Continue to Serve and Protect

For many veterans, joining the military wasn’t about a paycheck or getting something more exciting than a 9-to-5 desk job. It was about a passion for our country and protecting the American way of life. They put on their uniforms every day because they felt it was their duty, and they saw the military as an opportunity to do something that matters.

The good news is that their noble mission continues in places all over America, as veterans swap one uniform for another. Whether they become police officers, correctional officers, or employees of federal agencies such as the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), they continue to keep us safe.

Recruiters for police departments, correctional organizations, and security firms throughout the United States know that their best applicants are the men and women who have put on a military uniform year after year – people who have faced down their fears in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan – people with such qualities as leadership, initiative, self-discipline, and a great work ethic.

Familiar territory. Former servicemembers will find a lot that’s familiar when they join a law- enforcement agency. The organizational structure of most agencies resembles that of the armed forces. Many of the jobs involve irregular hours, multiple responsibilities, and personal danger. Plus, one key to success involves building community relationships – as the military discovered long ago on its international missions.

The employers. There are three main kinds of employers in law enforcement and security: state and local agencies, federal agencies, and private businesses. State and local agencies include the police departments of towns, cities, and counties; county sheriff’s offices; and state police.

The largest federal agencies with law-enforcement missions include: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The smaller agencies include the U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, U.S. Capitol Police, and even the Veterans Health Administration.

Private businesses in law enforcement and security include private detective and investigation companies, correctional organizations, and security guard and gaming surveillance firms. Private security firms provide security for private individuals and for private, corporate, and government property.

The jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a part of the U.S. Department of labor, classifies law-enforcement and security jobs as Protective Services Occupations (SOC 33-0000; see “Your Guide to Industrial and Occupational Employment Statistics” on page 26). The BLS expects that major occupational group to add 364,500 new jobs during the period from 2010 to 2020 — a growth rate of 11.0 percent.

Most job holders in SOC 33-0000 are Law Enforcement Workers (SOC 33-3000), who work mainly for government agencies; and Security Guards (SOC 33-9032), who mostly work for private companies. Law Enforcement Workers include Police Officers (SOC 33-3050), Detectives and Criminal Investigators (SOC 33-3020), and Correctional Officers and Jailers (SOC 33-3012). Related occupations in the Community and Social Service Occupations major group (SOC 21-0000) are Probation Officers and Correctional Treatment Specialists (SOC 21-1092), Rehabilitation Counselors (SOC 21-1015), and Mental Health and Substance Abuse Social Workers (SOC 21-1023).

The BLS expects that about one-third of the new jobs in SOC 33-0000 will be in government, with another 40 percent in the investigation and security-services industry. The number of Security Guards will increase by 195,000. However, Private Detectives and Investigators (SOC 33-9020) will increase the most by percentage, rising 20.5 percent between 2010 and 2020.

Police and detectives pursue and apprehend individuals who break the law, and then issue citations or give warnings. A large proportion of their time is spent writing reports and maintaining records of incidents they encounter. Most police officers patrol their jurisdictions and investigate any suspicious activity they notice. Sheriffs and deputy sheriffs enforce the law on the county level. Sheriffs usually are elected to their posts and perform duties similar to those of a local or county police chief.

State police officers, sometimes called state troopers or highway patrol officers, arrest criminals statewide and patrol highways to enforce motor vehicle laws and regulations. State police officers often issue traffic citations to motorists. At the scene of an accident, an officer may direct traffic, give first aid, and call for emergency equipment.

State highway patrols operate in every state except Hawaii. Most full-time sworn personnel are uniformed officers who regularly patrol and respond to calls for service. Others work as investigators, perform court-related duties, or carry out administrative or other assignments.

According to the BLS, nearly 800,000 people work in the two occupations (1) Police Officers and (2) Detectives and Criminal Investigators. Local agencies employ about 80 percent; state police agencies, about 12 percent; and federal agencies, about 6 percent. Most of them work in cities with more than 25,000 inhabitants. The BLS expects the employment in the two occupations to grow 7 percent between 2010 and 2020, slightly slower than the average for all occupations.

Job opportunities in most local police departments will be favorable for qualified individuals, whereas competition is expected for jobs in state and federal agencies, according to the BLS. Population growth is the main source of demand for police services. Continued demand for public safety will lead to new openings for officers in local departments; however, both state and federal jobs may be more competitive. Bilingual applicants with college training in police science or with military police experience will have the best opportunities.

