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Job Opportunities for Law Enforcement Officers

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For those interested in the enforcement side of the law, there are many avenues to explore. From police officer to FBI agent, from U.S. Customs official to homicide detective, you can find the kind of work that would appeal to you most.

Police Officers and Detectives

Police officers and detectives who work in small communities and rural areas have many duties. In the course of a day's work, they may direct traffic at the scene of a fire, investigate a burglary, or give first aid to an accident victim. In a large police department, by contrast, officers usually are assigned to a specific type of duty. Most officers are detailed either to patrol or to traffic duty; smaller numbers are assigned to special work such as accident prevention. Others are experts in chemical and microscopic analysis, firearms identification, and handwriting or fingerprint identification. In very large cities, officers may be assigned to special task forces such as homicide, burglary, or even SWAT teams.

Detectives and Special Agents

Detectives and special agents are plainclothes investigators who gather facts and collect evidence for criminal cases. They conduct interviews, examine records, observe the activities of suspects, and participate in raids or arrests.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Special Agents

FBI agents investigate violations of federal laws in connection with bank robbery, theft of government property, organized crime, espionage, sabotage, kidnapping, and terrorism. Agents with specialized training usually work on cases related to their background. For example, agents with an accounting back-ground may investigate white-collar crimes such as bank embezzlements or fraudulent bankruptcies and land deals. Frequently, agents must testify in court about cases that they investigate.

The U.S. Department of Treasury

The U.S. Department of Treasury employs special agents who work for the U.S. Customs Service; the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms; the U.S. Secret Service; and the Internal Revenue Service.

U.S. Customs Agents

Customs agents enforce laws to prevent smuggling of goods across U.S. borders.

Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms Agents

ATF agents might investigate suspected illegal sales of guns or the underpayment of taxes by a liquor or cigarette manufacturer.

U.S. Secret Service Agents

Secret Service agents protect the president, vice president, their immediate families, presidential candidates, ex-presidents, and foreign dignitaries visiting the United States. Secret Service agents also investigate counterfeiting, the forgery of government checks or bonds, and the fraudulent use of credit cards.

Internal Revenue Service Special Agents

IRS agents collect evidence against individuals and companies that are evading the payment of Federal taxes.

Federal Drug Enforcement Agents

Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents conduct criminal investigations of illicit drug activity. They compile evidence and arrest individuals who violate federal drug laws. They may prepare reports that are used in criminal proceedings, give testimony in court, and develop evidence that justifies the seizure of financial assets gained from illegal activity.

The Ride of Your Life

If you are willing to sign an agreement that the police depart-ment will be held harmless in case of any "incidents," you could find yourself riding shotgun in a police car. Most every department across the country allows what are called observer rides. Interested parties spend a whole shift with an officer of the law, going out on any calls that happen to come in.

What would your night be like? Here are some of the possibilities: in-progress calls, delayed calls, domestic violence, robberies, and drug busts-even homicides.

All sorts of people take advantage of observer rides-people just like yourself, law and criminal justice students, writers, career investigators, and even private citizens who are concerned about their communities. To arrange an observer ride, telephone the media relations department or the public information office of your local police department.


Civil service regulations govern the appointment of police and detectives in practically all states and large cities and in many small ones. Candidates must be U.S. citizens, usually at least twenty years of age, and must meet rigorous physical and per-sonal qualifications. Eligibility for appointment depends on performance in competitive written examinations as well as on education and experience. Physical examinations often include tests of vision, strength, and agility.

Because personal characteristics such as honesty, good judgment, and a sense of responsibility are especially important in police and detective work, candidates are interviewed by a senior officer at police headquarters, and their character traits and background are investigated. In some police departments, candidates also may be interviewed by a psychiatrist or a psychologist or be given a personality test. Most applicants are subjected to lie-detector examinations and drug testing. Some police departments subject police officers in sensitive positions to drug testing as a condition of continuing employment.

In large police departments, where most jobs are found, applicants usually must have a high school education. An increasing number of cities and states require some college training, and some hire law enforcement students as police interns; some departments require a college degree. A few police departments accept applicants as recruits who have less than a high school education, particularly if they have worked in a field related to law enforcement.

