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Working as a Police Officer

Whoop, whoop. That's the sound of the police. Oh, wait. It's just you. Being a police officer isn't easy. You'll go through so many emotions, all in one shift. From feeling fulfilled to depressed and even satisfied, there's no telling what your day will bring you. But, there's one thing that will never change. Doughnuts will always be there for you.

That's another thing. You'll probably get sick of the doughnut jokes. But that's part of the job, so you'll have to learn to cope with it. Maybe lean into the skid. Even though sometimes you'll want to yell at the person for making such a joke because you're super tired.

Why are you super tired? Oh, that's because you'll be working some pretty crazy hours. Maybe you'll take a couple overnight shifts. Or maybe you'll have a weekend shift. Either way, criminals don't just stop because the moon comes out. So that means you don't either.

What Does a Police Officer Do

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

Duties

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

  • Enforce laws
  • Respond to emergency and nonemergency calls
  • Patrol assigned areas
  • Conduct traffic stops and issue citations
  • Search for vehicle records and warrants using computers in the field
  • Obtain warrants and arrest suspects
  • Collect and secure evidence from crime scenes
  • Observe the activities of suspects
  • Write detailed reports and fill out forms
  • Prepare cases and testify in court

Police officers pursue and apprehend people who break the law. They then warn, cite, or arrest them. Most police officers patrol their jurisdictions and investigate suspicious activity. They also respond to calls, issue traffic tickets, and give first aid to accident victims.

Detectives perform investigative duties, such as gathering facts and collecting evidence.

The daily activities of police and detectives vary with their occupational specialty, such as canine units and special weapons and tactics (SWAT). Job duties differ at the local, state, or federal level. Duties differ among federal agencies because they enforce different aspects of the law. Regardless of job duties or location, police officers and detectives at all levels must write reports and keep detailed records that will be needed if they testify in court. Most carry law enforcement tools, such as radios, handcuffs, and guns.

State and Local Law Enforcement

Uniformed police officers 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 look for any signs of criminal activity and may conduct searches and arrest suspected criminals.

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 horseback, motorcycle, canine corps, and special weapons and tactics (SWAT). Typically, officers must work as patrol officers for a certain number of years before they may be appointed to a special unit.

Some agencies, such as public college and university police forces, public school police, and transit police, have special geographic and enforcement responsibilities.

State police officers, sometimes called state troopers or highway patrol officers, have many of the same duties as other police officers, but they may spend more time enforcing traffic laws and issuing traffic citations. State police officers have authority to work anywhere in the state and are frequently called on to help other law enforcement agencies, especially those in rural areas or small towns.

Transit and railroad police patrol railroad yards and transit 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. 

Sheriffs and deputy sheriffs enforce the law on the county level. Sheriffs’ departments tend to be relatively small. Sheriffs are usually elected by the public and do the same work as a local or county police chief. Some sheriffs’ departments do the same work as officers in urban police departments. Others mainly operate the county jails and provide services in local courts. Police and sheriffs’ deputies who provide security in city and county courts are sometimes called bailiffs.

Detectives and criminal investigators are uniformed or plainclothes investigators who gather facts and collect evidence for criminal cases. They conduct interviews, examine records, observe the activities of suspects, and participate in raids and arrests. Detectives usually specialize in investigating one type of crime, such as homicide or fraud. Detectives 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.

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.

Federal Law Enforcement

Federal law enforcement officials carry out many of the same duties that other police officers do, and they also have jurisdiction over the entire country. Many federal agents are highly specialized. The following are examples of federal agencies in which officers and agents enforce particular types of laws.

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents are the federal government's principal investigators, responsible for enforcing more than 200 categories of federal statutes and conducting sensitive national security investigations.
  • Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents enforce laws and regulations relating to illegal drugs.
  • United States Secret Service uniformed officers protect the President, the Vice President, their immediate families, and other public officials. Other Secret Service agents investigate financial crimes.
  • Federal Air Marshals provide air security by guarding against attacks targeting U.S. aircraft, passengers, and crews.
  • U.S. Border Patrol agents protect the U.S. land and sea boundaries.

See the Contacts for More Info section for additional information about federal law enforcement agencies.

