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Police, Detective, DEA and INS Careers, Jobs and Training Information

Career and Job Highlights

  • By its very nature, police work is stressful and can be dangerous.
  • There are guidelines that regulate civil service appointments.
  • Where the crime rate is high or lower salaries are offered, like local police agencies, there will better opportunities for employment. In State and Federal agencies and police departments covering an affluent population, jobs will be scarcer because individuals working for such agencies typically earn a higher salary.
  • Those with police experience in the military or formal education in law enforcement will have greatest opportunities.

Police, Detective, DEA and INS Career Overview

The primary task of any law enforcement officer is to protect the property and lives of the people in their jurisdiction. This task is performed in different ways, depending on whether the person is a State or Federal agent, inspector, or local police officer. The majority of police officers are expected to protect the public and their property at all times, on or off duty.

Uniformed police officers employed at a local or municipal level work in departments and communities of differing sizes and demographics. They perform common policing activities, including things like traffic control at the scene of an accident, regular patrols, investigations of crimes like theft and assault, and first aid response at accidents. In more urban areas, law enforcement officers are increasingly performing community policing, wherein they establish and cultivate relationships with the residents of the community they serve in order to mobilize them to fight crime.

Officers are typically assigned to patrol a specific location, like a portion of downtown or a group of neighborhoods. These specific patrols fall within the jurisdiction of the police agency, which is typically divided along geographic boundaries. While on patrol, police make note of any suspicious activity or circumstances that may put the public at risk. To do so requires the officers to have a thorough and working knowledge of the area. Officers may respond to specific calls to handle a situation or secure a scene. They may be required to pursue and arrest individuals believed to be involved in a crime, or diffuse a volatile situation in the community.

Special police agencies also employ both uniformed officers and investigators, though the majority falls into the former category. Agencies that employ law enforcement officers, including public facilities and transportation, colleges, universities, and public school districts are all examples of special police agencies. These agencies are also typically divided by geographic boundaries.

Some law enforcement officers work with special units like canine corps, SWAT (special weapons and tactics) teams, and emergency response teams; others patrol primarily on horseback, motorcycle, bicycle, or boat. Other officers specialize in areas like firearm instruction, ballistic analysis, handwriting and fingerprint identification, or forensic lab analysis. No matter the specialty, all officers must maintain meticulous records and write reports that will hold up in court if need be.

At the county level law enforcement officers are called sheriffs and deputy sheriffs. Sheriffs perform functions similar to those of a chief of police at the local level. Deputy Sheriffs fill a role similar to general law enforcement officers in other urban police agencies. Bailiff is another title often used to refer to police officers or deputy sheriffs who act as security for local-level courts.

In every state but Hawaii, state law enforcement agencies employ uniformed police officers and some investigators, court-related personnel, and administrators. State police officers, also known as highway patrol officers or State troopers, work in a statewide jurisdiction, citing drivers who violate state traffic laws, directing traffic at accident scenes, writing reports and determining causes of traffic accidents, and responding to individual calls and situations. State police officers also make arrests throughout the state, and provide tactical support to other police agencies, especially small communities and rural areas.

The principle task of detectives, or plain-clothes police investigators, is to collect evidence and obtain facts pertaining to criminal cases. They do so by conducting interviews, observing suspects, examining records, and ultimately helping with raids and busts. Some detectives are assigned to multi-agency task forces that deal with specific types of crime, like drug trafficking or gang activity. Detectives, State and Federal agents, and inspectors typically specialize in one type of crime and take cases that they work on until the case is dropped or is solved and someone is arrested and convicted.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the Federal government’s chief investigating corps. They have jurisdiction over the violation of greater than 260 laws and perform investigations that deal with all types of crime, including sensitive issues of national security. FBI agents investigate white-collar crime, bribery and blackmail, terrorism and espionage, drug trafficking, racketeering, financial crimes, bank robberies, civil rights violations, interstate criminal activity, and copyright infringements and violations. Agents may do so by tracking the movement of stolen goods across state lines, examining accounting and business records, conducting surveillance, listening to legal wiretaps, or performing undercover investigations.

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is the only authorized governmental agency that conducts investigations into foreign illegal drug activity and trafficking. DEA agents’ primary task is to enforce domestic laws and regulations related to illegal drugs. In order to accomplish this they may set up surveillance of known or suspected criminals, conduct undercover investigations into drug organizations, and conduct complicated criminal investigations.

U.S. marshals and deputy marshals have the widest jurisdiction of any federal agency, performing various tasks from pursuing and arresting Federal fugitives to protecting members of the Federal judiciary. Their primary role is to protect and make certain of the successful operation of the Federal judiciary system. To accomplish this task they protect Federal witnesses, transport Federal prisoners, and control property and capital seized in Federal criminal investigations.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) is the Federal agency responsible for all aspects of immigration and border control in the United States. INS agents and inspectors assist legal immigrants and visitors, detaining and deporting persons attempting to immigrate illegally. Immigration inspectors examine documents to ensure that persons are eligible to enter the United States, interview potential immigrants, write reports, update records, and process applications of those desiring to reside temporarily in the United States. U.S. Border Patrol agents maintain security along the 8,000 miles of land and water borders of the United States. They investigate and prevent illegal immigration and smuggling of illegal aliens into the United States, pursue and deport persons living illegally in the country, and prevent the entrance of illegal drugs.

