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Job and career opportunities in policing are many and varied. The early years of American policing were typified by political appointment of officers and frequent turnover in departmental personnel (Fogelson). This is no longer the case. Policing currently offers an attractive and stable profession to many people. The realm of employment in policing is quite vast, therefore the following section will present a brief overview of potential job opportunities with law enforcement agencies in the United States in two parts. The first section will describe the various types of agencies, how many people they currently employ, salaries, and employment requirements. This overview should give the reader a fair understanding of the field of policing. The second part will detail three issues about American policing: the gender and ethnic make-up of officers, the use of specialist versus generalist officers, and the use of civilian employees.
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Current Career Opportunities in Policing
Because the United States has no national police force, policing is done by a myriad of police agencies. This sometimes confusing quilt of organizations is more easily understood if divided into six organizational types: private, local, sheriff’s, federal, special, and state. The employment opportunities for each of these six organizational types are described below.
Private policing has a long history, dating back before the creation of fulltime police departments staffed by trained and paid officers. Although the exact number of private police departments and officers is unknown, private policing is believed to be the largest employer of officers in the United States. For example, some estimate the number of private agencies at between 57,000 and 92,000 (Ricks, Tillett, and Van Meter). Regardless, ‘‘it is safe to say that the private police outnumber the public police, both in terms of agencies and personnel’’ (Langworthy and Travis, p. 133). These agencies do a wide range of functions. Some agencies provide uniformed patrol of property, or security (such as for armored cars). Sometimes private policing involves undercover investigations of employees or surveillance of people. Private policing can also involve protecting information or money, such as by investigating embezzlement or insurance fraud. Finally, some private police agencies specialize in providing personnel security to people or corporations (such as executive body guards).
The requirements for becoming a private police officer vary. In some cases, all that is required is a GED or high-school diploma, passing a background check, and a period of training provided by the company. Some private security companies require a college degree, and some require state certification as a peace officer (which requires that employees attend and complete a state-certified police academy).
Overall, the field of private policing probably presents the largest pool of potential jobs for those interested in policing. Prospective employees should research the companies employing people in their area, to see what the job entails and what the entrance requirements are. Unfortunately, some private policing jobs do not pay well, employee turnover is great, and the hours long and tedious. On the other hand, some private policing jobs pay very well, offer great benefits, and challenge their employees. Those considering employment in private policing should begin by investigating the available jobs.
Local police provide law enforcement, along with a wide range of other services, to cities, towns, townships, villages, and tribal populations. In terms of employment opportunities, local policing presents the second largest pool of potential jobs for those seeking a career in law enforcement. There are roughly 14,628 local police agencies employing about 383,873 full-time officers (Maguire, Snipes, Uchida, and Townsend).
Generally, local police officers are expected to provide law enforcement, service (such as assisting at fires and disasters), and order maintenance (such as providing crowd control at parades) to their community. In fact, studies indicate that officers do much more service and order maintenance than law enforcement during an average day (Parks, Mastrofski, Dejong, and Gray). Officers assigned to patrol should expect to spend a large part of their workday patrolling, talking and listening to people, and doing paperwork. Rarely does an officer’s workday yield an arrest, and even less frequently a high-speed car chase or shootout.
The entrance requirements for becoming a police officer vary from state to state and from one department to the next. Therefore, prospective police officers should investigate the specific entrance requirements of any departments they would like to work for. Most local police departments require that applicants be between the ages of twenty-one and thirty-five, have a highschool diploma (or GED), and have no felony convictions. Agencies vary in the combinations of these attributes. For example, some departments will not consider applicants with a felony arrest, while others disqualify only applicants with felony convictions. Some departments will disqualify applicants based on their juvenile criminal record, while other departments will not. Besides criminal records, other common entrance requirements are that applicants possess a particular level of uncorrected vision and hearing, and have no serious physical disabilities. Most departments have discarded their height requirements. Although few departments require a college degree, it is important to note that a considerable number of people enter policing with two or more years of college (Walker).
New police recruits will generally attend a police academy for their basic training. Nationally, local police departments require an average of 480 academy hours, followed by an average of 295 hours of ‘‘on the job’’ training with a field training officer (U.S. Department of Justice).
Once working, new police officers will usually be assigned to patrol. The entry-level salary for new officers varies considerably across the United States. In 1997, the median entry-level annual salary for new officers in local police agencies was $29,794. Of course, pay increases come with promotions, and for these same local departments, the median salary for sergeants during 1997 was $44,683. Following academy and field training, police officers can expect an average of twentyfour hours per year of ‘‘in service’’ training (U.S. Department of Justice).
The third most frequent employers of law enforcement officers in the United States are the 3,156 sheriff ’s agencies, which employ roughly 137,985 sworn deputies (Maguire et al.). Generally, sheriffs are elected officials who are responsible for an entire county. In turn, sheriffs hire deputies who provide a wider range of services than do local police. For example, most sheriffs are responsible for running jails, providing court security, serving summonses and other court orders, and providing law enforcement to unincorporated areas of a county. Rarely do local police agencies perform such a wide range of functions (Falcone and Wells). Prospective employees should research the sheriff’s agencies they would like to work for; in some states they do not have arrest powers, do not do general patrol, and only run the jails and serve summonses. Generally, however, new deputies can expect to be assigned to one of the three major responsibilities of sheriff’s agencies: court operations, jail operation, or patrol. Therefore, unlike new officers in local police agencies, new deputies are not necessarily assigned to patrol or general law enforcement duties.
