Careers in Law Enforcement

What is Law Enforcement? – Law enforcement refers to the men and women in uniform and the duties they perform at every level of government to investigate crimes, keep public order, and detect and detain lawbreakers.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics* (BLS), there were about 795,000 professionals serving in our nation’s local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies as of 2020. This included about 112,500 detectives and criminal investigators, about 671,200 police and sheriff’s patrol officers, and another 3,800 transit and railroad police officers.

In the ten years leading up to 2030, the BLS projects that jobs among law enforcement officials will increase by 7 percent, reaching about 846,700 jobs.

During this time period, law enforcement agencies will see about 67,100 annual openings for police and detectives during this time due to a blend of new job openings, retirements, and natural job turnover. That’s a lot of boots on the ground working tirelessly to keep our communities safe.

While most police officers, deputy sheriffs and state troopers provide the vital law enforcement services necessary to keep criminals off the streets, there are also a wide variety of specialized careers for those who would like to serve in the most elite law enforcement units. This means that in addition to the traffic enforcement, 911 response and criminal investigations that are critical to keeping residents and motorists safe, there are also law enforcement units dedicated to counterterrorism, SWAT, K-9 handling, digital forensics, and extreme environments.

State Law Enforcement Agencies

The position of law enforcement agencies within each state’s governmental structure influences the duties of its personnel.  As such, a state trooper is likely to have broader powers and responsibilities than a local police officer.  Although local police departments typically yield to county and state agencies, there are a number of metropolitan police departments across the country that take the lead in major operations and investigations. Some states have opted to give municipal police departments these broader powers because their officers often have a greater level of familiarity with the street grid and culture of the municipalities they patrol.

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City police departments are city-specific law enforcement agencies. These organizations may enforce laws derived from local statutes as well as those that originate from the state and national level.  Their jurisdictions are usually limited to county or city boundaries.

State troopers and state police typically enforce laws on the roadways of a state, and may also provide local law enforcement services in some jurisdictions. These organizations benefit from larger budgets that allow for more specialized units and advanced officer training.  These agencies often oversee investigations that involve criminal activities taking place across the state, and may request the assistance of local police departments.

Sheriff’s officers and deputies may provide law enforcement services throughout a particular county, a broader multi-county region within a state, or they may just serve certain unincorporated areas not patrolled by municipal police officers.  The role of the deputy sheriff can vary depending on the state and local law enforcement hierarchy, but in most counties the sheriff’s department is responsible for managing local jails and facilitating prisoner transports.

Specialized Law Enforcement Jobs

Law enforcement organizations with plenty of resources often delegate unique responsibilities to specialized departments.  These units may include enforcement of a specific set of laws that could pertain to everything from financial crimes to narcotics trafficking, or they may be utilized in certain specialized capacities.  One of the most prevalent is the Special Weapons and Tactics Units (SWAT) that many police organizations have developed to respond to situations that present the potential for extreme violence.  Another common unit is the bomb disposal unit, which utilizes robots and specific training to identify and neutralize explosive devices.

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Law enforcement agencies need to be able to respond to any type of situation at a moment’s notice. Because of this, many specialized law enforcement jobs are only available to dedicated and volunteer personnel who have received specialized training designed to prepare them to respond decisively and effectively. These specialized personnel perform more typical law enforcement duties most of the time and only utilize their advanced training when a situation arises.  These types of law enforcement jobs include everything from hostage negotiations to dignitary and special event security.

*2021 US Bureau of Labor Statistics salary figures for police and detectives. Job growth projections from the US Department of Labor-sponsored resource, Projections Central. Figures are based on national data, not school-specific information. Conditions in your area may vary. Data accessed August 2022.

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