Career Overview

  • Law Enforcement
  • Corrections

Law Enforcement

The primary task of any law enforcement officer is to protect the property and lives of the people in their jurisdiction. This task is performed in different ways, depending on whether the person is a State or Federal agent, inspector, or local police officer. The majority of police officers are expected to protect the public and their property at all times, on or off duty.

Uniformed police officers employed at a local or municipal level work in departments and communities of differing sizes and demographics. They perform common policing activities, including things like traffic control at the scene of an accident, regular patrols, investigations of crimes like theft and assault, and first aid response at accidents. In more urban areas, law enforcement officers are increasingly performing community policing, wherein they establish and cultivate relationships with the residents of the community they serve in order to mobilize them to fight crime.

Officers are typically assigned to patrol a specific location, like a portion of downtown or a group of neighborhoods. These specific patrols fall within the jurisdiction of the police agency, which is typically divided along geographic boundaries. While on patrol, police make note of any suspicious activity or circumstances that may put the public at risk. To do so requires the officers to have a thorough and working knowledge of the area. Officers may respond to specific calls to handle a situation or secure a scene. They may be required to pursue and arrest individuals believed to be involved in a crime, or diffuse a volatile situation in the community.

Some law enforcement officers work with special units like canine corps, SWAT (special weapons and tactics) teams, and emergency response teams; others patrol primarily on horseback, motorcycle, bicycle, or boat. Other officers specialize in areas like firearm instruction, ballistic analysis, handwriting and fingerprint identification, or forensic lab analysis. No matter the specialty, all officers must maintain meticulous records and write reports that will hold up in court if need be.

At the county level law enforcement officers are called sheriffs and deputy sheriffs. Sheriffs perform functions similar to those of a chief of police at the local level. Deputy Sheriffs fill a role similar to general law enforcement officers in other urban police agencies. Bailiff is another title often used to refer to police officers or deputy sheriffs who act as security for local-level courts.

New officers are typically trained before being given their first assignments. Recruits receive instruction on civil and constitutional rights, applicable State and local statutes, and methods of investigation. Recruits also receive hands-on training with traffic control, gun use and safety, self-defense techniques, emergency and first aid care, and supervised patrol experience.

Opportunities to move up in the department typically begin anywhere from six months to three years after being hired. Officers first must pass through a probationary phase, after which they may be promoted to receive more pay or move into a specialized position, like detective. Appointments to superior ranks like sergeant or lieutenant are made based on an individual's ranking on a promotion list, which is usually based on the individual's job performance and scores on written tests.

Potential law enforcement officers are being encouraged more and more to obtain some kind of law enforcement-related training at the college or university level. There are programs offered in criminal justice and law enforcement at many universities, colleges, and junior colleges, and an increasing number of applicants for law enforcement jobs possess formal college-level training. Other relevant courses include accounting or business finance, computer science, and engineering. As many police jobs are physically demanding, sports and physical education can help an applicant become competitive, fit, and physically able to perform their jobs. Foreign language fluency is especially helpful when seeking employment with the Federal government or with other agencies covering large foreign-language-speaking populations.

Even after obtaining a law enforcement job, education plays an important role in improving on-the-job performance. Continuing education related to job tasks like firearm use, relationship and communication skills, and crowd control techniques are provided by agencies themselves, State-sponsored training programs, or Federal training centers. Officers are also instructed in current legal developments, use-of-force policies, and progress made in law enforcement equipment and technology. Officers may earn higher salaried by completing advanced degrees related to work like criminal justice, police science, or public administration; many agencies will even pay for all or part of the school tuition for qualified officers working towards such degrees.


Correctional officers supervise arrested persons awaiting trial and convicted criminals serving time in penitentiaries, jails, and reformatories. One primary role of correctional officers is to avert attacks, escapes, and other disturbances, ensuring inmate accountability and security.

