We’ve all seen the distinct red and blue flashing lights on the side of the road, a police officer stationed at the entrance of a store or school or squad cars at the site of a car accident. We know that police officers are continuously present throughout a community, but have you ever stopped to think about what kind of police officer you encountered?
Believe it or not, there are more types of police officers than you might have guessed, and they each have different job duties and are assigned to work in a variety of different places. Some police officers work in big cities, some in some small towns and some patrol state highways. But these aren’t the only places police officers work, and they certainly do much more than patrol. If you are interested in a career in law enforcement, then you are going to want to learn more about these seven types of police officers.
7 Types of police officers
1. Uniformed officers
When it comes to general law enforcement duties such as maintaining regular patrols and responding to emergency calls, uniformed police officers are likely the ones behind the wheel. Uniformed police officers spend much of their time patrolling communities and responding to calls, but they are also involved in investigating criminal activity, directing traffic and generally helping citizens in need. Uniformed police officers are likely to be assigned to a specific area of a community and will become familiar with that area, so they can sense anything out of the ordinary and resolve any issues.
The education required for becoming a uniformed police officer ranges from a high school diploma to a college degree. Additionally, officers will likely need to attend a training academy and pass any examinations the state or police department requires. Uniformed police officers can work in big cities or small towns.
Police detectives are members of a police department or law enforcement agency and work within their jurisdiction. Police detectives are active at crime scenes and spend their time investigating crimes, using evidence to piece together what happened. Detectives will work with witnesses and suspects, interviewing them and compiling clues and evidence. They’re responsible for writing detailed official reports compiling the information they gather. Detectives need to be meticulous—every bit of evidence, interview and action they take will be under intense scrutiny by legal defense teams.
Becoming a detective typically requires first beginning your career as a standard uniformed police officer before being promoted to a detective within the department. This promotion may require passing an examination or other continuing education work.
3. State police and highway patrol officers
It’s likely you’ve seen the different colored vehicles of state police or highway patrol, but are you aware of exactly what they do? State police are often busy patrolling highways, but they also play a crucial role in assisting local police agencies when emergencies or investigations extend beyond their resources and jurisdictions. These state police officers, sometimes referred to as state troopers, are often relied on to assist with law enforcement duties in small towns and rural areas.
4. Fish and game wardens
Sometimes overlooked in the world of law enforcement, fish and game wardens are the law enforcement professionals tasked with enforcing the rules and regulations designed to protect wildlife. This type of officer often works for state conservation departments or federal agencies. Fish and game wardens play the primary role in enforcing fishing and hunting regulations. Not only will they patrol hunting and fishing areas, but they’ll also be responsible for conducting search and rescue operations and investigating complaints and accidents as well. Given the territory covered in this specialized role, fish and game wardens will often operate boats and off-road vehicles.
Competition for fish and game warden positions is fairly strong, and as such you’ll need a strong background of education and experience to find a job in this role. A Bachelor's degree in a subject area related to conservation or biology may be required to become a fish and game warden for federal agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service.
5. Transit and railroad officers
Transit and railroad officers are probably not top-of-mind for most when it comes to law enforcement jobs. So what exactly do they do? These officers are responsible for patrolling public transportation areas like subways and trains or railway stations. These officers are tasked with patrolling railyards—or other transportation hubs—to prevent vandalism, trespassing, theft or other crimes commonly found along our transportation network.
In order to become a transit and railroad officer, candidates must first go through training at a police academy like uniformed police officers. Some cities and states require prospective transit and railroad police to take specialized training courses as well.
Though they perform similar duties to that of a police chief, most sheriffs have at least one significant difference—they’re typically elected to the position by members of their community. Sheriffs and deputy sheriffs enforce the law in a similar way to local uniformed police officers, only their jurisdiction is at the county level, covering areas that are outside that of local police departments.
Becoming a sheriff requires more than simply being elected, though that can pose a challenge to the career. Sheriffs typically begin working as sworn uniformed police officers or sheriff’s deputies and gain experience in law enforcement before running for sheriff’s office.
7. Special jurisdiction police
Certain police agencies are dedicated to special geographic jurisdictions and enforcement responsibilities. Have you ever wondered who is responsible for policing places like college campuses or schools? Public college and university police forces, public schools and transportation systems like airports are all examples of jurisdictions where special jurisdiction police officers will work as uniformed officers.
Special jurisdiction police are generally full-service departments, offering the same services as local police. Interested candidates looking to work in this area of law enforcement should follow the same as becoming a uniformed police officer.
Looking to start a law enforcement career?
If you were surprised to find that there are this many types of police officers, don’t let your search for a career in law enforcement leave your head spinning, not knowing where to start. The first step toward many of these specialized positions is to build experience in a general law enforcement role.
Learn more about the most common entry-level law enforcement positions in our article, “Patrol Officer vs. Sheriff’s Deputy vs. Correctional Officer: Which Law Enforcement Job Is Right for You?”