Guide to College Majors in Law Enforcement

It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me, but it can stop him from lynching me, and I think that's pretty important
--Martin Luther King Jr.

Aspiring law enforcement officers used to enter the police academy right out of high school in order to gain the training needed to obtain a job at the local or state level. However, in the past decade, law enforcement and police work has become increasingly complex, requiring more college education and training.

In the past few years, a greater focus has been placed on national security. This means that more funding has flowed into the law enforcement industry, creating new jobs, making advanced research possible, and paving the way for more effective ways to fight crime and increase security.

There is more to a law enforcement degree than simply becoming a police officer. Students with a degree in law enforcement can become entry-level public or private security officers, security guards, corrections officers, or private bodyguards. Since nearly all large businesses need security, there are many different options for educated law enforcement professionals.

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Law Enforcement Job Requirements

A career in law enforcement can be very rewarding, but it is dangerous and stressful. Students who choose to pursue this field of study should understand the risks involved, as well as the physical expectations. Since many people's lives are often at stake, law enforcement officials who work in the field need to be in top physical condition. This includes the ability to chase suspects, restrain criminals, and stay calm under pressure. People in this field must become accustomed to dealing with high-stress situations without panicking, and be able to make good decisions at a moment's notice. Those in the field of law enforcement must also have a great deal of sympathy and compassion for not only the victims of crimes, but for those who are driven to commit crimes (often due to mental illness, abuse and/or poverty). In this profession, helping people means not only protecting them, but also helping them to make the right decisions through public awareness and education. Surprisingly, speaking and writing communication skills are important too, since police officers do a lot of paperwork and have to report on cases to their superiors. The ability to work well with a team is also valuable. A clean record is preferred, although in some areas a misdemeanor or an arrest without conviction will not disqualify a candidate from the police force.

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Career Training for Law Enforcement

The increased complexity of modern law enforcement means that a high school diploma is often no longer enough to gain entry into the field. Many police academies (and nearly all state and federal law enforcement agencies) now require at least an associate degree before a student can apply for admission. It is anticipated that many will require bachelor's degrees in this field before long.

Luckily, while the demand for more educated law enforcement officers has increased, so too has the number of opportunities available to people interested in this field of study. It's now common for students to earn associate and bachelor's degrees in law enforcement prior to formally entering the workforce. Moreover, many professionals in law enforcement are taking evening or online courses in order to keep up with the rapidly changing law enforcement environment.

Is a Degree in Law Enforcement Right for You?

Degree programs in law enforcement aren't just about learning how to fire a gun or handle a police dog. This sort of training is, in fact, reserved for the police academy. A college degree in law enforcement provides students with an extensive background in all aspects of the criminal justice system, giving them a broad range of career options when they graduate.

You will not only learn about police procedures and policies, but about the court and judicial systems. You will learn what happens to a criminal from the point of arrest until sentencing. You will also learn about prison systems, as many law enforcement students go on to become prison security guards. This training includes not just how to control prisoners, but how to help rehabilitate and counsel them.

Psychology and sociology are also two important topics that will be covered by a law enforcement degree program. Solving crimes is, after all, easier if you know the reasons why people commit them. Understanding mob mentality and how people's behavior changes in groups is also important in maintaining crowd control.

Human behavior skills can also be implemented when dealing with witnesses or suspects: Knowing how to interview and interrogate can mean the difference between gaining valuable information or a confession and coming up empty-handed. Included in the general law enforcement training is how to handle crime scenes. This includes how to keep the crime scene uncontaminated, how to prepare and present evidence, and what to look for in a crime scene.

Career Education in Law Enforcement

Deciding which level of educational training is right for you can be difficult, particularly if you already have a career or family. However, there are many accredited online degree programs available for people who cannot sacrifice their career or time with their family for education. These programs provide quality education with flexible schedules and without extensive travel.

Law Enforcement Certificate Programs

Certificate programs in law enforcement are designed for professionals already in the field or for those who wish to gain entry-level positions as security guards. Law enforcement certificates range from crowd control tactics to homeland security, and are often available online, offered by accredited colleges and universities.

For those already working in law enforcement, these certificate programs can offer a valuable chance to specialize within their field and advance their careers. For other students, certificate programs in general security can lead to entry-level jobs as security guards. A certificate program can be a good educational option for someone who wishes to pursue a career in law enforcement but does not want to commit yet to a two- or four-year degree program.

Associate Degrees in Law Enforcement

The associate degree in law enforcement is by far the most popular degree in the field. This is due to the fact that an increasing number of police academies at the state and local level are requiring at least two years of college before a student can be admitted. The associate degree program is a comprehensive but very general degree program that touches on most aspects of law enforcement. These programs require students to be computer-literate, and often require a great deal of written work.

Most associate degree programs in law enforcement cover subjects including police management, firearms, juvenile delinquency, and crisis control. In addition to this, a student must complete his or her training at a police academy in order to join a police force. A student who decides not to enter a police academy program still has several career options, such as entry-level positions as a security guard or a corrections officer.

