Whether directing traffic or chasing down armed criminals, police officers dedicate their lives to protecting the lives and property of civilians. Television dramas and films tend to glamorize law enforcement, focusing on the action and danger that comes with being a police officer without touching on the more mundane realities. They seldom mention what steps are needed to pursue a career in law enforcement, or what someone interested in becoming a police officer can expect to earn. To qualify to become a police officer you must be at least 21 years of age, be a U.S. citizen and be able to pass a number of physical, mental and personal evaluations. All law enforcement jobs require at least a high school diploma (or equivalent). However, more and more police departments are requiring applicants to have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, as do all Federal agencies. Criminal justice is the most common area of study for those interested in law enforcement and earning a degree in this field greatly expands the career options of a police officer.
Anyone wishing to apply for a position as a police officer must take and pass a civil service examination, administer by the police department at which they are applying. After passing the civil service examination, he or she will have to pass a rigorous physical examination to test the candidate’s vision, hearing, strength and agility. If the applicant meets the physical requirements of the police department, he or she must then past a drug test and a lie detector test. Once the applicant passes all of the mandatory examinations, he or she then goes through a series of interviews with the senior police officers to evaluate the candidates personality and character. The police department will also conduct an investigation in the candidates personal history. If the police department deems that the candidate is fit to become a police officer, he or she is sent for training at a police academy. This training generally takes between 12 to 14 weeks.
Pay for police officers varies widely and depends on a number of factors such as education, experience and location. Most law enforcement jobs are full-time, though some smaller communities do employ officers on a part-time basis. A police officer may become eligible for promotion after a probationary period lasting from 6 months to 3 years, depending on the department or agency. Promotion in rank is generally accompanied by an increase in pay. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median pay for patrol officers in 2008 was $51,410 annually. The median annual income of investigators and detectives is $60,910 and is $75,490 for supervisors. Other officers make slightly less. For instance, fish and game wardens make earn a median income of $48,930 and transit or railroad police make around $46,670. The lowest median pay for an officer is $32,390 for parking enforcement officers. Most police officers become eligible for retirement at half-pay after 20 to 30 years of service.