From the 1600s to the modern day, some form of policing has been responsible for keeping order in U.S. towns and cities. Naturally, policing has evolved from the night watch of 400 years ago, and now there are many different types of police officers. Police not only respond to crimes; they partner with neighborhoods in crime prevention, community building, citizen education, and much more. People who are motivated to protect and serve their community have an array of interesting paths to choose from.
Are There Different Types of Police Officers?
Most people picture traditional, uniformed police officers when they think of the men and women patrolling their neighborhoods. However, today’s police officers have many other roles as well. Policing has become specialized and now includes patrol officers, detectives, game wardens, highway patrol officers, and many others.
The potential benefits of pursuing a police officer career include serving the community, helping people make better choices, saving lives, working in a wide variety of roles, and forming bonds with other police officers.
Regardless of their specific role, however, police officers enjoy many of the same benefits that drew them to police work and keep them on the job. These benefits include the opportunity to serve their community and keep people safe by apprehending criminals and preventing crime. Officers also enjoy the camaraderie they have with their partners and fellow officers. No matter the field, police work can be dangerous and difficult, and the shared bond among officers is a powerful one. There are many different types of police officers. They include:
Uniformed patrol officers. Patrol officers have an assigned beat and may be involved in responding to accidents or crimes in progress, writing speeding tickets, or helping citizens.
Police detectives. Detectives gather evidence and investigate all kinds of crimes.
State police and highway patrol officers. State police and highway patrol officers keep state and federal highways safe.
Transit and railroad police. City and state transit authorities employ transit and railroad police officers to keep commuters and travelers safe on rail and bus systems.
Fish and game wardens. These police officers patrol different public areas such as state, local, and national parks. Each role is different and has specific duties and jurisdictions. However, some key skills and responsibilities are common to all of them.
1. Uniformed Officers
Uniformed officers are the most well-known type of police officer. Whether patrolling a neighborhood on foot, ticketing traffic violators, or responding to a domestic disturbance, the role of uniformed officers is to prevent crime, enforce the law, investigate criminal activity, and protect citizens. A large city police force may assign uniformed officers to different divisions that deal with specific types of crime. For example, an officer may be assigned to a drug-trafficking unit and investigate only drug cases. In a small town, a patrol officer may have more general duties, since the department is likely small and the crime rate low.
Uniformed Officer Responsibilities
The daily life of a uniformed patrol officer is anything but uniform. The following are some of a uniformed officer’s responsibilities.
Officers may patrol on foot in a neighborhood, or, if their beat is large, in a patrol vehicle. They look for crimes in progress and provide a police presence as a deterrent and as a resource when people need them. Patrol officers look for traffic violators, people in need of assistance, and evidence of criminal activity, large and small (such as graffiti or other vandalism).
Officers respond to radio calls from dispatch. These calls indicate the type of call, the severity (speeding, domestic disturbance, physical altercation), and location. Officers may be the first responders to a traffic accident and must provide traffic control.
When making arrests, uniformed officers are either acting on an arrest warrant or they see the crime in progress. They may also base an arrest on probable cause. Officers must follow legal procedures when arresting and booking a suspect, such as reading the person their Miranda rights.
These types of police officers write up incident reports that include pertinent details of each event. Arrest reports, car accidents, robberies, and other incidents all require detailed reports. Reports include information such as the time of the call, the nature of the incident, who was on the scene, and what the outcome was. Depending on the state, police reports may be public documents unless the information is connected to a case.
Another one of a uniformed officer’s job duties is to provide court testimony. Officers may testify about traffic citations or arrests for more serious crimes. Experienced police officers agree that providing court testimony can be stressful because it calls police work into question and can feel adversarial. Officers who prepare for their court testimony can present their police work in the best light.
Uniformed Officer Skills
Successful patrol officers must be brave, physically fit, and able to think on their feet. They are required to abide by a code of ethics and must have a team mindset. The following are some additional skills of uniformed patrol officers.
Having critical thinking skills means being able to assess a situation and respond appropriately. Police officers are often in situations that involve quick assessment and decision-making. Critical thinking skills can be honed through on-the-job experience, and these skills can help police officers remain calm under pressure. Many police academies are adapting their coursework to include training in critical thinking skills.
Writing reports is just one form of communication in which uniformed officers need to be skilled. Officers also must be able to communicate verbally with colleagues and citizens and to be clear in their approach to suspects and victims. Oral and written communication skills are vital, as are listening skills, and even nonverbal communication skills, such as being able to interpret facial expressions and gestures.
Analytical skills are essential for good policing. Police officers learn to identify and gather evidence in all sorts of situations, from traffic accidents to robberies. They need to be able to identify information, appraise it for credibility, and adapt as the investigation evolves. They should also be aware of all the factors that impact an investigation, including witnesses and victims. Developing an analytical mindset should be a goal of all uniformed police officers.