The number of job opportunities can vary from year to year and from place to place, depending in large part on the level of government spending. Layoffs are unusual because most staffing cuts can be handled through attrition due to retirements. Trained law enforcement officers who lose their jobs because of budget cuts usually have little difficulty finding jobs with other agencies.

To qualify for the police forces of most states and large cities, candidates must be U.S. citizens who are at least 20 years old, and they must meet physical, educational, and personal standards. Most large local departments require at least a high school education. Most federal and state agencies require a college degree.

Correctional Officers and Jailers, also known as detention officers, guard individuals who have been arrested and are awaiting trial or who are serving time in a jail, reformatory, or prison. There are nearly 500,000 such employees, with the number expected to grow by 5 percent between 2010 and 2020. About 60 percent work in state institutions, including prisons, prison camps, and youth correctional facilities. Most of the remainder work in city and county jails. In recent years, private organizations have taken over a lot of the staffing of prisons.

Support staff personnel include dispatchers, records technicians, animal-control officers, evidence and investigative technicians, parking enforcement officers, financial clerks, office managers, and administrative assistants.

On the job. Police and detective work can be very dangerous and stressful. Police officers and detectives have one of the highest rates of on-the-job injury and illness. In addition to the obvious dangers of confrontations with criminals, police officers and detectives need to be constantly alert and ready to deal appropriately with a number of other threatening situations. Many law enforcement officers witness death and suffering resulting from accidents and criminal behavior. A career in law enforcement may take a toll on their private lives.

Uniformed officers, detectives, agents, and inspectors usually are scheduled to work 40-hour weeks, but paid overtime is common. Shift work is necessary because protection must be provided around the clock. Junior officers frequently work weekends, holidays, and nights. Police officers and detectives may work long hours during investigations. Officers in most jurisdictions, whether on or off duty, are expected to be armed and to exercise their authority whenever necessary.

The jobs of some federal agents, such as those in the Secret Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), require extensive travel, often on short notice. These agents may relocate a number of times over the course of their careers. Some special agents, such as those in the Border Patrol, may work outdoors in rugged terrain and all kinds of weather.

Education and training. State and local agencies encourage applicants to take courses or training related to law enforcement after high school. Many entry-level applicants for police 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. Many agencies pay all or part of the tuition for officers to work toward degrees in criminal justice, police science, administration of justice, or public administration – and pay higher salaries to those who earn one of those degrees.

Before their first assignments, officers usually go through a period of training. Recruits at state and large local police departments get training in their agency’s police academy, often for 12 to 14 weeks. Recruits at small agencies often attend a regional or state academy.

Training includes classroom 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, use of firearms, self-defense, first aid, and emergency response.

Federal agencies require a bachelor’s degree, related work experience, or a combination of the two. Federal law-enforcement agents undergo extensive training, usually at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, or the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia.

Candidates should enjoy working with people and meeting the public. Personal characteristics such as honesty, sound judgment, integrity, and a sense of responsibility are especially important in law enforcement, so candidates are interviewed by senior officers, and their character traits and backgrounds are investigated. In some agencies, a psychiatrist interviews candidates, or the candidates get a personality test. Most applicants receive polygraph (lie detector) exams and drug testing. Some agencies subject sworn personnel to random drug testing as a condition of continuing employment. The requirements for federal agents are generally more stringent, and the background checks are more thorough. There are polygraph tests as well as interviews with references. Jobs that require security clearances have additional requirements.

Promotion and pay. Police officers usually become eligible for promotion after a probationary period ranging from six months to three years. In large departments, an officer may advance to detective or be assigned a specialty such as working with juveniles. Agencies usually promote officers to the ranks of corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, and captain according to their positions. Those positions depend on scores on written examinations as well as on-the-job performance.

In May 2012, the median annual wage of police and detectives was $56,180. Many federal agents are on the General Schedule (GS) pay scale of the United States Office of Personnel Management – for details, see Most begin at the GS-5 or GS-7 level. As agents meet time-in-grade and knowledge and skills requirements, they move up the scale. Most agents at and above GS-13 are in managerial positions.


About the Author

This article was written by Liz Wheeler