Police work is a dangerous business. The pay is decent and the benefits are very good, as is the retirement plan, but you put your life on the line every day, and that day may very well be your last. There are law enforcement jobs at every level of government, from the FBI agent to the small-town sheriff.

Uniformed police officers are the ones you are most likely to encounter in your travels. They are in your community patrolling the streets, responding to calls for help, directing traffic, investigating crimes, and performing many other duties. Police officers also interact with the community to maintain good relations with the people they have sworn to protect and serve.

Most cities are divided into police precincts. There is a neighborhood station house in each precinct, and officers stationed there patrol and serve that part of town. The police force consists of uniformed officers who walk the beat or drive clearly marked cars, and plainclothes detectives. Ideally, the cop on the beat should establish a rapport with the businesses and residents of the community. Some officers work alone, but usually they patrol in pairs, either on foot or in their police cruisers.

Some public school districts have their own armed police force, as do modes of mass transit, including subways, railroads, and airports. Some officers specialize in fields of criminology, as is the case with crime scene investigators. You can see how people in this particular specialty solve crimes on no fewer than three top-rated television shows. There are also special units like motorcycle cops, mounted police, harbor patrols, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), and more. Despite what you see in movies and on television, cops spend more time struggling with paperwork than engaging in gunplay.


Cop shows are very popular, but they often give a false impression of what police work entails. Although the job is fraught with danger, most days are monotonous, and the people who do this job are required to churn out paperwork by the ream.

Country Cops

Sheriffs and their deputies enforce the law in small towns and rural communities. Unlike their urban counterparts, sheriffs are also politicians who have to run for office. They oversee departments much smaller than the typical big-city force. For example, there are about 30,000 New York City cops, far greater than the number of residents in many of the towns and counties in a sheriff's jurisdiction.

Every state has a state police force whose members are known as state troopers. They are the men and women you want to avoid on the highway. They catch the speeders and enforce motor vehicle laws. State troopers are also often the first responders at highway accidents, where, if necessary, they are responsible for administering first aid until an ambulance arrives.

In order to keep an extra eye on things, most police cars today are wired for sound and video. So watch what you say and what gestures you make the next time you're pulled over for speeding!


Plainclothes investigators, also known as detectives, are officers who have risen within the ranks through promotion. They are the ones who want “just the facts” as they investigate everything from robbery to murder. These investigators scour the crime scene for evidence, interrogate suspects, and make arrests when enough evidence is gathered to make a case. In most urban police forces, investigators are divided up by specialty, with each division working on a specific kind of crime, such as robbery, homicide, vice, and so on.

On the Job

Police work is potentially dangerous and stressful. A cop must always be ready for the unexpected, and this can take its toll on the body and the mind. Police officers also witness things most of us are never exposed to — real-life violence and death, not the stuff of television and movies. Daily interaction with the unsavory underbelly of society can sour a cop's view of his fellow men and women. Divorce and suicide rates among police are high. Unfortunately, a few have their souls corrupted by this constant exposure to negative forces and become racist or crooked cops. Still, it must be stressed that these bad apples are in the minority. They do not represent the overwhelming majority of honest, decent, hardworking cops.


What's an average work week for a police officer? Most cops work a forty-hour week, but overtime is required. For example, after the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Port Authority Police Department, which oversees the bridges, tunnels, airports, and the World Trade Center buildings, went to mandatory twelve-hour shifts for all personnel for the next couple of years.

Cops are in essence on the job around the clock, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Most carry their guns even when off duty and are expected to respond to a crime or a crisis regardless of whether they're on the clock. Police work is not the kind of job that lets you punch the clock at day's end and forget about it until the next morning. It becomes part of your identity, an integral component of your life.

Becoming a Police Officer

Circumstances may vary slightly in different cities and states, but most people become cops by first applying for and taking a civil service test. All applicants for police work must be U.S. citizens. After taking the civil service test, applicants are placed on a waiting list based on their scores, and they are called in as the need for new officers arises. As the old guard retires, new blood is called.

The next phase involves a physical exam, psychological screening, and background check. Applicants also undergo a drug test and possibly a lie-detector test. Random drug testing may be ongoing throughout your career. The age requirements vary, averaging from twenty or so through the late thirties. All require a high school diploma, and certain jobs may require some college or a degree.

Once the applicant has successfully jumped through all these hoops, the next step is a period of training in the police academy. In big cities, this can be a twelve- to fourteen-week program. Training includes the use of firearms, physical training, self-defense, first aid, and supervised experience on the streets. There is also classroom study in the letter of the law — both criminal and civil.


In most police academies, recruits who are attending class wear a uniform that is slightly different from the police force uniform to distinguish them from active-duty cops. At the same time, they are expected to adopt the police officer's code of conduct and public responsibility from day one, and that often includes making arrests if they come upon a crime in progress.

When rookies graduate from the academy, they are placed on probation for a period ranging from six months to three years. Over time, uniformed officers can apply for promotion based on a written test and work history. Again, they are placed on a waiting list and are promoted as veterans retire based on their scores and the available openings.

Many police officers continue their education to improve their performance as well as their potential for advancement. Many colleges offer criminal-justice courses, and the police forces themselves make sure that their officers are kept up to date on the latest law-enforcement technology and weaponry. Cops are also often obliged to take sensitivity training courses to reduce the incidence of police brutality.

The Job Market

There are about 842,000 law enforcement officers on the job. Only 6 percent of these have job with the various federal agencies. State police agencies employ another 12 percent, and local government employs the remaining 80 percent.


According to statistics compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Justice, “police and detectives employed by local governments primarily worked in cities with more than 25,000 inhabitants. Some cities have very large police forces, while thousands of small communities employ fewer than twenty-five officers each.”

Law enforcement is an attractive career for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the retirement plan. Most officers can retire after twenty years of service and earn half pay for the rest of their lives. Depending on when they joined the force, it is entirely possible and even common for officers to retire while still in their forties. They can start a second career or live frugally and enjoy a long retirement. Like most civil service jobs, cops also have excellent job security. Layoffs are rare, and if you keep your nose clean and do not abuse your authority, you will probably have the job until you retire.

Police and sheriff's patrol officers earn a median salary of $45,210, with the range extending from $26,910 at the low end to $68,880. The median for police and detective supervisors is $64,430, with the high and low salaries being $36,690 and $96,950. Detectives and criminal investigators average $53,990 and the range is $32,180 to $86,010.

The table below shows the average salaries for sworn full-time positions, according to the International City-County Management Association's Annual Police and Fire Personnel, Salaries, and Expenditures Survey.

Police Department Salaries


Minimum Annual Base Salary

Maximum Annual Base Salary

Police chief



Deputy chief



Police captain



Police lieutenant



Police sergeant



Police corporal



These figures do not include overtime, which can greatly increase a police officer's annual income.

Contact your local government or go online to your city or town's Web site to find out the specifics of a law enforcement career in your community.

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