Becoming a Police Officer: Job Opportunities at the Local, State, and Federal Level
Many people want to get into policing without being aware of how people-oriented the job is. Your success as an officer is based on how well you get along with others, so I am looking for this quality from those I interview. I can always teach someone how to fill out a police report; what I can't teach is the human relations side of the work.
I also need officers who are as interested in education as they are in enforcement. It is our duty to be dedicated to crime prevention, which is educational by nature. The police are often called upon to answer questions about home and personal security. We even instruct the public on how to be sure children's car seats are installed properly.
—former Training Coordinator
HUNDREDS OF law enforcement jobs exist at local, state, and federal levels. The number of agencies and the different roles can seem complicated. The time and energy you will invest in learning about your career options can seem overwhelming, but the search is worthwhile. Job satisfaction, salaries, and the level of job security that come with a law enforcement career make it a highly desirable profession. Add to this your good fortune to be considering a career with jobs available throughout the country in all areas of the field.
According to statistics of state and local police agencies compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), of the more than one million people employed by the almost 18,000 police agencies in the nation, about 732,000 were sworn officers. Local police departments accounted for 61% of the total, followed by sheriffs' offices (24%), state police agencies (8%), and special jurisdiction police agencies (7%).
Between 2000 and 2004, full-time police employment increased by more than 5.5%, representing more than 57,000 new police officers. Some of the increase is due to new homeland security functions that many police agencies undertook after September 11, 2001, but this was not the sole reason. Also, despite a decline in violent crime rates, many agencies grew due to efforts involved with community policing and greater community involvement generally, becoming more involved with forensic analysis, including managing crime laboratories, and assuming responsibilities for sex offender registries and related activities.
In addition to the increased number of police jobs available, information is also more easily obtainable than ever before. In previous years, most applicants did not look far from home unless their interest was in federal law enforcement. Prior to the 1980s, it was common for as many as three-quarters of police applicants to have a family member or friend working in policing, specifically the very department to which they applied. While certainly this can be an advantage, it is no longer accurate today. Women and minority applicants are far less likely to have a relative or friend in policing and all applicants are able to expand their job search through guidebooks like this one and via the Internet. Previously it might have been possible to learn the salary ranges of a department in a particular city or a group of departments in a particular area. Today the Internet makes it possible for you to visit the webpage of any department you might be interested in working for to learn its salary range, selection criteria, and testing schedule if one exists.
This helps account for the changing face of the American police officer. Not only are police officers better educated than the entry level requirements might indicate, there are also more women and minority males in policing than ever before in U.S. history. A look at the new face of policing should encourage you to pursue your dream regardless of your race or sex, height or weight, or whether anyone else in your family and among your friends is already in the field.
As you saw in Chapter 1, women and minorities had a difficult time gaining a foothold in policing and an ever more difficult time winning the right to police equally with majority group males. While white males are still the single largest group of applicants, the playing field for job candidates has leveled.
According to statistics collected by the U.S. government, in the 1960s African-Americans made up only 3.6% of all sworn officers. By the 1970s the figure increased to 6%, rising again in the 1980s to 7.6%, and in 2000 to 11.7%. Increases of Hispanic-Americans were similar; comparable figures are 4.6% in the 1980s, 6.2% in the 1990s, and 8.3% in 2000. Overall, in 2004, racial minorities comprised about 24% of local officers and 19% of deputy sheriffs.
Typical of the changes in policing, in late 2008 the New York City Police Department (NYPD), the nation's largest department, with more than 36,000 officers, reported a 50% increase in the number of Hispanic officers in the ranks up to captain, the highest union-covered rank in the department, and a similar increase in the appointed ranks. While the numbers themselves are not large and do not mirror Hispanics' 28% of the city's population, the 20 Hispanic-American at the ranks of captain and above can be expected to grow as the lower ranks diversify, as is already the experience in the NYPD.
It is more difficult to individually measure other minorities because they are grouped together rather than listed individually, but between 1987 and 2003 the percentage of all other minorities in policing grew from about 1% to about 3.5%. One measure of the new diversity, though, can be seen in the number of departments making scheduling accommodations for Muslims and orthodox Jews whose religious observances often make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to work certain hours or specific days of the year. Some accommodations to uniform regulations have also been made for Sikhs and other groups whose religious or cultural practices bar them from cutting their hair or exposing certain parts of their bodies.
Currently women of all races comprise about 13% of police officers. This is an average; the percentages differ for local policing, state policing, and federal law enforcement. The percentages of women are smallest in state policing. The average of all agencies is only about 5% but larger state agencies tend to have larger percentages of women and highway patrol agencies tend to have the smallest percentages. The percentages of women in federal law enforcement are closer to the average of 13%, but there are considerable differences among agencies.
Another way to chart the changes for each of these groups is not only their total percentages but the rates at which they are being hired. Although the percentages of women being hired has not increased within the past five years, this is because the number of applicants has fallen off. It is not that departments do not want to hire women; it is that women are not applying for the available jobs. This does not mean that if you are a female applicant, you should be discouraged. What others do should not influence you. In fact, since many departments are actively interested in diversifying their workforces, you may discover that you will be actively recruited by a number of departments.
