Joseph Libowsky,
former Special Agent

Overview of Careers in Law Enforcement

There are a lot of different jobs in law enforcement. Today we’re going to cover local law enforcement, state law enforcement, federal law enforcement and the advantages and disadvantages of each.

police officersGenerally, there are two types of local law enforcement. There are police departments and Sheriff’s departments. What’s the difference? Honestly, not much. Some people say, “I don’t want to work for a Sheriff’s office because I don’t want to start my career working in the jail.” With some Sheriff’s offices, you will spend your first several years working in the jail. However, that is not always the case. Make sure to check first; with some Sheriff’s offices they have two separate career paths. They have patrol, and then they have corrections. You can possibly begin your career by going right into patrol without working in the jail. If patrol is something that you do or don’t want to do, make sure to check into it first.

Each state has a P.O.S.T. agency, and that stands for “Peace Officers, Standards, and Training.” P.O.S.T. sets the standard requirements in their state to become a peace officer. A peace officer refers to any sworn position: police officer, deputy sheriff, and there are standards that can include education and training.(See: Sworn vs Non-Sworn)

It is important to research remember the disqualifiers for each position. Disqualifiers are something that can prevent you from becoming a law enforcement officer. The individual agencies within that state can set their own police requirements. As long as those standards are higher than those of the state.

State Law Enforcement Agencies

There are a lot of different state law enforcement agencies out there. You typically have State Police or a State Patrol Department of Public Safety. Usually, each state has some version of that. Most states have some version of a criminal investigation division; a state crime lab; and a Department of Natural Resources. States most likely will also have a Department of Revenue, and some type of an alcohol beverage control agency. States that have legalized any type of gambling usually have some type of gaming regulation and enforcement. Likewise, states that have legalized marijuana will have some type of marijuana enforcement.

Federal Law Enforcement Agencies

You also have federal law enforcement agencies such as the FBI, ATF, Secret Service, DEA, US Marshall Service, and the Capitol Police. These agencies also have a law enforcement component. What I mean by that is a primary mission of the agencies is not law enforcement; however, within that agency, they do have a law enforcement component. (See: Life as an FBI Agent)

As an example, the US Department of State is not a law enforcement agency; however, within the State Department is the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, which is remarkably similar to the US Secret Service and their Special Agents in the Department of Defense.

The Postal Service has postal inspectors. The Internal Revenue Service has the criminal investigation division, and those are all law enforcement components within a larger agency. The Supreme Court that has their own police department and library of Congress, CIA, and they’re like any other law enforcement agency, they’re uniform positions, and they are separate specifically for that agency.

Also with cabinet level positions, there’s an Office of Inspector General and they do have a law enforcement component. There is the United States Department of Justice Office of Inspector General, US Department of Transportation Housing and Urban Development, and those offices have special agents and law enforcement officers. Those are plain-clothes, investigative positions.


How many Federal Law Enforcement Agencies Are There?

There are approximately 103 federal law enforcement agencies. There are agencies with non-criminal investigative components, and there are actually too many to list. For an example, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, they have investigators, but they will not investigate criminal activity, however they will investigate any type of incidences related to their jurisdiction.

There are a lot of agencies you don’t see that have this type of investigative responsibility. There are also the intelligence agencies, and agencies with intelligence components. Those are the agencies many have heard of: the CIA, the NSA, the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Law Enforcement Internships

SheriffLet’s talk about police internships. In college? Or after college? Why should you do an internship?

First of all, it minimizes your risk as a hire. An agency takes a big risk when they hire somebody. Second of all, they’ve gone through a lot of trouble to interview a lot of candidates. They will have to train this person. Typically it can take a year, even two years to really get this person up to speed. The last thing that they want to do is figure out that it was not a good fit.

Do anything you can to lower your risk as a hire to that agency. How do you do that? If you’ve done an internship, you have some understanding of the job, you won’t know as much as a certified officer, but you’ll have more of an understanding than somebody else of what it is like to work in law enforcement.

By having a law enforcement internship on your resume, you’re telling that agency, “I have an understanding, I have a general idea of what this job is like, and it’s something that I want to do as my profession.” You’re also saying you are committed to that profession. You’ve gone through the trouble of competing for an internship, of getting that internship, and of functioning in that internship.

Why do an Internship?

Doing an internship is much better than just sitting there one day watching CSI and saying, “you know, I want to get into law enforcement.” It shows a true commitment to the profession. In order to get an internship, you have to pass the background investigation and not everybody can, there is a risk when you hire somebody that they will not pass a background investigation. Therefore, the fact that you’ve done an internship shows that you most likely will pass the background. Lastly, when you’ve done an internship with a law enforcement agency, and now you’re applying for a full-time position, agencies do feel some comfort knowing that another agency wanted to give them a position. Chances are, you’ll probably be a good candidate with their agency as well.

Law Enforcement Careers

 For your career, what do you do? Do you go local, state, or federal?

What are the advantages of working in local law enforcement?

You’re going to work there, and you can stay there. If you are from Atlanta, like living there, and you get a job with the Atlanta police department: you have the security that you can work there for the rest of your career.

For a lot of people, that’s extremely important. Also, chances are you’re going to be doing a lot of patrol work; and if that’s something that you really want to do–with a local agency, that’s something that definitely you’re going to start your career off doing.
What are the advantages of working in state law enforcement?

Generally in state law enforcement, there’s specialized work; if you’re working in the area of gaming enforcement, you’re going to be specialized in that area. Whereas, in local law enforcement, you may have to work your way up to that position.

