Exploring Careers in Law Enforcement: Police Activities and Police Department Structure (page 3)
There is always a need for highly trained and highly skilled law enforcement agents. Today too, all policing agencies are finding that rapidly changing technology not only provides law enforcement with new ways to investigate crime, but also provides criminals with new tools to commit crimes. As a result, law enforcement agencies are constantly seeking to hire and train new policing candidates who are able to work well with the public, maintain high ethical standards, work independently, use common sense, and act as a positive role model for the community.
To evaluate each candidate's potential for civilian law enforcement, agencies have developed an assortment of written, psychological, and physical tests. It is very possible, even encouraged, to prepare for the written portion of these tests. Once candidates are aware of the ability areas that the tests attempt to evaluate and the testing methods agencies typically use, they can begin to sharpen and improve the necessary skills.
If you are interested in a law enforcement career, you should begin by educating yourself on the various law enforcement agencies with which you may wish to seek employment. Factors such as the size of the agency, the area of the country, and the population density may all be important issues when you are determining what agency or agencies to apply to.
After choosing an agency or agencies, the second step is to prepare for the compulsory tests that every law enforcement agency uses to evaluate candidates. Candidates for police positions are expected to communicate well both verbally and in writing. These candidates are also expected to demonstrate an ability to perform basic mathematical processes, read and understand legal information, and reason through large amounts of seemingly unrelated information to find clues or connections. While the process of preparing for written law enforcement exams is not easy, it will seem well worth the effort when you are notified that you have been selected for an important and exciting career as a police officer.
So what do police actually do? Studies of police activities indicate that most police work involves activity that is non-criminal in nature. Primarily police activities involve:
- Handling domestic issues
- Working traffic accidents
- Finding missing persons
- Directing traffic
- Filling out paperwork
However, one of the key tasks assigned the police is to respond to calls regarding criminal conduct. When a citizen telephones the police to report a crime or disturbance, the police dispatcher assigns a patrol unit to handle the call for service. After a police officer arrives at the scene and begins an appropriate investigation, the officer may determine that a violation of law has occurred. Then, depending on the seriousness of the offense and departmental rules and regulations, the officer can either make an arrest or handle the incident less formally.
It is important to remember that while state and local police are concerned with predatory crime, including murder, rape, burglary, and theft, they do not have authority over every type of crime. They may not have the authority to investigate economic crimes, violations of civil rights laws, or labor law disputes. Those types of crimes usually involve a violation of a specific federal law that must be handled by a specific federal agency. State and local police officers are limited to responding to those criminal acts and behaviors prohibited by either state or local laws.
Structure of Police Departments
American police departments are organized as a bureaucracy along semi-military lines and structured into ranks based either on the army or navy rank structures. The rank structure of police departments varies between police departments, depending upon the size of the department and the needs of the community. Generally, big city departments have a much more complex rank structure than smaller city departments and rural police departments. For example, the rank structure of the New York City Police Department with approximately 40,000 police officers is much more complex that of than Scarsdale, New York, a department of about 45 police officer in suburban New York.
The rank structure of a police department forms a hierarchy with patrol officers at the bottom of the rank structure, sergeants at the second level, lieutenants at the third level, captains at the fourth level, and the police chief at the top of the hierarchy. The rank structure allows for the patrol officers to report to one supervisor, generally a sergeant. This concept is known as a unity of command. It is recommended that in a police department each individual report to one boss. This method eliminates problems within the organization when more than one person supervises a patrol officer.
The police hierarchy generally holds that a sergeant should supervise about five police officers. This concept is known as the span of control. The idea behind maintaining a span of control is that a supervisor can only effectively serve a specific number of employees. Similar to the unity of command principle, the span of control principle seeks to reinforce the chain of command inherent in a structure based upon rank.
As a semi-military organization, police departments require that officers wear uniforms, carry firearms, wear badges, and display nameplates. Police officers are expected to maintain the chain of command by obeying the orders and following the directions of their immediate supervisors. Police officers who do not follow orders or directions can be suspended or dismissed, depending upon the seriousness of their violation and the amount of disruption their behavior imposed upon the department as a whole.
It should be noted that any individual hired as a police officer serves a probationary period from several months to one year. During this period, officers are often termed probationary officers or probies for short. The exact length of the probationary period depends on the requirements of each individual police department. It is important that police officer candidates understand that the goal of the probationary period is to evaluate their ability to perform on the job and to fit into the department. Probies may be dismissed during the probationary period without cause and no reason needs to be provided. Damaging a police vehicle, a single incident of excessive use of force, violating the chain of command, or making negative comments about superior officers may all demonstrate that a probie is not the right fit for a department's needs.
Once a police recruit successfully completes the probationary period, more workplace protections are acquired. Generally, following the probationary period, law enforcement officers are given civil service status. The actual rights and protections associated with this status differ from municipality to municipality and from state to state, but they will always provide at least a few rights that are missing during the probationary period.
Big City Police Departments
The entertainment and news media have created the impression that policing primarily occurs in very large municipalities, such as Los Angeles and New York City. While it is true that every state has one or more cities large enough to employ more than a hundred police officers, the vast majority of cities are small enough to require 25 or fewer officers. So, the majority of policing positions will be available in smaller police departments.
However, it should be recognized that big city police departments provide opportunities not usually available in smaller departments, such as the ability to specialize in a certain area of law enforcement.
The number of crimes that arise in larger police jurisdictions allow police departments in such cities to create areas of specialization, such as crime prevention, crimes involving children, community policing, crime scene investigation, and drug education. Very large departments like New York City, Kansas City, Denver, and Seattle are also able to have a few units specifically assigned to a single crime, such as their homicide units. Additionally, many of those knowledgeable about policing believe that the opportunities for promotion are greater in a big city department like New York as compared to a smaller department like Scarsdale, New York.
Small Community Police Departments
The majority of police agencies are categorized as small city or rural police departments, although the concept of small may be based on perception. For example, those individuals living in medium-sized cities such as Wichita, Kansas, may think their 500 member police department is big. However, that number of officers would seem small to residents of Los Angeles, California. Clearly, individual departments often define themselves as large or small depending upon the needs of their community, their proximity to other communities, and the size of the actual urban area in which they are located.
Generally, small police agencies do not have personnel to investigate homicides or other serious crimes. These agencies have to obtain assistance from the state police. Officers in small agencies often are not as well educated or trained as officers in bigger cities due to being exposed to less crime on a less regular basis.
However, the best reason for joining a smaller police department is that police officers in small departments know the citizens in their communities. They know most of the history and issues, both community-related and family-related, which evolve over time to require police intervention. They can settle complaints in an informal manner rather than through a more time consuming and costly criminal justice process.
The duties in smaller departments are often more varied and interesting that the limited areas assigned in larger departments. Often, small police departments encourage their officers to spend the majority of their time on patrol and interacting with the public. A typical day for an officer in a small police department may involve: controlling animals running at large, visiting with the kindergarteners about the role of police in their community, issuing a few traffic citations, taking a report of a theft from the local convenience store, and arresting an individual for domestic violence. While murder may be a rare event in small cities, protecting the health, safety, and welfare of citizens remains an important service to the community.
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