Customs Inspectors investigate and enforce laws related to illegal drug trafficking, child pornography, illegal customs activities, and money laundering. Agents employed with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives investigate violations of Federal laws dealing with firearms and explosives. They also enforce Federal tax regulations over alcohol and tobacco. Investigations are conducted within the U.S. and abroad, and may involve conducting interviews, executing search warrants, establishing and maintaining contacts and informants, surveillance of all kinds, examination of financial records, and assessing reports from shipping companies, businesses, or manufacturers. Agents often work on multi-agency task forces.

In order to protect the nation and enforce its laws regarding imports and exports, customs inspectors examine persons entering and leaving the country and their belongings, including luggage. They inspect the cargo of cars, planes, trains, and boats, and may weigh or measure the contents to ensure compliance with the law. Inspectors seize contraband, illegally smuggled goods and persons, and arrest and detain persons found violating the laws.

In addition to protecting the President and Vice President of the United States and their families, U.S. Secret Service special agents also protect former U.S. Presidents, visiting foreign leaders and dignitaries, and presidential candidates. Agents also investigate certain types of financial crime, including credit card fraud, money counterfeiting, and forgery involving Government checks.

Combating terrorism is the primary goal of Bureau of Diplomatic Security special agents. Abroad they counsel ambassadors and other officials regarding security issues; administer security programs to protect buildings, sensitive information, and citizen employees; train police forces in foreign countries; and manage a reward system for participants in a counter-terrorism program. Much like the Secret Service protects the President, agents with the Bureau of Diplomatic Security protect the Secretary of State and foreign leaders. They also work toward domestic security by managing security clearances, passport and visa inquiries, and conducting security examinations.

Besides the agencies already mentioned, there are a number of others that are authorized for some employees to make arrests and carry weapons. The U.S. Postal Service, Forest Service, Federal Air Marshals, National Park Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs Office of Law Enforcement are examples of such agencies.

Police, Detective, DEA and INS Training and Job Qualifications

Gaining employment as a law enforcement officer or detective is governed by civil service regulations at nearly every level: State, city, special, and local agencies. Minimum requirements include being a U.S. citizen, being 20 years old or more, and meeting physical and background standards. At the Federal level requirements are even more stringent, typically requiring a first-time candidate to be between 21 and 37 years old and hold a college degree. Physical examinations cover all aspects of health, including strength, agility, hearing, and vision. Most jobs in the industry are found in larger police departments, which typically require new applicants to have earned at least a high school diploma. Because they work with the public, it is important for law enforcement officers to be able to work with people and build relationships of trust.

Background investigations, interviews by senior officers, and sometimes psychological or psychiatric evaluations are all ways to ensure a candidate is honest, responsible, moral, and wholesome. Most agencies use lie detector tests and drug screening as part of their application process; some agencies continue random drug testing on employees after they are hired.

New officers are typically trained before being given their first assignments. At the State and local levels new recruits attend police academies for 12 to 14 weeks. Recruits receive instruction on civil and constitutional rights, applicable State and local statutes, and methods of investigation. Recruits also receive hands-on training with traffic control, gun use and safety, self-defense techniques, emergency and first aid care, and supervised patrol experience. Some departments in large cities employ high school students to do clerical work and attend some classes. When they reach the minimum age requirement for full-time police work, these police cadets or trainees are often appointed as regular officers.

Opportunities to move up in the department typically begin anywhere from six months to three years after being hired. Officers first must pass through a probationary phase, after which they may be promoted to receive more pay or move into a specialized position, like detective. Appointments to superior ranks like sergeant or lieutenant are made based on an individual’s ranking on a promotion list, which is usually based on the individual’s job performance and scores on written tests.

Minimum qualifications to work for the FBI are significantly more rigid. A candidate must speak a foreign language fluently, have at least three years experience working full time or possess a law or accounting degree. New recruits train for 16 weeks on the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, where the FBI academy is located.

Minimum requirements for U.S. Secret Service special agent positions are the same as for agents in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives: three years’ of relevant work experience or a four-year college degree. Training consists of two parts: first in Glynco, Georgia, at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center where new hires receive introductory criminal investigation training for 10 weeks; second, another 17 weeks at their respective agencies receiving training specific to their job duties.

U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) special agents must be college graduates and have maintained a minimum 2.95 GPA in college, previously conducted criminal investigations for at least one year, or studied at least one year of graduate school. DEA new hires receive their initial training at the FBI Academy in Virginia for 14 weeks.

To qualify for positions with the U.S. Border Patrol, a candidate must pass a reasoning and language skills examination, possess a legal and current driver’s license, be a U.S. citizen, and be under the age of 37 at the time of hire. A combination of both work experience and education can qualify a candidate, though having earned a college degree demonstrates the candidate’s aptitude to provide leadership, be decisive, and succeed in demanding situations.

