Become a Cop >> Browse Articles >> 10 Steps to Joining the Force


Step 1: Learn About the Law Enforcement Field

Step 1: Learn About the Law Enforcement Field


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.

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.

Federal agents investigate everything from internal fraud, waste and abuse to postal fraud to terrorism. If there is a federal law on the books, there is an agency responsible for investigating violations against it.

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.

But most of all, expect to enjoy it. Federal agents are often times the most revered of all law enforcement officers.

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.

PoliceLink School Finder

Save time in your search for a degree program. Use PoliceLink's School Finder to locate schools online and in your area.

* In the event that we cannot find a program from one of our partner schools that matches your specific area of interest, we may show schools with similar or unrelated programs.