Police Officer

Called Constable, policeman/woman, patrol officer, and many other names including the derogatory Cop, perhaps no other position in criminal justice and law is as visible to the public as the police officer.

The police officer, or law enforcement officer is the front line in criminal justice and as such, is faced daily with the task of at once protecting the public while at the same time being called upon to make snap judgment calls, many of which involve the taking or protecting of lives. Thus, the role of police officer in the criminal justice system is perhaps the most difficult, yet also one of the most important and often under-appreciated.

Police officers must be physically fit, prepared for the demands of chasing suspects, apprehending, and subduing these in the conducting of their duties. A good sense of justice, that is right and wrong, must be elements of the police officer’s mental makeup. Additionally, the police officer must know the law, which is becoming increasingly difficult and communication skills must be a part of his/her repertoire of abilities. Finally, the police officer must be quick under pressure and possess both courage and problem solving skills.

The Role of a Police Officer in Criminal Justice and Law

The police (law enforcement) officer often swears an oath to uphold the law and protect the public. As the face of the criminal justice system, police officers are the most visible and hence often held to a higher standards than even their superiors, wrong though this may be. Also, the role of the police officer is that of the lowest on the totem pole of the justice system and is generally the lowest paid position, yet the weightiest responsibilities generally fall on the shoulders of the police officer.

For instance, although judges may have the power of lives in their hands, a judge has the convenience of time to determine the right/just course of action whereas the police officer often has milliseconds to make the same call. A police officers superiors can direct an officer to a situation which will place him/her in immediate danger, yet does so from a safe office. Of course, in most cases, that superior has been in the role as well, so has earned that position. However, there are also times when a district attorney will do the same and has certainly never been faced with such personal danger. Hence, the police officer walks a precarious line in the execution of his/her duties. It is not a role to be taken lightly.

As the front line of defense in the war against crime, the police officer must arrest and detain people when necessary and keep the peace when possible. Police officers respond to domestic disputes, which in recent decades have proven to be more dangerous than any other aspect of their duties. Police officers often are called upon to control riots and often must face abuse at the hands of the very public they are sworn to protect as when protesters spit on them or throw objects.

Police Professionalism and the Bell Curve

The Bell Curve explains why some police officers do a great job, some do a terrible job, and most fall in between.
The Bell Curve explains why some police officers do a great job, some do a terrible job, and most fall in between.

At times, some police officers have failed to maintain their professionalism and this often misrepresents the majority. For instance, YouTube is full of scenes where police officers are clearly abusing their position, at times with fatal results. Although the sheer numbers of videos appearing on this medium give the appearance that police as a rule are corrupt, the evidence simply does not bear this out.

The fact is that there are hundreds of thousands of law enforcement officers in the nation and the videos only represent a small fraction of police officers overall. In reality, studies show that there is no more or fewer “bad” police than there are to be found in any other profession.

The Bell Curve was developed decades ago which demonstrates that in any situation, there is always a minority on either end of the scale and a majority in the middle. Applied to any profession, this tells that there will always be some which do an outstanding job, some which do a terrible job, and the majority are in the middle, just doing the job, nothing greater, nothing less. However, few video the great jobs done by law enforcement officials, only the bad, so that it appears that there is a problem in the nation.

Read too, Police Professionalism in the Age of YouTube

This simply demonstrates the often difficult role police face in the criminal justice system and the often uphill struggle some face. The role of police officer in criminal justice and the carrying out of law is not an easy one and anyone contemplating a career as such would bear this in mind. Of course, on the upside is that a police officer, while a devil to those he arrests, if often a savior to those unable to protect themselves. The rewards of the role are as many as the hardships, which is the attraction for many.

Training and Preparation for a Career as a Police Officer

Training and preparation for a career as a police officer can be as simple as getting the position and going to the police academy or as complicated as taking specialized courses developed by many institutions of higher learning. At one time, to become a police officer was simply a matter of applying for the job and getting accepted. In time, police forces began to require some additional training such as a police academy wherein a new officer would be taught self-defense measures, law, gun use and maintenance, and other related functions. Early police academies simply taught the basics of the job. However, the profession has evolved and continues to do so today.

US Federal Protective Service Police officer w...
US Federal Protective Service Police officer with a riot shield. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In some cities, applicants for the position of police officer are required to have at least a Bachelor’s Degree in Criminal Justice or a field related to the specific police position to which he/she is applying. These are generally the major cities whereas in smaller cities less is required. Small towns generally do not even require attendance at a police academy, but this varies sometimes widely even within the same county. In all cases in the United States, a candidate must have at minimum a High School diploma or GED. In other nations, the same is generally true, though the specifics may differ slightly depending on the social structure of the country.

