When people tell me they want to be a police officer, something deeply sighs inside of me. This is going to be a lengthy discussion. Unlike other countries, the United States has some of the most diverse and disconnected law enforcement departments on the planet. There are tens of thousands of different departments that each have their own culture, leaders, and benefits. In some ways, this is awesome: each job applicant has a huge array of law enforcement providers to choose from. Nearly anyone’s checklist could be completed somewhere. However, it can also be frustrating when you find a department that you fall in love with, only to be subjected to a very unique set of circumstances preventing you from being hired (e.g., hiring freezes, rules regarding tattoos or tobacco, etc.). I want to give you some thinking points when deciding where to start your job hunt. Above all, be flexible and have an open mind when reaching for your first badge. This is government work: patience is a virtue. Now, let’s look at some important considerations for your first law enforcement job.
- What type of job are you looking for? First of all, how old are you? In the United States, due to the federal laws restricting handgun possession to 21-year-olds, all sworn law enforcement positions are exclusively given to those who are 21 (at least at the time of appointment). This doesn’t mean you can’t start your career earlier, though. There are several reasons I would encourage anyone (but especially those 18-21 years old) to consider a law enforcement support role like Dispatcher, Transport Officer, or Correctional Officer before you begin your sworn career. You will gain invaluable experience seeing a side of public service that the average cop will only glimpse. Later in your career, the “big picture” of our nation’s justice system will become clearer, and that could make the difference between success or failure in your cases down the road. You will also make contacts that could be valuable down the road. Remember, nearly every chief or sheriff was once a rookie. I had several coworkers who started their criminal justice careers in the jails or prisons. They were comfortable and relaxed when dealing with suspects or prisoners, which made them much more confident while doing their jobs. They were also very successful in getting info or “intel” from the people on the street because they knew the lingo and what questions to ask. Depending on where you live, you will learn a tremendous amount about the gangs that are in your area. This is invaluable knowledge on the streets. You’ll also meet many of your future “frequent flyers” and understand them much better when you show up at their house in the middle of a crisis. Although being a Correctional Officer may not be top on your list, a position like that can get your foot in the door to a LEO job and ultimately propel your career even further than it could go otherwise.
Another potential stepping-stone job is Probation or Parole Officer. One PO mused that he got in more foot chases with his job than most patrol cops do, because POs have an incredible amount of knowledge about their subjects and often come ready to search everything. POs work around the courts, but they also spend time on the streets keeping tabs on their assigned parolees. They also work very closely with the local departments making sure parole violators are caught. You will learn a lot about the criminal underworld (and your future clients) if you are willing to take on this role. You will also have tons of valuable contacts in the courthouse, which will make your job much easier when you start doing investigative work in your sworn position.
With all this said, however, I understand that the entry-level sworn position is what most applicants want. In most departments, this will send you straight to the streets in the patrol officer position. (Be aware that some sheriff’s offices require their deputies to work in the jail or courts before they can “earn” the blue lights.) You will be chasing bad guys, taking people down at gunpoint, and running around town like a madman. You will also be checking a lot of false alarms, directing traffic in the pouring rain, asking schizophrenics why they’re picking the parasites out of their skin, and touching a lot of un-bathed crotches searching for contraband. Your time on patrol will be the most exciting, most frustrating, most uncomfortable, most disgusting, and absolutely, downright most fun time of your career.
- Where do you want to work? This is extremely important, given the strict jurisdictional nature of most local departments. Even the “free spirits” who are able to move “anywhere” have certain personal criteria that must be met. Are you tied down by family to any particular area? Are you able to move anywhere? Do you have enough money to make multiple trips where you’re applying? Are you okay taking a job somewhere that’s not Hawaii? Or do you need to pull beach patrol occasionally to wind down? Think very carefully about the geographic region and the neighborhoods that are in your potential department’s jurisdiction, because you will be spending a lot of time here. Also, think about the impact it will have on your family. Your family is, by far, your first and most powerful support in this career.
When I got the job as a sheriff’s deputy, I was required to move into that county (which was seven miles from my old house). We had two small children at the time, and the only place we could afford was a small apartment in a less-than-desirable neighborhood. Although it worked out in the end, moving there put tremendous pressure and stress on my marriage and family, and many hardships and arguments could have been prevented if I had perhaps waited a year or two to apply when we could afford a good house for raising our children.
