The Mission Continues: Opportunities in Law Enforcement

Veterans have the opportunity to continue that noble mission all over America by becoming police officers, correctional officers, or employees of federal agencies such as the United States Marshals Service. And the best part? Veterans are a top choice among all of these options. Recruiters for police departments, correctional organizations, and security firms throughout the United States know that their best applicants are the men and women who have put on a military uniform year after year – people who have faced down their fears in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan – people with such qualities as leadership, initiative, self-discipline, and a great work ethic.


Former servicemembers will find a lot that’s familiar when they join a law-enforcement agency. The organizational structure of most agencies resembles that of the armed forces. Many of the jobs involve irregular hours, multiple responsibilities, and personal danger. Plus, one key to success involves building community relationships – as the military discovered long ago on its international missions.


There are three main kinds of employers in law enforcement and security: state and local agencies, federal agencies, and private businesses. State and local agencies include the police departments of towns, cities, and counties; county sheriff’s offices; and state police. The largest federal agencies with law-enforcement missions include: U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the Federal Bureau of Prisons, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The smaller agencies include the U.S. Marshals Service, U.S. Postal Inspection Service, U.S. Capitol Police, and even the Veterans Health Administration.

Private businesses in law enforcement and security include private detective and investigation companies, correctional organizations, and security guard and gaming surveillance firms. Private security firms provide security for private individuals and for private, corporate, and government property.


The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a part of the U.S. Department of labor, classifies law-enforcement and security jobs as Protective Service Occupations (SOC 33-0000; see “Your Guide to Industrial and Occupational Employment Statistics” in this magazine). The BLS analyzes future demand for different types of goods and services, and then projects the employment necessary to produce them. Most of the 10.8 percent employment growth between 2012 and 2022 is pro- jected to be in service-providing industries. (The BLS updates these statistics every two years; the most recent update was in 2014 and includes projections for the years 2012-2022.) For details, visit eptable102.htm and read the BLS article, “Occupational Employment Projections to 2022,” at ticle/occupational-employment- projections-to-2022.htm.

Protective Service Occupations are expected to add 263,000 jobs between 2012 and 2022 and increase 7.9 percent. That’s about as fast as the average occupation. The largest employers are local government (1,402,000) and investigation and security services (647,800). According to the BLS, all butone occupation in SOC 33-0000, Parking Enforcement Workers (SOC 33-3041), are projected to grow from 2012 to 2022. An over- all concern for security and public safety are the reasons for the growth. Also, jobs will be added as the demand increases for emergency responders to meet the needs of an aging population.

The fastest-growing detailed occupation in SOC 33-0000 is Security Guards (SOC 33-9032). This category is projected to grow 12.1 percent and increase by 129,600 positions, nearly half the new jobs in SOC 33-0000. Local government and investigation and security services are projected to account for 65.2 per- cent of new security guard jobs.

About 9 out of 10 jobs created in protective services will be found in occupations that typically require a high school diploma or equivalent. Two detailed occupations in SOC 33-000 require a postsecondary education: Firefighters (SOC 33-2011) and First-Line Supervisors of Fire Fighting and Prevention Workers (SOC 33-1021).

Among Protective Services Occupations, 16 of 22 had median annual wages above that for all wage and salary workers – $34,750 in May 2012. The highest median wage was for First-Line Supervisors of Police and Detectives (SOC 33-1012), $78,270; while the lowest was for Lifeguards, Ski Patrol, and other Recreational Protective Service Workers (SOC 33-9092), $18,950.

Police and detectives pursue and apprehend individuals who break the law, and then issue citations or give warnings. They spend a large proportion of their time writing reports and maintaining records of incidents they encounter. Most police officers patrol their jurisdictions and investigate any suspicious activity they notice. Sheriffs and deputy sheriffs enforce the law on the county level. Sheriffs usually are elected to their posts and perform duties similar to those of a local or county police chief.

State police officers, sometimes called state troopers or highway patrol officers, arrest criminals statewide and patrol highways to enforce motor- vehicle laws and regulations. State police officers often issue traffic citations to motorists. At the scene of an accident, an officer may direct traffic, give first aid, and call for emergency equipment. State highway patrols operate in every state except Hawaii. Most full-time sworn personnel are uniformed officers who regularly patrol and respond to calls for service. Others work as investigators, perform court-related duties, or carry out administrative or other assignments. According to the BLS, about 780,000 people work as police and detectives. Police Officers (SOC 33-3050) protect lives and property. Detectives and Criminal Investigators (SOC 33-3021), who are sometimes called agents or special agents, gather facts and collect evidence of possible crimes.

Education requirements range from a high school diploma to a college degree. Most police and detectives must graduate from their agency’s training academy before completing a period of on-the-job training. Candidates must be United States citizens, usually at least 21 years old, and able to meet rigorous physical and personal qualifications.

Local agencies employ about 80 percent of police and detectives; state police agencies, about 12 percent; and federal agencies, about 6 percent. Most of them work in cities with more than 25,000 inhabitants. The BLS expects the employment in the occupation to grow 5 percent between 2012 and 2022, slower than the average for all occupations.

Job opportunities in most local police departments will be favorable for qualified individuals, while competition is expected for jobs in state and federal agencies, according to the BLS. Population growth is the main source of demand for police services. Bilingual applicants with college training in police science or with military police experience will have the best opportunities.

The number of job opportunities can vary from year to year and from place to place, depending in large part on the level of government spending. Layoffs are unusual because most staffing cuts can be handled through attrition due to retirements. Trained law enforcement officers who lose their jobs because of budget cuts usually have little difficulty finding jobs with other agencies.

Correctional Officers and Jailers (SOC 33-3012) guard individuals who have been arrested and are awaiting trial or who are serving time in a jail, reformatory, or prison. There are nearly 500,000 such employees, with the number expected to grow by 5 percent between 2012 and 2022. About 60 percent work in state institutions, including prisons, prison camps, and youth correctional facilities. Most of the remainder work in city and county jails. In recent years, private organizations have taken over a lot of the staffing of prisons.

Support staff personnel include dispatchers, records technicians, animal-control officers, evidence and investigative technicians, parking enforcement officers, financial clerks, office managers, and administrative assistants.


Police and detective work can be very dangerous and stressful. Police officers and detectives have one of the highest rates of on-the-job injury and illness. In addition to the obvious dangers of confrontations with criminals, police officers and detectives need to be constantly alert and ready to deal appropriately with a number of other threatening situations. Many law enforcement officers witness death and suffering resulting from accidents and criminal behavior. A career in law enforcement may take a toll on their private lives.

Uniformed officers, detectives, agents, and inspectors usually are scheduled to work 40-hour weeks, but paid overtime is common. Shift work is necessary because protection must be provided around the clock. Junior officers frequently work weekends, holidays, and nights. Police officers and detectives may work long hours during investigations. Officers in most jurisdictions, whether on or off duty, are expected to be armed and to exercise their authority whenever necessary.

The jobs of some federal agents, such as those in the Secret Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), require extensive travel, often on short notice. These agents may relocate a number of times over the course of their careers. Some special agents, such as those in the Border Patrol, may work outdoors in rugged terrain and all kinds of weather.


State and local agencies encourage applicants to take courses or training related to law enforcement after high school. Many entry-level applicants for police jobs have completed some formal postsecondary education, and a significant number are college graduates.

Many junior colleges, colleges, and universities offer programs in law enforcement or administration of justice. Many agencies pay all or part of the tuition for officers to work toward degrees in criminal justice, police science, administration of justice, or public administration – and pay higher salaries to those who earn one of those degrees. Before their first assignments, officers usually go through a period of training. Recruits at state and large local police departments get training in their agencies’ police academies, often for 12 to 14 weeks. Recruits at small agencies often attend a regional or state academy. Training includes classroom instruction in constitutional law and civil rights, state laws and local ordinances, and accident investigation. Recruits also receive training and supervised experience in patrol, traffic control, use of firearms, self- defense, first aid, and emergency response.

Federal agencies require a bachelor’s degree, related work experience, or a combination of the two. Federal law-enforcement agents undergo ex- tensive training, usually at the Marine Corps base in Quantico, Virginia, or the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Glynco, Georgia.

Candidates should enjoy working with people and meeting the public. Personal characteristics such as honesty, sound judgment, integrity, and a sense of responsibility are especially important in law enforcement, so candidates are interviewed by senior officers, and their character traits and backgrounds are investigated. In some agen- cies, a psychiatrist interviews candidates, or the candidates get a personality test. Most applicants receive polygraph (lie detector) exams and drug testing. Some agencies subject sworn personnel to random drug testing as a condition of continuing employment.

The requirements for federal agents are generally more stringent, and the background checks are more thorough. There are polygraph tests as well as interviews with references. Jobs that require security clearances have additional requirements.


Police officers usually become eligible for promotion after a probationary period ranging from six months to three years. In large departments, an officer may advance to de- tective or be assigned a specialty such as working with juveniles. Agencies usually promote officers to the ranks of corporal, sergeant, lieutenant, and captain according to their positions. Those posi- tions depend on scores on written examinations as well as on-the-job performance. The median annual wage for police and detec- tives was $58,980 in 2012. Federal agents are on the General Schedule (GS) pay scale of the United States Office of Personnel Management – for de- tails, see leave/salaries-wages/2015/general-schedule/. Most begin at the GS-5 or GS-7 level. As agents meet time-in-grade and knowledge and skills re- quirements, they move up the scale. Most agents at and above GS-13 are in managerial positions.


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