It is much more complex than that. Police officers undergo extensive training, perform varied duties, work often in dangerous and difficult conditions, and encounter both public praise and scorn. But Officer Flerchinger believes that ultimately the job boils down to serving the public first. "If, at the end of the day, I can look back and see that I really helped at least one person, then it was a good day."
Police pursue and apprehend individuals who break the law and then issue citations or give warnings. A large share of their time is spent writing reports and maintaining records of incidents they encounter. Most police officers patrol their jurisdictions and investigate any suspicious activity they notice. They also respond to calls from individuals.
The daily activities of police officers vary with their occupational specialty and whether they work for a local, state, or federal agency. Regardless of job duties or location, police officers at all levels must write reports and maintain meticulous records that will be needed if they testify in court.
Uniformed police officers have general law enforcement duties. They maintain regular patrols and respond to calls for service. Much of their time is spent responding to calls and doing paperwork. They may direct traffic at the scene of an accident, investigate a burglary, or give first aid to an accident victim. In large police departments, officers usually are assigned to a specific type of duty.
Police agencies are usually organized into geographic districts, with uniformed officers assigned to patrol a specific area. Officers in large agencies often patrol with a partner. They attempt to become familiar with their patrol area and remain alert for anything unusual. Officer Flerchinger indicated that one of his most important keys for success is knowing his area, knowing what belongs and what doesn't belong. Suspicious circumstances and hazards to public safety are investigated or noted, and officers are dispatched to individual calls for assistance within their district. During their shift, they may identify, pursue, and arrest suspected criminals; resolve problems within the community; and enforce traffic laws.
Some agencies have special geographic jurisdictions and enforcement responsibilities. Public college and university police forces, public school district police, and agencies serving transportation systems and facilities are examples. Most law enforcement workers in special agencies are uniformed officers.
Some police officers specialize in a particular field, such as chemical and microscopic analysis, training and firearms instruction, or handwriting and fingerprint identification. Others work with special units, such as bicycle, motorcycle, or harbor patrol; canine corps; special weapons and tactics (SWAT); or emergency response teams. A few local and special law enforcement officers primarily perform jail-related duties or work in courts.
Sheriffs and deputy sheriffs enforce the law on the county level. Sheriffs usually are elected to their posts and perform duties similar to those of a local or county police chief. Sheriffs' departments tend to be relatively small, most having fewer than 50 sworn officers. Deputy sheriffs have law enforcement duties similar to those of officers in urban police departments.
State police officers, sometimes called state troopers or highway patrol officers, arrest criminals statewide and patrol highways to enforce motor vehicle laws and regulations. State police officers often issue traffic citations to motorists. At the scene of accidents, they may direct traffic, give first aid, and call for emergency equipment. They also write reports used to determine the cause of the accident. State police officers frequently are called upon to render assistance to other law enforcement agencies, especially those in rural areas or small towns.
Police work can be very dangerous and stressful. Police officers have one of the highest rates of on-the-job injury and illness. In addition to the obvious dangers of confrontations with criminals, police officers need to be constantly alert and ready to deal appropriately with a number of other threatening situations. Many law enforcement officers witness death and suffering resulting from accidents and criminal behavior.
Police officers have various regular work schedules, but paid overtime is common. Shift work is necessary because protection must be provided around the clock. Police officers are required to work whenever they are needed and may work long hours at times. Officers in most jurisdictions, whether on or off duty, are expected to be armed and to exercise their authority when necessary.
State and local agencies encourage applicants to take courses or training related to law enforcement subjects after high school. Many entry-level applicants for police jobs have completed some formal postsecondary education, and a significant number are college graduates. Many junior colleges, colleges, and universities offer programs in law enforcement or administration of justice. Officer Flerchinger completed a two-year Criminal Justice program before entering law enforcement and indicated that these days most agencies are looking for at least a two-year law enforcement related degree or military training in their applicants to be competitive.
Before their first assignments, officers usually go through a period of training. In Oregon, officers attend a 16-week training program administered by the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST). Training includes classroom instruction in constitutional law and civil rights, state laws and local ordinances, and accident investigation. Recruits also receive training and supervised experience in patrol, traffic control, use of firearms, self-defense, first aid, and emergency response.
Other qualifications are also important for a police officer. Candidates should enjoy working with people and meeting the public. Officer Flerchinger said he believes that good people skills, the ability to earn respect and show respect, are the most important skills for him as a police officer. Personal characteristics such as honesty, sound judgment, integrity, and a sense of responsibility are especially important in law enforcement.
Continuing training helps police officers improve their job performance. Police officers receive ongoing training in self-defense tactics, firearms, use-of-force policies, sensitivity and communications skills, crowd-control techniques, relevant legal developments, and advances in law enforcement equipment. Keeping up with changing laws is also a significant challenge and ongoing process according to Officer Flerchinger.
Employment of police and sheriff's patrol officers is expected to grow 11.4 percent over the 2008 to 2018 decade, above the average of 9.1 percent for all occupations in Oregon. The regions of the state with the highest projected growth rates for the same time period are Region 9 (Gilliam, Hood River, Sherman, Wasco, and Wheeler counties) at 18.9 percent, Region 10 (Crook, Deschutes, and Jefferson counties) at 15.8 percent, and Region 5 (Lane County) at 14.0 percent.
Overall opportunities in local police departments should be favorable for individuals who meet the psychological, personal, and physical qualifications. In addition to openings from employment growth, many openings will be created by the need to replace workers who retire and those who leave local agencies for federal, state, and private-sector security jobs. Jobs in local police departments that offer relatively low salaries, or those in urban communities in which the crime rate is relatively high, may be the easiest to get. Some smaller departments may have fewer opportunities as budgets limit the ability to hire additional officers.
The level of government spending determines the level of employment for police and sheriff's patrol officers. The number of job opportunities, therefore, can vary from year to year and from place to place. Layoffs are rare because retirements enable most staffing cuts to be handled through attrition. Trained law enforcement officers who lose their jobs because of budget cuts usually have little difficulty finding jobs with other agencies.
Police and sheriff's patrol officers statewide had 2009 median wages of $27.41 per hour. The middle 50 percent earned between $23.06 and $31.35 per hour. The lowest 10 percent earned less than $19.35 per hour, and the highest 10 percent earned more than $36.21 per hour.