How To Become a Police Officer

Education requirements range 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 qualification standards. 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 many federal agencies and some police departments require some college coursework or a college degree. Many community colleges, 4-year colleges, and universities offer programs in law enforcement and criminal justice, and agencies may offer financial assistance to officers who pursue these, or related, degrees. Knowledge of a foreign language is an asset in many federal agencies and geographical regions.

Fish and game wardens applying for federal jobs with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service typically need a college degree; and those applying to work for a state’s natural resources department often need a high school diploma or some college study in a related field, such as biology or natural resources management.

Federal agencies typically require a bachelor's degree. For example, FBI and DEA special agent applicants are often college graduates.

State and local agencies encourage applicants to continue their education after high school, by taking courses and training related to law enforcement. Many applicants for entry-level police jobs have taken some college classes, and a significant number are college graduates. Many community colleges, 4-year colleges, and universities offer programs in law enforcement and criminal justice. Many agencies offer financial assistance to officers who pursue these or related degrees.

Training

Candidates for 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 areas 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

Detectives normally begin their careers as police officers before being promoted to detective.

FBI special agent applicants typically must have at least 3 years of professional work experience in areas ranging from computer science to accounting.

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 potential cadets.

Cadet candidates must be U.S. citizens, usually be at least 21 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. Previous work or military experience is often seen as a plus. Candidates typically go through a series of interviews and may be asked to take 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 a candidate's position on a promotion list, as determined by scores on a written examination and on-the-job performance. In large departments, promotion may enable an officer to become a detective or to specialize in one type of police work, such as working with juveniles.

Important Qualities

Communication skills. Police, detectives, and fish and game wardens must be able to speak with people when gathering facts about a crime and to express details about a given incident in writing.

Empathy. Police officers need to understand the perspectives of a wide variety of people in their jurisdiction and have a willingness to help the public.

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

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

Perceptiveness. Officers, detectives, and fish and game wardens must be able to anticipate a person’s reactions and understand why people 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 offenders.

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Average Salary$52,148
Job Growth Rate5%

Police Officer Career Paths

Top Careers Before Police Officer

Top Careers After Police Officer

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Average Salary for a Police Officer

Police Officers in America make an average salary of $52,148 per year or $25 per hour. The top 10 percent makes over $70,000 per year, while the bottom 10 percent under $38,000 per year.
Average Salary
$52,148

Best Paying Cities

City
Average Salary
Richmond, CA
Salary Range58k - 109k$80k$80,389
Anchorage, AK
Salary Range67k - 78k$73k$72,787
Seattle, WA
Salary Range58k - 85k$71k$70,674
Lake Havasu City, AZ
Salary Range42k - 78k$58k$57,828
Washington, DC
Salary Range45k - 66k$55k$54,822
Minneapolis, MN
Salary Range45k - 62k$53k$53,478
$24k
$109k

Recently Added Salaries

Job TitleCompanyCompanyStart DateSalary
Police Officer
Police Officer
The Colonial Regional Police Department
The Colonial Regional Police Department
01/31/2021
01/31/2021
$59,38201/31/2021
$59,382
Police Officer
Police Officer
City of Union Gap
City of Union Gap
01/31/2021
01/31/2021
$62,59201/31/2021
$62,592
Police Officer (Entry and Lateral)
Police Officer (Entry and Lateral)
Ellensburg Police Department
Ellensburg Police Department
01/31/2021
01/31/2021
$60,57601/31/2021
$60,576
Police Officer
Police Officer
City of Eden Prairie
City of Eden Prairie
01/31/2021
01/31/2021
$64,25901/31/2021
$64,259
Police Officer 2
Police Officer 2
Northeast State Community College
Northeast State Community College
01/31/2021
01/31/2021
$34,23401/31/2021
$34,234
See More Recent Salaries

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Police Officer Resumes

Designing and figuring out what to include on your resume can be tough, not to mention time-consuming. That's why we put together a guide that is designed to help you craft the perfect resume for becoming a Police Officer. If you're needing extra inspiration, take a look through our selection of templates that are specific to your job.

Learn How To Write a Police Officer Resume

At Zippia, we went through countless Police Officer resumes and compiled some information about how best to optimize them. Here are some suggestions based on what we found, divided by the individual sections of the resume itself.

