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Police officers, detectives, and special agents are responsible for enforcing statutes, laws, and regulations designed to protect life and property. Many law enforcement officers spend much of their time interviewing witnesses and suspects, apprehending fugitives and criminals, collecting evidence, and providing testimony in court. After being incarcerated, many individuals are held under the care of correctional officers. (See the statement on correctional officers elsewhere in the Handbook.) Others spend most of their time patrolling a designated area to preserve the peace and to prevent crime. They resolve problems within the community and enforce laws governing motor vehicle operations. All law enforcement officers are required to file reports of their activities, often involving long hours of paperwork. In most jurisdictions, whether on or off duty, these officers are expected to exercise their authority whenever necessary.
In recent years, American voters have expressed their desire for government to place increasing emphasis on law enforcement efforts to reduce serious crime. As one response to serious crime, law enforcement officers are becoming more involved in community policingbuilding partnerships with the citizens of high-crime, urban neighborhoods, thus increasing public confidence in the police and mobilizing the public to help the police fight crime. Through the use of government, volunteer, and commercial resources, police encourage people in the community to help identify and solve recurring problems. This involves making the police officer a permanent, highly visible figure in the neighborhood rather than merely an officer reacting to a crime.
Police officers and detectives who work in small communities and rural areas have general law enforcement duties. In the course of a day's work, they may direct traffic at the scene of a fire, investigate a burglary, or give first aid to an accident victim. In large police departments and Federal agencies, officers and special agents usually are assigned to a specific detail for a fixed length of time. Some may become experts in chemical and microscopic analysis, firearms identification, handwriting and fingerprint identification, or serve on mounted and motorcycle patrol, harbor patrol, canine corps, special weapons and tactics or emergency response teams, or task forces formed to combat specific types of crime.
Sheriffs and deputy sheriffs generally enforce the law in rural areas or places where there is no local police department. They may serve legal processes of courts. Sheriffs' duties resemble those of local or county police departments, but generally on a smaller scale. Most sheriffs' departments employ fewer than 25 sworn officers, and many employ fewer than 10.
Detectives and special agents work as plainclothes investigators, gathering facts and collecting evidence for criminal cases. They conduct interviews, examine records, observe the activities of suspects, and participate in raids or arrests.
Special agents employed by the U.S. Department of Justice work for the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Border Patrol, and the U.S. Marshals Service. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agents specialize in enforcement of drug laws and regulations. Agents may conduct complex criminal investigations, carry out surveillance of criminals, and infiltrate illicit drug organizations using undercover techniques. They may work closely with confidential sources of information to collect evidence leading to the seizure of assets gained from the sale of illegal drugs. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) special agents are the Government's principal investigators, responsible for investigating violations of more than 260 statutes. Agents may be required to do surveillance, monitor court-authorized wiretaps, examine business records to investigate white-collar crime, track the interstate movement of stolen property, collect evidence of espionage activities, or be assigned to sensitive undercover assignments designed to apprehend terrorists. Some special agents investigate violations of Federal laws in connection with bank robberies, theft of Government property, organized crime, espionage, sabotage, kidnapping, and terrorism. Agents with specialized training usually work on cases related to their background. For example, agents with an accounting background may investigate bank embezzlements or fraudulent bankruptcies. U.S. marshals and deputy marshals provide security for Federal courts, including judges, witnesses, and prisoners. They apprehend fugitives and operate the Special Operations Group (SOG)a tactical unit which responds to high-threat and emergency situations. Some deputies provide security to the Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force during movements of missiles between military facilities. U.S. Border Patrol special agents are responsible for protecting more than 8,000 miles of international land and water boundaries. Their primary mission is to detect and prevent the smuggling and unlawful entry of undocumented aliens into the United States and to apprehend those persons found in violation of the immigration laws. The Border Patrol is the primary interdicting agency along the land borders between the ports of entry for illicit drugs and various contraband. They accomplish their mission through activities such as: tracking, traffic checks on roads and highways leading away from the border, and participating in various task force operations with other law enforcement agencies.
Special agents employed by the U.S. Department of the Treasury work for The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, the U.S. Customs Service, Internal Revenue Service, and U.S. Secret Service. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (BATF) special agents investigate violations of Federal explosives laws, including bombings and arson-for-profit schemes affecting interstate commerce. They may investigate suspected illegal sales, possession, or use of firearms. Other BATF agents investigate violations related to the illegal sale of liquor and interstate smuggling of untaxed cigarettes. These investigations involve surveillance, participation in raids, interviewing suspects, and searching for physical evidence. Customs agents enforce laws to prevent smuggling of goods across U.S. borders. Internal Revenue Service special agents collect evidence against individuals and companies that are evading the payment of Federal taxes. U.S. Secret Service special agents are charged with two main missionsprotection and investigation. During the course of their careers, they may be assigned to protect the President, Vice President, and their immediate families, Presidential candidates, ex-Presidents, and foreign dignitaries visiting the United States. Secret Service agents also investigate counterfeiting, the forgery of Government checks or bonds, and the fraudulent use of credit cards.
