View Careers in Law Enforcement: Protect the Public & Get Paid
The simple truth is that people like to feel safe in their homes, places of business and at all points in between. They want protection for themselves, their families and their property. Increasing populations lead to greater anonymity for residents, and this typically results in an increase in crime. When crime rates rise, citizens demand greater protection from law enforcement agencies, which in turn leads to favorable growth rates for jobs in law enforcement.
Law enforcement careers are often launched at the local level with urban police or county sheriff’s departments. Each agency has its own hiring criteria, but candidates typically need at least a high school diploma; some departments require one to two years of college, and a handful hire only candidates with a four-year degree. Sheriff’s deputies and uniformed police officers have similar job duties, such as conducting patrols, responding to calls for assistance, conducting traffic stops and arresting suspects. Their jurisdiction is limited to the city or county for which they work. Virtually all departments require newly hired officers to attend a formal training program before their initial assignment. As of 2012, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported an average annual salary of $57,770 for sheriff’s and police patrol officers.
Individual states also employ a variety of law enforcement officers. State troopers, also known as highway patrol officers, have jurisdiction throughout the state, and they typically investigate crimes occurring on or involving state property. They conduct traffic stops, respond to requests for assistance, detain suspects and maintain regular patrols. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, state law enforcement officers earned an average of $62,810 per year in 2012, but 10 percent earned no more than $32,350 annually. The hiring requirements vary by state, but at minimum, state troopers need to be high school graduates, and a college education can be beneficial in some states for both entry-level positions and advancement.
Many states also hire fish and game wardens, sometimes called conservation officers. These officers enforce all laws, but their particular focus is on boating, hunting and fishing laws. Each state sets its own standards for education, but approximately 74 percent of the nation’s game wardens working in 2012 had bachelor’s degrees, according to O*Net Online. In 2012, game wardens averaged $49,400 per year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The federal government offers the greatest variety of law enforcement careers. Park rangers enforce the laws in national parks. Candidates need either two years of law enforcement experience or equivalent education in a relevant field, such as criminal justice. Rangers normally begin as GL-5 employees on the federal pay table and, as of 2012, earned between $33,829 and $42,055 annually.
Border patrol agents guard the nation’s borders and points of entry. Like all federal law enforcement officers, their pay is based on the federal GL-schedule, which establishes salaries for each pay grade by geographic location. A border patrol officer must have at least a high school diploma, but additional education and/or experience typically translates into a higher initial pay grade. Most start at the GL-5 or GL-7 level, with a salary range of $33,829 to $38,511.
For many who are seeking a career in law enforcement, an important question is how to become an FBI agent, treasury agent or Naval Criminal Investigative Services special agent. Of the federal law enforcement agencies, these three have the highest qualifications. For example, to become a treasury agent, candidates must have at least a bachelor’s degree and have demonstrated superior academic achievement during their college careers. FBI and NCIS special agents need a bachelor’s degree or higher. FBI agents start as GL-10 employees, with an initial salary of $51,043 per year, as of 2013, while completing training. Treasury and NCIS agents start as GL-7 or GL-9 employees and have an initial salary range of $43,964 to $55,354, depending on assignment location.
The scope of operations is the primary difference between federal law enforcement agencies. For example, NCIS focuses on counterterrorism and crimes involving members of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps. The treasury department investigates crimes such as identity theft and counterfeiting, as well as threats against Secret Service protectees, such as the president. The FBI has the “longest arm” and investigates crimes that cross state borders, threats against the government, terrorism and crimes that violate federal laws.
Regardless of whether candidates choose to work at the local, state or federal level of law enforcement, a clean criminal background is required. Candidates should expect the most extensive background checks for positions requiring the highest security clearance, such as positions with the FBI. All agencies have minimum and maximum age regulations. All law enforcement officers must prove their firearms competency, but many agencies provide this training.
Like law enforcement officers, firefighters protect the public. Exact duties vary, but in most departments, they extinguish fires, respond to medical emergencies and enforce the codes established by the local fire marshal. Educational requirements vary, but some cities will hire candidates with as little as a high school diploma; some departments prefer candidates with a two- or four-year degree, however. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2012 median annual pay was $45,250.