Police officers often interact with citizens on their very worst days. They may have been victims of a crime or have committed a crime themselves. Empathy and compassion can be an officer’s most effective weapon in solving or preventing crime, because they can help the officer build positive relationships within the community they serve.
Some uniformed police officers move up through the ranks of their department into different roles. Many have their sights on the role of police detective. In large city police forces, detectives may be assigned to specific crime units, such as murder (including cold cases), robbery, or human trafficking. In smaller communities, detectives may be responsible for investigating all crimes.
Police detectives investigate crimes, gathering evidence at the scene of a crime, questioning suspects and witnesses, and building a case for prosecutors to bring before a judge. Detectives must follow the law when gathering evidence and interviewing witnesses, or risk having the case thrown out because of technical mistakes. As a result, detectives have education and training in investigative techniques as well as in criminal justice. The responsibilities of a police detective also include examining criminal evidence and records, asking a judge for a warrant for a suspect’s arrest, and testifying in court.
These types of police officers need many of the same skills as uniformed officers. These include:
Analytical skills. Investigators must be able to put together evidence from a variety of sources to support their investigation. They also need to appraise information to ensure its credibility.
Communication skills. Detectives should be able to speak with suspects, witnesses, prosecutors, judges, and members of the community.
Interpersonal skills. Detectives must be able to make a personal connection with people involved in an investigation to gain their trust.
Physical fitness. Since detectives also participate in raids and arrests, they should be physically fit and have mental stamina.
3. State Police Officers and Highway Patrol Officers
The roles of state police and state highway patrol officers frequently overlap; these officers are sometimes referred to as state troopers. Their law enforcement responsibilities primarily center on traffic patrol of state and federal highways, commercial vehicle checks, and assisting local and federal law enforcement agencies with investigations. They also rely on the skills that all police officers must have, such as physical stamina, critical thinking abilities, analytical skills, verbal and written communication skills, and the ability to work under pressure.
However, these agencies also have specific duties and areas of responsibility.
State Police Officers
State police officers generally serve as part of a state’s department of public safety. The duties of a state police officer include the following:
Highway patrol. Officers promote safety by monitoring speed limits, seatbelt law adherence, cell phone usage while driving, impaired driving, and other violations on state and federal roadways.
Emergency response. State police may be the first responders to highway crashes and may control the scene so EMTs and firefighters can treat victims. They also assist in the investigation.
Search and rescue. State police help in the search and rescue efforts for citizens who are lost or injured.
Testimony. As officers of the law, they appear in court to testify in criminal cases, civil cases surrounding accidents, or other matters.
Commercial vehicle inspections. State police enforce regulations regarding commercial vehicles such as trucks and school buses.
Specialized law enforcement. State police divisions may include K-9 investigative units, SWAT teams, organized crime investigations, and drug or human trafficking investigations.
Highway Patrol Officers
Highway patrol officers are responsible for enforcing safety on state and federal highways. Those duties primarily focus on traffic control, speed limit enforcement, and accident response. However, these officers have other duties as well.
Protection of state government offices. These types of police officers may be assigned to protect a state’s capitol complex and governor’s office.
Prisoner transport. Often, highway patrol officers process and transport prisoners to and from the courthouse.
Assistance to local law enforcement. Highway patrol officers assist local law enforcement with crash investigations and other duties.
Community interaction. These officers may be called upon to meet with students and others to promote highway safety.
Transit and railroad police patrol public transportation areas, such as subway stations, train stations, and bus stations as well as bus and rail yards. They are responsible for ensuring the safety of commuters and passengers as well as transit workers. These officers monitor individuals for safety violations, make arrests, write incident reports, and direct security operations. Because of the high volume of transitory passengers, transit police need to be able to remain alert and pay keen attention to detail. They should also have strong communication skills.
The transit police who patrol subways and bus stations may have a very specific beat, but they are responsible for the safety of a large community. For example, in New York City about 3,500 transit officers patrol the city’s public transit system, which served some 3 million riders as of March 2022.
Depending on the agency, metro transit police may include units such as explosives detection, accident reconstruction, crisis intervention, and SWAT teams.
The long history of the railroad police dates back to the founding of the rail industry and the spate of train robberies immortalized in fact and in fiction. Railroad companies employ these police departments, which work with federal, state, and local law enforcement to investigate crimes.
Union Pacific railroad police are state-certified law enforcement agents whose jurisdiction covers crimes committed on 32,000 miles of rail in 23 states.
Fish and game wardens patrol and protect state and national parks, protecting wildlife and humans alike. As with all law enforcement officers, they cite people for violations in their jurisdictions, which may range from littering to illegal hunting. They also work with other law enforcement agencies to investigate crimes.
