Home > The Guide To Law Enforcement Career Paths


The Guide To Law Enforcement Career Paths

The Guide To Law Enforcement Career Paths

When people think about law enforcement, the first thing that comes to mind is often a uniformed police officer. While uniformed officers serve a valuable role within the police force and society as a whole, there are many other opportunities to build a career in law enforcement outside of the police force.

No matter what your current role in law enforcement is, now is a great time to be considering how you will develop your career within it. Job growth in law enforcement is strong at both the state and federal levels. Recent statistics show that police and detectives’ employment is projected to grow by five percent from 2019 to 2029. That rate is faster than the average for all occupations, which is four percent.

People who work in law enforcement perform a range of duties. They can handle everything from keeping their city’s streets safe to analyzing forensic evidence that solves national criminal cases. Recent technology advances, combined with an enhanced focus on homeland security, have increased the need for law enforcement officers ready to face national threats.

Along with many career prospects, law enforcement offers competitive benefits and often a higher-than-average salary. The national median pay for police officers and detectives is $65,170, with the lowest 10 percent earning under $37,710 and the highest 10 percent earning over $109,620. Of course, pay rates vary depending on the specific law enforcement role and its location.

Whether you are new to law enforcement or established and looking for a way to advance your career, you have plenty of options. Read on to learn more about the different positions available in the police force and law enforcement.

Examples of Law Enforcement Workers

Law enforcement is comprised of individuals and departments that serve in a variety of positions. Together, they keep our communities safe on a local, state, and federal level. Some jobs require a bachelor’s degree, while others only require a high school diploma. In many cases, getting a bachelor’s degree can help you advance your career more quickly.

Check with the specific agency where you work or want to work to find out more about their requirements for promotions and career advancement opportunities. The particular qualifications can vary from one agency to another.

Uniformed officers

There are several types of uniformed officers that serve law enforcement. They are all responsible for protecting and serving citizens in different capacities. They operate on local, state, and national levels to keep our communities safe.

Police officers are responsible for going out on regular patrols and responding to service calls. They could also be called upon to direct traffic on an accident site, give victims first aid, provide security at local events, or investigate burglaries.

Uniformed police officers spend a decent amount of their day responding to calls, which tends to involve paperwork. In small towns with limited police forces, a uniformed police officer might patrol an area alone. In larger cities and urban areas, police officers often patrol with a partner. Larger police agencies are organized into different districts, with paired officers responsible for a specific area. This allows officers to become familiar with a space so they can more quickly identify when things seem suspicious or out of order.

Many uniformed officers often start their shift unsure of what, exactly, will happen over the course of it. They might pursue and arrest suspected criminals, respond to domestic violence calls, help resolve problems within the community, provide first aid, and assist at the scene of an accident. One thing uniformed officers usually do not do is investigate.

There are several examples of uniformed officer jobs at the local, state, and federal levels. Local police officers operate in a town or city, while special jurisdiction police officers serve a specific area, such as a public college. State troopers are state police officers who patrol highways and enforce motor vehicle laws. A deputy sheriff works on the county level, performing similar functions as a local police officer. Border patrol agents work at national borders and are responsible for preventing illegal immigration. Finally, fish and game warden enforce boating, hunting, and fishing laws while patrolling outdoor areas.

Types of uniformed officers:

  • Local police officer
  • State trooper
  • Deputy sheriff
  • Border patrol agent
  • Fish and game warden
  • Special jurisdiction police officer

Private detectives, investigators, and other plainclothes officers

Sometimes called plainclothes officers, detectives and investigators are responsible for collecting evidence, interviewing suspects and witnesses, making raids, and making arrests for criminal activity. Some detectives work as part of a local police force and handle crimes within a specific region. Others are part of inter-agency task forces that work with specific crimes, including human trafficking, drugs, or fraud.

