Learn About the Law Enforcement Field

A young police officer standing next to her car.

Many people have a preconceived notion of law enforcement based on the sensational scenes shown on the news or at the movies. But what is it really like to be a street cop? Or a federal agent? Or a conservation officer? There are hundreds of career paths within law enforcement and all are done for the love of it – not for the promise of fortune or fame. Find out the basics about law enforcement here, including:

  • Types of agencies: local police departments and sheriff's offices, investigative agencies, conservation law enforcement, corrections, etc.
  • What they do: a quick look at the missions and job functions of each major component
  • Where they are: a glimpse at the environment you can expect to work in

Local Police Departments & Sheriff's Offices

Municipal and metropolitan police officers and county sheriff's deputies, for the most part, are what people think about when they here the term "cop." These law enforcement officers (LEOs) serve as the front line against crime on every street in every town in America. These are the brave men and women that you looked up to and admired as a child.


Police departments and sheriff's offices offer the widest variety of opportunities available within law enforcement. Just about everyone who enters into the field will start as a patrol officer, but from there, the opportunities are endless. As your career progresses you may be given the opportunity to join a specialized unit, such SWAT, K9, bike patrol or the motor squad. Almost all departments now have community relations officers, school resources officers, and public information officers. You may have the opportunity to become a detective or investigator, responsible for investigating serious violent crimes such as murder.

More and more, white collar and Internet related crimes are being investigated by local police departments. As a result, recruits with four year or advanced degrees are highly sought after because of the complexity and business nature of many of these crimes.

If you prove yourself as a great officer or investigator you will have ample opportunity for advancement. With over 10,000 police departments throughout the United States, there is always a need for educated and ambitious men and women to fill in the supervisory ranks, from sergeant all the way to chief. Regardless of your specialty or rank, you can be sure of one thing: Your primary task every day will be interacting with the general public. The best cops are those who earn the respect of those they are protecting, those they are arresting, and those they are serving with.


A highway patrol officer stops a red car.

Highway Patrol & State Police

The first thought most people have when they see a highway patrol car is "I hope I don't get a ticket."

The primary job function our states' highway patrol and state police troopers is to keep the highways and roadways safe through traffic enforcement using methods as varied as using traditional patrol car, police motorcycles, and even with pilot troopers flying fixed wing or rotary aircraft above the highways. Traffic enforcement often leads to confronting very real and very dangerous criminals. It is not uncommon for state troopers to discover major drug smuggling operations, arrest fugitives, or apprehend felons through the course of their regular duties.

In addition to traffic enforcement, most state highway patrol agencies have specialized units similar to local police departments, such as SWAT teams, K9 units, and investigative units. In fact, several state police departments also act as the state's primary investigative agency.

Federal Investigative Agencies

Most people think of federal agents as special agents with the FBI. But did you know that the FBI is only one of almost 100 different investigative agencies employing special agents?

Special agents serve in all three branches of government – the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, and the Judicial Branch. Even some government corporations, independent agencies and quasi-government institutions have special agents working for them. Examples of these agencies include the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Social Security Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, Amtrak, and the Smithsonian Institution. Even the Library of Congress has several special agents who investigate crimes against the Library.

What can you expect if you're a federal agent? Well, probably not what you see Jack Bauer doing every week. But, like Jack, you will be working long hours investigating some very serious crimes that impact all American citizens. Because of the long hours most federal agents are required to work (a minimum of 50 hours per week), they usually receive Law Enforcement Availability Pay (LEAP), a 25% premium of their base salary. Expect to be moved around every few years and expect frequent travel. Many agencies, such as the FBI,DEA, ICE, and components of the DOD, now have resident offices in foreign countries. So, if you want to see the world, this may be the path you want to take.

Because of the demand for federal law enforcement jobs, and the high profile cases the agencies are involved in, getting hired is much tougher than at other law enforcement jobs. Most agencies now require a minimum of a four year degree, but would prefer an advanced degree. This means that unless you were in the top percentile in your undergraduate class, you should seriously consider an advanced degree. Most special agent positions will also require you to have a federal security clearance of at least the secret level, but may require even higher clearances such as top secret or compartmentalized. Expect a much more thorough background investigation and polygraph examination.

State Investigative Agencies

Like federal investigative agencies, state level investigative agencies conduct complex investigations of crimes committed against the state. These can range from white collar crimes, to Internet related crimes, to alcohol and narcotics enforcement, to identity theft.

Because of the similarities and the fact that the focus of these investigations spans federal and state laws, state and federal agencies often work together.


Conservation officer checking license by a lake.

Conservation Law Enforcement

If you are interested in the outdoors, wildlife, or biology, then conservation law enforcement should be a serious consideration for a career path.

Conservation law enforcement spans a broad spectrum of areas such as park patrol, marine patrol, animal control, fish and game enforcement, and environmental crimes investigation. Additionally, these laws are enforced at all levels of government as well: Local, state, federal and even at the tribal level.

The primary local level jobs have to deal with animal control and park patrol. The authority of these officers varies from location to location. In some places these officers are not sworn, but in others, they are sworn, armed officers with full arrest powers just like any city policeman.

State level agencies generally enforce fish and game laws, perform marine patrol, and investigate environmental crimes. As a state conservation officer or game warden you should expect to be serving in expansive, remote areas. It isn't uncommon for one officer to have an area of responsibility spanning several hundred square miles. Marine patrol officers enforce boating and fishing laws on both inland and coastal bodies of water. Some states have agencies whose sole responsibility is to investigate crimes such as illegal dumping, pollution violations, natural resources contamination or to regulate natural resources industries.

Federal conservation law enforcement spans much the same areas as both local and state conservation agencies, except they enforce federal laws and international treaties. Uniformed agencies include the National Park Service, United States Park Police, and the Bureau of Land Management, while the investigative agencies include the Department of the Interior, Department of Commerce, and Environmental Protection Agency.

Corrections, Probations, & Parole

A corrections officer may have the most under appreciated job of all. Where a street cop may encounter a handful of criminals a day, a corrections officer is guaranteed to be face to face with dozens, if not hundreds, of hardened criminals for every minute of every shift.

The primary responsibility of corrections officers is for the care and custody of all criminals remanded to custody by our criminal justice system. Like other areas of law enforcement, you will find corrections officers at every level of government.

Starting at the local level, most counties in the country have a local jail staffed by jail deputies or correctional officers. Some areas of the country utilize regional jails that are used by a consortium of localities as a cost and resources savings measure. The duties of these officers handle intake, short-term, and some long-term care of inmates.

State level departments of correction generally take custody of inmates serving longer sentences or more serious crimes. In other words, inmates who don't belong in a local jail. The so-called "Death Row" is also a state level function where criminals convicted of capital crimes end up. Many states also have dedicated juvenile corrections agencies that are independent from adult corrections agencies, but operate in much the same way.

The Federal Bureau of Prisons is the federal government's primary corrections agency and handles most federal prisoners. Another lesser known agency is the Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Detention and Removal Operations (ICE DRO) agency. ICE DRO takes custody of immigration violators and arranges for their deportation from the United States.

Probation and parole agencies are often times part of the overall departments of correction. Probation and parole officers deal in community corrections with inmates who have been released on probation or parole. The job of the probation and parole officer is part social worker and part corrections officer. These officers must ensure that inmates who are in the community maintain good behavior and stay out of trouble by monitoring their whereabouts, behavior, and employment.

Campus Law Enforcement

Over the past decade many campus police departments have spent a lot of time and effort to become top-notch law enforcement agencies. In fact, the recent trend has been for these agencies to completely the term "campus" from their names. Most campus agencies work closely with surrounding jurisdictions through task forces and mutual aid agreements that allow the officers to cover areas around the campus instead of being confined to the campus boundaries. This type of expanded coverage often times leads to a more active police experience since officers encounter more serious crimes than what generally occurs on a college campus.

Campus law enforcement is often viewed as a good entry point into a law enforcement career and is often used as a stepping stone into larger agencies. Because having a safe campus is a number one priority for school administrators, joining the right agency can provide the opportunity for frequent and first rate training programs, whereas in a traditional city agency you may have to wait months or even years to attend a specialized training course.

Specialized Law Enforcement Agencies

What is a specialized law enforcement agency? Basically, it is an agency with a very defined mission. Some examples of these agencies would be airport police, transit police, railroad police, or port police. One mission all of these types of agencies share is the protection of visitors, employees, tenants and assets. This mission is carried out using many methods and usually in concert with surrounding local, state, and federal agencies.

Because of their importance to America's commerce system, airports, railroads, and seaports are high are understandably high profile targets to terrorists. As a result, the law enforcement agencies entrusted with protecting them spare no expense when it comes to training and providing the latest equipment and technology.


Homeland Security Special Response team.

Homeland Security

The federal government's approach to law enforcement was drastically restructured following the 9/11 attacks. The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was created and many agencies which traditionally fell under other departments were moved or consolidated into the new DHS.

The agencies within DHS span every possible aspect of the law enforcement spectrum; from asset protection agencies like the Federal Protective Service to investigative agencies like the United States Secret Service. DHS is even the parent agency to the Border Patrol and to the Customs and Border Protection.

The bottom line is that the agencies that make up the Department of Homeland Security provide the largest variety of law enforcement careers under one roof. Depending on what you want to do, you can be conducting traditional patrol duties in a downtown, urban environment as Federal Protective Service police officer, protecting the nation's borders in remote areas of the country as a U.S. Border Patrol agent, keeping the sky safe as a Federal Air Marshal, protecting the president as a Secret Service special agent, or enforcing customs and immigration laws as an inspector or special agent with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

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