Local agencies don’t have entry-level investigator positions; you can’t move right into that investigator position in a local agency. You’ll have to work your way up into that investigator position. That could take several years. Whereas in state law enforcement, for many positions, you’ll move right into those positions. The criminal investigator career can be different between local and state agencies.

Advantages of Working in Federal Law Enforcement

First of all, it’s a specialized career. Those hundred and three federal law enforcement agencies? Many of them have a specialized mission; you’re going to be doing that specialized work. If you work for the Drug Enforcement Administration, you’re going to be working drug cases. If you’re working for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives, you’re going to be working those types of cases. Remember, federal investigator positions are entry level. You don’t need experience; you will move right into those positions.

Also, in the federal system, there is the ability to transfer from one agency to another. It’s not a true transfer, you actually apply; you have to compete for those jobs, but it’s something that generally in most people’s federal career. It’s not unusual where someone will have worked for two, even three agencies. Also the federal system does pay very well. And often there is an advantage in pay and working for the federal system.

Sworn Positions

Sworn positions are armed and have powers of arrest. Those would be positions such as a police officer, a deputy sheriff, a state trooper, or a special agent. Sworn positions are in local state and federal law enforcement with a sworn position.

For sworn positions, you’re going to go to the law enforcement academy and go through their training program. There generally will be a minimum age to get into that job. Sometimes there’ll be a maximum age, not always, sometimes that is determined by the state and other times that is determined by the agency.

As an example, if an agency has a maximum age of 35, that means that if you are going to be hired with that agency, you can be no older than 35 years of age. Sometimes there are certain exceptions for prior military service. Also in many sworn positions, there is an age at which you must retire.

Non-Sworn Positions

Crime SceneThese would be positions such as crime analyst, crime scene technician, evidence technician records, and clerk. Some of these jobs are easier to get into, such as records, clerk, evidence, and technician. Those are more entry level positions. The big difference is crime scene technician is a non-sworn position, whereas ,a crime scene investigator is a sworn position.

For crime scene technicians, they are competitive jobs in to get into, and there’s also crime analysts. These positions will have similar career paths in the sense of: have you taken courses in college that relate to this? Have you done internships? Have you done any type of volunteer work? What are your computer skills? What other outside training do you have? These are one of the law enforcement degree jobs.

Sometimes, people will need to work their way up. For instance, you may start off being a records clerk and then work your way into being a crime analyst. Sworn and non-sworn have quite different career paths, and it’s important to keep track of the career path of your desired job.

Getting a Law Enforcement Job

As an example, if the type of job that you want is a sworn job, you know that you’re going to need to go to some type of law enforcement academy, and it’s going to follow a similar path as other sworn jobs. How long the police academy is depends on the position.
Sometimes people have a job that is a sworn job, but they’ll say, you know, I really don’t want to make arrests. I don’t want to carry a firearm. Sworn jobs require you to be able to do those things.

When to Apply for a Job

About six months before for you qualify, start looking at the job announcements; get an idea of what those jobs require. Also, it’s a good idea to meet with recruiters from agencies. Most agencies have somebody who is either on phone full time, part time, or as part of their collateral duties. Normally they’ll be happy to meet with you and talk about what their agency does, what the requirements are, the police hiring process, and how you should prepare yourself for applying with that agency.

When it’s about three months before you meet the minimum qualifications, it is a good idea to start applying where possible. Sometimes it’s a catch 22, and the agency may require a two-year degree or a four-year degree, and in three months you graduate.

Applying Before You’re Qualified

Police OfficersWith some of the agencies, the hiring process is an automated system. The system will ask you if you have that two-year degree? Do you have that four-year degree? If you say no, it will say I’m sorry, but you’re not qualified. Other agencies have a little more discretion. They’ll let you apply several months before you actually meet the qualifications, knowing that the hiring process takes several months.

Also, it’s a great time to be meeting with recruiters from different agencies that you’re interested in working with and start to establish a relationship with those recruiters.
When you actually qualify for the positions that you’re interested in, you really need to get serious with applying. Sometimes people have one agency that they want to work for, and that’s great. However, it’s a good idea to look at other agencies that may have positions that you’re interested in with. There’s nothing wrong with applying to multiple agencies, especially if those are positions in agencies that you’d like to work for. Also, you really want to get out there and meet with recruiters and talk to them about what you can do to be a competitive candidate, and really establish those relationships with the recruiter.

How to get the Best Job Possible

First of all, prepare, prepare, and prepare again. Preparation will get you that job. The preparation is just as important as the qualifications that you’ve been developing. How do you prepare? To prepare, you should think about all of your different career options, and then take every opportunity you can to learn about what exactly those careers entail.
You prepare by making yourself a competitive candidate. It’s highly likely that many of the people you’re competing against–and it is a competition, will have the same education that you have. They may have done the same internship. That’s why you should meet with the recruiter to find out what can you do to make yourself a competitive candidate.

Also prepare by practicing for the law enforcement hiring process. This is really crucial. A lot of people do not put the effort into this step, and this is extremely vital. Don’t believe that just because you are a great candidate, you will get hired. You have to compete for the job. It’s not enough to be a great runner, you have to win that race.

You need to prepare for the police written exam; some agencies have a written exam and if you don’t pass you will be disqualified. You also have to prepare for the police oral board interview. For most agencies, the oral board interview carries the most weight in the hiring process. No matter how great of a candidate you are, you have to do amazingly well on any exam thrown your way. So be prepared.

How to prepare

• How to pass the police exam
• How to pass the police oral board interview
Police polygraph questions
• Police psychological test questions