Detectives are assigned cases and are expected to work on them until they are resolved, usually through a suspect’s arrest and trial. In police agencies, it is common for police officers to get promoted or advanced to the role of investigator or detective. This is a common career trajectory for many new police officers who want to spend their time solving crimes instead of patrolling.

There are other ways to become a plainclothes officer than to work your way up through the ranks in a police agency. FBI agents can be directly hired to work as a special agent without spending time on a police force. Secret service agents are responsible for protecting heads of state, including the president and vice president. They frequently hold job fairs and seek candidates who come from diverse backgrounds.

U.S. Marshals work for the federal government and are responsible for protecting the federal judiciary system. Their specific responsibilities vary and can include apprehending escaped prisoners, transporting prisoners, and protecting federal witnesses.

Types of plainclothes officers:

  • Detective
  • FBI agent
  • Air marshal
  • Investigator
  • Secret service agent
  • Immigration inspector

Law Enforcement Support Positions

Many positions support the work of police officers, detectives, investigators, and other members of the police force. These positions are responsible for investigating and categorizing evidence, performing lab tests, and running experiments to help solve crimes. In many cases, law enforcement support staff work for a crime lab or larger agency.

These positions can be filled by individuals who have the right skillset and apply directly. They can also be filled by police officers and law enforcement agents who are advancing in their careers and want to transition from a frontline position to a support position. Many of these positions require a very specified skillset, so additional training and experience are required to become an expert.

Law enforcement support positions:

  • Criminal analyst
  • Firearms examiner
  • Intelligence analyst
  • Evidence technician
  • Crime lab technician
  • Investigative assistant
  • Handwriting examiner

Department of Corrections

There are several opportunities within the department of corrections to work with inmates during and after incarceration. Corrections officers are responsible for ensuring the safety of inmates while also maintaining order. They may also work in psychiatric or substance abuse facilities. These positions often require a high school diploma, although some federal facilities may also require a bachelor’s degree. Correctional officers usually attend a training academy where they learn the best ways to perform their job.

Wardens are responsible for managing a correctional facility. Their role is similar to other managerial positions, just in a correctional facility setting. Wardens are responsible for hiring personnel, managing budgets, setting policies, and overseeing their correctional facility’s day-to-day operations.

Correctional treatment specialists are responsible for identifying eligible offenders and referring them to appropriate programs that can help them develop skills that they need to avoid re-offending upon their release. Correctional treatment specialists also help create release plans and are trained to identify low-risk individuals who qualify for programs like work release, early release, or other opportunities. They often carry a large caseload.

Bailiffs maintain order in courtrooms. They are responsible for escorting the jury in and out of the courtroom safely and securely. They also interact with defendants, announce the judge upon arrival into the courtroom, and ensure order in the courtroom at all times.

Probation officers support inmates after their incarceration. They are responsible for checking in on inmates to ensure they are meeting their parole obligations. They also work with the law offenders assigned to them to create a plan that will keep them from re-offending after their parole period is over.

Department of Corrections positions:

  • Bailiffs
  • Warden
  • Probation officers
  • Correctional officers
  • Correctional treatment specialists

Forensic Scientists

The field of forensic science is growing. As technology advances, it is becoming more critical than ever for local, state, and federal police agencies to use forensic science to solve crimes and present evidence in court. This career is expected to grow by 14 percent from 2019 to 2029, which is nearly four times the national average of other occupations.

Unlike many of the other career options in law enforcement, there are some requirements needed to become a forensic scientist. First, you need to have at least a bachelor’s degree in forensic science or natural science, such as biology or chemistry. They will also need to undergo training in a lab to fully understand how to apply their knowledge to criminal investigations.

Many forensic scientists work the same hours as a traditional workday. However, some criminal forensic scientists may need to be available at off-hours and might need to travel to locations.

Advancing Your Career in Law Enforcement

As you can see, there are many opportunities to work in law enforcement at different levels and with varying types of responsibilities. People from all backgrounds can find a rewarding career in law enforcement.

Here are some answers to commonly asked questions about advancing in a career in law enforcement.

How quickly can you progress in the police force?

Many people enter the police force hoping to advance their careers and become a detective, investigator, or another type of law enforcement professional. Others enjoy being a police officer and want to move up the ranks within the department.

Within a year or two, you can usually expect an opportunity to make a lateral move. At this point, you might move into the role of detective or investigator. You could also move into a specialized position, such as becoming a member of a SWAT team or K-9 unit.

If you are looking to stay in the police agency, then it will take a few additional years to start seeing promotions. In general, you should expect it to take 5 – 10 years to move up in the ranks.

The first step is usually getting promoted as a sergeant, which means you will supervise other officers. After you reach this rank, your promotions may come faster. The next stage will be lieutenant, then captain. If you want to continue moving up, you will need to work in a leadership program so that you have the proper training to move into a command position.

The highest position in the police force is Chief. In this position, you are responsible for your police department and its agents. Getting to the position of Chief requires at least 20 years on the job, including several years of middle and upper management experience.

Of course, there are a number of variables that can impact how long it takes you to move up in a police department. The size of your department, its location, and your track record will all affect your ability to move up. You will likely need to actively seek out leadership training opportunities if you want to move into a high ranking position.

What are the highest paying jobs in law enforcement?

Several law enforcement jobs pay well above the median household income in the United States. How much you will make will vary depending on your location, experience, and agency.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent reports, here are the top five highest-paying jobs in law enforcement.

Detectives and criminal investigators: $79,970
Police and detectives: $65,170
Forensic science technicians: $59,150
Fish and game wardens: $57,500
Correctional officers and bailiffs: $45,300

What job can I get with law enforcement experience?

Many people enjoy a rewarding and fulfilling career in law enforcement. Others decide to switch career paths after awhile to transition to civilian life.

If you have been working in law enforcement and are looking for something different, you have plenty of options. Here are some common places where former law enforcement officers have successfully used their training and experience to parlay into a new career.

Homeland security
Some homeland security roles require law enforcement experience, making this a natural fit for people looking to get out of local law enforcement. Some jobs include working with cybersecurity, policy planning, emergency management, customs and immigration, and transportation.

Companies across industries need reliable professionals who understand cybersecurity to protect sensitive information and prevent data from getting into the wrong hands. Law enforcement agents have a unique perspective of how criminals work, allowing them to become highly successful in this role.

While some cybersecurity roles require an in-depth technological understanding, others need you to think like a criminal to find threats and prevent cyberattacks.

Companies need leaders who understand how to manage individuals and teams. They also want to hire people who have excellent communication skills. Fortunately, law enforcement officers build these skills within their departments and communities. Law enforcement agents tend to have higher-than-average communication skills since they speak with people from a diverse range of backgrounds on a daily basis.

Some positions, like sales, can make for an easy transition out of law enforcement. Others, like writing, management, or finance, may require additional schooling or training.

Do you need to be a police officer to be in the FBI?

No, you do not need to have experience as a police officer to become an FBI agent. However, you will need to pass a series of tests, plus a background check, to see if you qualify for a role with the FBI.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is not a police force but rather a federal security agency. There are plenty of opportunities within the organization, including options for accountants, lawyers, technical professionals, and writers. Special agents are field agents who protect their communities. To qualify, you will need to pass a stringent physical fitness test, along with the other qualifications mentioned above.

If you pass the application process, you will attend a 12-week training course to learn the ins and outs of becoming an FBI agent. After basic training, you will continue training at the FBI Academy. From there, you will be assigned your position and will officially start your career in the FBI.


The field of law enforcement is expansive. It offers a lot of room for advancement and career growth, especially as technology continues to advance and the population continues to grow. There are no signs of it slowing down in the near future, which means now is an excellent time to be considering advancing your career in law enforcement.

Let’s Optimize Your Fleet