The most demanding and probably the most rewarding job in a police agency is the police officer. This role is extremely important because it is a “front-line” position. As a front-line officer you are the most crucial in affecting people’s lives and responding to their needs. The vast majority of the time, you will be a decision maker responsible for choices that influence the lives and welfare of the citizens you serve. These decisions may be life-changing for all involved, and you will be expected to make them without the benefit of counsel from others. Such a great amount of responsibility makes this career very demanding and rewarding. It is also why those who make law enforcement a career tend to stay for a long time and feel a great sense of accomplishment.
The career descriptions that follow are fairly general; the specific details for the department you are interested in will vary depending on your location.
General Police Patrol
Whether riding in a patrol car or walking a post (beat) in an urban setting, you are the first responder for those who need assistance. This is where you gain the most diverse experience in dealing with a wide variety of people in an endless array of circumstances and incidents. General patrol work can also include enforcing vehicle and traffic laws.
Besides general patrol, there are many types of patrol that can be particularly challenging and rewarding. These types of patrols can also be highly sought after by officers within the department. For instance, one of the most popular types of patrol is bicycle patrol—these positions are not only extremely effective, but also one of the most growing and popular patrols that police departments across the country use.
Mounted and K-9 patrols are also being deployed throughout the country. Even small departments realize the importance and advantages of K-9 patrol and its effectiveness at investigating narcotics, bombs, evidence, and search and rescue efforts. Mounted police can also be found in various departments, including city police departments. Horses are great for crowd control as well as parks, rough terrain, and mountainous regions.
Other types of patrol include harbor and aviation. Police departments deploy all sorts of patrols that are beneficial to them and the communities they serve.
Investigators, Detectives, and Plainclothes Officers
Police officers who work as investigators, detectives, and plainclothes officers are considered the “next level” in a police department’s organizational chain. In some departments, these positions are considered a promotion. In other departments, they are considered a reassignment or lateral transfer from the uniform function. In this second case, the assignment may only be temporary before you are returned to uniform patrol. This position sometimes involves the investigation of higher-grade crimes or the follow-up work needed to solve crimes or resolve incidents. Duties include conducting preliminary and follow-up investigations, preparing the required investigative reports, identifying and apprehending the suspect, and preparing a case for a successful prosecution.
A relatively new area of responsibility for detectives is counter-terrorism investigation. Detectives may be responsible not just for investigating potential terrorist threats, but also for conducting threat assessments and providing input on how to secure locations from potential terrorist attack. Detectives also may have to coordinate local efforts with federal personnel who specialize in counter-terrorism.
Usually the first step into management is the first-line supervisor position, which may be a sergeant, a corporal, or a senior patrol officer. These are vital leaders who ensure that jobs are getting done. They also provide valuable training and guidance for patrol officers. There also may be further advancement opportunities, depending on the size of the department. Middle-management positions can include the ranks of lieutenant and captain. The scope widens at this level with more responsibilities that may include managing more personnel at the scene of more serious crimes and incidents, as well as facility management and budgeting.
Upper-management positions can include deputy chief, deputy superintendent, or deputy commissioner. Responsibilities may include department-wide planning, hiring, and larger-scale operations. Upper management also is responsible for creating and writing department policies and procedures. These upper-management positions report directly to the head of the agency (chief, commissioner, superintendent, or sheriff). The agency head is the person who must answer to criticism when things go wrong (such as a controversial police shooting) and the person who can take credit for all the positive accomplishments (such as a reduction in the crime rate).
Besides upper management, there is also a rank structure that can be found in most police departments, which consists of captain, lieutenant, and sergeant. Sergeants are usually known as front-line supervisors, where they help manage police officers and the daily patrol operations.
Choosing a Location
As you go through the process of choosing the agency you want to work for, remember you most likely will be spending your entire career in that one department. Most police careers range from 20 to 25 years! There are many types of police departments and agencies to choose from, and deciding upon which agency fits you the best may not be an easy decision to make. There are many factors that go into this decision-making process when choosing the proper agency.
The larger the agency, the greater the number of law enforcement career opportunities that are available. Agencies such as the New York City Police Department, California Highway Patrol, and Chicago Police Department serve large populations over vast amounts of geography. These large agencies have crime labs; SWAT teams; K-9, aviation, and marine units; and computer crime specialists. Their resources and missions are usually more diverse and greater than those of the small-town 10-member police departments. Or perhaps you are looking for a smaller department to increase local community interaction and have a closer personal relationship with the people in town, which you might not get in larger cities. All police agencies, regardless of size, provide a highly valued service to society and need to employ consummate, dedicated police professionals.
You also need to ask yourself: What are your interests and goals? Does the agency you want to work for offer different assignments and opportunities for promotion? Then there are the specialized agencies and departments that may fit your personality or interest.
If you live in an area geographically surrounded by woods, mountains, hunting facilities, or parks, then perhaps being a conservation or parks police officer may interest you. If you live near the ocean, maybe beach patrol or a harbor unit is something for you to think about. There are transit police for trains and transportation hubs, as well as sanitation police enforcing the laws for illegal dumping and protecting the environment.