Types of Law Enforcement Jobs

Our justice system relies on skilled, dedicated law enforcement officers to protect property, life, and uphold our nation's constitution. Within the field of law enforcement there are hundreds of professionals and each performs their duties in a variety of ways depending on their position, the organization they work for, and their jurisdiction. Whether on or off duty, law enforcement professionals are expected to exercise their authority to uphold and enforce the law.

Within the field of law enforcement, there are three general categories of law enforcement jobs: Uniformed Officer, Investigator and Support positions. All three categories of law enforcement professionals can be found working at local, state, and federal levels of government.

Of all law enforcement jobs, police officers and police detectives at the local level hold the most positions. Currently, there are over 795,000 police working in the United States (Bureau of Labor Statistics). Of these, roughly eighty percent are employed by local government, 10 percent by state police agencies and 6 percent by federal agencies.

While most law enforcement jobs exist at all levels of government, responsibilities and job requirements for similar positions will vary by agency.

Uniformed Officers
Uniformed police officers are considered the generalists of the law enforcement industry. Their basic responsibilities are to patrol communities and transit systems and respond to calls for help. Specific duties include directing traffic when there's been an accident or abnormal congestion, provide assistance at the seen of an accident, or investigate burglaries and minor crimes. In urban areas, a uniformed polices officer may perform all these duties. As resources for law enforcement are limited in urban areas, these officers also may enlist the help of citizens and mobilize the public to enforce local ordinances and laws. In larger police departments, in larger cities, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, etc., etc., uniformed offers perform more specific duties and often specialize in one area of law enforcement, such as burglary or crimes against persons.

Within the category of uniformed officers, there are four basic positions: police officer, deputy sheriff, state trooper, and border patrol agent. Each of these positions supports an important role in domestic law enforcement. The same agencies that employ uniformed officers also have divisions that employ detectives and investigators. Some of the more common investigative departments include homicide and narcotics. It's not uncommon for uniformed officers to be involved in and support police investigations. However, conducting criminal investigations is not their primary role. Uniformed officers with a good track record, and several years of experience, are often promoted into investigative positions.

Education requirements for becoming a uniformed officer vary from a high school diploma to a college degree. Most police officers must also graduate from their agency’s training academy before completing a period of on-the-job training. Officers must be U.S. citizens, usually at least 21 years old, and meet rigorous physical and personal qualifications.

Police investigators and detectives are not usually hired to work directly in an investigative division. The job of police investigator is usually obtained through promotion and advancement from the position of uniformed officer. Investigative divisions and agencies at the state and local level hire from an never ending supply of nearly 800,000 uniformed officers nationwide.

Unlike uniformed officers, detectives and investigators are plainclothes law enforcement officers that investigate crimes, gather data and collect evidence to identify criminals and support criminal prosecution. Most investigators work as part of interagency task forces that are setup to fight specific types of crimes. Investigators perform crime scene investigations, conduct interviews and interrogations, apprehend suspects, examine records, conduct raids and testify in court.

Detectives and investigators work at the local, state and federal level. Investigators at the local level may be responsible for investigating all types of violation within a jurisdiction. At the state and federal levels, investigators (often referred to as agents) usually specialize in one area of investigations, such as fraud, white collar crime, or homicide. At the federal level, investigators are often involved in cases that extend beyond domestic borders into foreign countries. At the local level its not uncommon for investigators to be responsible for investigating several violations at once. At the local, state and federal levels, investigators work on cases until an arrest and conviction is made or the case goes cold.

While most uniformed law enforcement agencies perform a fair amount of investigative work, there are several agencies that focus almost exclusively on investigations. These include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, among others. Unlike uniformed enforcement agencies that hire their investigators from a pool of police officers, investigative agencies hire their agents and investigators directly from the public. For example, the FBI hires students directly out of college and from across the nation to become special agents and conduct criminal investigations. Among law enforcement agencies, the Secret Service is one of the few to have a separate uniformed division and investigative division. When applying to the Secret Service candidates must apply to each division separately.

Support Positions
The third category of law enforcement jobs is that of Support. Almost every law enforcement division requires support personnel. Within investigations there are numerous duties carried out by support personnel. These include evidence technicians which record, process and store evidence; crime lab technicians that process evidence to find clues and provide explanations; ballistic examiners; crime scene investigators who specialize in reconstructing crime scenes; etc. Almost all investigative roles required support positions. Sometimes support positions are filled by uniformed officers or agents who have advanced through the ranks, but they're also filled directly by professionals who've received specialized training in specific areas such as accounting, linguistics or technology.

Some of the more popular law enforcement support positions include:

  • Evidence Technicians
  • Firearms Examiners
  • Crime Lab Technicians
  • Hand Writing Examiners
  • Investigative Assistants
  • Crime Scene Analyst
  • Fingerprint Technician

Within federal agencies (e.g. FBI, CIA, etc.) investigative support positions are synonymous with professional staff positions. Professional staff positions may include:

  • Linguist
  • Attorney
  • Forensic Accountant
  • Intelligence Analyst
  • Technology Professional
  • Engineer (Applied Scientist)
  • Investigative Specialist
  • Surveillance Specialist

Even though support and professional staff personnel are not directly involved in investigations or front-line law enforcement, they are among the most highly educated and skilled of law enforcement professionals. Most entry-level support and professional positions require a minimum of a bachelor's degree, and many require a master's or doctoral degree.

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