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Choosing a Vocation in Law Enforcement

As part of the series on different vocations, I have been asked to give some insight into the field of law enforcement. Law enforcement is a field with a wide range of job possibilities. These include non-sworn positions, such as 911 dispatchers, or sworn positions as officers. This article provides a brief overview of some of the different sworn positions in law enforcement, describes what led me to the field, and some of the positive and negative aspects of the career.

My Background

As for my background, I’m currently a State Trooper with the Iowa State Patrol. I have been a trooper since October 2008. Prior to working with the State Patrol, I attended Dordt College where I majored in Business Administration. In my career with the State Patrol I have obtained certification as a Standardized Field Sobriety Test Instructor and Drug Recognition Expert. My training beyond my basic training has focused on detecting and apprehending impaired drivers, whether caused by alcohol or drugs. As a trooper, I have been able to work with many different agencies from the local to federal level. On the local and county level, I have worked with the officers and deputies on a wide array of incidents. Federally, I have worked with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on different cases resulting from traffic stops. This has allowed me to gain a little experience with the roles of these different agencies.

In this article, I will relate many aspects of law enforcement to consider, which leads to the question, why did I pursue law enforcement?  I chose to work in law enforcement for a couple reasons. First, I felt I could use my God-given gifts to glorify him in the vocation. I wanted to do something service oriented. I wanted to help bring calm to a chaotic situation. Did I want to go to a domestic fight where a spouse was badly beaten? No. Did I want to go to a crash and see the mangled wreckage? No. However, I realized that it needs to be done, and someone has to do it. I realized I have the mental fortitude to go, maintain composure, and make sure what needs to be done gets done. I wanted to be able to be a witness to people in some of the lowest times of their lives, and I wanted to assist in maintaining an orderly, safe society in which to live and worship. Those are the primary reasons I pursued law enforcement. Yes, there are the adrenaline rushes from pursuits and such like, but those are not the primary reasons I entered the vocation.

 

The Field of Law Enforcement

There are many different sworn positions in law enforcement, each with different jurisdictions and different job descriptions. Basically, on the city level are city police officers, on the county level are deputy sheriffs, and on the state level are State Police or State Patrol troopers or officers. On the federal level there are uniformed police officers, non-uniformed special agents (criminal investigators), the U.S. Marshals, and many others. In addition there are positions in other areas such as natural resources law enforcement at about every level. In summary, there are so many different job descriptions that it is impossible to describe them all in an article. If someone is considering a position in law enforcement, he ought to research the different positions and speak with people employed in those positions. That being said, I will briefly describe the most common positions of police officer, deputy sheriff, state police officer, and federal criminal investigator.

 

Although certified within a state, a police officer typically works within city limits. Depending on the size of the department and city, a police officer may spend his shift going from call to call, or patrolling with very few calls. Some departments, typically the larger ones, have specialized units such as patrol and investigations. Patrol officers respond to calls and perform the short term investigations. If an incident requires a more in depth or long-term investigation (homicide, theft, robbery, fraud, etc), an officer assigned to investigations can take the case over. In smaller departments, officers share all of these duties.

 

Whereas a police officer works within the city limits, deputy sheriffs typically have jurisdiction for the unincorporated areas of a county. Just as a police officer, a lot of what the day-to-day job is depends on the population of the county and size of the department. For example, the calls for service in a city such as Los Angeles, CA will be much more abundant than in Hull, IA. In addition, the sheriff’s office is usually responsible for the administration of the jail, security of the courthouse, and service of civil paperwork (small claims, repossession orders, protection orders, etc).

As you have probably guessed, state police/state patrol agencies vary from state to state also. In Iowa, the Iowa State Patrol falls under the Department of Public Safety. Also under the Department of Public Safety are the Division of Criminal Investigation, Division of Narcotics Enforcement, and State Fire Marshal’s Office. In Iowa the state patrol is an assisting agency for the officers and deputies on calls. For example, a deputy could be sent to a fight at a bar and troopers will assist and back up the deputy. That is not to say a trooper will not be sent to a call alone or will not be the lead on call, but in most cases a trooper assists the other agency unless no one else is available. In rural areas, a county may only have one deputy working at night and may rely on troopers for assistance more than in urban areas. The majority of an Iowa State Trooper’s time, however, is spent doing traffic enforcement, criminal interdiction (discovering criminal activity such as drug and human trafficking during traffic stops), and accident investigation.

 

In Iowa, an officer in the Department of Public Safety can transfer laterally to a different division within the department and do solely criminal investigations (homicides, drug trafficking, sexual assaults, white collar crimes, arson, etc.) or fire safety inspections. In some states, the state police respond to calls just as officers and deputies, and in some they solely do traffic enforcement and accident investigation. This varies greatly from state to state, and someone interested in working for a state police agency needs to research each department.

 

Federal sworn positions can range from uniform officers, such as the U.S. Capitol Police or Border Patrol, to non-uniformed positions as Criminal Investigators with agencies such as the FBI, ATF, and Secret Service. Each agency has different areas of the law they are tasked with enforcing, but there can be overlap. For example, a DEA agent may work with an FBI and ATF agent investigating terrorist organizations smuggling drugs and weapons into the United States.  For nearly every federal government bureau or division, there are criminal investigators to investigate criminal abuse of the division’s programs. Post-9/11, federal law enforcement has greatly expanded with an added focus on attempting to prevent future terrorist attacks.

Aspects of the Vocation

There are many rewarding aspects to law enforcement. These can range from simply helping someone whose car broke down, to helping locate a lost child, to preventing someone from injuring another. However, much of the reward must come from the personal satisfaction of contributing to a safer society, as actually receiving a thank-you from the public is very rare.