- What’s the reputation of the department? Law enforcement agencies think of each other much like high schoolers do. Some have the reputation of being relentless ticket-writers; others, hard-charging guardians of the ghetto. Still other departments may be ridden with scandals that have stretched out for years, or on the brink of shutting down, dissolving, etc. Talk to other LEOs in the area. See what other officers think of them. Such a large fraternity as law enforcement means networks run deep, and there may be things you haven’t heard that could affect your decision. My first job was in a department that was known as a “speed trap,” but it also had a reputation among LEOs as a squared-away workplace that took care of their officers and equipment. I got a lot of experience doing top-to-bottom police work that would have been difficult to obtain in a larger department, since they have specialized units that do much of the follow-up and investigative work after patrol writes the initial report.
- How long do you have? Becoming the police is nothing like a “normal” or civilian job. In fact, despite popular belief, you don’t “join” a police department. Instead, you are selected through a rigorous, arduous, time-consuming process that will violate your privacy in every sense of the word. Plus, being a government enterprise, these applications take longer than many people expect. Some places, however, can finish the process in a matter of weeks. In my first job, I applied in the beginning of January. By mid-March, I had gone through the entire process and received my decision. Meanwhile, a nearby metro department was becoming famous for its 18-month process, from application to hire date. Many federal jobs are similarly lengthy. Most people don’t have a year and a half to wait, so be sure to ask recruiting officers what the application timeline looks like these days. Depending on city council budgets, the needs of the department, or the will of the brass, these timelines can change on a monthly basis, so don’t take the website’s word for it.
- What am I getting out of it? Sure, it feels good to pin on the badge and holster up that gun. But eventually, the badge gets dull and the gun gets heavy. Also, kids like to eat, and banks appreciate the occasional car payment. So what’s in it for you? I went to the Academy with 88 other rookies from across the state. Some were pulling paychecks nearing $20/hr – plus overtime for driving department vehicles to the Academy. Others were making minimum wage, while a few had to pay their own way. Salaries vary wildly, but be careful about just looking at the given “salary” number. Instead, pay attention to the take-home pay after various expenses are cut from your check. How much is health insurance? Depending on your family size and the employer subsidies, this can be almost a quarter of your paycheck immediately sapped. Does your department provide your equipment, or do you have to cough up the cash yourself? Good flashlights are over $100, weapons range from $400-$1000, and don’t get me started on vests and leather goods. Someone will be footing a $2500+ bill when you get hired, so make sure you’re prepared to help out if needed. Some local departments also offer tuition reimbursement programs. These encourage you to continue your education, which can be invaluable (or required) in reaching your career goals. This can effectively be considered a raise in some cases. Finally, a few departments are offering hiring bonuses to help recruit more qualified candidates. These can help offset moving expenses and pay off debts that would otherwise be a burden. Of course, there is sometimes a long list of reasons why these departments are having difficulties finding good candidates. However, if the department would be a good fit for you and vice versa, it may be worth considering.
Retirement is another factor that, one day, you’ll be thrilled that you thought about. Do they have a stable pension? How much do you have to contribute? How long do you have before you can retire? How long before you’re vested? If you leave early, do you get your contributions back? I’ve seen required contributions close to 20% of your salary, which would probably hurt to know is cash out of your pocket. Of course, those pensions can also be balanced by a quick path to a healthy retirement, which can leave a long time left for a second career or a dream lifestyle. Ask the human resources employees what the whole picture looks like.
Other job benefits may be less tangible than cash, but can be equally as important. Law enforcement agencies have gotten creative in their fringe benefits, making some of us outsiders drool. Ask basic questions, and you may have some surprising answers. What type of schedule does the department have? I always worked a traditional 8-hour shift, 5 days per week. Other agencies offer 10-hour/4 day schedules, or 12-hour/3 day schedules. These allow less working days per week, giving you constant long weekends. This can help offset the daily stress of the job and, despite working odd hours, give you more family time. Another novel way that agencies improve morale is by allowing officers to have paid workouts. For example, I once applied to a department that runs 10-hour shifts, but the last hour is optional if you want to workout. As you can imagine, competition to join this agency was stiff. Not only does this help you stay in shape, it allows for no excuses when it comes to staying healthy and strong. You’ll be more confident during your shift, and I can only imagine the camaraderie on shift would be high after countless nights working out together.
Finally, whether your department provides take-home vehicles for its officers can have an impact on your finances and job satisfaction. I’ve seen departments that only issue take-home cars for a select few employees with seniority, while others only have fleet vehicles. If you can save the gas from your daily commute, that can be like getting a $1,000-$5,000 raise per year just in gas. Plus, the reduction in wear-and-tear on your personal vehicle can be a big plus.
Don’t fall into the trap of believing every law enforcement agency only differs by name. These considerations only touch the tip of the iceberg when it comes to departmental considerations. I hope you will be deliberate in choosing your future employer. It’s a long process, and it starts with lots of purposeful research on your end. And remember, don’t apply somewhere you don’t intend to accept employment, because they may be the one that gives you a job.