View Detailed Information

Police Officer Demographics

Gender

male

78.8 %

female

17.7 %

unknown

3.5 %

Ethnicity

White

62.4 %

Hispanic or Latino

17.5 %

Black or African American

14.0 %

Foreign Languages Spoken

Spanish

70.5 %

French

4.8 %

Arabic

3.3 %
See More Demographics

Police Officer Education

Majors

Degrees

Bachelors

38.4 %

Associate

19.8 %

Certificate

14.9 %

Top Colleges for Police Officers

1. Pennsylvania State University

University Park, PA • Public

In-State Tuition
$18,454
Enrollment
40,108

2. Michigan State University

East Lansing, MI • Public

In-State Tuition
$14,460
Enrollment
39,208

3. California State University - Bakersfield

Bakersfield, CA • Public

In-State Tuition
$7,309
Enrollment
9,142

4. University of New Haven

West Haven, CT • Private

In-State Tuition
$39,270
Enrollment
5,041

5. California State University - Long Beach

Long Beach, CA • Public

In-State Tuition
$6,798
Enrollment
31,503

6. Northeastern University

Boston, MA • Private

In-State Tuition
$51,522
Enrollment
13,760

7. University of Maryland - College Park

College Park, MD • Public

In-State Tuition
$10,595
Enrollment
30,184

8. North Carolina State University

Raleigh, NC • Public

In-State Tuition
$9,101
Enrollment
23,708

9. University of Connecticut

Storrs, CT • Public

In-State Tuition
$15,730
Enrollment
18,830

10. University of Washington

Seattle, WA • Public

In-State Tuition
$11,207
Enrollment
30,905
See More Education Info
Job type you want
Full Time
Part Time
Internship
Temporary

Top Skills For a Police Officer

The skills section on your resume can be almost as important as the experience section, so you want it to be an accurate portrayal of what you can do. Luckily, we've found all of the skills you'll need so even if you don't have these skills yet, you know what you need to work on. Out of all the resumes we looked through, 9.1% of police officers listed police department on their resume, but soft skills such as communication skills and empathy are important as well.

Best States For a Police Officer

Some places are better than others when it comes to starting a career as a police officer. The best states for people in this position are California, Alaska, Washington, and Oregon. Police officers make the most in California with an average salary of $73,025. Whereas in Alaska and Washington, they would average $72,370 and $70,087, respectively. While police officers would only make an average of $67,757 in Oregon, you would still make more there than in the rest of the country. We determined these as the best states based on job availability and pay. By finding the median salary, cost of living, and using the Bureau of Labor Statistics' Location Quotient, we narrowed down our list of states to these four.

1. Alaska

Total Police Officer Jobs:
7
Highest 10% Earn:
$85,000
Location Quotient:
1.96
Location Quotient is a measure used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to determine how concentrated a certain industry is in a single state compared to the nation as a whole. You can read more about how BLS calculates location quotients here

2. Maine

Total Police Officer Jobs:
12
Highest 10% Earn:
$94,000
Location Quotient:
1.55
Location Quotient is a measure used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to determine how concentrated a certain industry is in a single state compared to the nation as a whole. You can read more about how BLS calculates location quotients here

3. Washington

Total Police Officer Jobs:
73
Highest 10% Earn:
$101,000
Location Quotient:
1.28
Location Quotient is a measure used by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) to determine how concentrated a certain industry is in a single state compared to the nation as a whole. You can read more about how BLS calculates location quotients here
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Top Police Officer Employers

1. United States Department of Defense
4.3
Avg. Salary: 
$73,181
Police Officers Hired: 
531+
2. DC Government
4.5
Avg. Salary: 
$53,411
Police Officers Hired: 
380+
3. Los Angeles Police Department
4.5
Avg. Salary: 
$53,391
Police Officers Hired: 
315+
4. United States Navy
3.8
Avg. Salary: 
$63,804
Police Officers Hired: 
285+
5. United States Army
4.0
Avg. Salary: 
$56,131
Police Officers Hired: 
263+
6. Atlanta Police Department
3.7
Avg. Salary: 
$52,021
Police Officers Hired: 
153+

Police Officer Videos

Updated October 2, 2020