Correctional officers working in for sheriff and police departments in local and county jails and precinct holding facilities are also known as detention officers. Counties manage about 3,300 jails in the United States; 75 percent of those are operated under the authority of an elected sheriff. The populations of these jails changes regularly as new persons are arrested and old detainees are either transferred to prison or released. Annually greater than 11 million people are processed through the U.S. jail system; some 500,000 people are in prison at any moment. The most dangerous time for correctional officers occurs when new arrestees are brought to jail—they may not know the identity or background of the new detainees; dangerous criminals may be placed in with the regular prison population.

There are a few correctional officers who supervise foreign persons awaiting deportation or release by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. A small number work for privately-held, for-profit correction facilities. The majority of correctional officers, however, work with government prisons and large jails, overseeing the nearly one million people incarcerated in the United States at any time. All work in correction facilities can be hazardous, though jail populations tend to be less stable than prison populations; in prison populations, correctional officers know more about the security needs of the people they are supervising.

The primary role of correctional officers is to ensure order and security and enforce the policies and rules of the institution where they work. Officers observe actions and oversee task assigned to inmates in order to make certain inmates are obeying the rules. Officers may need to search inmates' cells, confiscate drugs or weapons, enforce order, and resolve conflicts between inmates. Officers also help maintain the integrity of the holding facility by performing routine checks on doors, vents, windows, and locks. They also regularly look to ensure there are no fire hazards, unsafe conditions, or rule-breaking anywhere in the prison or jail. Correctional officers also examine inmates' company and mail to make certain no banned objects enter the facility.

As part of their supervisory role, correctional officers make written and oral reports on inmate work and behavior. They also document conflicts, behavior discrepancies, hazards, and suspicious circumstances in a daily log and other specialized reports. Correctional officers must report every inmate who violates a rule without discretion or "playing favorites." When necessary, correctional officers help look for prisoners who have escaped or help conduct investigations dealing with crimes that occur in their facility.

Officers who are employed in correction facilities with direct supervision cellblocks do not carry firearms. They usually work in tandem or alone, and are in charge of supervising from 50 to 100 inmates. These officers enforce the rules by taking privileges away from inmates who violate regulations and through effective communication. Despite being unarmed, these officers do carry radios in order to call for help when necessary.

Computer tracking systems and cameras help correctional officers observe violent and dangerous inmates from a centralized control center. In the highest security institutions where such criminals are restrained, the correctional officers may be the only people the inmates see for significant stretches of time. Inmates leave their cells only to shower, exercise, or receive supervised visitations. Correctional officers may need to shackle some inmates, depending on the stipulations of their imprisonment, to escort them between cells or to receive visitors. Inmates are also escorted by correctional officers to and from court and hospitals.

In order to work at most correctional facilities one must be at least 19 years old; not a convicted felon; have a high school diploma or GED; have U.S. citizenship; and have held a job for two years prior. A college degree or postsecondary education will give applicants an edge with regards to promotions.

Prospects for correctional officers' positions must meet minimum requirements of eyesight, hearing, and physical abilities. They must also be able to demonstrate sound judgment and decision-making abilities. Drug tests, background checks, and written tests are also part of the application process. Quite a few institutions determine a candidate's aptness to succeed in correctional facility employment by using standardized tests.

The American Jail Association and American Correctional Association have established standards for training correctional officers that many local, State, and Federal institutions use in their training. Local agencies in some States rely on State-sponsored academies for training. Instruction continues on-the-job after formal training, especially with regards to legal regulations related to an officer's work and effective communication skills. Self-defense training and firearm certification is required by some institutes. Though training and application requirements differ between facilities, most trainees receive weeks or months of on-the-job training after being hired.

In formal training at academies, new officers learn about several pertinent topics, including custodial practices and security procedures, facility regulations, and prison operations. In-service trainings help veteran officers maintain awareness of advances and new practices. Prison tactical response teams are composed of correctional officers who have received training about chemicals, emergency management techniques, forced entry procedures, and weapons. These teams respond to prison uprisings, conflicts, forced cell moves, hostage situations, and other hazardous disturbances.