Joseph Libowsky,
former Special Agent

If you have decided to pursue a career in law enforcement, there are many choices that you need to make. Before you start browsing job openings, you need to determine the field of your specialization. Even if you decide to join a police department, there are possibilities to choose between sworn and non-sworn positions. After you start as a patrol officer you can progress into various directions within the department. 

There is yet another major choice that you need to make – should you join a local, state or federal law enforcement agency. At each level, there are plenty of different positions and growth opportunities. The entry exams and requirements are similar. So, no matter what level of government you want to work for, it is important to be well prepared for the hiring process. Sgt Godoy has a very popular and highly rated online Police Exam practice test to help you get a great score.  

If you haven’t decided yet which is the area you want to go into, here are a few details about local, state and federal law enforcement jobs.

Local law enforcement career opportunities 

university police

Local law enforcement agencies include police departments and sheriff’s offices but are not limited to these only. Each state can have different agencies that you can join. Here is an example of the opportunities you may have, depending on your location: 

  • City Police Department 
  • County Sheriff’s Office 
  • Transit Authority Police 
  • School District Police 
  • Housing Authority Police 
  • District Attorneys’ Office Investigators 
  • Airport Police 
  • Harbor Police 
  • University Police 
  • Hospital Police 

If you want to pursue a career in local law enforcement, you need to be ready to start in patrol. Your career will begin as a police officer and after a given period of time, you will be able to move to a different specialization. Depending on your experience and level of education you can become a detective, join the K-9 unit, SWAT or other specialty units.  

One of the main advantages of working for a local law enforcement agency is that you do not have to move to another location in order to start your career or get a promotion.  

City, town, and village police officers go on patrol, respond to calls for service, and conduct investigations. They have specialties such as property crimes, violent crimes, SWAT, and K-9. These departments can be very small, even just one officer, have a force of several thousand. The chief is hired by the local government.

County law enforcement is often a sheriff’s department, and the sheriff is usually an elected official. The entry-level position is that of deputy sheriff. The duties of the sheriff’s department are similar to that of a police department. They also include operating the county jail, escorting prisoners to and from court, as well as providing court security. Small cities and towns often contract with the sheriff’s department to provide law enforcement services for their area, eliminating the need to maintain their own police force.

Generally, you will have a lot of opportunities if you decide to join a local law enforcement agencies. With smaller agencies, you may have more opportunities to do a variety of different functions. With larger agencies, there are more opportunities to become involved in specialized units.

State law enforcement jobs 

state trooper car

Most states have a law enforcement agency which includes state patrol. Also common is a state bureau of investigation. There are many other state level law enforcement agencies including departments which deal with narcotics, gambling, revenue, and alcohol. With some states the highway patrol is under the  state department of public safety. There is often a state bureau of investigation that falls under the state police, or under the attorney general’s office of the state.  

State agencies also have uniformed patrol, which is often referred to as state troopers. Their main responsibility is to enforce traffic laws throughout the state, however, they may have other duties depending on the agency they work for. While in most cases, it is required to start your career as a state trooper, it is also possible to become an investigator at a state agency without prior law enforcement experience.  

There are other state law enforcement agencies as well.  Your options include working as a game warden or conservation officer, who have full police powers and their jurisdiction covers the entire state. Other possible employers are the capitol police, campus police, water police, state hospitals or the departments of corrections. 

Starting your career at a state law enforcement agency has both its pros and cons. One of the main benefits is that there are lots of opportunities for advancement and career growth at a state level department. There is the possibility to start work as an investigator without previously having started in patrol. One of the major drawbacks, however, is that you should be ready to relocate within the state to get a promotion. If moving around is not an option for you, then you should seriously consider whether a local agency is a better option. 

Of all state police, it is interesting to note that the Texas Rangers are considered to be the earliest form of state law enforcement in the U.S. The Rangers were organized by Stephen F. Austin in 1823 and were a group of ten men who were responsible to protect the settlers from Indian attacks.  

Then the Pennsylvania state police was formed in 1902 as a result of an anthracite mine strike. The New York State Police force was formed on April 11, 1917. 

As a whole, you can see that by joining the state law enforcement, you will embark on a career path with strong historical traditions. 

The types and names of local and state law enforcement agencies can vary greatly between the states. If you want to find a comprehensive list of all the agencies in the USA simply click here. The state of Hawaii is the only state in the USA that has no specifically named state police/highway patrol force because of its specific geography. It is served by the police forces of its five counties. 

Federal law enforcement careers 

fbi agent

At the federal level, there are both federal police and federal special agents which operate at the highest level. The agencies have nationwide jurisdiction to enforce federal law. There are numerous federal agencies and you can find their full list here. Some of the most notable ones are under the Department of Justice (DOJ). This includes the most well-known agency – the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) along with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the United States Marshal Service and others. 

There are a number of federal law enforcement agencies under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). This includes the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), Federal Air Marshal Service (FAMS), United States Secret Service (USSS), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and the United States Coast Guard (USCG).  

The federal government has the power to deal with foreign affairs and interstate commerce, according to the US Constitution. The main task of federal law enforcement agencies is to maintain law and public order related to matters affecting the country as a whole.  

Note that federal law enforcement also has a significant history in the country. It has been functioning for nearly two hundred years. The Postal Inspection Service is the oldest of all of the federal agencies. It can trace its origin back to 1772 when General Benjamin Franklin, the Colonial Postmaster, appointed a “surveyor” responsible for the regulation and audit of the mail. In other words, it can be said that the Postal Service is older than the United States themselves as it started functioning prior to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  

Federal agencies have entry-level investigative positions, without the requirement of initially working as patrol or as a uniformed officers. There is a requirement, however, of a college degree.  

If you choose to work at a federal law enforcement level, you should be ready to relocate. Quite often promotions and advancement are related to accepting work in a different state. As a federal law enforcement officer, you work throughout the country and all U.S. territories. You should be ready to travel a lot and work extra hours when needed. On the positive side, you have numerous opportunities for advancement within the system. You can grow in the agency you have started work with or continue your career in a different federal agency.  

No matter if you choose to work for a local, state or federal law enforcement agency, it is clear that your job will be to serve and protect the community. Agencies at all levels work together to solve crimes. Pooling together their resources and working in a partnership is the best way to fight crime. Working as a law enforcement officer is a job that requires a lot of determination and working in dangerous conditions. But it is at the same time, it is a very rewarding profession. Choose the right local, state or federal law enforcement agency and start the dream job you have always wanted.