Study Law Enforcement: Degrees at a Glance
While popular TV shows might portray being a police officer as an exciting career of chasing down criminals and solving mysteries, there is much more to a career in law enforcement than meets the eye. At the same time, if you like the idea of public service and helping the community, a career in law enforcement can be rewarding. Law enforcement degree programs teach you how to serve in the field of criminal justice, working with investigators, handling evidence and legal documents, and using firearms and defense tactics to serve citizens.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, those who seek to become police officers, patrol officers, or correctional officers may face some competition, as the education requirements are low and the rate of growth for these careers is expected to be slower than average over the next decade. Experience in the field and/or higher education is crucial to gaining promotions to positions such as detectives, probation officers, or special investigators such as FBI agents.
|Who Should Apply for this Degree Program?||- Those looking to become law enforcement officers at the local or state level|| - Those seeking supervisory positions in law enforcement |
- Those looking to join federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI or the Secret Service
|Common Career Paths (approximate annual median salary)*||- Security Guard ($23,900)|
- Correctional Officer or Bailiff ($39,000)
- Private Detective or Investigator ($43,700)
- Police or Patrol Officer ($54,200)
| - Probation Officer ($47,800)|
- Detective or Special Investigator ($71,800)
- Police Chief or Law Enforcement Agency Supervisor ($77,900)
|Time to Completion||Average 2 years full time (less time based on experience, in some programs)||Average 4 years full time|
|Common Graduation Requirements||Ride along with police officer|| - Field experience course |
- Investigation and patrol practicals
|Prerequisites||High school diploma or GED|| Same as associate degree, plus the following:|
- 2.5 minimum GPA and set general education courses
- Junior status minimum (varies)
Source: *Bureau of Labor Statistics (May 2011 figures)
Associate Degrees in Law Enforcement
Many colleges have an Associate of Applied Science degree program in criminal justice, with the option to choose a concentration in law enforcement. Associate degree programs in law enforcement are designed to prepare students to meet the various physical, legal, and ethical requirements of the field. Students in this degree program will also be expected to participate in fieldwork, ride alongs with police officers, and other essential skills in report documentation, law, and defense as part of the graduation requirements. Students with an AAS in law enforcement usually pursue or continue their careers as police officers, private investigators, correctional officers, and security guards, among other common roles. You should know that, even with an associate degree, you'll still have to meet the physical standards and to finish the recruit training of the agency you're applying to before becoming an officer.
Pros and Cons
- You can serve the community out in the field, handling evidence, interviews, and many other tasks
- You can be directly involved in the full process of the criminal justice system, from investigations to trials
- There are a wide variety of jobs available in law enforcement, from the local to the federal level
- There are certain age/national limitations to becoming a candidate, and you have to meet many physical/mental standards (such as vision, hearing, and strength/agility)*
- Junior officers can expect to work shifts on the weekends, holidays, and other undesirable hours*
- Law enforcement has a very high rate of on-the-job injuries and fatalities*
Source: *Bureau of Labor Statistics
Courses and Requirements
Associate degree programs in law enforcement generally pair a liberal arts foundation with more specific training. There aren't many specific prerequisites for an associate degree program in criminal justice, though there are a number of general course requirements common among associate degree programs. You'll need to take an adequate amount of courses in social science (psychology and sociology), criminal investigation and procedure, and communications. You may also be able to take forensic science, legal, or business classes, depending on your program and interests. The following are some common topics for law enforcement courses:
- Interviewing and documentation procedure
- Leadership and ethics
- Defensive tactics
Online Training Information
Fully online associate degree programs in law enforcement are common, as are individual online and hybrid courses. Some online programs are classified strictly as 'criminal justice,' but you usually have the flexibility to choose your courses that would best suit a future career in law enforcement. In general, online programs are designed to prepare you for law enforcement positions at the local, state, and federal levels.
How Do I Stand Out with this Degree?
If you are under 21 years of age, you may consider working for a local law enforcement agency as a cadet. Agencies usually take cadet candidates that have recently graduated high school or who have less than two years of college experience. Cadets work in office settings, becoming familiar to the field of law enforcement. Though you don't necessarily need to be earning a degree to be one, you can gain valuable experience as a cadet and a higher chance of admittance into the agency's training program when you're of age.
