Most criminal justice recruiting programs focus heavily on first-line law enforcement jobs such as police officer, deputy sheriff, or state trooper. Most law enforcement employees are sworn officers. Despite this, there are still criminal justice careers that do not require wearing a uniform, carrying a firearm, or even making arrests. These can be rewarding alternatives for people who don’t want to or cannot serve in a traditional law enforcement role.
Throughout this guide, definitions are often modified by “usually,” “often” and other equivocal terms that are intended to say “this isn’t the case everywhere.” This is because each state and the federal government has its own way of describing and defining each status or category.
Before you go chasing off after some job you just know is what you were meant to do on this earth, perform some research and make sure it’s what you think it is.
Sworn vs. non-sworn
Most criminal justice jobs fall into one of two broad categories: sworn and non-sworn.
Sworn personnel include the more traditional law enforcement officers like police officers and deputy sheriffs but may also include probation and parole officers, fire marshals and court bailiffs, among others. Sworn personnel are usually authorized to carry firearms and make arrests, and most of them will complete some type of law enforcement training or academy. Some wear uniforms, others go to work in a coat and tie or similar business attire, and some may wear very casual, or work clothes more often associated with people who perform manual labor.
Non-sworn employees are just about everyone else. Clerks, evidence technicians, criminalists, community service officers, animal control officers and many others fall into the non-sworn category. Keep in mind that the definition of some job titles varies from place to place, as do the duties and status of those positions. An animal control officer may be sworn in one place and non-sworn in another. This applies to many other positions. You need to research the specific duties and status of a job at a particular employer before assuming that the job falls into one category or the other.
Sworn personnel can also be characterized as “peace officers.” The definition of a peace officer varies from state to state. In most cases, a peace officer is someone with powers of arrest, the ability to serve search and arrest warrants, and who is permitted to carry a firearm in the course of their duties. This obviously includes most law enforcement officers, but may also take in parole and probation officers, corrections officers, and others not in a regular law enforcement job. Peace officers are often classed into one of three categories.
- Category I: Traditional law enforcement officers, to include police officers, deputy sheriffs and state troopers. These positions usually require successful completion of a police academy in the state where the officer is commissioned. These academies are typically about six months long, although there is considerable variation from state to state.
- Category II: Non-traditional peace officer roles such as fire marshal, probation and parole officer, court bailiffs and some investigative positions. These also require completion of a training academy, but the course is usually abbreviated as compared to the Category I program.
- Category III: Correctional officers. These are usually the shortest training academies.
Completion of a Category I training course usually qualifies the graduate to work in any of the Category I, II or III roles. A Category II graduate can work in a Category II or III position. Most of the jobs described in this guide require only a Category II certification if any law enforcement training is required at all.
A Category II academy reduces the number of required training hours by omitting certain parts of the Category I curriculum. Emergency vehicle operations is seldom included, as Category II jobs don’t normally require emergency responses. Training with traditional impact weapons such as batons is omitted because Category II officers seldom carry these.
Another aspect of the non-traditional sworn officer career is whether the officer’s peace officer powers are in effect whether the officer is on or off duty. This varies with the state where the officer is commissioned. Corrections officers in some states are peace officers when on duty or off and can carry firearms on or off duty. In other states, corrections officers have peace officer powers only when on duty. If they wish to carry a firearm while off duty, they must apply for and be granted a concealed weapon permit.
But I want to be a detective…
Some aspiring investigators have gotten the idea, usually from watching television, that detectives are hired directly into that role, without having been any kind of uniformed officer first. The only type of law enforcement investigator who doesn’t first serve in a uniformed capacity are those who work at employers with a strictly investigative mission. This includes the FBI and other federal and state-level investigative agencies. The FBI does have a uniformed police component, but its main function is to provide security services for FBI personnel and facilities. FBI police officers seldom promote into special agent positions.
State and local law enforcement agencies that have detectives use the uniformed officer corps as their candidate pool. The skills needed to be a good detective are learned while working in uniformed patrol. Before you interview a murder suspect, you will have questioned hundreds of drivers under the influence, low-level thieves and gang members who have committed crimes far more trivial than murder. You will have testified in court many times when citizens contest their speeding tickets or domestic violence charges. You will write the equivalent of hundreds of books of crime and arrest reports. All these activities are good preparation for an investigative career.
