Police officers protect lives and property. Detectives and criminal investigators gather facts and collect evidence of possible crimes.
What they 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.
Police officers, detectives, and criminal investigators typically do the following:
- 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
Job duties differ by employer and function, but all police and detectives 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.
The following are examples of types of police and detectives:
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.
Police and sheriff’s patrol officers are the most common type of police and detectives, and 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 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.
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.
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. Some special agents, such as U.S. Border Patrol agents, may work outdoors in rugged terrain and in all kinds of weather.
How to become a Police and/or Detective
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.
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. 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 agencies such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation also typically require prospective detectives and investigators to have a bachelor's degree.
Many applicants for entry-level police jobs have taken some college classes, and a significant number are college graduates.
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.
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.
Employment of police and detectives is projected to grow 5 percent from 2019 to 2029, faster than the average for all occupations.
While a continued desire for public safety is expected to 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 with crime rates falling in recent years, demand for police services to maintain and improve public safety is expected to continue.
Similar Job Titles
Agent, Criminal Investigator, Detective, Detective Sergeant, Fugitive Detective, Fugitive Investigator, Investigator, Narcotics Detective, Narcotics Investigator, Police Detective
First-Line Supervisor of Police and Detectives, Fire Investigator, Criminal Investigator and Special Agent, Police Patrol Officer, Sheriff and Deputy Sheriff
The trade associations listed below represent organizations made up of people (members) who work and promote advancement in the field. Members are very interested in telling others about their work and about careers in those areas. As well, trade associations provide opportunities for organizational networking and learning more about the field’s trends and directions.
- American Association of Police Polygraphists
- Fraternal Order of Police
- International Association for Identification
- International Association of Arson Investigators
- World Association of Detectives
Magazines and Publications
Whether on foot, wheels, or horseback, detectives and police officers are alert for any threat to public safety, ready to respond at a moment’s notice when a need occurs. Police and sheriff’s officers protect lives and property. They respond to emergency and patrol their assigned area for signs of criminal activity. They wear recognizable uniforms, and may conduct searches and arrest suspected criminals. Some officers specialize in one type of crime, such as narcotics. Detectives and criminal investigators, or agents, gather facts and evidence of possible crimes. They conduct interviews, observe the activities of suspects, and participate in raids and arrests. Detectives often wear plain clothes, and usually specialize in investigating one type of crime, such as homicide or fraud. Transit and railroad police patrol railroad yards and transit stations to prevent thefts and protect property. Police and detective work requires patience, and paperwork; officers document every incident in detail, and must be ready to testify in court. Most officers carry law enforcement tools, such as radios, handcuffs, and firearms. Police and detective work can be physically demanding, stressful, and dangerous; injuries are common. Despite working shifts around the clock and dealing with life-threatening situations, officers must stay calm, think clearly, and use good judgment at all times. Most positions require graduation from a law enforcement agency’s training academy and extensive on-the-job training. Police officers and detectives need a license to carry firearms and enforce the law. Typically, candidates must be U.S. citizens, at least 21 years old, and in excellent physical and mental health, with no felony convictions.
Content retrieved from: US Bureau of Labor Statistics-OOH www.bls.gov/ooh,
CareerOneStop www.careeronestop.org, O*Net Online www.onetonline.org