Most people can name a few federal law enforcement agencies off the top of their heads: The Secret Service, the FBI and ICE. Most people don't know that every single agency in the federal government has at least one, and often several, law enforcement agencies, and every department of the government has many agencies within it.
Former Philadelphia Police Commissioner Charles Ramsey says flatly, "There are approximately 18,000 (police) departments in the United States." Of those, approximately 15,400 are local or state police departments, leaving roughly a staggering 2,600 federal agencies. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that those agencies employ over 40,000 agents at a mean salary of $106,040. That, for a dedicated, ambitious and qualified job seeker, is a tremendous opportunity.
Because there is such a wide variety of government departments, from Agriculture to Defense, the job of a federal officer varies widely. Some Secret Service agents protect the president of the United States and his family, acting as the world's most highly powered bodyguards. Others in the same department pore over computer reports looking for cyber-skullduggery and tax evasion, and federal correctional officers also fall under the umbrella of federal law enforcement.
The FBI itself says, "There is no such thing as a typical day for an FBI special agent. Every day is different. One day you could be testifying in federal court, the next you could be executing a search warrant and gathering evidence, the next you could be meeting with a source to gather intelligence on illegal activities, the next you could be making an arrest, and the next you could be back in the office meeting with your squad and catching up on paperwork."
In general, a federal law enforcement officer has a list of duties similar to a local police officer with the same specialization, such as computer forensics, criminal profiling, or running or recruiting confidential informants. Depending on the agency and function, the agent may also benefit from a scientific background, a military history, or a track record as a committed volunteer such as being a cadet. Passing a security clearance is an absolute necessity.
Requirements to apply to join a federal law enforcement agency vary with the agency, but all applicants must be American citizens, meet physical fitness standards, and master the basic police training – job experience can be helpful – before being accepted as a recruit. Then they begin their specialized agency training, such as "the Farm" used by the CIA to train recruits on handling hijacking, hostage-taking and other high-pressure situations. Because federal jobs are high-profile, highly trained, and typically more highly paid than their local counterparts, there is a great deal of competition for jobs, and aspiring agents are warned to be well prepared.
The FBI requirements are a good example of typical federal standards for investigators. Candidates must have a bachelor's degree or more, be between the ages of 23 and 37, have spent three of the last five years in the U.S. unless deployed abroad as a member of the military or another federal service, and have a valid driver's license. There is an additional requirement of three years of full-time experience, which may be waived in exceptional circumstances when a candidate demonstrates a talent that is in high demand such as cybersecurity skills.
Industry Overview and Job Growth Trend
Policing job opportunities, in general, are increasing by 7 percent per year according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and opportunities in federal policing are expanding even faster, particularly for those with computer or language skills.
Years of Experience and Salary
Because being a federal law enforcement officer is a federal government job, salaries are tightly regulated in accordance with the OPM pay scale. The rates they dictate vary by location, seniority, specialization and other factors. Some agencies may also provide bonuses for exceptional work by agents or supplementary danger pay. For federal law enforcement officers in New York City, for example, the OPM dictates a starting salary of no less than $24,821 at Grade 1, up to $164,200 for a top agent at Grade 15. The mean salary is significantly higher than the entry level, and most agents start at a higher grade.
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the mean salary level for a federal agent, detective or investigator is $50.98 per hour or $106,040 per year, nearly double the average for state or local police.
For intelligent, keen and qualified aspirants, the field of federal law enforcement offers a wide and ever-expanding variety of opportunities that are well-paid, secure and challenging.