Benefits of a Law Enforcement Career for Police Officer Exam (page 2)
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.
Whatever your reason for pursuing a law enforcement career, the current, cooled-down economic situation may make it more difficult to follow your dream. It has been an employment reality since the Great Depression of the 1930s that in times of economic instability people seek government jobs. Because policing is one of the most desirable government jobs (and in most locales is among the highest paid), competition intensifies when private industry jobs are less available and riskier.
In the period from about 2005 to 2008, many police agencies were unable to recruit a sufficient number of candidates to fill existing vacancies. Many offered signing bonuses to new officers; others began to recruit farther and farther from home. Since the nation's economic downturn, the situation has turned around dramatically. Departments are flush with applicants; departments in Connecticut, for instance, reported in mid-2009 that they were receiving up to 50 applications a month where a year earlier they were lucky to receive three or four. Police chiefs see this as wonderful news; many have reported a noticeable upturn in not only the quantity, but also the quality of applicants who see policing as a secure job with benefits and a career ladder. What the chiefs see as wonderful, though, means that the competition has intensified. Your written exam score—the first major step toward your career—will become more important than ever to open the door to your career. Do not be discouraged, though; by reading this book, you have taken an important step in preparing yourself to achieve a high test score to place yourself among the more competitive candidates for these sought-after police positions.
The number of police in the nation has grown significantly since 1990 (in part due to the 1994 Violent Crime Control Act, which provided federal funds for hiring 100,000 new officers). By 2000, there were about 78,000 more sworn officers than in 1990, an increase of about 21%. If funds remain available, and even a small fraction of these officers begin to retire at the 20-year mark, replacement positions will become available as early as 2014—which, as you will see after reviewing the hiring process, is not as far away as it might seem. Although the majority of police officers remain for a full career, there is attrition of those leaving the field. Police departments generally have an average attrition rate of about 5%, but this figure has recently increased due to vacancies that have existed for the years police departments had difficulties recruiting candidates. More recently, in mid-2009, the COPS Hiring Recovery Program awarded almost $1 million to more than 1,000 police agencies to fund close to 5,000 officers.
The U.S. Bureau of Law Statistics, in its Occupational Outlook Handbook for 2008-2009, estimated that employment of police would grow 11% between 2006 and 2016, and termed the job prospects excellent for those able to meet the stringent qualifications. This demand is fueled by increases in population, the movement of people into areas where smaller police agencies are growing to meet population demands, and the overall fear of crime that continues despite falling crime rates. The BLS estimated that by 2016 there would be almost 100,000 police officers employed around the country, the vast majority of them employed by municipal, state, and special jurisdiction departments. By starting your career planning now, and undertaking a study regimen before your written exam, you are enhancing your chances to be one of those officers.
Becoming a Police Officer. (New York: LearningExpress, 2009).
State Trooper Exam, 2nd Edition. (New York: Learning-Express, 2010.)
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