Careers in Law Enforcement

By Thomas Broderick

Published on September 3, 2021

Careers in Law Enforcement

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Types of Jobs in Law Enforcement

Law enforcement professionals work to protect their community and bring criminals to justice. Individuals in this field often receive on-the-job training and earn above-average salaries. Careers in law enforcement require communication, leadership, and perception skills.

A law enforcement degree can qualify holders for law enforcement jobs, along with a raise or promotion. The following sections detail various law enforcement careers and the cost of earning a degree in the field. This guide also explores certification and licensure opportunities and resources for law enforcement students.

Frequently Asked Questions About Law Enforcement Careers

true Q. What is the best degree for law enforcement?

An associate degree can qualify individuals for some careers in law enforcement. However, management positions may require a bachelor's or master's.

true Q. What kinds of jobs can I get with a law enforcement degree?

Popular jobs for law enforcement degree-holders include police officer, detective, forensic science technician, and correctional officer. Program curricula often align with specific career tracks.

true Q. What is the highest-paying job in law enforcement?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), lawyers and attorneys earn a median salary of $126,930 per year.

true Q. What is the average police officer salary?

Police officers and detectives earn a median annual salary of $67,290, according to the BLS. People who work for the federal government earn higher median salaries than those with state and local government agencies.

Law Enforcement Career Specialization

Some law enforcement degrees align with a specific career track. Others provide a generalized curriculum and specialization or concentration options. Available specializations vary by school and degree level. Students should explore prospective schools' websites to compare academic requirements and graduate outcomes.

This section highlights five popular concentrations and details typical program requirements. The information below describes how each specialization prepares learners for law enforcement careers. Curricula vary by school and program, so learners should research the requirements at their prospective school. Use the embedded links to learn more about each concentration and explore top programs.

Police Officer

Aspiring police officers often earn a bachelor's in criminology. Employed officers with an associate degree may also earn a bachelor's to advance their career. Federal agencies such as the FBI require a bachelor's degree for many positions.

Coursework typically covers the rights of the accused, white-collar crime, and punishments and corrections. Degree-seekers gain practical experience during an internship.

Forensic Science Technician

Forensic science technicians collect and analyze evidence from crime scenes. These technicians also write detailed reports for other law enforcement professionals.

Bachelor's in forensic science programs feature coursework in anatomy and physiology. Students take chemistry and physical evidence analysis classes. Learners also become familiar with the technology forensic science technicians use. Top programs in the field hold programmatic accreditation from the American Academy of Forensic Sciences.

Detective and Criminal Investigator

Detectives and criminal investigators specialize in a certain type of crime, such as homicide or drug trafficking. These professionals interview suspects and examine crime scenes. Many top detective positions require a bachelor's degree.

Aspiring detectives and criminal investigators often pursue a specialization or major in legal studies. Core coursework explores theories of law and society, theories of justice, and sociology of law. Learners typically complete a capstone course that requires independent research and an extended essay.

Correctional Officer

Correctional officers supervise inmates and handle evidence. They also collaborate with other law enforcement professionals. These responsibilities require an in-depth knowledge of the criminal justice system.

Some correctional officer positions require only a high school diploma. However, those pursuing law enforcement jobs with the Federal Bureau of Prisons need a bachelor's degree. A bachelor's degree in correctional program support services can require coursework in sociology. Students may also need to take psychology of personality and criminal justice courses. These programs train students to work with inmates of various ages.

Private Investigator

Individuals and organizations hire private investigators to perform background checks and investigate corporate crime. Many investigators have a background in law enforcement, intelligence, or the military. Others gain the necessary skills through an advanced degree program.

Master's in law enforcement programs often require coursework in organizational theory and change. Other courses cover budget and finance and public safety law. During a capstone course, students may create a digital work portfolio.

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How Much Does a Law Enforcement Degree Cost?

The cost of earning a law enforcement degree depends on factors such as degree type. Bachelor's and master's degrees typically cost more per credit than associate degrees. Most public schools charge out-of-state students higher tuition rates. In addition to tuition, degree-seekers should budget for textbooks and fees.

Online learning offers many financial advantages. Some schools offer fully online students in-state or reduced tuition rates, regardless of residency. Distance learners can also save money on housing, meal plans, and commuting costs.