Additionally, there are often psychological exams to be passed, drug screenings, and other examinations. There are generally some form of physical exam including a physical abilities test. Some departments have even begun to implement written word comprehension tests because of a history in their departments of police officers causing legal problems through their poor use of the language on written reports. Even in police academies, there is often a good bit of training on writing reports because of this.

Read Also: How Sir Robert Peel Influences Modern Police 

Thus, to prepare for a career in law enforcement as a police officer, the candidate considering the position would want to be in good physical condition, able at least to lift more than fifty pounds, run for a couple of miles, reach and stretch repeatedly, and perform other mildly strenuous activities for at least several minutes at a time. In other words, stay away from the donuts until you have the job.

Additionally, it would be wise to spend some time gaining an understanding of why certain laws are in place so as to gain the judgment needed to enforce such laws when necessary. Improving your vocabulary and studying communication skills would certainly be assets to the position and whether it is required or not, getting a University Degree in Criminal Justice, Psychology, Sociology, Government, or a similarly related social field would not only be an asset to your career, but enable you to move up in the ranks more quickly.

Sir Robert Peel
Sir Robert Peel (Photo credit: Wikipedia) The father of Modern Policing.

Also, many find that military service aids them in a career in law enforcement as a police officer or any other position. Some enter the military, serve and go to school while enlisted or enter school on the G.I. Bill after, then apply for a position as a police officer while enrolled in College. This is perhaps the ideal way to prepare for a career, but as of yet, there are no hard and fast rules as such.

How to Apply for a Position as a Police Officer

The way to apply for a position as a police officer is the same in any jurisdiction. The Police Chief answers to the Mayor of a city and the job is a city position. Thus, simply check with city hall for the requirements. In most cases, you can apply directly at the police station but in some cases you must go through city hall. A simple phone call to either the department or the city hall in your location will save you the time of going to the wrong place first.

Also, in most jurisdictions today, you must live in the city or very near to the city wherein you will serve as a police officer so before applying, be sure to ask about this if you do not.

Additional Information Related to a Career as a Police Officer

Police officers are generally required to respond to an emergency even if off duty. In most cases, law enforcement officers are required to carry out administrative duties such as filing reports, especially when an arrest has been made or a ticket written. They are required to patrol neighborhoods in some manner, whether in a car, on foot, bike, or even horse.

Some patrol officers may be assigned to K-9 units. Some too must transport suspects to jail and at times may be called upon to transport special prisoners to hospitals, remaining with them, and returning them to custody at the jail after the procedure. Others may be called upon to conduct public presentations such as drug awareness campaigns at schools and similar functions. Some even moon-light as security guards outside their official duties for extra earnings. In some cases, police officers are asked to move into high-crime areas of the city as part of broken windows and community outreach programs.

Police officer (U.S.) taking fingerprints
Police officer (U.S.) taking fingerprints (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Advancements in police work are many. From the first line of police officer, often the patrol officer or as known in former times, the Beat Cop, there are many ways in which a career-minded individual who keeps a clean record can go. There are always going to be a need for detectives and this can be both a rewarding and challenging position as well as dangerous and intriguing.

With the crime rate and the population in the nation continuing to rise, the demand for police officers will continue to rise as well. In the United States as well as other nations, law enforcement is a necessary element of society and there will always be a demand for skilled, conscientious police officers.

Median Salary of a Police Officer

The salaries of police officers vary widely throughout the nation. In most cases, police officers starting out can expect earnings between $25K and $45K annually, though much depends on the location. Smaller towns generally pay less, though the risks are generally lower as well. Larger cities generally have higher starting salaries.

Read Also: The Principles of Policing by  Sir Robert Peel


The pay raises over time can be considerable, however, depending again on the city and the individual officer. Some cities offer automatic pay raises to keep up with inflation though in most cases, the pay only increases with advancements. Thus, as with the military, as rank increases, so does pay. The average pay for a corporal for instance, is around $55K whereas the average pay nationwide for a captain is $80K. Further up the scale, the Chief on average makes between $90K and 114K annually in the United States.

The benefits provided to police/law enforcement officers are generally the same across the board with most localities providing excellent medical coverage, life insurance, sick pay, vacations, and pensions. Uniform allowances are often part of the package and in most cases, the department will issue your primary weapon and some secondary. In all cases, police officers have the option to purchase their own weapons and their utility belt.

Of course, as many police officers will tell you, perhaps the greatest benefit to becoming a police officer is saving the life of someone in need. No amount of pay can beat that.

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