Many calls for service to the police are for low-level offenses such as bike theft or graffiti painted on the exterior wall of a business. It’s often possible to dispose of these calls by writing a superficial report that describes the loss and notes there are no suspects. It’s also possible to turn any minor crime report into an investigation by canvassing local homes or businesses for witnesses or leads and taking the time to process a crime scene for latent fingerprints or trace evidence left behind. Officers who do this are the ones who have the best chance of being selected for the detective division.
The upshot: you’re not going to be a detective until you have put in some time – maybe five to 10 years – in uniformed patrol, chasing the radio, wrestling with drunks and running after people who don’t think they should go to jail.
[More: Making the transition from patrol to investigations]
Index of job titles in this guide
1. Parole and probation officers
Every state has some version of probation and parole (P&P) officers. The functions might be split, so there are probation officers and parole officers, but none who perform both functions. The job may also be characterized as “community corrections.” The employer might be a county-level probation department, or the P&P officer might work for the state department of prisons or corrections.
Parole and probation are not the same things. Convictions for serious felonies, such as murder, rape, or robbery (there are lots of others) often merit prison time. Most states allow prison inmates to be paroled once they have completed some fraction of their sentence, maybe half to two-thirds of their time. When the parole-eligible date is coming up, the prisoner will appear before a parole board and be interviewed. The parole board may also hear testimony from others, such as the victim(s) of the inmate’s crime or the victim’s family. Parole boards are always under pressure to release as many inmates as possible, as prisons tend to be overcrowded and expensive to run. If the inmate is granted parole, he or she is released to a community and assigned a parole officer.
The parole officer meets with the offender (they are often referred to as “clients” in this context) and reviews the conditions of parole. They might include refraining from the consumption of alcohol and/or recreational drugs, getting gainful employment, regular attendance at counseling or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, and remaining in that city or county unless they are cleared to go elsewhere. The parole officer meets with the parolee regularly and verifies they are complying with the conditions of parole. If they are not in compliance, the parole officer can “violate” the client, arrest them, and send them back to prison.
Probation works differently. When someone is convicted of a crime and sentenced to probation, they are not sent to jail or prison. Instead, they are required to comply with the conditions of probation, which can be just about anything the judge specifies. Common requirements include not consuming alcohol (it’s very common for criminals to offend only when they are drunk), working at a job and paying restitution to their victim, obeying all laws, etc. If the probationer fails to heed the conditions of probation, they can be sent back to the court to be re-sentenced to some penalty that is generally harsher than probation. The probation officer may be permitted to arrest a probationer who is not in compliance.
Probation and parole officers are usually required to have a four-year college degree in a social science such as psychology, criminal justice, criminology or sociology or related work experience. There are two “models” of P&P functions. The enforcement model places the P&P officer into a kind of parental role, disciplining the client if they are found to be in violation. The social work model employs the P&P officer as a kind of counselor with the authority to discipline the client but puts more emphasis on guiding the client and reforming their behavior. P&P officers in the enforcement model typically carry firearms and make arrests, while those in the social work model do not. If they anticipate the need to make an arrest, they rely on local law enforcement for assistance.
[More: What parole, probation officers need to know about home placement investigations]
2. Alcoholic beverage control
Most states have some agency that polices businesses with a license to sell alcohol. “On sale” licensees take in bars and restaurants where alcoholic beverages are sold for consumption on the premises. “Off-sale” licensees are liquor, grocery and convenience stores that sell canned and bottled alcoholic beverages for consumption at home or elsewhere. A few states restrict off sales to state-owned liquor stores.
Alcohol beverage control (ABC) officers investigate establishments that are selling alcohol without a license or are selling to underage customers. They may also get involved when a business is “overserving” or selling alcohol to customers who are already clearly intoxicated.
These officers may conduct “sting” operations where an underage shill is sent into a business to try and purchase alcohol. If the sale is made, the ABC officers issue a citation or immediately order the business to be closed. Suspending or revoking a business’ liquor license can cause a business to close for good, as most of its sales are associated with alcohol purchases.