Many online learners avoid student debt by selecting an asynchronous program. This format often allows enrollees to continue working while in school. Some schools charge full-time students a flat tuition rate, which can be less expensive than the per-credit rate.

Career and Salary Outlook for Law Enforcement

Law enforcement careers for college degree-holders include police officer, correctional officer, and detective. These jobs feature median annual salaries above the median for all occupations. Also, the BLS projects many of these fields to grow from 2019-2029, which could lead to job opportunities for graduates.

The following list explores responsibilities and common eligibility requirements for law enforcement jobs.

Career Median Annual Salary Projected Growth Rate (2019-2029)
Police and Detectives $67,290 5%
Correctional Officers and Bailiffs $47,440 -7%
Private Detectives and Investigators $53,320 8%
Forensic Science Technicians $60,590 14%

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Law Enforcement Salary by State

Law enforcement careers in legal services pay higher salaries than protective or investigative jobs. But field-based law enforcement careers often feature high job satisfaction rates. The list below ranks the highest-paying states for law enforcement professionals, according to BLS data.

  1. Alaska
  2. Maryland
  3. Hawaii
  4. California
  5. New Jersey

Certifications and Licensure for Law Enforcement

Some law enforcement careers require a state license. Career advancement may also require one or more certifications. Private organizations issue certifications, which demonstrate that the holder possesses specialized knowledge and skills. The following list highlights common credentials for individuals in law enforcement careers.

Most states require private investigators to hold a license. Requirements vary but typically include a minimum age and an associate degree. Candidates need relevant experience and must undergo a criminal background check. They must also pass an exam and maintain their license by earning continuing education credits. Many states feature licensure reciprocity agreements. These agreements allow investigators to work across state lines without applying for a new license. The National Association of Legal Investigators (NALI) awards this credential to licensed private investigators. Candidates need at least five years of work experience. They also submit an academic paper and take a comprehensive exam covering the NALI reading list. Certification renewal requires continuing education credits. The ABC offers eight certifications to forensic science technicians, including credentials in drug analysis. Other certification options include fire debris analysis and comprehensive criminalistics. Eligibility requirements include a bachelor's degree and two years of full-time professional experience. ABC offers study guides to help candidates prepare for the multiple-choice exam. To qualify for renewal, professionals must earn 50 recertification points annually.

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 empowerment of domestic violence survivors. Prior to police service, he worked as a probation officer, specializing in collaborative-based programs.

Jones serves as an adjunct instructor at area community colleges and two universities, where he has developed curricula for more than 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, Dominguez Hills.

Q. 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.

Q. What type of person would be good for law enforcement work?

People who 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 and values will do well.

People who have power and control issues struggle. People who do not have a strong moral compass or have issues related to 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.

Q. What advice do you have for students who are interested in pursuing careers in law enforcement?

Do internships. Do some interviews. Research where you think you are going to be working, and talk to people who work there. I sometimes see people just apply to places without really doing any research when it might not really be the best fit for their personality, their lifestyle, or their family. Talking to people and doing job shadows, ride-alongs, and things like that can be helpful.

Resources for Law Enforcement Majors

This resource provides aspiring law enforcement professionals with information about state eligibility requirements, salaries, and training centers. In-depth guides explore careers such as jail administrator and juvenile correctional officer. FLEOA represents approximately 30,000 federal law enforcement officers across agencies. Members receive benefits such as insurance discounts and scholarships. Degree-seekers pay a discounted membership fee. The International Association of Chiefs of Police offers this resource for prospective officers. Discover Policing provides information about the profession's basic requirements, the hiring process, and benefits. An article details the police academy experience. The NCIRC website features a curated list of organizations for U.S. and international criminal justice professionals. Organizations include the American Polygraph Association, the High Technology Crime Investigation Association, and the International Association of Law Enforcement Planners. This informative website details each state's requirements for police officers. Each state's profile features information on basic training hours, in-service policies, and the number of police-involved fatal encounters.

Thomas Broderick is a freelance writer and the owner of Broderick Writer LLC. He creates study guides, informational websites, and blog posts for clients in the education field. Thomas is also a published author of over 20 short stories and a member of the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America.

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