Becoming a Patrol Officer: Careers, Salary Info & Job Description

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What are the pros and cons of a career as a patrol officer? Read on to get the truth about the requirements and the rewards in this field to determine if becoming a patrol officer is the right job for you.
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Pros and Cons of Being a Patrol Officer

Patrol officers are police officers or sheriff's deputies employed by law enforcement agencies at the local and state levels. See the pros and cons to decide if this career is a good fit.

Pros of Being a Patrol Officer
Satisfaction of knowing you are helping people*
Job security. There will always be a need for patrol officers*
Opportunities for advancement in rank and responsibility*
Diverse employment opportunities at federal, state and municipal levels*

Cons of Being a Patrol Officer
No guarantee of a particular shift or set of hours*
Increase in job-related fatality (Up 13% from 2010)**
Pay varies considerably according to geographic location and level of experience*
Exposure to violence, communicable diseases and stressful conditions*
On-the-job injury, often serious (18% resulting in days away from work)*
Emotionally or psychologically distressing situations*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund

Career Information

Job Description and Duties

Patrol officers are assigned to a geographic area or zone of a county or city. Their job encompasses patrolling the assigned area; their patrols might be done on foot, in a motorized vehicle, on a bicycle or on horseback. Tasks include responding to calls for service, making arrests, enforcing applicable laws, writing detailed reports on events they are involved in, providing testimony in court, rendering first aid, conducting traffic stops and issuing citations. Each situation that the patrol officer is involved in will present a different set of circumstances in which the officer must make decisions based upon the prevailing law, the police department's policies and the officer's own common sense. A patrol officer's work day may go by without a single arrest or call for service, or the day may be filled with several volatile situations in which the officer must exercise skills such as self-defense, empathy, negotiation, persuasion or critical thinking. There really is no such thing as a 'typical' day in the life of a patrol officer.

Salary Information

Current U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) information shows that the median annual wage for patrol officers is about $57,000, as of May 2014. Most patrol officers earned between $33,000 and $92,000, depending upon where the job is located and the officer's level of experience. Patrol officers employed full time will most likely be eligible for health and life insurance and paid time off.

Career Paths and Specialization

Patrol officers new to the profession can expect to start their career as a junior officer in a police or sheriff's department. As a junior officer, the new recruit will most likely be partnered with a more seasoned member of the agency who would provide some of the on-the-job training. As the officer gains experience and seniority, he/she may be given additional responsibilities or become a training officer. Moving up in rank (such as corporal or sergeant) is possible, providing the officer has a good record of service and strong scores on written promotion exams.

Opportunities to specialize in the field will most likely depend upon the department's needs. Large metropolitan areas with bigger police and sheriff's departments are more likely to have specialized departments, such as forensic analysis labs or units that deal only with a specific type of crime. In addition to specializing within one's own police or sheriff's department, patrol officers with experience have the option of working in state and federal law enforcement agencies. It is not uncommon for state agencies and federal agencies to give hiring preference to candidates with prior experience in patrol and police work. Although the BLS shows a slower-than-average 5% job growth projection for the 2012-2022 decade, continued need for public safety and the high turnover rates most departments face mean plenty of opportunities exist for qualified candidates.

What Are the Requirements?

The journey to become a patrol officer starts with being a USA citizen, being at least 21 years old and having a high school diploma or its equivalent. Many police and sheriff's agencies will also require psychological testing, a physical exam and a criminal background check.

Beyond the basics, each police or sheriff's agency will have its own requirements for new recruits. Some police agencies require candidates to have an associate's or bachelor's degree to become a patrol officer. A potential recruit will need to obtain basic training through a police or sheriff's office training academy. There the candidate will receive instruction in topics such as laws, self-defense, interviewing techniques, protocols on carrying out an arrest, conducting traffic stops and gun use and safety. Classes at an academy are a mixture of physically demanding training and classwork. Upon graduation from an academy, the new officer would continue training with the department under the guidance of a more senior officer for a period of time. Most patrol officers must obtain and maintain certification as a law enforcement officer from their state's certification board. Key characteristics that will help you in obtaining the necessary training and certification as a patrol officer are:

•Strength and stamina

•Ability to exercise good judgment

•Being perceptive

•Being able to communicate with a variety of people under differing circumstances

Job Postings from Real Employers

Although requirements for patrol officers will vary from one jurisdiction to the next, there are similarities between hiring agencies across the United States. In addition to completing a training academy program, most agencies look for candidates with solid work histories, a high school diploma or equivalent, and evidence of good moral character. Candidates must possess stamina and an ability to multitask and think on their feet. Here are a few snapshots of job postings from April 2012 for patrol officers.