Special agents employed by the U.S. Department of State work for the Diplomatic Security Service. Diplomatic Security Service special agents advise ambassadors on security matters and manage a complex range of security programs overseas. In the United States, they investigate passport and visa fraud, conduct personnel security investigations, issue security clearances, and protect the Secretary of State and certain foreign dignitaries. They train foreign civilian police who then return to their own countries better able to fight terrorism.
Various other Federal agencies employ special agents with sworn police powers and the authority to carry firearms and make arrests. These agencies generally evolved from the need for security for the agency's property and personnel. The largest such agency is the Federal Protective Service, which has personnel nationwide. Other examples include the U.S. Mint police, the Government Printing Service police, and the Central Intelligence Agency's Special Protective Service.
State police officers (sometimes called State troopers or highway patrol officers) patrol highways and enforce motor vehicle laws and regulations. They issue traffic citations to motorists who violate the law. At the scene of an accident, they may direct traffic, give first aid, and call for emergency equipment. They also write reports that may be used to determine the cause of the accident. In addition, State police officers may provide services to motorists on the highways, such as calling for road service for drivers with mechanical trouble.
State police also enforce criminal laws. They are frequently called upon to render assistance to officers of other law enforcement agencies. In rural areas that do not have a police force or a local representative from the sheriff's department, the State police are the primary law enforcement agency, investigating any crimes that occur, such as burglary or assault.
Most new police recruits begin their careers in an urban setting. They generally start on patrol duty, riding in a police vehicle. In smaller agencies, they may work alone; in larger agencies, they ride with experienced officers. Patrols generally cover an area such as old and congested business districts or outlying residential neighborhoods. Officers attempt to become thoroughly familiar with conditions throughout their patrol area and, while on patrol, remain alert for anything unusual. They note suspicious circumstances, such as open windows or lights in vacant buildings, as well as hazards to public safety. Officers on patrol enforce traffic regulations and also watch for stolen vehicles and wanted individuals. At regular intervals, officers report to police headquarters by radio, or by telephone when they are imparting information that is confidential, since scanners which pick up police radio communications are in popular usage.
Regardless of where they work, police, detectives, and special agents spend considerable time writing reports and maintaining records. They are called to testify in court when their arrests result in legal action. Some senior officers, such as chief inspectors, commanders, division and bureau chiefs, and agents-in-charge, are responsible for operation of geographic divisions of an agency, certain kinds of criminal investigations, and various agency functions. Such managers have administrative and supervisory duties.
Police, detectives, and special agents usually work a 40-hour week, but paid overtime work is common. Shift work is necessary because police protection must be provided around the clock. More junior officers frequently must work weekends, holidays, and nights. Police officers, detectives, and special agents are subject to call at any time their services are needed and may work long hours during criminal investigations.
The jobs of some special agents such as U.S. Secret Service and DEA special agents require extensive travel, often on very short notice.
Some police, detectives, and special agents with agencies such as the U.S. Border Patrol have to work outdoors for long periods in all kinds of weather. While police work is inherently dangerous, good training, team work, and equipment such as bullet-resistant vests minimize the number of injuries and fatalities. The risks associated with pursuing speeding motorists, apprehending criminals, and dealing with public disorders can be very stressful for the officer as well as for his or her family.
Police, detectives, and special agents held about 682,000 jobs in 1994. About 81 percent were employed by local governments, primarily in cities with more than 25,000 inhabitants. Some cities have very large police forces, while hundreds of small communities employ fewer than 25 officers each. State police agencies employed about 13 percent of all police, detectives, and special agents; various Federal agencies employed an additional 6 percent. There are about 17,000 Federal, State, special (such as park police, transit police, and county police) and local police agencies in the Nation.
Civil service regulations govern the appointment of police and detectives in practically all State and large city agencies and in many smaller ones. Candidates must be U.S. citizens, usually at least 20 years of age, and must meet rigorous physical and personal qualifications. Eligibility for appointment generally depends on performance in competitive written examinations as well as on education and experience. Physical examinations often include tests of vision, hearing, strength, and agility.
