Patrol Officer vs. Sheriff's Deputy vs. Correctional Officer: Which Entry-Level Law Enforcement Job is Right for You?

By this point in your decision-making process, you are probably thinking that, after you earn your degree, keeping the peace is the right career path for you.

You might not know exactly how or in what capacity you’d like to do that but you can recite a suspect's Miranda rights from memory and it makes you smile every time you picture yourself wearing the gun, badge and uniform.

You’re probably not job hunting just yet but before you begin, it’s always helpful to have a clear understanding of the jobs that will be available once you start. To that end, we analyzed all of the entry-level law enforcement jobs posted online between May 17, 2012 and May 18, 2013.

Our results turned up 19,531 vacant jobs for police patrol officers, sheriff’s deputies and correctional officers. We also narrowed down those job offerings into a state-by-state comparison (see chart) so you’ll know where in America the 10 hottest job markets are located.

After the chart, we also provide some career comparisons for police patrol officers versus sheriff’s deputies versus correctional officers.

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Police patrol officer vs. sheriff’s deputy

For all intents and purposes, police patrol officers – often referred to as “beat cops” – and deputy sheriffs generally perform the same functions. Both are entry-level positions tasked with promoting public safety through regular patrols, educational initiatives and criminal investigation.

The biggest difference between a police officer and a sheriff’s deputy is jurisdictional authority.

Police jurisdiction begins and ends at the boundaries of the municipality it serves. Sheriff’s deputies, on the other hand, have county-wide – and in some cases state-wide – jurisdiction. For example, a Chicago police officer does not have jurisdiction in the neighboring city of Oak Forest. But, because both are located in Cook County (Ill.), the Cook County Sheriff’s Office has jurisdiction in both.

There is jurisdictional overlap between local police departments, sheriff’s offices, state highway patrol and park/forest rangers and cooperation among agencies is frequent. This state-wide cooperation is particularly useful for townships, villages, parishes and boroughs that have no municipal police force.   

Our jobs analysis revealed a total of 12,274 vacant positions for police patrol officers or sheriff’s deputies over the past year. But 91 percent of those jobs were at local police departments. While that percentage might surprise you, current estimates suggest that America has around 30,000 cities and 3,143 counties – or, 91 percent more cities than counties.  

This group is expected to see 58,700 new jobs by 2020 (see chart).

Correctional officers vs. patrol officers & sheriff’s deputies

Correctional officers – often referred to as “COs” – represent an entirely different side of law enforcement as compared to their counterparts in police departments and sheriff’s offices.

COs are responsible for enforcing rules and regulations inside a state or federal prison, jail or rehabilitative or correctional facility. They supervise inmates during meals, recreation, work and other daily activities. Both COs and deputy sheriffs are tasked with transporting prisoners between correctional facilities and state or federal courthouses.

Duties specific to COs include inspecting correctional facilities – locks, window bars, grills, doors and gates – to ensure security and prevent escape. While sheriff’s deputies and police officers carry handguns on a routine basis, COs use firearms only in emergency situations. 

Our jobs analysis revealed 7,257 openings for COs over the past year with another 26,000 expected to be available by 2020 (see chart).

A final word

So, in a nutshell, if you’re looking to someday process crime scenes and/or be involved in a region-wide task force, your best bet is to earn your degree and become a police officer or sheriff’s deputy.

Alternatively, if you want to supervise those already convicted of crimes and spend your days enforcing rules, shaking down cells and resolving conflicts between inmates, become a correctional officer.

However, one glaring difference between these three entry-level law enforcement jobs is salary. Our analysis revealed that 47 percent of police and sheriff’s deputy jobs required applicants to hold either an associate’s or bachelor’s degree. For COs, that number was just five percent – with another 38 percent recommending “some college.”

This education requirement is the best explanation we can offer for the salary discrepancy.

Regardless of which job strikes your fancy, the U.S. Department of Labor reports a “bright outlook” for all three career paths. So at least now you can make an informed decision when it comes time to choose police officer versus sheriff’s deputy versus correctional officer.

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Jeff is the Inbound Marketing Editor at Collegis Education. He oversees all of the blog and newsletter content for Rasmussen College. As a writer he tries to create articles that educate, encourage and motivate current and future students. He endeavors to inform, to question, to answer, to challenge and, ultimately, to help students find the people they want to become.

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