If you are over 21 years of age, you can still gain practical experience through ride alongs or special programs, such as the Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS) program (www.policevolunteers.org).
Alternative Degrees and Training
If you are already working in law enforcement or if you wish to have a more active program of study, you may be able to find practical training programs that can earn you college credit, either toward a certificate or a specialized associate degree. Practical training programs usually involve more hands-on experience and guidance, emphasizing investigation and defense tactics in active settings. Some practical training programs are also offered online.
Bachelor's Degrees in Law Enforcement
Similarly to an associate degree program, a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science in law enforcement will teach you how to protect and serve citizens while upholding the law. Many programs include field experience or state-required training as part of the curricula. After achieving your bachelor's degree in law enforcement, you'll still have to undergo recruitment training at the specific agency you're applying to before becoming qualified as an officer. Those with bachelor's degrees and relevant experience can usually earn promotions to different positions, such as detectives, special agents, and law enforcement agency supervisors.
Pros and Cons
- Some university programs include licensing options in connection to local/state agencies*
- You'll get more extensive practical training in a four-year program as opposed to a two-year program
- A bachelor's degree can lead you to supervisory or administrative positions in law enforcement that aren't otherwise available to those with less education or experience
- Many common job positions in law enforcement don't require a college degree and are growing slower than average**
- Upper-end jobs such as in criminal treatment specialization are more demanding in workload (such as writing reports and working with troubled people) and hours (to meet deadlines)**
- Federal job positions (such as with the FBI) are more selective and are more demanding: for example, FBI agents must travel extensively on short notice and be able to relocate**
Source: *sbs.mnsu.edu, **Bureau of Labor Statistics
Courses and Requirements
The prerequisites for a law enforcement degree program usually involve holding a 2.5 GPA and completing a set amount of general education courses (specifically in social science, mathematics, and communication) before you can take the core law enforcement courses. Curricula for a law enforcement degree include classes similar to an associate degree program; one exception is that most bachelor's degree programs also require a field experience class as part of the graduation requirements. Here are some examples of course topics in law enforcement:
- Criminal investigations and procedure
- Ethics and professionalism
- Juvenile justice and organized crime
- Security and traffic management
Online Training Information
An online bachelor's degree program in law enforcement is ideal for those already involved in the demanding field of law enforcement seeking a more flexible study schedule. As with online associate degree programs, online bachelor's degree programs can be found fully online or in individual online/hybrid classes. Since many students benefit from practical hands-on and field experience during the course of a law enforcement program, online students are likewise given the chance to tackle fieldwork projects and 'real world scenario' experiences.
How Do I Stand Out with this Degree?
If you have your sights set on a higher-end in a law enforcement agency, then you should take advantage of programs that include a blend of legal, business, and/or leadership classes. Some of these blended courses are designed specifically for those aspiring to become supervisors, police chiefs, or administrators in law enforcement agencies. Also, having a strong background in legal knowledge and leadership skills can be a practical advantage in a law enforcement career.
Also, there are many internship opportunities offered for law enforcement students, at local and federal levels. While an internship with the FBI can be quite competitive and restrictive based on location, you can gain practical experience in the field while exploring the career opportunities of the FBI. Some of these internships are also paid, though such paid internships are even more exclusive.
If you're looking to work in the criminal justice system but you're primarily interested in working with evidence instead of people, then consider getting a degree in forensic science. Forensic scientists work with investigators to examine criminal evidence to help solve crimes and legal issues; they also serve as expert witnesses in court during trials. Usually forensic scientists need to be approved by the law enforcement agencies they work for before they're allowed to work in crime laboratories or on crime scenes. However, the most education a forensic scientist generally needs is a bachelor's degree. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 2010 that forensic scientists made an average of $52,000 a year, and the amount of jobs opening between 2010 and 2020 in forensic science is also expected to remain stable.
If your main interest lies in the legal side of the criminal justice system, then consider becoming a lawyer. Criminal lawyers, as either prosecutors or defense attorneys, work to charge or defend those who are convicted of a crime. Lawyers have many more requirements in regards to education and certification before they can practice, including passing an approved bar exam. However, in 2010 the average annual salary of lawyers was $112,800; also, the rate of growth for the field is expected to remain stable between 2010 and 2020.