Now that possession and use of marijuana have been decriminalized in many states, ABC officers are often charged with policing retail marijuana dispensaries, ensuring that they do not sell to minors and performing background investigations on license applicants. This adds a new dimension to this investigative area.
ABC officers work in plain clothes and usually carry firearms, as intoxicated people can become belligerent and unpredictable. The job sometimes requires overnight travel, as there aren’t all that many ABC officers and there are lots of licensees to police.
3. Fire marshals
Fire marshals typically work for a city or county fire department, although they may be employed by a state-level agency. They investigate fire scenes where arson is suspected. They may also be required to visit and enforce occupancy limit requirements on businesses such as nightclubs and concert venues. This latter function can involve some personal risk, as people can get more than irate when they’re having a good time, are a little drunk and are told they must leave the overcrowded premises.
Most fire marshal positions are filled from the ranks of regular firefighters who desire a career change. They may also be sourced from non-firefighter fire inspectors who conduct inspections of businesses to ensure they are complying with local fire codes governing fire extinguisher placement, exit door signs and storage of combustible materials.
Fire marshals may wear a firefighter uniform or work in plain clothes. The arson investigation function often involves the identification, collection and documentation of evidence, so it’s very much like the work of a crime scene investigator. They usually complete a Level II law enforcement academy in addition to any firefighter training they have completed.
[Read: Case study: How Idaho fire, police agencies worked together to prioritize school safety]
4. Community service officers
Community service officers (CSOs) work in law enforcement agencies as police officer extenders or augments. They handle calls for service when there is no anticipated threat to the CSO’s or police officer’s safety. These include “cold” burglaries and other crime reports where the crime appears to have occurred hours or days before, and it’s unlikely there is any suspect on the premises. They may take reports on non-injury traffic accidents, or direct traffic when a signal light goes out or during a special event. By handling calls that are time-consuming but don’t require all the skills or powers of a regular police officer, CSOs leverage the personnel resources of the agency.
CSOs usually work in a modified police uniform. Polo shirts with embroidered names and badges and cargo pants are popular uniform options. CSOs are unarmed but may carry pepper spray or some other less-lethal option for self-protection. They don’t have to attend a police academy. Training is either on-the-job or in a CSO training class that might be a few weeks long. Sometimes CSOs start out working at the police station, taking reports in person or over the phone. This teaches them the agency’s report writing system and gets them oriented regarding common law violations.
5. Evidence technicians
Somewhere between the crime scene investigators that you see on TV shows and warehouse inventory clerks, a non-sworn evidence technician has their skill set. Evidence technicians are mainly responsible for keeping the agency’s evidence repository organized.
When a police officer recovers physical evidence from a crime scene, they take it to the agency’s evidence room or locker and log it in. This is sometimes called “vouchering” the evidence. The officer fills out a form or paper tag that describes the item of evidence, the case number, and the time and date. The evidence item is then secured in a locker reserved for that purpose. Physical evidence can be anything from illegal drugs to a firearm.
The agency’s evidence technician removes the logged item from the locker and moves it to a more secure area. Some items of evidence are sent to the crime lab for further testing and processing. The evidence technician may perform these transfers on a regular basis, taking evidence to the lab and retrieving items that have been processed.
Many evidence items require special handling. An item that needs to be processed for latent prints or DNA can’t be touched with bare skin. Some drug evidence is so concentrated or noxious that any skin contact can have an adverse physical effect on the handler. The technician frequently wears disposable gloves when handling evidence items.
Some evidence technicians progress in the job so that they occasionally respond to crime scenes to gather and process evidence on site. They may wear their own clothes or have a uniform like a CSO. On-the-job training is common, although an applicant with some college courses in forensic science may be more competitive.
[A day in the life: Chicago PD’s firearms laboratory working furiously to combat violence]
Public safety telecommunicators (TCs) are what used to be (and are still in some places) called “dispatchers.” This crucial duty is typically performed by non-sworn personnel.
For many years, TCs were trained strictly on the job. They worked with a more experienced TC for a few shifts and were then left to work on their own. Today, most TCs must complete a state-level TC academy of several week’s duration. The TC academy covers the technical and legal aspects of the job and does not include the physical training that police officers receive.
