If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

What does a police officer do?

Learn about the different roles that exist for police officers and their daily responsibilities.
Police officers are tasked with maintaining order and keeping their communities safe. In tv and in movies, that usually involves chasing down the bad guys or busting a crime ring. In reality, the term police officer covers a wide variety of roles, including behind the scenes work like handwriting analysis and officer training. Attending a recruitment event in your local area can help you learn more about all the potential paths.
Police officers can work for the city, county, state, or federal government. Their jurisdiction and the size of the police department they work for play a major role in shaping their day to day duties. A police officer in a large urban center like New York or Los Angeles will usually have a very specialized focus, such as narcotics, media relations, the K-9 unit, or SWAT team. In contrast, in smaller departments, particularly in rural areas, police officers will be expected to cover a wider variety of roles.
Most officers start off as patrol officers. Typical day to day duties include assisting in emergency scenes, responding to burglaries, and monitoring the roadways and stopping cars that are driving erratically or speeding. For every incident that occurs, a police officer is required to file a report. Doing paperwork is certainly not a glamorous part of the job, but it’s a necessary and frequent task.

Compensation and advancement

Being a police officer involves risk and sacrifice. In return, officers are well-compensated for their service to the community. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average annual salary for police and sheriff patrol officers in 2016 was 62,760 dollars. However, the salary of police officers varies greatly across the US. In Texas the average salary of police and sheriff patrol officers in 2016 was 60,350 dollars, while in California it was 96,660 dollars. Overall, police officers tend to earn more in cities than rural areas.
Additional benefits for this position include strong medical coverage, paid sick time and vacation, tuition reimbursement for pursuing higher education, a pension, and the opportunity to retire early. A police officer can retire after only 20 years of service, though their pension will then be reduced to 50 percent.
Police officers must undergo rigorous testing and training in order to enter this profession. But once they are hired on as a police officer, there is a great deal of room for specialization and advancement. After going through an initial probationary period of about a year, they can begin to move up the ranks, starting with promotion to corporal, and then on to sergeant, lieutenant, and captain. They can also seek lateral moves into specialized positions such as a training officer or investigator.


This article was adapted from the following sources:
A day in the life of a police officer.” thebalance.com. Accessed April 7, 2017.
How to become a police officer or detective.” US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accessed April 7, 2017.
Law enforcement degrees and police careers: how to become a police detective.” Learnhowtobecome.org. Accessed April 7, 2017.
Occupational Employment and Wages, May 2016 33-3051 Police and Sheriff's Patrol Officers.” US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Accessed April 7, 2017.
Top 5 careers for an early retirement.” Marketwatch.com. Accessed April 9, 2017.
What does a police officer do?” Criminaljusticecareers.com. Accessed April 8, 2017.

Want to join the conversation?