Becoming a Police Officer: Law Enforcement Glossary (page 4)

Updated on Dec 2, 2010

Police Explorers. A structured career and educational program that grew out of the Boy Scouts of America for young men, but that now enrolls both men and women between the ages of 14 and 20 and allows them to explore policing through volunteer work experiences in police agencies. Some Explorer programs provide accelerated entry into a department and, for this reason, Explorers and similar internship or volunteer programs should be considered by young people interested in police careers.

polygraph (lie detector) test. A test that relies on a polygraph machine to determine whether the person being tested is telling the truth; the machine measures physiological responses (perspiration, pulse, etc.) to psychological stimuli (the questions). Although many people question the validity of these tests, some police agencies use them in the hiring process to verify the truthfulness of applicant's claims.

precinct/district/stationhouse. Depending on local area usage, terms may refer to the collection of beats within a given geographic area, or to the organizational substations of a law enforcement agency. Generally, not all officers report to headquarters but rather to a building located within the area they patrol, which houses that area's equipment and supervisory personnel.

private security. General term to describe the industry that provides uniformed or investigative functions by non-governmental agencies. Private security officers (sometimes called private police) are paid from private funds. They may work directly for a company (termed proprietary officers) or may work for an outside provider (termed contract officers). The number of private security personnel far exceeds the number of police personnel in the United States; in 2000, the Department of Justice estimated that 2 million people were employed in private security, compared to approximately 600,000 police officers. Opinion differs as to whether working in private security provides experience helpful to a police career or whether the duties and legal responsibilities are so dissimilar as to not be helpful.

probationary period. The period from when an officer begins the academy until a specified time when the officer becomes covered by civil service or other tenure regulations. During the probationary period (generally a period from six months to as long as two years, depending on local law or union contract) an officer may be fired without a hearing or without the protections afforded by civil service law. Common reasons for termination during this period include conduct on- or off-duty that does not meet the department' standards or may pertain to something in the candidate's background that was not uncovered prior to hiring or during academy training.

random patrol. The patrol tactic of having an officer walk or drive around a designated geographic area in what seems to the public to be a random manner but may be predetermined by patrol supervisors. The theory behind random patrol is that officers create a sense of omnipresence by appearing seemingly at any time; the tactic is based on the belief that the surprise presence of officers creates a fear of detection in criminals and therefore creates a sense of security in members of the public.

sting operations. A type of uncover operation where officers pose as something they are not to surprise and arrest criminals. In some cases the police may pose as criminals by setting up a store in which to purchase stolen goods, or they may pretend to be looking for someone to commit a crime for them. Other types of stings have used a different element of surprise; officers may invite criminals with warrants for arrest to, for example, a party or event, which they attend with no expectation of being arrested.

SWAT. Special Weapons and Tactics teams began in the 1960s. The term is used to describe teams of officers who are specially trained and equipped to deal with situations that present a higher-than-usual level of danger, such as hostage-taking situations, or situations in which it appears there are multiple aggressors. SWAT training varies across jurisdictions but generally ranges from hostage negotiation to special weapons training, including training as sharpshooters. In large agencies, SWAT members are permanently assigned to this team; in smaller agencies they are likely to maintain their regular assignments but are called for SWAT duty when a situation occurs in which their skills are determined to be appropriate. There has been criticism of SWAT teams in smaller agencies because there are often few situations for which their skills are required, leading to their use at times at which it is perceived as an overreaction to the event.

undercover operations or investigations. Covert (hidden) activity undertaken by police which during which officers work in plainclothes (out of uniformed, either in normal business attire or in clothing appropriate to the undercover situation). Officers attempting to observe the purchase of guns or narcotics, or pretending to be gun purchasers or drug dealers, would dress differently than officers posing as businessmen attempting to buy a restaurant to use as a front for money laundering. Undercover operations are seen as among the most dangerous in police work; officers must convince others that they are authentic in the roles they are portraying and must often work without their police identification and firearms, and in some undercover situations must position themselves to become crime victims while depending on a hidden backup team of officers to come to their aid as the situation develops.

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