Police Officer Job Description: What You'll Do

Here's What You'll Do in a Career in Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice

A degree in criminal justice prepares you for a variety of careers, including police officer, legal assistant, probation officer, detective, and paralegal. Jobs in this field require a range of educational and professional experience. This page provides an overview of the responsibilities of a police officer and how earning a degree may give candidates for these positions a competitive advantage. The sections below also discuss the key traits of police officers and typical nonacademic requirements for becoming an officer.

What Are the Duties and Responsibilities
of a Police Officer?

The primary function of a police officer is protecting people and property in local communities. The job includes patrolling assigned areas, responding to calls, arresting suspects, conducting follow-up investigations, citing traffic violations, and preparing reports. Officers may need to perform additional duties, depending on the situation and a department's resources.

The primary function of a police officer is protecting people and property in local communities.

Police responsibilities include testifying in court and operating a law enforcement vehicle under a variety of weather and emergency situations. A comprehensive understanding of laws and the ability to comprehend legal documents is essential to police officer work. Officers strive to establish trust in their communities and educate the public on safety.

Police Officer Education Requirements

A law enforcement career typically requires at least a high school diploma or GED. Many states prefer candidates with at least one or two years of education through an accredited college or university. In some cases, applicants can substitute military experience for education requirements. A bachelor's degree may be required to work at the federal level or for career advancement.

Individuals pursuing a law enforcement career typically earn a criminal justice or law enforcement degree. A criminal justice degree focuses on the application of laws and the process of determining a criminal's punishment. A degree in law enforcement, however, focuses on crime scene investigation and techniques in patrolling, apprehending criminals, and filling out police reports. While both degrees suit an aspiring police officer, a law enforcement degree's emphasis on investigation and criminal apprehension may make it more beneficial.

Jobs for police officers are typically competitive, and applicants undergo a rigorous process.

Specific employment requirements to become a police officer vary by state, city, or department. Research your state's requirements to ensure you pursue a degree program that aligns with your career goals. Jobs for police officers are typically competitive, and applicants undergo a rigorous process. Understanding requirements and preparing ahead of time may give you a competitive advantage over other candidates. Visit criminaljustice.com to learn more about criminal justice degrees, including the average cost, program length, and common program requirements.

Associate Degrees

The average associate degree in criminal justice or law enforcement takes two years to complete. Tuition costs vary widely by school, with cost factors including state residency requirements and whether a school is private or public. Costs range anywhere from $5,000 to $35,000 per year. Earning an associate degree gives you a competitive advantage over other candidates and may increase earning potential.

Associate programs introduce students to key concepts in criminal justice and law enforcement. The core curriculum typically consists of courses such as introduction to criminal justice, correctional systems, and the judicial process. Graduates with an associate degree qualify for entry-level positions including police officer, correctional officer, and border patrol agent. Visit criminaljustice.com for more details about associate degree programs and their benefits.

Bachelor's Degrees

A bachelor's degree in criminal justice typically takes four years to complete. The core curriculum develops advanced knowledge in criminal behavior, criminal justice ethics, law and criminal procedure, and the American legal system. Some bachelor's programs allow students to choose concentrations to align the degree with their interests or career goals. While not required to work as a police offer, earning a bachelor's may lead to career advancement opportunities and higher earning potential. Visit criminaljustice.com for more information on earning a bachelor's in criminal justice, including the benefits, career opportunities, and cost information.

Other Requirements for Police Officers

In addition to obtaining the proper education or on-the-job experience, working as a police officer includes several nonacademic requirements. The specific nonacademic requirements vary by state, so students should research before applying. Generally, applicants must be at least 21 years old, possess a valid driver's license, and be a U.S. citizen. Candidates typically enroll in a department's police academy as part of the hiring process.

Applicants undergo a thorough background check including interviews with friends, family members, neighbors, previous employers, or other acquaintances.

Other nonacademic requirements include passing a physical fitness test and medical, written, oral, and psychological exams. Some states prefer candidates with previous military experience, which may also substitute for education or work experience requirements. Applicants undergo a thorough background check including interviews with friends, family members, neighbors, previous employers, or other acquaintances. Those with convictions for domestic violence, felonies, or dishonorable military discharge may not qualify for employment as a police officer.

Qualities That Make a Great Police Officer

There are several traits of successful police officers, including integrity and strong negotiation, communication, and critical thinking skills. Police officers often deal with sensitive situations and people in crisis, so being patient, civil, and empathetic is key to earning public trust and de-escalating situations. Carefully consider each trait on the list below to determine if a police career is right for you.

  • Integrity
  • Negotiation skills
  • Service mentality
  • Communication and writing skills
  • Physical fitness
  • Critical thinking and observation
  • Adaptability
  • Empathy
  • Civility
  • Initiative and self-motivation

Employment Opportunities for Police Officers

Highest-Paying States for Police Officers
State Mean Annual Salary Employment
California $101,380 72,680
Texas $61,870 60,260
New York $74,860 53,560
Florida $59,610 37,650
Illinois $75,720 30,370
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2018
Highest-Paying Metropolitan Areas for Police Officers
Metropolitan Area Mean Annual Salary Employment
San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, CA $125,990 3,660
San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, CA $114,650 8,530
Vallejo-Fairfield, CA $110,560 1,070
Santa Rosa, CA $107,850 720
Napa, CA $107,420 260
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2018

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Police Officer Salary Information Careers in Criminal Justice Online Bachelor's Degree in Law Enforcement