•An agency in Ohio is looking for a patrol officer who is at least 21 years old but less than 35 years old with bonus points for applicants with prior military experience. The candidate must have completed basic police officer training and the agency would prefer someone with college credits in courses related to law enforcement.

•A Wisconsin sheriff's agency is looking for patrol deputies to patrol assigned areas, enforce traffic laws and maintain good relations with the community at large. The agency offers on-the-job training to those who have already completed law enforcement certification or those who are eligible for such certification. They require a high school diploma and 60 completed college credits.

•A Kansas sheriff's organization has an opening for a patrol officer. The applicant must be at least 21 years of age and possess a Kansas driver's license and a high school diploma or its equivalent. The applicant must be able to pass written, physical, background and drug tests. The applicant should also have a stable work history.

Standing Out in the Field

Police and sheriff's agencies are very selective in hiring for patrol officers. Often a recruit will have to prove his or her mettle by going through a tough screening process designed to weed out candidates whose physical, mental, legal or moral standing are not a match with what the department wants in a patrol officer. In addition, officers are expected to be confident and in control at all times. The following qualities will help establish and advance your career:

•Be physically fit to excel at the tests for agility and fitness tests

•Be free of legal convictions, especially on felony charges

•Be honest; many agencies will require a lie detector test as part of the recruiting process

•Be bi-lingual; many agencies consider a second language as an asset for the job

•Be a college graduate, or take classes in law or criminal justice studies

•Gain military experience; many agencies will accept candidates who serve part-time in the National Guard.

•Have solid character references available

Other Careers to Consider

If you find that becoming a patrol officer is not the right fit for you, there are other options in fields very similar to this one. Other law enforcement roles include:

Correctional Officers

Corrections officers work in jails and prisons and are responsible for maintaining order and ensuring that prisoners are afforded their rights under applicable laws. These officers also undergo academy and on-the-job training and may be required to pass certification tests. Corrections officers do not have to patrol an area, but may still be required to carry out an arrest, defuse tense situations or testify in court. Corrections officers may work indoors or out, may be required to transport prisoners and must be able to multitask and remain vigilant at all times. Dealing with hostile prisoners can be very dangerous, but also rewarding when one can effect change in a prisoner's behavior.

Probation Officers

Probation officers help convicts become productive citizens by overseeing their progress in transitioning from prisoner to free citizen. In 2010 there were nearly 5 million adults being supervised by probation and parole officers, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Supervision usually involves making home and employer visits, searching a person or their property for illegal goods or contraband, testifying in court, and working closely with law enforcement. Probation officers often must meet with their charges during nontraditional work hours or respond to middle-of-the-night emergency calls. The work can involve long hours and at times be dangerous. However, probation officers can have the satisfaction of seeing an individual go from law breaker to law-abiding citizen, knowing that they played a part in that transition. Training and certification are required to become a probation officer.

EMTs and Paramedics

Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT) and paramedics respond to calls for medical assistance. Their job involves providing on-the-spot medical care in a variety of emergency situations, so they must be able to multitask and think quickly as they follow standard medical procedures in the midst of chaos. EMTs and paramedics often work with fire departments or with an ambulance service provider. As first responders, EMTs and paramedics must be able to work effectively with law enforcement and fire fighters in dealing with volatile or sometimes hostile situations. EMTs and paramedics undergo specialized training and certification procedures to be allowed to practice.

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George Mason University

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Georgetown University

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Lincoln Tech

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Saint Joseph's University

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