There are two major assignments within the TC field: call-taker and radio operator (there may be other titles for these positions). Both positions work within a Public Safety Answering Point or PSAP. Call-takers are the people who answer the 9-1-1 and non-emergency phone lines when someone calls for a police, fire, or EMS response. The call-taker gets as much information as possible from the caller. This can be a challenge, as some callers refuse to identify themselves and get confrontational when they are still on the phone and have not yet seen any emergency vehicles or uniformed personnel show up.
Most PSAPs use a computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system. This allows the call-taker to get the basic elements of the incident to the radio operator while they are still on the line with the caller, updating the details and passing on this information to the radio operator.
Within the TC job sphere, there are specialized areas requiring training and experience. An emergency medical services TC gets some of the training an emergency medical technician (EMT) receives. While the ambulance is on its way to the caller, the TC might be talking the caller through the steps to perform cardio-pulmonary resuscitation or limit the bleeding from a victim of an accident. Radio operators for law enforcement channels must become conversant in the details of police databases like the National Criminal Information Center (NCIC).
Smaller public safety agencies may require that TCs also attend the front desk at a police station, helping people who come to the station for assistance. They may also have some supervision of jail inmates. A female TC might be the only woman on duty at the agency and may be required to perform body searches of female prisoners who have been arrested in the field. They may wear a uniform similar to that worn by a CSO or evidence technician or work in their own street clothes.
A TC job can be extremely stressful. They may be talking to a terrified caller who has an intruder in their home while the police are en route to the location. When the first officers arrive, the caller typically hangs up, and the call-taker gets no closure on the outcome of the call. Officers, firefighters and EMTs in the field may not be tolerant of a slow CAD system or the delayed reply from a motor vehicle’s department database and take their frustration out on the TC. Nevertheless, TCs are a lifeline for cops, firefighters and EMTs in the field. A good TC can keep a difficult situation from becoming an outright disaster.
[Dive deeper: ‘Stay on the line, I’ll tell you what to do next’]
7. Specialized investigators
There are many specialized investigator careers in both the public and private sectors. These positions often do not require completion of a law enforcement academy, because the people working in these jobs do not have law enforcement authority.
For example, most states have investigators associated with the state’s Medicaid or other public health insurance functions. Medicaid investigators go after healthcare providers or benefit recipients who are exploiting the public assistance programs unlawfully for profit. A physician may be submitting reimbursement claims for patients they seldom see or will claim they performed medical procedures that never actually took place. Patients might be seeing multiple physicians to treat the same (possibly nonexistent) illness or condition, splitting the payouts with the doctor.
Insurance commission investigators may review complaints from customers of an insurance carrier that the carrier refused to pay benefits for a legitimate claim. If the insurance carrier is a state-funded disability insurance program, the investigator may look for claimants who say they have a physical disability. The claimant says they are unable to work because of their disability but engages in household or recreational activities they would be unable to do if the claim was legitimate.
A prosecutor’s or state attorney general’s office may employ investigators to find parents who refuse to pay court-ordered child support. When the investigators are successful, the “deadbeat parent” can find that his or her salary has been garnished for the missed payments, or that they are physically arrested and required to appear in court to explain their delinquency.
States with economies that include significant livestock ranching may have investigators who look into cattle rustling, ranchers who allow their livestock to graze on lands without compensating the owner, or in situations where animals are mistreated, abandoned, or starved. Some of these positions require Category II law enforcement training, but others may be non-sworn positions.
If a state has a consumer affairs office or function, it may have investigators who look into complaints made by citizens. For example, if the state has a requirement that cars be tested for excessive emissions before they can be registered, there will be shops licensed to conduct the testing. A licensee might be willing to provide a “passed” document to the owner of a car that can’t meet the emissions standards, so long as the owner pays a little extra. The same shop might say a car has failed the test when the owner wants to charge the customer for unneeded repairs. A consumer affairs investigator might go to a shop with suspicious activity, driving a car that has no excess emissions, or with a car that is spewing noxious exhaust, to see how the proprietor handles these situations.
Most of the investigators described in this section do not make arrests, and subsequently don’t have to be certified as law enforcement officers. When a case does mandate an arrest, the investigator will enlist the assistance of regular law enforcement officers who handle those duties.