 

There are also negative aspects to a career in law enforcement. A person in law enforcement sees a lot of tragedy and hurt. Mentally, one must be able to cope with that. An additional downside is that as with most government employment, politics are a part of law enforcement. When the economy weakens, budgets get cut, training is eliminated, equipment is not replaced, and employment benefits suffer.

 

Crime does not stop at night or on weekends. Because of this, officers have to work many nights, holidays, and weekends. This is not a normal schedule, and can make it harder to have time with the whole family. That being said, officers typically have the benefit of more vacation time and days off to help offset this. The schedule and other benefits vary from department to department and are something to research when considering a position.

 

In connection with the preceding paragraph, most law enforcement jobs, at least initially, require Sunday labor. People still get sick, car crashes still happen, and criminals still harm people on Sunday. It is possible to eventually get a position that does not require Sunday labor, but almost impossible initially. Because of this, I strongly caution against taking a position without researching the schedule and departmental policies. Some departments, especially smaller ones with fewer calls, will allow officers to attend worship services on duty. Some will not. Some departments have a schedule layout that requires working every Sunday unless taken off, while other departments have a more flexible schedule that does not. Classis West considered this issue of law enforcement labor on the Sabbath in 1983 and concluded that “because police work is a work of present necessity, it is a work in which the child of God is permitted to be engaged, if this work does not occasion the neglect of the means of grace on the Sabbath Day.” So although a work of necessity, one must not use that as an excuse to take whatever position one can get and regularly miss worshipping on the Sabbath. Regular Sabbath worship is vital to the life of a Christian. Ponder this, pray about it, and speak to your pastor about it when considering this vocation. Those interested in law enforcement would be well served to read the article “Sunday Labor” by Rev. Bruinsma in The Standard Bearer, Volume 83, Issue 15, and the report of Classis West from the September 1983 meeting.

 

Requirements

The requirements for a law enforcement position vary by department and state. If one is interested in law enforcement, he would be wise to research the requirements for area departments on the internet. For example, some states require a college degree, and some do not. Some states may not, but a department in that state may require a degree. Unless it is required, I would advise getting a degree in something other than criminal justice. That way if something happens and you are unable to work in law enforcement, you have other education to fall back on. Usually someone does not need a degree in criminal justice. An agency just wants to see that someone has the ability to learn and the discipline to study and accomplish a goal. One thing is consistent across the board, however. One must maintain a clean record and be of good moral character.

 

In addition to whatever educational and physical requirements there are, when considering a career as an officer, a person should examine himself and evaluate whether he has the mental fortitude for the job. Can you handle dealing with people fighting on an almost daily basis? Can you handle putting on a ballistic vest and strapping on a gun belt every day, not knowing what may come? Many times officers see things that the general public never will. Officers see people injured by their spouses, addicted to drugs, and badly hurt physically and mentally. Car accidents can be gruesome and chaotic scenes, and an officer has to be able to stay calm, provide medical assistance, and complete the investigation. This can be very difficult, especially when it involves a fatality accident. In those cases, an officer may have to notify the next of kin of a loved one’s death. An officer has to be able to witness all this and still do his job and maintain his composure. This is not easy, and not everyone has the mental fortitude required. I urge those considering this vocation to evaluate themselves realistically. Do not consider just the adrenaline of driving fast. Can you handle seeing what a cop sees? Officers have to be able to deal with a lot of mental and emotional baggage without venting it on their families. As Christians, we have the wonderful comfort and assurance of knowing that God is sovereign and controls all things. Nothing happens that is not in his control. That is a great comfort working as an officer.

 

Glorifying God in Law Enforcement

As with any vocation, one must consider how he can glorify God in law enforcement. First and foremost, an officer must use his talents and abilities to glorify God. God gives different talents to everyone. For some it may be talents utilized by farming, for some engineering, and for some management. Utilizing those talents to the best of one’s ability serves to glorify the one who gave them.

 

Second, for the safety and order of society, there are consequences for wrong. This has been recognized throughout history and throughout the Bible. Preventing the rampant spread of crime and bringing justice are the foundation of law enforcement. Working in law enforcement gives the opportunity to make the city, county, state, and country a safer place for people to live and worship. Because of law enforcement, we can worship with relatively no fear of the services being interrupted by violence. We can go about our lives with relative comfort and peace, with few worries about our safety.

 

Third, there are many unique opportunities for witnessing in law enforcement. The first is to coworkers. Officers are a relatively close group. Living a godly life stands out to coworkers in that group. Things such as praying before meals and living a godly life within this group do not go unnoticed and create opportunities to speak of one’s faith. Then there are the people that an officer encounters throughout the day. Officers encounter those who are going through chaotic times in life, and can have a great influence on the people in those situations. There are very few vocations where someone can be in that type of situation with another person. As government employees, witnessing in these situations is not always easy, but is possible.

 

Finally, on a broader spectrum, there are opportunities that extend beyond those encountered with coworkers, at calls, or through enforcement. It is often said that an officer lives in a glass house. Walking a godly walk when in a vocation with the public’s eyes upon you can witness of your faith. When people know someone is an officer, and they see he lives differently, even differently from other officers, and they see he treats people fairly and respectfully, lends a helping hand, and is not out drinking and living immorally, they may wonder. Then they see that he goes to church, sends his children to a Christian school, and loves his wife and is loyal to her. They see he does not just go to church, but lives out his faith during and outside of work.

 

Our calling as Christians is to glorify God above all else. As one considers different vocations, that must be first. A Christian must seek a vocation where he can utilize his talents and abilities to honor the creator. Perhaps that is as an officer in law enforcement. Perhaps it is not. There are many rewarding aspects to being an officer, and as with most vocations, there are negative aspects. Above all, seek first the kingdom of God, and whatever you do, do it for God’s glory.