Although game wardens and park rangers sometimes have overlapping duties, fish and game wardens are law enforcement officers. As with their counterparts in other agencies, they write reports and testify in court.
Their duties also include:
Search and rescue. Fish and game wardens assist in tracking lost and injured hikers.
Investigate wildlife incursions. When animals cross into human territory, wardens are responsible for investigating the damage and determining how to prevent it from recurring.
Ensuring public safety. Wardens are responsible for protecting humans against animal attacks. They may have to kill predator animals that have attacked humans.
Education. In part to prevent the need to kill wildlife, wardens conduct educational programs to inform people on how to stay safe in parks. Game wardens, like all police officers, must have critical thinking skills, good communication skills, and be highly aware of their surroundings. They also need the following skills or attributes that are specific to their role:
Physical fitness. Game wardens must be able to hike, swim, and bike for long distances.
The following steps can help you decide whether a police officer career is a good fit for you: talk to family, friends, and police officers; visit police departments; shadow police officers on the job; consider your credit and criminal history; and research your earning potential.
Officers say that protecting and serving their community is a huge draw. They enjoy helping people with difficult situations, the adrenaline rush of making an arrest, and the satisfaction of solving a crime. They also speak of the camaraderie of the profession and the bond they have with fellow officers.
So, how do you know if a career as a police officer is right for you? One way is to check out the different types of police officers before you commit to the academy. Ask to talk with an officer about their job. Some agencies allow citizens to ride along on a shift to get an idea of what the day-to-day job is like.
The steps to becoming a police officer start long before you enroll in a police academy or take firearms training. They involve getting the right education and training, as well as some essential skills.
Get Your Degree
While many police departments still only require a high school diploma, that is changing. Many agencies now want officers to have at least an associate degree or a bachelor’s degree. Higher education can also correlate with higher earnings and the potential for promotion. A degree in criminal justice or a related field can be an excellent foundation for a career in law enforcement.
Commit to Ethical Standards
Police officers have to adhere to strict ethical standards. Candidates must pass criminal background checks before they can be considered for employment. This means avoiding drug and alcohol abuse. Candidates often must pass a polygraph test as well.
Physical and Mental Fitness
Strength and stamina are essential to many tasks officers may undertake. Because of this, academy training includes physical training. Potential candidates have to pass a basic physical fitness test that includes sit-ups, pushups, and a run, before being accepted. Many departments also require a psychological assessment before hiring a new officer.
Academy and Field Training
Police departments pay for police academy training for cadets who have passed their application process (fitness, background check, psychological assessment). The academy is a rigorous training process that includes education in criminal justice and the law, firearms, and self-defense. Cadets may also receive training on how to interact with the public.
After successfully graduating from the academy, rookies are assigned to an experienced partner for in-the-field training.
Many resources are available to help you find the agency that’s right for you. State, local, and federal law enforcement agencies are always looking for candidates who meet their requirements and who are excited about the opportunity to join their force. Other resources are available as well, including:
GoLawEnforcement.com. In addition to job openings, this site includes practice exams and study guides for students.
Police1. The Police1 job page includes resources for candidates who are looking for a new position and for agencies seeking qualified officers. Police1 also includes career resources and articles on law enforcement.
Many factors have an impact on police officer salaries. These include experience, education, and location. Metro police departments, for example, will likely pay more than rural police forces. The type of agency also has an impact on salary. Because of the high demand for police officers, some agencies offer signing bonuses for recruits and salaries over $100,000 for experienced officers.
The May 2020 median annual salaries for different areas of police and detective jobs include the following: Detectives – $86,940; transit/railroad police – $72,580; uniformed/patrol officers – $65,540; and fish/game wardens – $58,040.
The highest-paying cities for police officers include large cities in California, including San Jose, San Francisco, Santa Rosa, Vallejo, and Los Angeles. The following sections provide median salary information for several different types of police officers.
Police Officers and Detectives
The median salary for all police officers and detectives was $67,290 as of May 2020, according to the BLS, with detectives and investigators earning $86,940 and police and sheriff’s patrol officers making $65,540. The BLS forecasts the number of jobs for police officers and detectives will rise 7% between 2020 and 2030, which is about the same as the average projected for all occupations.
Modern policing is nothing like the early days of the village night watch. All types of police officers receive top training in all aspects of their profession. They prevent crime using highly technical forensic techniques as well as old-fashioned shoe-leather investigations. While police have come under greater scrutiny in recent years, most career police officers agree they love their jobs and the impact they have on society and their communities.
People who are interested in a career as a police officer have a wide variety of roles to choose from, including the police jobs described here. If you like the idea of serving and protecting your community, explore the ways that a job as a police officer can be an exciting and rewarding career.