Generally, the entrance requirements for becoming a sheriff ’s deputy are the same as for local policing (see above). In 1997, deputies were required to attend an academy for an average of 397 hours, followed by a mean of 190 hours of field training. Deputies can also expect an average of twenty-two hours per year of additional inservice training. As with local policing, salaries for deputies vary greatly. The median first year deputy’s salary in 1997 was $23,296 and the minimum sergeant’s salary in 1997 was $34,428.
Federal Law Enforcement
About thirty different federal agencies employ about 69,000 armed and sworn agents who patrol, provide security, or investigate violations of certain federal laws (Maguire et al.). The most famous of these agencies is probably the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI). However, a number of other federal entities employ their own uniformed police officers (such as the U.S. Capitol Police), or investigators (such as the Internal Revenue Service). According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 1998 four federal agencies accounted for three-fifths of federal officers: The Immigration and Naturalization Service (16,552 officers), the Federal Bureau of Prisons (12,587 officers), the FBI (11,285 officers), and the Customs Service (10,539 officers) (Reaves). (Although all of these officers are authorized to make arrests and to carry firearms, many of them—and most of the Bureau of Prisons employees—are correctional officers.)
Despite the relatively large number of federal officers, becoming a federal officer is one of the hardest law enforcement jobs to attain. First, the requirements for federal officers are generally more stringent than for other law enforcement positions. As with all law enforcement jobs, the requirements vary agency by agency. However, the FBI’s requirements for employment are illustrative. In order to be considered as an FBI agent, applicants must be U.S. residents between the ages of twenty-three and thirty-seven, be in excellent physical condition, and meet particular vision and hearing requirements. Furthermore, prospective agents must have a four-year college degree and possess skills or a degree in one of four areas—a law degree, a degree in accounting, proficiency in certain foreign languages, or three years of relevant, full-time work experience. However, merely meeting these requirements does not guarantee someone a job as an FBI agent. Prospective agents must also undergo extensive background checks, physicals, interviews, and careful selection by the FBI. Very few applicants eventually become FBI agents. Following hire, agents must attend the FBI’s training academy in Quantico, Virginia, for sixteen weeks. Following training, agents are assigned to one of the FBI’s fifty-six regional field offices.
The requirements for federal law enforcement jobs vary from one agency to the next, and change over time. Therefore, prospective employees should contact the agencies they are considering (or visit each agency’s web page) and request a copy of their current employment requirements.
The fifth most frequent employers of police officers in the United States are special police agencies. Special police agencies provide law enforcement, service, and order maintenance to either limited geographic areas (such as state parks, college campuses, transit systems, and public housing), or enforce a limited number of laws over a wider area (such as liquor enforcement for an entire state). It is estimated that there are 3,280 special police agencies employing 58,689 officers (Maguire et al.).
The duties of special police officers vary depending upon the agency. If the agency serves a geographic area, such as a campus or transit system, officers will be expected to provide service, order maintenance, and law enforcement ( just as local police agencies do) to people in that geographic area. On the other hand, if the special police agency concentrates on the enforcement of particular laws (e.g., natural resources policing, fire investigation, or liquor enforcement) officers might not have patrol duties. Instead, such special police officers may be expected to conduct investigations or undercover work.
As with all police agencies in the United States, the requirements for being hired vary from one agency to the next. Overall, however, the requirements of being hired as a special police officer are similar to those of local police agencies (see above). In 1997, special police officers were required to complete an average of 600 academy hours, followed by 358 hours of field training. On average, special police officers in the United States received 30 hours of annual inservice training. The median salary for a special police officer in 1997 was $28,921, and the minimum sergeant’s salary in 1997 was $49,371.
Finally, the sixth group of employers of law enforcement officers in the United States are the forty-nine state police or highway patrols (hereafter both will be called ‘‘state police’’). With the exception of Hawaii, each state has its own state police. The full duties of these agencies differ from state to state, but generally state police are expected to patrol the interstates and state routes, enforce traffic laws, and investigate crimes committed on state property. In some states the state police patrol the unincorporated areas of the state. Likewise, in some states the state police run the state crime lab and a state police academy. Therefore, smaller local police agencies may request assistance from their state police for some criminal investigations, and sometimes the state police train local police officers at the state police academy. As with the rest of law enforcement in the United States, the exact duties and responsibilities of the state police differ from one state to the next.
State police officers can expect primarily to conduct patrol and enforce motor vehicle laws on that state’s highways. In some cases, officers provide service, order maintenance, and law enforcement to rural communities that do not have their own police departments. As with most police agencies, state police are generally expected to conduct criminal investigations of crimes that occur within their jurisdiction, or that involve violations of specific state laws.
State police officers’ academy training lasts for an average of 800 hours, followed by an average of 392 hours of field training, and 28 hours of in-service training annually. State police officers earn an average annual salary of $27,651, and the maximum salary for sergeants is $48,176.
Issues in Employment
The following section discusses three issues concerning employment in police agencies; the gender and ethnicity of sworn officers, the use of generalist or specialist officers, and the use of civilian employees.
Employment of Women and Minorities
The early American police were primarily white males. Although the first Irish and Italian police officers were hired in the latter 1800s (not without controversy), and some departments later hired female officers, neither women nor ethnic minorities were represented significantly among the ranks of law enforcement officers until the 1970s. In 1997, women composed between 5 and 11 percent of sworn officers in local, sheriff ’s, special, and state police agencies. Ethnic minorities account for between 12 and 25 percent of sworn officers in these same agency types (U.S. Department of Justice). Of course, there is great variation from one agency to the next in terms of how many women and ethnic minorities each employs. As a rule of thumb, larger agencies have higher percentages of both. Depending on the agency, between 8 and 25 percent of sworn federal officers are female, and between 8 and 42 percent are ethnic minorities (Reaves, 2000).
Generalist Versus Specialist Officers
Police agencies, like most organizations, must choose between two ways of allocating employees to performing the work of that organization. Organizations can use generalists, who perform a widerange of functions, or can use specialists, who are highly trained to perform a single or limited number of tasks. This is analogous to the differences between a general family physician and a brain surgeon. The general family physician is a generalist capable of handling a wide range of illnesses and ailments, but who may not have expertise in any one medical area. The brain surgeon, on the other hand, is a highly trained specialist in one area, but might not have the broad knowledge or experience of a general family physician.
Analogously, police organizations perform a wide range of tasks, such as enforcing vice and narcotics laws, working with juveniles, performing crime prevention, and analyzing crime data. Police agencies must decide whether their patrol officers will perform most of these tasks, or if specially trained officers will concentrate on only one or two of these tasks. Some departments, especially smaller ones, rely upon generalists; their regular patrol officers perform most of the agency’s tasks. For example, officers will patrol their beats, respond to crime scenes where they will collect and preserve physical evidence, counsel juveniles who may be getting into trouble, and attend neighborhood meetings. Other departments choose to assign their officers as specialists. Thus, some of their officers also patrol a beat. However, if there is a crime scene, it is another officer’s responsibility to collect and preserve the evidence. Another officer may work with juveniles in the community. And a fourth officer may work as a community liaison who attends community meetings.
This difference between specialist and generalist officers has important implications for those considering a career in law enforcement. Generalists get to do a wide range of tasks, but some occur very infrequently. Specialists get to work at one or two specific tasks, but often do little else. For example every patrol officer would be expected to write speeding tickets in an agency without a special traffic enforcement unit. On the other hand, an agency with a special unit will assign some officers to focus on enforcing of traffic laws. These officers will spend the majority of their day writing traffic tickets, but doing little else.
Not only does specialization dictate what officers will do during their average work day, it also structures the chances for changing one’s job and for promotion. Some special units have a lot of prestige, freedom, or rewards attached to them. For example, officers in SWAT teams, K-9 units, or working as homicide detectives are often revered by other officers and the public, may have greater flexibility in the hours they can work, and may be better paid; these are prestigious assignments. Of course, some special assignments are not, such as working at the police impound yard, checking evidence into the property locker, or working as a dispatcher. This is not to say that such jobs are not important, nor that everyone dislikes them. However, there are pros and cons to working as a specialist or as a generalist.
Employment of Civilians
Law enforcement agencies often hire people to work as non-sworn employees (called civilian employees or civilians). Nationally, about 25 percent of the employees of local, state, and special police agencies are civilians. Of course, because civilian employees are not trained as peace officers, they do not carry guns and do not have arrest powers. However, civilians perform a wide range of important duties for police agencies, and those seeking employment in policing should not overlook these opportunities.
As with the other aspects of policing in America, the jobs and responsibilities performed by civilian employees vary from one agency to the next. The most common duties performed by civilians are answering emergency switchboards and dispatching patrol officers, performing clerical or secretarial duties, maintaining police vehicles, or doing custodial chores around police buildings. Some agencies also hire civilians to
perform very specialized tasks. Most of the better positions require a college degree or extensive experience. Such specialized civilian positions include running computer hardware or writing software programs for agency computers. Some agencies hire civilians to serve as advocates for victims of crime. Some agencies also hire civilians as crime scene technicians, processing physical evidence, or as lab technicians, working in police crime labs. A few police agencies also employ civilians in community liaison or public relations capacities.
Sometimes police agencies employ civilians as uniformed security officers. Because these security officers do not have arrest powers, or are unarmed, they are not technically considered law enforcement officers. However, security personnel perform a wide range of duties that would normally be performed by sworn patrol officers, such as securing buildings, assisting people, responding to first aid calls and emergencies, patrolling a beat, and investigating crimes. Furthermore, some city police departments have hired civilians who were trained to respond to nonemergency 911 calls. These civilians meet with crime victims and complainants, take a report if necessary, and advise people what they should do about their problem. By using these trained civilians to handle nonemergency calls, sworn officers are freed to concentrate on more serious matters.
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