect public safety and investigate crimes. They respond to emergencies, conduct patrols, and interview witnesses to solve crimes. They also observe suspects and testify in court. At the federal level, law enforcement officers need a bachelor’s degree.
Correctional Officers and Bailiffs
Correctional officers and bailiffs maintain order in the courtroom and monitor accused and convicted offenders in jails and prisons. They enforce rules in correctional settings, supervise inmates, and conduct inspections. In the court, bailiffs may assist judges and provide security. Both correctional officers and bailiffs may also transport inmates or accused offenders.
Private Detectives and Investigators
Private detectives and investigators collect information for their clients. They conduct interviews, search for information, and perform surveillance. The career path does not require a college degree.
Forensic Science Technicians
Forensic science technicians collect evidence from crime scenes and analyze it in a laboratory. They also preserve evidence and testify in court. The career typically requires a bachelor’s degree in the natural sciences or forensic science.
When it comes to law enforcement careers, jobs in legal services pay more than protective or investigative jobs. However, field-based law enforcement careers often feature high job satisfaction rates. See below for the states with the highest-paying law enforcement salaries, on average, according to the BLS.
Education Requirements to Enter a Law Enforcement Program
The education requirements for law enforcement degrees vary by program. Most police academy, bachelor’s, and associate programs require a high school diploma or the equivalent to enter the program.
Before declaring a law enforcement or criminal justice major, admitted students may need to take foundational courses and meet minimum GPA requirements. Undergraduates then complete around 60 credits to earn an associate degree or 120 credits for a bachelor’s degree. Learners study topics like the legal system, criminology, and the criminal justice system. They also take general education courses in areas like the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences.
Many criminal justice programs include a capstone course or project. Undergrads can also often gain hands-on experience by pursuing an internship as part of their law enforcement degree.
Many law enforcement careers require a license to operate a firearm and CPR training. In addition to these requirements, law enforcement officers can apply for several professional certifications to demonstrate specialized skills. For example, police K-9 certification and the certified homeland protection professional credentials can help law enforcement officials advance their careers.
In every state, law enforcement officers can apply for Peace Officer’s Standards and Training. Candidates must complete basic courses and pass tests to receive POST certification. Each state sets its own professional standards and requirements. The federal government also offers training programs and workshops to meet POST requirements.
Police K-9 Certification
Police who work with K-9 units can apply for certification through the National Tactical Police Dog Association. The certification offers focus areas in patrol, tracking, narcotics detection, and explosives detection. Handlers can apply for a handler and trainer proficiency certification, while law enforcement units can apply for a K-9 team certification.
Certified Homeland Protection Professional
Law enforcement officers can pursue the CHPP credential to demonstrate their expertise in homeland protection. Offered by the National Sheriff’s Association, the credential requires the completion of a qualification and testing program.
How Much Does a Law Enforcement Degree Cost?
The cost of earning a law enforcement degree varies by program. Some careers in law enforcement require police academy training or an associate degree in law enforcement or criminal justice. Federal law enforcement agencies require a bachelor’s degree. Earning a two-year criminal justice degree costs an average of around $7,000 in tuition and fees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. A four-year degree costs around $37,000 at an in-state public school and over $125,000 at a private school.
Prospective law enforcement officers can save money by researching scholarship opportunities, in-state schools, and online programs that offer tuition discounts. For example, some online colleges charge a flat tuition rate for all online learners regardless of residency, potentially saving out-of-state students thousands of dollars on their degree.
Learners who choose an online program also benefit from a flexible schedule, which appeals to working professionals. By working while earning a law enforcement degree, students can limit their student loans.
Expert Advice: The Realities of a Career in Law Enforcement
Officer Jason Jones has served as a police officer in Oregon since 1999. He has devoted his career to crisis intervention, community policing, youth delinquency prevention programs, homeless outreach, and empowering domestic violence survivors. Prior to police service, he worked as a probation officer, specializing in collaborative-based programs.
Jones also serves as an adjunct instructor at area community colleges and two universities, where he has developed curricula for over 25 courses. He also assists as an instructor with Oregon’s Department of Public Safety Standards and Training. In his spare time, he works as a consultant on international development projects, focusing on social crime prevention, justice, and public safety initiatives. Jones holds a master of arts in behavioral science from California State University at Dominguez Hills.
What are some of the highs and lows of working as a police officer?
You can help people and you get to be there at important times in people’s lives. If you really like helping people, there are amazing opportunities every day to do kind things for other human beings. But there is a lot of trauma. There are many awful, traumatic, horrible things that human beings do to each other, and you have to see that. It leaves emotional residue on you. There can also be a lot of stress from the organization itself.
What type of person would be good for law enforcement work?
People who have care for other human beings will do well. People who are creative and flexible enough to think outside the box. People with a natural curiosity about human behavior who can suspend judgement. People who are good at adapting to technological change, policy change, procedural change, and change in societal norms or values will do well.
People who have power and control issues struggle. People who do not have a strong moral compass or have issues around ethics or honesty will struggle. This job amplifies who you are. You cannot become a police officer to become a better person. This job — being exposed to all the bad things you are exposed to — will amplify who you already are. You have to be a stable person with that moral compass in place.
What advice do you have for students who are interested in pursuing careers in law enforcement?
Do internships. Do some interviews. Really research where you think you are going to be working and talk to people who work there. I sometimes see people just apply to wherever without really doing any research when, in fact, it might not really be the best fit for their personality, their lifestyle, or their family. Talking to people, doing job shadows, ride-alongs, and things like that can be helpful.
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