Because personal characteristics such as honesty, judgment, integrity, and a sense of responsibility are especially important in law enforcement work, candidates are interviewed by senior officers, and their character traits and background are investigated. In some agencies, candidates are interviewed by a psychiatrist or a psychologist, or given a personality test. Most applicants are subjected to lie detector examinations and drug testing. Some agencies subject sworn personnel to random drug testing as a condition of continuing employment. Although police, detectives, and special agents work independently, they must perform their duties in accordance with the law and departmental rules. They should enjoy working with people and meeting the public.
In larger police departments, where the majority of law enforcement jobs are found, applicants usually must have at least a high school education. A small but growing proportion of local, special, and State departments require some college training. Some agencies hire police science or criminal justice students as police interns or cadets; some police departments and virtually all Federal agencies require a college degree. A few police departments accept applicants as recruits who have less than a high school education, but the number is declining.
The Federal agency with the largest number of special agents is the FBI. To be considered for appointment as an FBI special agent, an applicant either must be a graduate of an accredited law school; be a college graduate with a major in accounting; or be a college graduate with either fluency in a foreign language or 3 years of full-time work experience. Applicants must be U.S. citizens, possess a valid driver's license, be between 23 and 37 years of age at the time of appointment, and be willing to accept an assignment anywhere in the United States. They also must be in excellent physical condition with at least 20/200 vision corrected to 20/40 in one eye and 20/20 in the other eye. All new agents undergo 16 weeks of training at the FBI academy on the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia.
Applicants for special agent jobs with the U.S. Department of Treasury's Secret Service and BATF must have a bachelor's degree, or a minimum of 3 years' work experience which demonstrates the ability to deal effectively with individuals or groups, collect and assemble pertinent facts, and prepare clear and concise reports. Candidates must be in excellent physical condition and be less than 37 years of age at the time they enter the agency unless they have previous qualifying Federal law enforcement experience. Prospective special agents undergo 8 weeks of training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, and another 8-11 weeks of specialized training with their particular agencies.
Applicants for special agent jobs with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration must be U.S. citizens, have a college degree in any field and either 1 year of experience conducting criminal investigations, 1 year of graduate school, or have achieved at least a 2.95 grade point average while in college. The minimum age for entry is 21 and the maximum age is 37 unless they have previous qualifying Federal law enforcement experience. DEA special agents undergo 14 weeks of specialized training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
More and more, police departments are encouraging applicants to take postsecondary school training in law enforcement. Many entry level applicants to police jobs have completed some formal postsecondary education and a significant number are college graduates. Many junior colleges, colleges, and universities offer programs in law enforcement or administration of justice. Other courses helpful in preparing for a career in law enforcement include accounting, finance, electrical engineering or computer science, and foreign languages. Physical education and sports are helpful in developing the competitiveness, stamina, and agility needed for law enforcement work. Knowledge of a foreign language is an asset in many agencies.
Some large cities hire high school graduates who are still in their teens as police cadets or trainees. They do clerical work and attend classes, and can be appointed to the regular force at the conclusion of their training, usually in 1 to 2 years, upon reaching the minimum age requirement.
Before their first assignments, officers usually go through a period of training. In small agencies, recruits often get on the job training with more experienced officers, rather than formal training. In State and large local departments, they get training at a police academy for 12 to 14 weeks, as mandated by the State. This training includes classroom instruction in constitutional law and civil rights, State laws and local ordinances, and accident investigation. Recruits also receive training and supervised experience in patrol, traffic control, use of firearms, self-defense, first aid, and handling emergencies.
Police officers usually become eligible for promotion after a probationary period ranging from 6 months to 3 years. In a large department, promotion may enable an officer to become a detective or specialize in one type of police work such as laboratory analysis of evidence, traffic control, communications, or working with juveniles. Promotions to sergeant, lieutenant, and captain usually are made according to a candidate's position on a promotion list, as determined by scores on a written examination and on-the-job performance, and are very competitive.
Continuing training helps police officers, detectives, and special agents improve their job performance. Through police department academies, regional centers for public safety employees established by the States, and Federal agency training centers, instructors provide annual training in defensive tactics, firearms, use-of-force policies, sensitivity and communications skills, crowd-control techniques, legal developments that affect their work, and advances in law enforcement equipment. Many agencies pay all or part of the tuition for officers to work toward degrees in law enforcement, police science, administration of justice, or public administration, and pay higher salaries to those who earn such a degree.