As the figures show, the percentage of minority men in policing has increased substantially. This trend is likely to continue and over time, as older officers retire, police departments will reflect a new racial and ethnic dynamic. This is already apparent is in the number of women and minority men who are moving up the ranks. In some large cities, such as Washington, DC, and Detroit, the majority of senior officers are members of minority groups; the same is true for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA), the special jurisdiction police department responsible for policing Atlanta's rail and bus transit system. Major cities, small communities, and special jurisdiction police agencies have seen increases in the numbers of women and minority men not only in supervisory and management ranks but in the position of chief of police. The numbers of elected sheriffs who are women or minority men have also increased in all parts of the country, particularly in the south.
Policing as an industry is one of America's major employers and is a major economic engine. In the year 2000, the total operating budgets of the almost 18,000 different police agencies totaled $36,692,534,000. Most of this money was spent on personnel costs, which means the salary and benefits you will be earning as a police officer. Amounts differed based on the size of agencies, but small departments (serving populations up to 25,000) spent between $42,300 and $73,200-plus per officer. Departments serving larger populations spent considerably more—between $83,500 and $90,000 per sworn officer. These larger departments are more likely to be unionized and covered by a collective bargaining agreement (called a union contract) but are also more likely to be in areas with higher costs of living.
Salary is obviously an important consideration in your job search but it should not be your only consideration. Police jobs are available throughout the country and in a variety of types of agencies. If you are interested in relocating to another part of the country, your job search should include agencies in areas in which you might want to live. Obviously, not every candidate is able to consider moving away from home, but if you are able—or even eager—to relocate, you may be successful in using your job search as a catalyst for making a life-changing decision. Remember also that salary indicates the amount of money you will make, not the amount you will spend. The cost of living differs substantially around the country; use the Internet to search for housing and living costs in an area. If you compare salaries and the cost of living in a number of areas, you may decide that the department that pays the highest salary may not actually be the best choice for you.
As you consider the opportunities in the different types of agencies, you should consider what some human resources specialists call a P-E fit, which stands for a person-environment fit. Simply put, this means that candidates are generally attracted to an organization that matches their aims, values, interests, and other aspects of their personalities.
For instance, if you are seeking a family-friendly environment, a job that requires you to be away from home frequently and that has irregular hours and days off may be less appealing to you than a job in an agency that permits you to work steady tours and rarely expects you to travel. Travel is an inherent part of federal law enforcement; you must frequently be away from home and you will be expected to transfer every few years. Other familyfriendly policies that may interest you are health benefits not just for you, but also for your dependents. A maternity light-duty or leave policy or a family leave policy that provides time off to care for relatives or for family emergencies might better suit your needs than one that permits such time off only through use of vacation time.
If you like to work outdoors, a special jurisdiction agency that is responsible for parks or recreational areas would likely be a better P-E fit than working as a jail deputy in a local sheriff's office or aiming for a job inside a forensic laboratory where you would mostly be analyzing evidence.
Some of this may seem obvious, but candidates are sometimes so eager to begin a career that they jump at the first offer made to them only to later regret having not waited for the second or third agency they interviewed with. Although today many police agencies are having problems filling vacancies, many police managers were themselves hired when the jobs were scarce and candidates would do almost anything for a position. This means they will rarely give you much time to consider an offer of employment. While they might expect you to say "yes" immediately, it is always wise to try to get at least a few days before accepting an offer. Do a final mental check to consider whether what you have learned up to now is what you had expected.
Taking as much time as you are permitted to before deciding to accept employment is particularly important for police jobs. Make sure your decision is not influenced by television or movies; do you really know what will be expected of you? Since most people remain in policing for an entire career, generally with the department they started in, does the agency provide an environment that seems to fit your needs and goals? If you are close to earning your college degree, would you be wiser to wait until you graduate and then resume your job search? The answers will be different for each applicant.
While no department will give you much time before deciding, remember that saying yes immediately and then changing your mind may affect how you are viewed by another agency. Starting an academy and dropping out early may be seen as a failure on your part rather than just a rash decision. Just as the department will expect you to learn the value of exercising discretion, your first important discretionary action may be deciding that an agency has the P-E fit you are looking for.
Learning Where The Jobs Are
The best advice for any job seeker is the following:
- Learn the marketplace; find out about all the agencies and their mandates.
- Learn where the opportunities are; find out which agencies are in growth areas. What is of concern to the public today will most likely translate into budget authority to hire officers to confront that problem in the near future.
- Learn the agency's requirements; do not take for granted what others have told you or what you think is true.
- Be flexible; do not have your heart set on only one agency—that will blind you to opportunities that are staring you in the face.
If you follow these general rules and you meet the selection standards for most agencies, you will be well on your way to a long and successful law enforcement career.
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