8. Loss prevention agent
Most corporate-level retail businesses employ loss prevention officers or agents. Their basic function is to identify and apprehend shoplifters, but the job is considerably more involved than that.
All retail merchants lose profits to theft. The most obvious thefts are at the hands of shoplifters and other thieves posing as customers, but that may not be the source of the greatest losses. Employee theft is also significant, and a business may lose more profit to employee theft than from shoplifters. Loss prevention agents investigate all types of theft from their employers.
Newly hired loss prevention (LP) employees are usually assigned to look for shoplifters. They dress in the same clothes their typical customer wears and pretend to be shopping while they look for thieves. Many retail thieves are highly skilled and catching them in the act can be challenging. The LP agent must keep the thief under observation constantly after they observe the theft, as the thief will “ditch” the stolen merchandise before they exit the store if they suspect they have been spotted. The LP agent who stops a thief who no longer has the stolen merchandise on them creates a predicament where the store can be sued for wrongful arrest.
Once the LP officer has proven themselves to be a competent investigator, they may be promoted and assigned to investigate employee theft. Stealing money from the cash register is the most common and obvious type of theft, but some schemes can be far more complex and difficult to detect. Investigations can span weeks or months, and affect multiple stores, entailing travel for the LP officer.
Applicants for LP positions may have criminal justice degrees, but it’s common for LP managers to recruit from regular retail employees who have demonstrated good observation skills and exemplary ethical conduct. Retailers don’t often advertise for LP openings, instead, they rely on referrals and their own internal recruiting. People interested in LP careers may need to walk into an outlet for the retailer they’re interested in and ask to speak with an LP manager.
[More: Using technology in today’s loss prevention career environment]
How do I qualify?
There is no specific education program to prepare for any of these careers. Most require only a high school diploma, although having a two- or four-year degree might make you more competitive. Criminal justice might seem to be the optimal college major, but that is not necessarily so.
Any academic program that requires substantial reading, writing and critical thinking will improve the skills you need for these jobs. Most liberal arts majors, such as psychology, political science, philosophy and English literature, will do this. You need practice in reading statutory laws and appellate court decisions, which tend to be wordy and complex. From these, you should be able to derive the essential elements of the law or opinion and apply them to the issue at hand.
Competency in a foreign language, especially one spoken in the community that will employ you, is a huge advantage. “Competency” doesn’t mean the level of expertise you would have after taking courses in that language for a couple of years in high school. True fluency comes from hearing and speaking the language every day and using it to get through your day. This often requires “total immersion,” living in an environment where only the target language is spoken. You may need to spend a year or so living in that kind of setting to acquire fluency.
Because most of these jobs do not entail making arrests or otherwise engaging physically with people, physical fitness is not as much of a priority as it would be in a typical law enforcement career.
All the jobs described in this guide will entail a background investigation as part of the screening/hiring process. Many potential applicants will unintentionally take themselves out of the running by acquiring an adverse criminal, driving, or credit record. A pattern of minor brushes with the law is indicative of someone who has little respect for rules, and criminal justice employees have a lot of rules they must follow. A person who can’t manage their personal finances becomes a target for bribery, taking money from people who can make all their debts go away.
Experimental drug use usually isn’t a major concern unless the applicant has experimented with every drug and combination they could find and continued the experimentation for years. Even minor experimentation can be a red flag if it was recent. By the time you apply for these jobs, you are supposed to be finished with youthful indiscretions.
Some people acquire the attitude that there should be a “do-over” for every mistake they have made in life, and that episodes of misbehavior should be eliminated (“drop off my record”) from consideration after a few years. With background investigations, this doesn’t happen. Everything counts, although older events may not count as much as more recent ones.
Overall, you want to be someone who won’t need to explain very many problems to the background investigator. When a background investigator finds several suspicious areas, even though the applicant can explain away the circumstances, the investigator will wonder about whatever issues they didn’t find. If there are four people equally qualified for three openings, the one with the greatest number of questionable issues won’t get the job.
If you’re interested in an investigative career but aren’t moved to complete a law enforcement academy, you’re not necessarily out of luck. There are many investigative roles that do not require the training of a first-line police officer. A small bit of extra effort to find these openings might result in identifying a rewarding vocation.
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