Here's What You'll Do in a Career in Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice
If you're interested in fighting crime at the highest level, you can set yourself up for success by choosing a good educational path. Your education can determine such factors as your future salary, job title, and rank. This page provides an overview of the options available to you for a career working for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) as an ATF agent.
What Are the Duties and Responsibilities
of an ATF Agent?
As a law enforcement agency within the United States' Department of Justice, ATF focuses on stopping the flow of illegal guns, halting black market sale and distribution of alcohol and tobacco, and preventing and investigating crimes involving bombs and arson. Some agents work at Crime Gun Intelligence Centers, using forensics, data collection, and analysis to investigate evidence such as shell casings found at crime scenes.
ATF employees diffuse and dispose of dangerous explosive devices and train local agencies in how to handle explosives.
Others run the ATF's National Tracing Center, where they follow the path of illegal guns back to their point of purchase, including the sale of guns online. Working as explosives enforcement officers, ATF employees diffuse and dispose of dangerous explosive devices and train local agencies in how to handle explosives. Working with FBI agents at the National Center for Violent Crime in Quantico, Virginia, the ATF uses behavioral science, forensics, pathology, and crime scene analysis to develop profiles of those who would engage in arson and bomb activity. Certified fire investigators pursue criminals who start fires for profit or violence, determining the cause and manner of the fire and collecting evidence that leads to the individuals who started it.
ATF Agent Education Requirements
To qualify as a level GL-05 agent, you generally need a bachelor's degree in a related field, such as law enforcement, political science, or psychology. For a level GL-07 position, you need a master's in a related field. A certificate, the most basic degree type, qualifies individuals to work as a security guard. An associate degree is more popular, which could lead to a career as a police officer. A bachelor's degree opens up more career options by providing more detailed expertise in techniques such as advanced uses of technology to fight criminals.
If you wish to pursue an ATF agent job and you're contemplating a degree, a law enforcement or criminal justice degree is appropriate.
A more advanced degree, such as a master's in intelligence and analysis, is optimal for leadership positions in the field. While a law enforcement degree is most suitable for a career in apprehending criminals, a criminal justice degree explores the administration of justice in general. This degree can lead to a job working in a courtroom, prison, jail, or other institution.
Some examples of degree majors include cybersecurity, corrections, paralegal studies, criminology, and counterterrorism. If you wish to pursue an ATF agent job and you're contemplating a degree, a law enforcement or criminal justice degree is appropriate. You could also choose another major, such as sociology or psychology. For more information, review this overview of criminal justice degrees.
An associate degree is a great place to begin your education, giving you valuable field information and college credits. Coursework includes policing, correctional systems, juvenile justice, and ethics and judicial administration. You also get a good foundation in general education such as math and writing. Degree costs range from $5,000 for students attending a community college full time as an in-state student and up to $20,000 for learners attending a university as an online or on-campus student. When you earn an associate degree, you can transfer those credits to a bachelor's program. Learn more about earning an online associate degree in criminal justice here.
At the bachelor's level, you can expect in-depth training and background knowledge, with coursework in research methods, data analysis, crime mapping, criminal mind and behavior, and substance abuse and crime. Students take these courses in addition to general education requirements, which include social sciences and humanities.
A bachelor's degree takes four years and 120 credits to complete. The time it takes to earn a degree depends on whether students attend full time or part time and whether they transfer any college credits. Most programs cost between $48,000 and $60,000 to complete, depending on whether the institution is public or private and whether the program is online or on campus. Graduates meet the educational requirements to become a grade 5 special agent or grade 5 industry operations investigator. Learn more about earning an online bachelor's degree in criminal justice here.
A master's degree takes 1-2 years to complete, depending on whether you attend full time or part time. The degree consists of 30-36 credits. Most programs allow you to choose your concentration, depending on whether you want to focus on criminal justice, investigations, forensics, or cybercrime. Program costs vary depending on the institution and how quickly you complete the program. Coursework also varies but generally covers the justice system, forensic science, intelligence gathering and analysis, and technology as it pertains to fighting crime. This degree prepares graduates for ATF jobs working as special agents or industry operations investigators. With a master's degree, individuals fulfill the educational qualification for a level GL-07 employee in either role. Read more about earning an online master's degree in criminal justice here.
Other Requirements for ATF Agents
In addition to your education, you must meet several non-academic requirements in order to be considered for an ATF agent job. You must be between the ages of 21-37 and legally authorized to work in the United States. Applicants must also possess a current, valid driver's license. Since agents must be able to lawfully possess and use a firearm, applicants with felony or misdemeanor domestic assault convictions need not apply.
A physical fitness test includes requirements such as sit-ups, push-ups, and the completion of a 1.5 mile run. Your weight must be in proportion to your height. You also must pass both a drug test and a polygraph exam. To gain security clearance, you must pass a background check. Training includes the Criminal Investigator Training Program (CITP) and Special Agent Basic Training (SABT). Prior military or other specialized experience is not required, but may help you achieve a higher grade in conjunction with your education.
Qualities That Make a Great ATF Agent
Several traits can help you succeed in this challenging but fulfilling law enforcement role. As a public servant, you serve a cause greater than yourself. You must believe strongly in the rule of law and in enforcing it fairly. You must also demonstrate professionalism at all times, even when dealing with criminals. Since the work is sometimes dangerous, you must be able to make good decisions in stressful situations. See below for more personality traits that ATF agents need in order to be successful: