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Government Careers

Federal Law Enforcement Careers

By Eric Yoder
Special to washingtonpost.com
Monday, June 28, 2004;

The federal government employs law enforcement officers spread across some 70 departments, independent agencies and sub-agencies. Their duties range from foot patrols around federal buildings to protecting the President.

While the nature of the work varies greatly, federal law enforcement agencies have one thing in common: virtually all of them are actively hiring. This is not because the nation is on a high security footing and a number of experienced officers are retiring.


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The Department of Homeland Security’s Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is looking to add about 400 new criminal investigator positions in the next year as well as replace several hundred more who are expected to retire. At the Justice Department, the FBI is seeking to add nearly 1,000 employees, many of them agents in counter-terrorism, counter-intelligence and intelligence analysis. The Drug Enforcement Administration plans to add about 120 drug agents, in addition to managing turnover.

A federal law enforcement officer is defined as someone whose primary duties involve the investigation, apprehension or detention of individuals suspected of or convicted of offenses against federal criminal laws. For new hirees, this typically includes a requirement that the individual be "young and vigorous"—the exact meaning of which varies from job to job.

Federal criminal investigators—sometimes, called special agents—may be involved in counter-terrorism, breaking up smuggling rings, and investigating money laundering. Entry-level hirees often are brought in at the general schedule grade 7 level (around $33,000); the agencies typically are looking for college graduates and/or those with some criminal justice or military justice background.

“If we hire them at the entry level we don’t need specific knowledge skills because we’ll train them,” said Sid Waldstreicher, acting director of human resources at ICE. The standard basic training is a four-month course at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center in Georgia, although some agencies have their own training facilities as well.

Agencies are also looking for criminal investigators with four or more years of experience, at state or local level. Someone with experience would be hired at a higher level, possibly GS-12 (around $59,000).

Having an accounting or financial investigative background is valuable in many positions, particularly those in the FBI, IRS and the inspector general's offices. Skills in computers, computer networking, data storage and data retrieval also in demand as the government seeks to upgrade its IT systems and do more electronic collaboration.

Proficiency in foreign languages—especially Middle Eastern and Asian is highly desirable, as are backgrounds in physical science, engineering, military intelligence and counter-intelligence.

In addition to criminal investigative positions – federal agencies have a variety of other law enforcement specialties, including intelligence officers, prison guards, immigration enforcement agents, border patrol officers, marine enforcement officers and air marshals.

Federal law enforcement officers commonly work substantial amounts of overtime, often on short notice. The work can be dangerous. According to the Labor Department statistics, assaults and violent acts accounted for 22 percent of workplace fatalities in government (including state and local) between 1992-2001 period, second only to transportation accidents. By occupational groups, protective service occupations such as police, detectives and supervisors were the most likely to incur a fatal workplace injury over the period, accounting for 1,448 of the 6,455 government workplace fatalities.

The government offers sweetened retirement and overtime benefits to compensate for the hardships and danger that come with law enforcement jobs. Benefits and pay practices vary in agencies.

The screening process for applicants requires full disclosure of past drug use, a polygraph examination, a psychological suitability assessment, and a background investigation. In some cases, conviction of a felony, use of illegal drugs, default on a student loan, failure to register with the Selective Service system and other factors may be disqualifiying.

Typically an applicant must be a U.S. citizen no older than 37 years of age for initial service. Many positions carry requirements for fitness, vision and hearing acuity, as well as minimum grade-point averages for college studies. Once in their positions, officers typically must maintain a required level of physical fitness, and firearm proficiency.

Because the federal government offers a large range and number of positions, it has room for employees who want to change jobs. “Once you’re in the system it’s not difficult to move, either from [one] program to another or even from one agency to another—to improve your commute, for a promotion, or just for a change of pace,” said Waldstreicher. “If you look at it from a career growth perspective, there’s nothing but opportunity.”

“There’s a definite need for people to come work for government law enforcement agencies now with everything that’s going on in the world,” he said. “Not everybody is going to serve in the military but everybody wants to do something to help the effort and this is a good way to do it. You’re doing something for more than just a paycheck. You like to be part of something that matters.”

Editor's note: This updated article by Eric Yoder, was first aquired by washingtonpost.com on February 10, 2003.


© 2004 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive