Read an Excerpt
Chapter One: Jobs in the Police Force
Let me ask you a question: Why do you want to be a police officer? I'm assuming you know it's a tough job -- extended periods of routine interrupted by periods of high stress and even danger. The pay and benefits can be pretty good, but there is an element of risk that isn't always reflected in the salary.
What reasons would you give for becoming a police officer? The best reason, of course, is that you have a kind of vocation for it. You want a career that lets you do something meaningful, something more important than pushing papers or answering email. And that's good. When everybody is running away from the danger, someone has got to run toward it. Keep reading to learn more about the duties of a police officer.
Police Force Organization and Job Descriptions
Law enforcement agencies are organized like the military, with strict hierarchies of rank and areas of responsibility. Within each rank, there are usually two or more levels, such as Detective I, II, and III. Higher levels correspond with higher pay and increased responsibility, often supervising those at the levels just below.
The descriptions that follow are fairly general; the details for the department you are interested in could vary.
These are the foot soldiers -- the largest and most visible part of any department. Most often, a police recruit fresh from the academy is assigned to a specific patrol under the supervision of a training officer. After a probationary period, he or she then advances to the next level, and can go on to specialized patrols, such asthe K-9 division, motorcycle patrol, or narcotics.
From the beginning, police officers handle the day-to-day work of law enforcement: responding to the scene of a crime or an accident; interviewing suspects and witnesses; writing crime reports; responding to radio calls; coordinating vehicular traffic; booking suspects and evidence and transporting them to the appropriate police department facility; responding to citizens' and visitors' questions; and attending and coordinating neighborhood watch meetings.
A police officer assigned to a specialized division handles all these duties, plus whatever else is required by the division's mission. For instance, an officer assigned to Juvenile Narcotics Division might conduct undercover narcotics investigations or patrol a school area to monitor criminal activity and to maintain contact with the school officials. Desk officers take care of administrative and coordination duties at station houses and department headquarters.
As an officer gains experience, he or she becomes eligible for more specialized duties and assignments such as recruiting, teaching at the academy, or providing security for the chief or the mayor.
Years ago, a good patrol officer could stay on patrol his or her entire career. These days, officers often feel pressure to move up or move out. I think this is unfortunate, because it means that rookie officers are working patrols with officers who really don't have that much more experience. There is a kind of competence and confidence that comes only with experience; it's a shame that experience often isn't available to the officers who are the most visible, who deal with the public just about every working minute.
While uniformed officers handle the initial, ground-level work on a case, detectives are responsible for follow-through -- actually solving the crime. Their duties include conducting preliminary and follow-up investigations; preparing the required investigative reports; identifying and apprehending the suspect; preparing the case for a successful prosecution; and testifying in court. Depending on their specific assignments, detectives also might conduct narcotics investigations; establish and maintain contacts with informants; and investigate gang-related crimes. Often, detectives develop an area of expertise, such as electronic surveillance, and will be asked to use that expertise to assist in cases other than those they are assigned to. As with officers, detectives who move up within the detective rank generally end up supervising other detectives.
On The Beat
"The patrolman should walk with purpose, energetically and on the alert, avoiding the appearance of one who has nothing to do but put in time. His movement should be unhurried, even while apprehending a criminal unless there is something definite to be gained by speed; a running policeman will attract a crowd quickly. The patrolman should ordinarily patrol to the left, that is, with his shield to the curb. This is done for the reason that superior officers patrol to the right and, therefore, can more readily find the patrolman. Patrolling should never under any circumstances be reduced to a habit so that the patrolman is ordinarily at a given spot at a given time; the patrol should be irregular. The competent beat patrolman stops occasionally and casually looks back to observe what is going on. He cuts through alleys, yards, and private passageways; he retraces his steps. At night he occasionally stands in dark spots in order to scrutinize closely all passersby. Patrolling after dark is ordinarily done along the property line in order to try more readily doors and windows. The patrolman keeps on the outside in patrolling a crowded thoroughfare so that he may be seen. That is the reason the patrolman wears a uniform; its presence distinctly acts as a deterrent to crimee.
"Patrolling a beat properly is both a science and an art. Improper and incompetent patrolling is a nuisance to the public and a cause of unhappiness and dissatisfaction to the beat patrolman.
"The outstanding patrolman knows almost every person on his beat and has their unqualified confidence. They know him, they respect him, and they bring their troubles to him. Consequently, they admire him and look up to him; in a sense, his relationship with the people on his beat is like that of a father of a large family. No reward is as rich in the esteem of one's fellowmen. The work of the beat patrolman can bring that and, therefore, be full of happiness. The beat patrolman has the opportunity to reap rewards far beyond his monetary salary."
-- From Basic Police Procedure, published by the Pennsylvania Chiefs of Police Association, 1940
Sergeants supervise geographic patrol divisions, specialized divisions, and administrative units of these divisions. On patrol, the sergeant may be a Watch Commander or Assistant Watch Commander. This means the sergeant handles administrative duties such as preparing daily car plan assignments; preparing and presenting roll call training; supervising the desk and patrol officers; handling radio calls and dispatching personnel; keeping the supervisors informed of important developments or issues; and training and supervising probationary officers.
Just as a sergeant is in charge of a patrol, a lieutenant oversees an area made up of several patrols, supervising the sergeants, detectives, and police officers who carry out the day-to-day law enforcement. The lieutenant acts as an assistant to a captain, and is the commander in the captain's absence; his or her job is to take care of the details so the captain can concentrate on the big picture. This means deploying officers to meet crime trends or emergencies; responding to scenes of serious crimes such as officer-involved shootings, homicide, major robbery and theft; keeping an eye on follow-up investigations to make sure they are complete and accurate; and -- this is often the hardest part -- deciding what the captain needs to be told, and when. In keeping with the rank's operational focus, the lieutenant often is the chief administrative officer in an area: reviewing and responding to correspondence; overseeing training; and attending community functions as a department representative.
The captain is the lieutenant's boss, the person in charge of overall, long-term operations for an area or a division. A captain will keep an eye on his or her area to ensure compliance with department policies; inspect the area's personnel, facilities, and tactics for safety or training needs; oversee budgeting and planning; and maintain contact with other civic departments, community groups, and private citizens. Past the rank of captain, things get a little more complicated. Small departments may only have a rank or two between captain and chief; larger ones may include more layers. Also, the way a police chief or commissioner is selected varies from department to department. In some, selecting the chief is handled like a civil service appointment; in others, the chief is picked by the mayor or city council or some other governmental body. Again depending on the agency, the chief or commissioner may bring in his or her own assistants, or may be bound to keep the personnel already in place.
Police Commander or Supervisor
In large agencies, the police department will be broken down into four or five bureaus or departments, according to geography, function, or both. These bureaus are overseen by deputy chiefs or assistant commissioners; the day-to-day operations of the bureaus are handled by commanders, or supervisors. (The names for these ranks change from department to department.)
In general terms, the commander-deputy chief relationship is like the lieutenant-captain relationship; the former handles the details, while the latter does the long-term thinking and planning.
Police Deputy Chief or Deputy Commissioner
The deputy chief or deputy commissioner reports directly to the chief or commissioner and oversees a departmental bureau. Large agencies will have several deputy chiefs or commissioners. These men and women are the eyes and ears of the commissioner; their job is to keep on top of the department and make sure the chief's mission is communicated and enacted through the agency.
Chief of Police, or Police Commissioner
This is the highest-ranking officer in a police department. If the uniformed officers are the most visible as a group, the chief is the most visible individual. The chief takes the criticism when things go wrong (as with a controversial police shooting) and takes the credit when things go right (as when the crime rate drops). While his deputies oversee current operations, the chief or commissioner plans for the department's needs in the future. The chief has the large-scale jobs: developing and maintaining good relationships with the mayor, the governor, the police commission, or whatever other governmental body oversees the department; anticipating social and economic changes that could affect local law enforcement; and building and strengthening community-police relations.
Big City or Small Town?
What I'm asking you here is, where do you want to work? That initial decision will have a big effect on your career as a law enforcement officer. In a small department, you will handle everything, and you will get to know the people you deal with really well. The pay tends to be lower, but so does the cost of living. On the other hand, police departments in small towns, or even in medium-sized cities, don't offer the range of specialized departments a larger force can. Just as a comparison, let's take a look at two police departments in two different towns: Gadsden, AL, and Los Angeles, CA.
Gadsden Police Department
Gadsden's 100 full-time police officers protect a population of more than 40,000 residents; they handled around 54,000 calls in 2004. Their specialized departments include a Bomb Squad (three technicians), Bicycle Patrol (four officers), and Narcotics (two officers and one lieutenant). To learn more about the Gadsden Police Department, visit their website at gadsdenpd.org.
Los Angeles Police Department
The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) patrols 467 square miles, with a population of more than 3.4 million residents. The department employs over 12,500 sworn and civilian employees, organized into bureaus and various divisions, groups, units or sections. Specialized divisions include Air Support, Special Operations, Art Theft, S.W.A.T., K-9, and Metropolitan, just to name a few. If you want to learn more about the LAPD, go to lapdonline.org.
Don't misunderstand me -- I'm not making any sort of comparison between these two departments as far as the value of their work. The officers in Gadsden do important work, and so do the folks in the LAPD. But if your fondest dream is to fly a police helicopter, Gadsden is not the place for you.
Regardless of where you would like to work as a police officer, think about what your skills are. Now do some research on the department, or departments, you are interested in. Is it a good match to your skills? Or should you revise your plans?
You have already taken a big step toward becoming a police officer: You've been proactive, seeking out this book to make yourself a better candidate. To learn more about how to find employment opportunities with police departments throughout United States, as well as what the application process is like, turn to chapter two.
Copyright © 2005 by John Douglas.