Benefits of a Law Enforcement Career for Police Officer Exam
The benefits of a policing career vary from agency to agency, and may include salary, fringe benefits (medical, dental, college tuition payments or reimbursement), and retirement and pension options. Law enforcement careers offer all of these. Benefits can also refer to non-tangible items, such as helping people, having an interesting or exciting career, or fulfilling a lifelong dream.
Salary is often a candidate's first consideration in taking a job. Although police agencies tend to offer excellent fringe benefits, many candidates—particularly the youngest ones—don't think as much about the future as much as older candidates or those who have had the bad luck of being unemployed. The U.S. Department of Labor Statistics found in 2007 that entry-level police and sheriffs' officers had a median annual earnings of $47,460. Although one might expect that the largest departments pay the highest salaries, this is not always true. Since police salaries are based on a combination of the local jurisdiction's ability to pay and how strong the police union might be, smaller, wealthier suburban areas often pay their police officers far more than large urban departments. Starting salaries and other benefits are featured on agency recruitment websites; the frequently asked questions (FAQs) will generally answer most of your questions in these areas.
Detectives and criminal investigators, who are most often selected from among the police officer ranks, had median annual earnings of $58,260. Supervisors—virtually all of whom likewise begin their careers as police officers and move through the ranks based on written exams and related factors similar to entry-level selection standards—had median annual earnings of more than $69,000. These are generally base salaries that do not include extra pay for working holidays, nights, or overtime.
Included in the definition of fringe benefits are paid vacations; sick leave; life, medical, dental, and disability insurance (for you and your dependents), tuition assistance or refund programs; a uniform allowance or possibly having your uniform provided by your agency, and retirement and pension benefits. While not every agency offers all these benefits, police departments tend to offer some of the most generous packages of public agencies. Often officers are eligible to retire after 20 or 25 years of service regardless of their age; other departments extend the 20-year retirement to those who have reached the age of 50 or 55. Either way, you may literally receive your retirement benefits for more years than you worked for them. These retirement benefits may be quite generous; it is not unknown for officers to receive at least half their final salaries as a retirement benefit and, depending on contractual agreements, far more than half if pension payouts are based on the final three or five years of salary.
A Rundown of Working Conditions
The working conditions for police officers are a two-edged sword. What many see as the benefits are exactly what others see as the detriments. Among those are primarily working alone or with only one partner who may be assigned to you for eight to 12 hours a day. You might be bored sometimes and filled with terror at other times, sometimes within a span of just a few minutes. You can expect to work holidays and weekends, when many of your friends or family members may be having a good time and you may be unavailable to celebrate many family events and occasions. Although you may receive generous vacation benefits, as a newly hired officer you will probably be assigned vacation during times your family or friends might consider inconvenient.
Can you follow rules closely and accept having a large amount of freedom (discretion) but also having a number of supervisors and managers critiquing those decisions after they have been made? Although police departments are moving away from describing themselves as "para-military" organizations, they are certainly top-down organizations. This means that rank and position are very important. As one of the newest officers, what police officers call a "rookie," you will be expected to do what many people tell you to do. This will include, in addition to supervisors and managers, those who hold the same rank as yours but have more experience and seniority.
Are you able to work with people who are not like you? This might include your colleagues but also will most likely include many of the people you will be asked to help. If you are a woman or member of a minority group, you may discover that you are one of only a few members of your group within the department. While this does not mean that you will be harassed or isolated, it does mean that unfortunately you and your actions will stand out and may be subject to closer scrutiny than the behavior of those who are members of the majority group. As a woman or a member of a minority group, you may have already experienced tokenism, but you may be unprepared to accept that your peers look at you differently and may initially see you as someone with whom they do not feel comfortable.
On a more physical note, are you prepared to work in all weather conditions; are you prepared to accept danger; are you prepared to consider that someone may try to take your life and that you might have to take the life of another person? Some of these events may be rare—the majority of police officers never fire their weapons except on the practice range—but there are no guarantees that such events will not occur during your career.
Many of the working conditions are the primary reasons individuals choose to become police officers, are also associated with the stressors of the job. Scholars—and police officers themselves—differ as to exactly how stressful policing is, but it is generally listed as one of a number of highly stressful occupations. Some of the stress comes from exposure to antisocial, violent, and mistrustful members of society. Other stress comes from the need to exercise discretion in volatile situations. Could I have made a better decision? Could I have avoided making an arrest, issuing a summons, getting injured, or having to injure someone else? These are questions that officers may ask themselves after a situation has been resolved.
The role of supervisors and managers who often assess an officer's handling of a situation after the fact can also be stressful, particularly when supervisors were not at the scene and make a decision based on an incomplete picture of events or with political pressure being exerted from higher ranks, community members, or local politicians. It is for these reasons that officers frequently cite the internal management of their agency as the most stressful aspect of their job, particularly when the need to document everything and write voluminous reports is included in the definition.
What about death or serious physical injury? Many police candidates worry whether injury and—under extreme conditions—death is an ever-present condition of being a police officer. Certainly deaths and serious injuries of police officers, particularly when they occur during the handling of incidents, receive wide local publicity, but studies of policing indicate they are not as common as newspaper accounts would have you believe. The major cause of injuries to police officers is accidents, particularly traffic accidents. The National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund (NLEOMF), in conjunction with Concerns of Police Survivors (C.O.P.S) found that line-of-duty deaths among law enforcement officers nationwide rose 20% during the first six months of 2009. But the percentages are more frightening than the numbers; preliminary statistics showed 66 officer deaths between January 1 and June 30, 2009, compared with 55 during the same period of 2008, while 35 died in accidents, mostly traffic-related.
In any discussion of working conditions, remember that one person's minuses are another person's pluses. If you enjoy having to make decisions on your own and doing different things on different days of the week, and if you generally dislike sitting at a desk all day, policing will help you meet those conditions. In addition, the police environment is also conducive to making very close friends. In fact, one of the criticisms of police by outsiders is their clannishness and their happiness at being almost solely with other police officers.