To be considered for appointment as an FBI special agent, an applicant either must be a graduate of an accredited law school; be a college graduate with a major in either accounting, engineering, or computer science; or be a college graduate with either fluency in a foreign language or three years of full-time work experience. Applicants must be U.S. citizens, between twenty-three and thirty-five years of age at the time of appoint-ment, and willing to accept an assignment anywhere in the United States. They also must be in excellent physical condi-tion with at least 20/200 vision corrected to 20/40 in one eye and 20/20 in the other eye. All new agents undergo fifteen weeks of training at the FBI academy at the U.S. Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia.

Applicants for special-agent jobs with the U.S. Department of Treasury must have a bachelor's degree or a minimum of three years of work experience, of which at least two must be in criminal investigation. Candidates must be in excellent physical condition and be less than thirty-five years of age at the time they enter duty. Treasury agents undergo eight weeks of training at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia, and another eight weeks of specialized training with their particular bureau.

Applicants for special-agent jobs with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) must have a college degree in any field and either one year of experience conducting criminal investigations or have achieved a record of scholastic excellence while in college. The minimum age for entry is twenty-one and the maximum age is thirty-six. Drug enforce-ment agents undergo fourteen weeks of specialized training at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.

More and more, police departments are encouraging appli-cants to take post-high school training in law enforcement. Many entrants to police and detective jobs have completed some formal postsecondary education, and a significant number are college graduates. Many junior colleges, colleges, and universities offer programs in law enforcement or administration of justice. Other courses helpful in preparing for a police career include psychology, counseling, English, American history, public administration, public relations, sociology, business law, chemistry, and physics. Participation in physical education and sports is especially helpful in developing the stamina and agility needed for police work. Knowledge of a foreign language is an asset in areas that have concentrations of ethnic populations.

Some large cities hire high school graduates who are still in their teens as civilian police cadets or trainees. They do clerical work and attend classes and are appointed to the regular force at age twenty-one, if qualified.

Before their first assignments, officers usually go through a period of training. In small communities, recruits work for a short time with experienced officers. In state and large city police departments, officers get more formal training that may last a number of weeks or months. This training includes class-room instruction in constitutional law and civil rights, state laws and local ordinances, and accident investigation. Recruits also receive training and supervised experience in patrol, traffic control, firearms, self-defense, first aid, and emergency management.

Police officers usually become eligible for promotion after a probationary period ranging from six months to three years. In a large department, promotion may enable an officer to become a detective or specialize in one type of police work such as laboratory analysis of evidence, traffic control, communications, or working with juveniles. Promotions to sergeant, lieutenant, and captain usually are made according to a candidate's position on a promotion list, as determined by scores on a written examination and on-the-job performance.

Many types of training help police officers and detectives improve their job performance. Through training given at po-lice department academies required annually in many states and colleges, officers keep abreast of crowd-control techniques, civil defense, legal developments that affect their work, and advances in law enforcement equipment. Many police departments pay all or part of the tuition for officers to work toward associate and bachelor's degrees in law enforcement, police science, administration of justice, or public administration, and pay higher salaries to those who earn degrees.

About Harrison Barnes
Harrison Barnes is the founder of LawCrossing and an internationally recognized expert in attorney search and placement. Harrison is extremely committed to and passionate about the profession of legal placement. Harrison’s writings about attorney careers and placement attract millions of reads each year. LawCrossing has been ranked on the Inc. 500 twice. For more information, please visit Harrison Barnes’ bio.

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Harrison Barnes is the legal profession's mentor and may be the only person in your legal career who will tell you why you are not reaching your full potential and what you really need to do to grow as an attorney--regardless of how much it hurts. If you prefer truth to stagnation, growth to comfort, and actionable ideas instead of fluffy concepts, you and Harrison will get along just fine. If, however, you want to stay where you are, talk about your past successes, and feel comfortable, Harrison is not for you.

Truly great mentors are like parents, doctors, therapists, spiritual figures, and others because in order to help you they need to expose you to pain and expose your weaknesses. But suppose you act on the advice and pain created by a mentor. In that case, you will become better: a better attorney, better employees, a better boss, know where you are going, and appreciate where you have been--you will hopefully also become a happier and better person. As you learn from Harrison, he hopes he will become your mentor.

To read more career and life advice articles visit Harrison's personal blog.

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About Harrison Barnes

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