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What Police and Detectives Do About this section

Police and detectives
Police officers use computers to check license information.

Police officers protect lives and property. Detectives and criminal investigators, who are sometimes called agents or special agents, gather facts and collect evidence of crimes.

Duties

Police officers, detectives, and criminal investigators typically do the following:

  • Respond to emergency and nonemergency calls
  • Patrol assigned areas, observing people and activities
  • Conduct traffic stops and issue citations
  • Search restricted-access databases for vehicle or other records and warrants
  • Obtain and serve warrants for arrests, searches, and other purposes
  • Arrest people suspected of committing crimes
  • Collect and secure evidence from crime scenes
  • Observe the activities of suspects
  • Write detailed reports and fill out forms
  • Prepare cases for legal proceedings and testify in court

Job duties differ by employer and function, but police and detectives are required by law to write detailed reports and keep meticulous records. Most carry law enforcement equipment such as radios, handcuffs, and guns.

The following are examples of types of police and detectives: 

Detectives and criminal investigators are uniformed or plainclothes officers who gather facts and collect evidence related to criminal cases. They conduct interviews, examine records, monitor suspects, and participate in raids and arrests. Detectives typically investigate serious crimes, such as assaults, robberies, and homicides. In large police departments, detectives usually specialize in investigating one type of crime, such as homicide or fraud. They are typically assigned cases on a rotating basis and work on them until an arrest and trial are completed or until the case is dropped.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents, sometimes called special agents, investigate and pursue criminal cases that violate federal law. FBI agents are responsible for crimes against public agencies, such as Medicare fraud, or that cross state lines. In addition, federal agents may join or take over investigations of certain types of state cases, such as those related to prescription drugs or large sums of money.

Fish and game wardens enforce fishing, hunting, and boating laws. They patrol fishing and hunting areas, conduct search and rescue operations, investigate complaints and accidents, and educate the public about laws pertaining to the outdoors. Federal fish and game wardens are often referred to as Federal Wildlife Officers.

Police and sheriff’s patrol officers are the most common type of police and detectives, and they have general law enforcement duties. They wear uniforms that allow the public to easily recognize them as police officers. They have regular patrols and also respond to emergency and nonemergency calls. During patrols, officers observe people and activities to ensure order and safety.

Some police officers work only on a specific type of crime, such as narcotics. Officers, especially those working in large departments, may work in special units, such as mounted (horseback), motorcycle, or special weapons and tactics (SWAT). Typically, officers must work as patrol officers for a certain number of years before they are appointed to a special unit.

Transit and railroad police patrol train yards and transportation hubs, such as subway stations. They protect property, employees, and passengers from crimes such as thefts and robberies. They remove trespassers from railroad and transit properties and check IDs of people who try to enter secure areas.

Work Environment About this section

Police and detectives
Police and detectives regularly work at crime and accident scenes.

Police and detectives held about 813,500 jobs in 2019. Employment in the detailed occupations that make up police and detectives was distributed as follows:

Police and sheriff’s patrol officers 688,400
Detectives and criminal investigators 113,500
Fish and game wardens 7,200
Transit and railroad police 4,500

The largest employers of police and detectives were as follows:

Local government, excluding education and hospitals 77%
State government, excluding education and hospitals 12
Federal government 7

Police and detective work can be physically demanding, stressful, and dangerous. Officers must be alert and ready to react throughout their entire shift. Officers regularly work at crime and accident scenes and encounter suffering and the results of violence. Although a career in law enforcement may be stressful, many officers find it rewarding to help members of their communities.

Some federal agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation and U.S. Secret Service, require extensive travel, often on short notice. These agents may relocate a number of times over the course of their careers. Other agencies, such as U.S. Border Patrol, may require work outdoors in rugged terrain and in all kinds of weather.

Injuries and Illnesses

Police and sheriff's patrol officers and transit and railroad police have some of the highest rates of injuries and illnesses of all occupations. They may face physical injuries during conflicts with criminals and other high-risk situations.

Work Schedules

Most police and detectives work full time. Paid overtime is common, and shift work is necessary to protect the public at all times.

FBI special agents must work at least 50 hours a week and are on call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

How to Become a Police Officer or Detective About this section

Police and detectives
Police and detectives must use good judgment and have strong communication skills when gathering facts about a crime.

The education typically required to enter the occupation ranges from a high school diploma to a college degree. Most police and detectives must graduate from their agency’s training academy before completing a period of on-the-job training. Candidates must be U.S. citizens, usually at least 21 years old, and able to meet rigorous physical and personal qualifications. A felony conviction or drug use may disqualify a candidate.

Education

Police and detective applicants must have at least a high school diploma or equivalent, although some federal agencies and police departments may require that applicants have completed college coursework or a college degree. Many community colleges and 4-year colleges and universities offer programs in law enforcement and criminal justice. Knowledge of a foreign language is an asset in many federal agencies and geographical regions.

Fish and game wardens typically need a bachelor’s degree; desirable fields of study include wildlife science, biology, or natural resources management. Federal Wildlife Officers and some state-level fish and game wardens typically do not need a bachelor’s degree.