The opportunity for public service through law enforcement work is attractive to many. The job is challenging and involves much personal responsibility. Furthermore, in many agencies, law enforcement officers may retire with a pension after 20 or 25 years of service, allowing them to pursue a second career while still in their 40s. Because of relatively attractive salaries and benefits, the number of qualified candidates exceeds the number of job openings in Federal law enforcement agencies and in most State, local, and special police departmentsresulting in increased hiring standards and selectivity by employers. Competition is expected to remain keen for the higher paying jobs with State and Federal agencies and police departments in more affluent areas. Persons having college training in police science, military experience, or both should have the best opportunities. Opportunities will be best in those urban communities whose departments offer relatively low salaries and where the crime rate is relatively high. Such departments are having difficulty attracting an adequate supply of high quality police officer candidates. Competition is extremely keen for special agent positions with the Justice and Treasury Departments and other Federal law enforcement agencies. Positions with these prestigious agencies tend to attract a far greater number of applicants than the number of job openings. Consequently, only the most highly qualified candidates obtain jobs.
Employment of police officers, detectives, and special agents is expected to increase faster than the average for all occupations through the year 2005. A more security-conscious society and growing concern about drug-related crimes should contribute to the increasing demand for police services. At the local and State levels, growth is likely to continue as long as crime remains a serious concern. However, employment growth at the Federal level will be tempered by continuing budgetary constraints faced by law enforcement agencies. Turnover in police, detective, and special agent positions is among the lowest of all occupations; nevertheless, the need to replace workers who retire, transfer to other occupations, or stop working for other reasons will be the source of most job openings.
The level of government spending determines the level of employment for police officers, detectives, and special agents. The number of job opportunities, therefore, can vary from year to year and from place to place. Layoffs, on the other hand, are rare because retirements enable most staffing cuts to be handled through attrition. Trained law enforcement officers who lose their jobs because of budget cuts usually have little difficulty finding jobs with other agencies.
In 1994, the median salary of nonsupervisory police officers and detectives was about $34,000 a year. The middle 50 percent earned between about $25,500 and $43,900; the lowest 10 percent were paid less than $17,900, while the highest 10 percent earned over $56,100 a year. Generally, salaries tend to be higher in urban, more affluent jurisdictions, which usually have best funded police departments.
Police officers and detectives in supervisory positions had a median salary of about $42,800 a year, also in 1994. The middle 50 percent earned between about $30,100 and $52,500; the lowest 10 percent were paid less than $19,800, while the highest 10 percent earned over $62,100 annually.
Sheriffs and other law enforcement officers had a median annual salary of about $26,800 in 1994. The middle 50 percent earned between about $20,800 and $37,200; the lowest 10 percent were paid less than $16,500, while the highest 10 percent earned over $48,600.
Federal law provides special salary rates to Federal employees who serve in law enforcement. Additionally, many Federal special agents receive administratively uncontrolled overtime (AUO)equal to 25 percent of the agent's grade and stepawarded because of the large amount of overtime that these agents are expected to work. For example, in 1995 FBI agents started at a base salary of $31,200 a year, therefore earning $39,000 a year with AUO. Other Justice and Treasury Department special agents started at about $23,200 or $28,300 a year, therefore earning $29,000 or 35,400 per year including AUO, depending on their qualifications. Salaries of Justice and Treasury Department special agents progress to $66,800 including AUO, while supervisory agents started at $61,100 including AUO. Salaries were slightly higher in selected areas where the prevailing local pay level was higher. Since Federal agents may be eligible for a special law enforcement benefits package, applicants should ask their recruiter for more information.
Total earnings for local, State, and special police detectives frequently exceed the stated salary due to payments for overtime, which can be significant. In addition to the common benefitspaid vacation, sick leave, and medical and life insurancemost police and sheriffs' departments provide officers with special allowances for uniforms and furnish weapons, handcuffs, and other required equipment. In addition, because police officers generally are covered by liberal pension plans, many retire at half-pay after 20 or 25 years of service.
Police, detectives, and special agents maintain law and order. Workers in related occupations include correctional officers, guards, fire marshals, and inspectors.
Information about entrance requirements may be obtained from Federal, State, and local law enforcement agencies.
Further information about qualifications for employment as an FBI Special Agent is available from the nearest State FBI office; the address and phone number are listed in the local telephone directory.
Information about career opportunities, qualifications, and training to become a deputy marshal is available from:
United States Marshals Service, Employment and Compensation Division, Field Staffing Branch, 600 Army Navy Dr., Arlington, VA 22202.
Information on careers as a DEA Special Agent may be obtained from:
Drug Enforcement Administration, Special Agent Staffing Unit, Washington, DC 20537.
An overview of career opportunities, qualifications, and training for U.S. Secret Service Special Agents is available from:
Secret Service, Personnel, 1800 G St. NW., Washington, DC 20223.
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