Qualifications for postal inspectors include a bachelor’s degree; one year of relevant employment history; passage of a background check, drug screening test, and health requirements; and possession of a current driver’s license. Applicants possessing at least one professional certification, like that of a certified public accountant (CPA), may have more opportunities. The candidate must between 21 and 36 years old and be a U.S. citizen.

Potential law enforcement officers are being encouraged more and more to obtain some kind of law enforcement-related training at the college or university level. There are programs offered in criminal justice and law enforcement at many universities, colleges, and junior colleges, and an increasing number of applicants for law enforcement jobs possess formal college-level training. Other relevant courses include accounting or business finance, computer science, and engineering. As many police jobs are physically demanding, sports and physical education can help an applicant become competitive, fit, and physically able to perform their jobs. Foreign language fluency is especially helpful when seeking employment with the Federal government or with other agencies covering large foreign-language-speaking populations.

Even after obtaining a law enforcement job, education plays an important role in improving on-the-job performance. Continuing education related to job tasks like firearm use, relationship and communication skills, and crowd control techniques are provided by agencies themselves, State-sponsored training programs, or Federal training centers. Officers are also instructed in current legal developments, use-of-force policies, and progress made in law enforcement equipment and technology. Officers may earn higher salaried by completing advanced degrees related to work like criminal justice, police science, or public administration; many agencies will even pay for all or part of the school tuition for qualified officers working towards such degrees.

Police and Law Enforcement Job and Employment Opportunities

The responsible and challenging nature of a job in law enforcement attracts many people to the field. Often, law enforcement officers can begin a second career because they can retire after just 20 or 25 years with a pension. Competition for jobs at Federal agencies and State departments, which have attractive salaries, stems from the number of applicants exceeding the number of available positions. There will be less competition in special departments and local police units, and in those urban areas with a high crime rate or departments that pay relatively poorly. Police departments in rich communities and Federal and State agencies that offer a higher salary are more selective in their employment practices. Those with the greatest opportunities will have either a college degree in police science, experience with the military police, or both.

Demand for police is expected to increase due to increased awareness and concern for drug-related crime and general safety. This increase in demand will cause job opportunities for law enforcement officers and detectives to grow at a faster than average rate until 2012.

Many job openings will come from officers retiring, transferring departments, or leaving for some other reason. The size of a police force is connected to the amount of government spending appropriated for them; thus, it is possible that the number of officers in a department increases and decreases with the budget. However, few layoffs occur because the early retirement options allow a department to decrease in size without firing anyone. Trained officers who lose their jobs due to budget cuts usually have little trouble finding new employment.

Historical Earnings Information

The middle 50 percent of police and sheriff’s patrol officers earned between $32,340 and $53,500; the highest-paid 10 percent made $65,330 while the lowest-earning 10 percent made les than $25,270. The median annual salary in 2002 was $42,270. Local government, State government, and Federal government median annual earnings were $42,020; $47,090; and $41,600 respectively.

The top 10 percent of police and detective supervisors earned more than $90,070 in 2002. The lowest 10 percent made less than $36,340. The middle two quartiles made between $47,210 and $74,610. Median annual salaries at the local level were $59,830; State government, $64,410; and Federal government, $78,230.

Detectives and criminal investigators averaged $51,410 in 2002. The 25th to 75th percentile earned from $39,010 to $65,980. The lowest and highest 10 percent earned $31,010 and $80,380 respectively. $66,500 was the Federal government median annual salary; $46,600 at the State level; and $47,700 locally.

Federal law enforcement employees’ salary rates are governed by Federal law. Because of the inherent amount of overtime Federal law enforcement officers will work, they are also awarded law enforcement availability pay (LEAP), which is 25 percent of the pay grade and step of the agent. FBI agents at the GS-10 level earned $48,890, though their base rate was only $39,115. Those at the GS-13 level in nonsupervisory roles earned a base pay of $76,560, including more than $15,300 in availability pay. In 2003 grades GS-14 and GS-15 earned FBI management, executives, and supervisors $72,381 and $85,140—with availability pay that was $90,480 and $106,430 annually. Where local pay was higher, Federal agents may earn even more. Some Federal agents qualify for special benefits packages—candidates should communicate with recruiters to find out more.

The following table presents the average earnings for sworn officers working full time in 2002, according to the International City-County Management Association’s annual Police and Fire Personnel, Salaries, and Expenditures Survey:

  • Police chief – $68,337 to $87,037
  • Deputy chief – $59,790 to $75,266
  • Police captain – $56,499 to $70,177
  • Police lieutenant – $52,446 to $63,059
  • Police sergeant – $46,805 to $55,661
  • Police corporal – $39,899 to $49,299

Overtime pay can raise annual earnings to well above the reported medians for law enforcement officers and detectives. Many officers are provided with a uniform allowance in addition to normal benefits like health insurance, sick days, and vacation time. Many officers retire with half-pay after only 20 or 25 years because of generous pension plans.