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Careers in Criminal Justice: Police

Issues In Employment

The following section discusses three issues concerning employment in police agencies; the gender and ethnicity of sworn officers, the use of generalist or specialist officers, and the use of civilian employees.

Employment of women and minorities. The early American police were primarily white males. Although the first Irish and Italian police officers were hired in the latter 1800s (not without controversy), and some departments later hired female officers, neither women nor ethnic minorities were represented significantly among the ranks of law enforcement officers until the 1970s. In 1997, women composed between 5 and 11 percent of sworn officers in local, sheriff 's, special, and state police agencies. Ethnic minorities account for between 12 and 25 percent of sworn officers in these same agency types (U.S. Department of Justice). Of course, there is great variation from one agency to the next in terms of how many women and ethnic minorities each employs. As a rule of thumb, larger agencies have higher percentages of both. Depending on the agency, between 8 and 25 percent of sworn federal officers are female, and between 8 and 42 percent are ethnic minorities (Reaves, 2000).

Generalist versus specialist officers. Police agencies, like most organizations, must choose between two ways of allocating employees to performing the work of that organization. Organizations can use generalists, who perform a wide-range of functions, or can use specialists, who are highly trained to perform a single or limited number of tasks. This is analogous to the differences between a general family physician and a brain surgeon. The general family physician is a generalist capable of handling a wide range of illnesses and ailments, but who may not have expertise Table 1 in any one medical area. The brain surgeon, on the other hand, is a highly trained specialist in one area, but might not have the broad knowledge or experience of a general family physician.

Analogously, police organizations perform a wide range of tasks, such as enforcing vice and narcotics laws, working with juveniles, performing crime prevention, and analyzing crime data. Police agencies must decide whether their patrol officers will perform most of these tasks, or if specially trained officers will concentrate on only one or two of these tasks. Some departments, especially smaller ones, rely upon generalists; their regular patrol officers perform most of the agency's tasks. For example, officers will patrol their beats, respond to crime scenes where they will collect and preserve physical evidence, counsel juveniles who may be getting into trouble, and attend neighborhood meetings. Other departments choose to assign their officers as specialists. Thus, some of their officers also patrol a beat. However, if there is a crime scene, it is another officer's responsibility to collect and preserve the evidence. Another officer may work with juveniles in the community. And a fourth officer may work as a community liaison who attends community meetings.

This difference between specialist and generalist officers has important implications for those considering a career in law enforcement. Generalists get to do a wide range of tasks, but some occur very infrequently. Specialists get to work at one or two specific tasks, but often do little else. For example every patrol officer would be expected to write speeding tickets in an agency without a special traffic enforcement unit. On the other hand, an agency with a special unit will assign some officers to focus on enforcing of traffic laws. These officers will spend the majority of their day writing traffic tickets, but doing little else.

Not only does specialization dictate what officers will do during their average work day, it also structures the chances for changing one's job and for promotion. Some special units have a lot of prestige, freedom, or rewards attached to them. For example, officers in SWAT teams, K-9 units, or working as homicide detectives are often revered by other officers and the public, may have greater flexibility in the hours they can work, and may be better paid; these are prestigious assignments. Of course, some special assignments are not, such as working at the police impound yard, checking evidence into the property locker, or working as a dispatcher. This is not to say that such jobs are not important, nor that everyone dislikes them. However, there are pros and cons to working as a specialist or as a generalist.

Employment of civilians. Law enforcement agencies often hire people to work as non-sworn employees (called civilian employees or civilians). Nationally, about 25 percent of the employees of local, state, and special police agencies are civilians. Of course, because civilian employees are not trained as peace officers, they do not carry guns and do not have arrest powers. However, civilians perform a wide range of important duties for police agencies, and those seeking employment in policing should not overlook these opportunities.

As with the other aspects of policing in America, the jobs and responsibilities performed by civilian employees vary from one agency to the next. The most common duties performed by civilians are answering emergency switchboards and dispatching patrol officers, performing clerical or secretarial duties, maintaining police vehicles, or doing custodial chores around police buildings. Some agencies also hire civilians to perform very specialized tasks. Most of the better positions require a college degree or extensive experience. Such specialized civilian positions include running computer hardware or writing software programs for agency computers. Some agencies hire civilians to serve as advocates for victims of crime. Some agencies also hire civilians as crime scene technicians, processing physical evidence, or as lab technicians, working in police crime labs. A few police agencies also employ civilians in community liaison or public relations capacities.

Sometimes police agencies employ civilians as uniformed security officers. Because these security officers do not have arrest powers, or are unarmed, they are not technically considered law enforcement officers. However, security personnel perform a wide range of duties that would normally be performed by sworn patrol officers, such as securing buildings, assisting people, responding to first aid calls and emergencies, patrolling a beat, and investigating crimes. Furthermore, some city police departments have hired civilians who were trained to respond to nonemergency 911 calls. These civilians meet with crime victims and complainants, take a report if necessary, and advise people what they should do about their problem. By using these trained civilians to handle nonemergency calls, sworn officers are freed to concentrate on more serious matters.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawCareers in Criminal Justice: Police - Current Career Opportunities In Policing, Issues In Employment, Bibliography