Bachelor's Degree Programs in Law Enforcement

The bachelor's degree in law enforcement is very similar to the associate degree in the material that it covers. However, the bachelor's degree program goes into more depth and detail. There may also be more general education requirements needed to complete a bachelor's degree program in law enforcement. Many police academies are expected to start requiring prospective students to hold a bachelor's degree. This is due to the demand for heightened security, as well as to the increasingly complex nature of law enforcement in general. As computers are used with more frequency in crime, and as science plays a larger role in solving crimes, law enforcement technology is becoming a popular and expanding industry.

A bachelor's degree in law enforcement gives the student a greater opportunity to learn about and use the latest in police technology. Many current law enforcement professionals are pursuing their bachelor's degrees in order to keep up with the increased use of technology and the changing and advancing law enforcement climate. Online college courses in particular have made this an increasingly popular choice among law enforcement professionals. The online format allows them to advance in their careers while still making a living.

These programs typically last four years from start to finish, but many individuals who already have an associate's degree in law enforcement, or who have completed police academy training, can test out of some classes or transfer credits, making the degree attainable in as little as two years.

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What Can You Do With a College Degree in Law Enforcement?

Careers in law enforcement are very conducive to specialization: The options are extensive and depend entirely on the student's particular interests within the field of law enforcement. Generally, one can choose to work for the government (like on a police force) or in the private sector (like a private investigator).

  • Police Patrol Officer. The typical "cop on the beat," police patrol officers are the backbone of public safety and security in the law enforcement world. They patrol communities on foot, horseback, bike, or by car. They attempt to establish good relationships with members of the community in order to create a peaceful, law-abiding environment.

    Patrol officers regulate traffic and respond to emergencies and reports of crimes. They may also monitor public events and act as security for visiting officials and public figures. Their responsibilities are numerous, and patrol officers must perform each one with precision.

    This career requires at least a high school diploma and training in a police academy. Some police academies require an associate degree in law enforcement, criminal justice or a related subject in order to be accepted into the academy.
  • Police Detective. Working in state and local police departments, detectives investigate crime scenes and interrogate suspects and witnesses in order to gather facts about the cases they work on. These individuals must maintain an extraordinary attention to detail in their work, as getting the story straight is of the utmost importance.

    The ways in which detectives gather data are numerous, ranging from the observation of suspects to combing carpets. They must consider all possibilities when trying to gather information about a case in order to stay on the trail.

    Many detectives start out as patrol officers and are later promoted to detective by distinguishing themselves as exemplary officers. However, some individuals with advanced degrees in law enforcement or prior experience as private investigators are hired as detectives immediately.
  • Corrections Officer. Corrections officers are responsible for maintaining order in prisons. To prevent disturbances, they routinely examine inmates and their environments for signs of misconduct. They also must screen visitors in order to ensure that no illegal items are being smuggled into the prison.

    Corrections officers must restrain prisoners if necessary, often without the use of weapons. This requires high levels of teamwork and communication among the corrections officers, as well as physical strength.
  • Security Guard. The security guard industry is booming. A heightened awareness of security needs throughout the public and private sectors has prompted many businesses to begin hiring their own security forces, instead of relying on state and local police departments.

    The duties of a security guard vary depending on the employer. Some simply patrol the grounds of factories or warehouses, preventing burglary, vandalism, or trespassing. Others prevent shoplifting in retail stores and maintain order among customers. Still others drive armored vehicles, transporting valuable items such as cash, jewelry, or rare antiques.

    The airline industry has seen the most prominent growth in security jobs over the past few years. Airline security guards prevent illegal items from being taken onto the airplanes, as well as maintaining security within the airline terminal. They inspect baggage and conduct searches, utilizing walk-through metal detectors as well as metal-detecting wands.
  • Private Investigator. Private investigators help businesses, lawyers and individuals gather facts about a variety of different things. They are qualified to conduct surveillance, perform background checks, or locate missing individuals.

    Investigators do not always have private practices. Some work exclusively for hotels or retail stores, investigating and tracking down missing items or gathering information about vandalism or break-ins. Also, some law firms employ legal investigators to help them track down witnesses or dig up information about defendants or plaintiffs. Insurance companies often employ investigators in order to expose fraudulent insurance claims.

    Private investigators also operate on a work-for-hire basis. They gather information about people and will often be called upon to testify in court concerning their findings. They are often used in divorce cases in order to prove or disprove someone's fidelity to his or her spouse.

Certification and Licensure

To become a state or local law enforcement official, students must complete training at a police academy. The application process for these academies varies from state to state, and may be offered as part of a degree program. Students should check with their local police academy to find out what the conditions of acceptance are for the academy they wish to enter.

Other careers, such as being a corrections or security officer, may have other requirements, such as physical exams and background checks. They also may require the student to enter into an industry-specific training or certificate program.

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