Federal agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation may require prospective detectives and investigators to have a bachelor's degree.

Many applicants for entry-level police jobs have completed some college coursework, and a significant number are college graduates.

Training

Candidates for law enforcement appointment usually attend a training academy before becoming an officer. Training includes classroom instruction in state and local laws and constitutional law, civil rights, and police ethics. Recruits also receive training and supervised experience in subjects such as patrol, traffic control, firearm use, self-defense, first aid, and emergency response.

Federal law enforcement agents undergo extensive training, usually at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, or at a Federal Law Enforcement Training Center.

Work Experience in a Related Occupation

Because they need experience in law enforcement, detectives typically begin their careers as police officers.

FBI special agent applicants  must have at least 2 years of full-time work experience, or 1 year of experience plus an advanced degree (master’s or higher).

Other Experience

Some police departments have cadet programs for people interested in a career in law enforcement who do not yet meet age requirements for becoming an officer. These cadets do clerical work and attend classes until they reach the minimum age requirement and can apply for a position with the regular force. Military or police experience may be considered beneficial for prospective cadets.

Cadet candidates must be U.S. citizens, usually be at least 18 years old, have a driver’s license, and meet specific physical qualifications. Applicants may have to pass physical exams of vision, hearing, strength, and agility, as well as written exams. Candidates typically go through a series of interviews and may be asked to take polygraph (lie detector) and drug tests. A felony conviction may disqualify a candidate.

Advancement

Police officers usually become eligible for promotion after a probationary period. Promotions to corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, and captain usually are made according to scores on a written examination and on-the-job performance. In large departments, an officer may be promoted to detective or to specialize in one type of police work, such as working with juveniles.

Along with exam and performance scores, a bachelor’s degree may be required for advancement to positions of lieutenant or higher rank.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Police and detectives must be able to speak with people and to express details in writing about an incident.

Empathy. Police officers need to understand the perspectives of a variety of people in their jurisdiction and be willing to help the public.

Good judgment. Police and detectives must be able to determine the best way to solve an array of problems.

Leadership skills. Police officers must be comfortable with being a highly visible member of their community, as the public looks to them for help in emergencies.

Perceptiveness. Officers, detectives, and fish and game wardens must be able to anticipate people’s reactions and understand why they act a certain way.

Physical stamina. Officers and detectives must be in good physical shape, both to pass required tests for entry into the field and to keep up with the daily rigors of the job.

Physical strength. Police officers must be strong enough to physically apprehend suspects and to assist people in precarious situations.

Pay About this section

Police and Detectives

Median annual wages, May 2019

Police and detectives

$65,170

Law enforcement workers

$57,030

Total, all occupations

$39,810

 

The median annual wage for police and detectives was $65,170 in May 2019. The median wage is the wage at which half the workers in an occupation earned more than that amount and half earned less. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $37,710, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $109,620.

Median annual wages for police and detectives in May 2019 were as follows:

Detectives and criminal investigators $83,170
Transit and railroad police 71,820
Police and sheriff’s patrol officers 63,150
Fish and game wardens 57,500

In May 2019, the median annual wages for police and detectives in the top industries in which they worked were as follows:

Federal government $88,060
State government, excluding education and hospitals 68,610
Local government, excluding education and hospitals 63,410

Most police and detectives work full time. Paid overtime is common, and shift work is necessary to protect the public at all times.

Other Compensation and Benefits

Many law enforcement agencies provide officers with an allowance for uniforms, as well as extensive benefits and the option to retire at an age that is younger than the typical retirement age. Some police departments offer additional pay for bilingual officers or those with college degrees.

Job Outlook About this section

Police and Detectives

Percent change in employment, projected 2019-29

Police and detectives

5%

Total, all occupations

4%

Law enforcement workers

0%

 

Employment of police and detectives is projected to grow 5 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations.

While a desire for public safety may result in a need for more officers, demand for employment is expected to vary depending on location, driven largely by local and state budgets. Even when crime rates fall, demand for police services to maintain public safety is expected to continue.

Job Prospects

About 59,100 openings for police and detectives are projected each year, on average, over the decade.

Many of those openings are expected to result from the need to replace workers who transfer to different occupations or exit the labor force, such as to retire.

Job applicants may face competition because of relatively low rates of turnover. Applicants with a bachelor's degree and law enforcement or military experience, especially investigative experience, as well as those who speak more than one language, should have the best job opportunities.

Because the level of employment for police and detectives depends on government spending, the number of job opportunities may vary from year to year and from place to place.

Employment projections data for police and detectives, 2019-29
Occupational Title SOC Code Employment, 2019 Projected Employment, 2029 Change, 2019-29 Employment by Industry
Percent Numeric

SOURCE: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Projections program

Police and detectives

813,500 854,200 5 40,600

Detectives and criminal investigators

33-3021 113,500 114,700 1 1,300 Get data

Fish and game wardens

33-3031 7,200 7,300 1 100 Get data

Police and sheriff’s patrol officers

33-3051 688,400 727,400 6 39,100 Get data

Transit and railroad police

33-3052 4,500 4,700 4 200 Get data

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