Federal Law Enforcement Careers

Basis for Federal authority
Federal executive departments
Online job-finding aids
Links to Federal agencies that employ law enforcement officers
Questions and Answers
Writing Skills

NOTE: These comments reflect only my observations, based on what I experienced during my career.  Check everything out for yourself!

Criminal investigators

Also known as "series 1811" in Government-speak, criminal investigators are employed by many agencies. Individual agencies usually give them the title of "special agent".  Perhaps the best known are FBI special agents.

ATF, DEA, FBI and Homeland Defense (Customs, Immigration and U.S. Secret Service) employ armed special agents with general powers of search and arrest. Depending on one´s specific assignment, these jobs may involve considerable personal risk, including hostile encounters with armed offenders.

The Internal Revenue Service also employs "special agents", who are armed when situations require. These positions are normally low risk. When hostile arrests or searches are required, US Marshals or the FBI are usually called in.

Most Federal departments, including the Dept. of Labor, Dept. of Health and Human Services, Environmental Protection Agency and Dept. of Defense employ criminal investigators. They investigate white-collar crime and internal misconduct. Jobs are normally low or no risk. In the rare event that hostile arrests or searches are required, US Marshals, FBI or local authorities are usually called in.

The Postal Service, a quasi-public agency, calls their criminal investigators "Postal Inspector". They investigate mail theft by employees and outsiders and the use of mail to commit fraud. Postal inspectors frequently make arrests and serve search warrants. Since targets are mostly white-collar criminals, these jobs carry low to moderate risk.

The State Department´s Bureau of Diplomatic Security employs special agents. Their primary responsibility is security of embassies and embassy personnel. They also investigate visa and passport fraud. Their jobs are usually low risk. However, certain foreign postings can be very high risk.

The U.S. Marshals Service employs Deputy U.S. Marshals, a special job classification that mixes custodial and investigative work.  Their main job is to provide security for US courthouses and to guard and transport Federal prisoners awaiting trial. Marshals also arrest Federal fugitives. Depending on assignment, these positions may involve considerable personal risk.

The Navy/Marine Corps and Air Force employ civilian criminal investigators. They investigate all felony crimes that occur on military reservations, where they function essentially as detectives. Because of the regulated nature of military life, these jobs are normally low risk.

The Defense Department's Defense Criminal Investigative Service employs special agents. One of their primary missions is to combat fraud by civilian contractors. These jobs are low risk.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a branch of the Dept. of the Interior, employs plainclothes criminal investigators.  These jobs are normally low to moderate risk.

Civilian (unarmed) Inspectors and Investigators

ATF and other agencies (e.g., DEA, EPA, FDA, OSHA, ICC) employ unarmed "inspectors" and "investigators" to insure that private industry complies with Federal regulations.  For example, ATF inspectors examine the books of liquor and gun distributors.  EPA inspectors check manufacturing plants for pollution controls.  These are quasi-investigative, non-uniformed, unarmed positions and normally carry no risk.

Uniformed Positions

Homeland Security employs officers who check goods entering the U.S. and verify the legal status of travelers. These are usually static-post, uniformed, armed positions and carry low risk.

Homeland Security employs Border Patrol agents who apprehend illegal immigrants. These are physically demanding, high-risk positions that require making frequent physical arrests.

The United States Park Police, a branch of the Dept. of the Interior, provides a full range of police services, from patrol to detectives, for Federal parks in urban areas, including a large chunk of the District of Columbia. Depending on area of assignment, these jobs carry moderate to high risk.

The U.S. Forest Service, a branch of the Dept. of Agriculture, and the Bureau of Land management, a branch of the Dept. of the Interior, employ "Law Enforcement Rangers" that provide uniformed police services for National Parks and other rural Federal lands.  These jobs carry moderate to high risk.

Online job-finding aids

USA Jobs  Use the search tool.  For example, if you are looking for an armed criminal investigator position, type in 1811 for the series number.  Or type in 1810 for unarmed investigation positions.  Or, simply type in the keyword "investigator" to search for both kinds of jobs.  For pay grade type in the range GS-5 to GS-7, which will cover most entry-level openings.  For location select "US", meaning the whole country.

Police employment.com  Great links to Federal agencies that employ law enforcement officers. 

Links to Federal agencies that employ law enforcement officers

Questions and Answers

NOTE: Everything here is my opinion, based on what I experienced and learned during my career. Check everything out yourself!

Hiring: Federal criminal investigator positions are very selective. Normally a four-year degree is required. Several agencies (including DEA and FBI) impose additional standards, including one or more of the following: specialized professional experience, degrees in law or accounting, language skills and a minimum age requirement. IRS special agent applicants must prove they have taken advanced coursework in accounting.

Some agencies, including ATF, Customs, IRS and the State and Defense departments occasionally hire new graduates for special agent positions. Keep in mind that many applicants have far more than just a 4-year degree. Some are already agency employees or interns, while others have law-enforcement experience or are military veterans. Bottom line - if you wish to be a Federal criminal investigator you must stand out from the crowd:

· Intern in the agency of your choice. This is a big plus. (To find out about internship opportunities simply call an agency´s local office and ask to speak with a recruiter. Be persistent!)

· Serve in the military - preferably in a law-enforcement capacity - and collect five points Veteran´s preference for Federal employment.

· Learn a foreign language.

· Get local police experience.

· Enter Federal service in a lesser position, say, as a Border Patrol officer, a Customs inspector or a Park Police officer. Being in the Federal service gives you experience and allows you to apply for vacancies that are not announced to the general public.

How did I get in? I was a military veteran with three years active service (Army military police, U.S. and Vietnam) and had two current years of experience as an insurance fraud investigator with a large private firm. Military service gave me an extra 5 points on the written exam, and my job experience allowed me to compete on a more-or-less equal footing with older applicants.

Writing skillsCrucial.  Criminal investigator employment tests usually include a writing component.  By all means, do everything possible during your college years to become a good writer.  Take courses in writing and composition.  Visit the University's writing center if you are having difficulties.

Good writing skills are critical to become employed in the Federal service and are necessary for success in law enforcement, whether at the local, State or Federal levels.  This cannot be over-emphasized.

Physical fitness: Any Federal job that calls for carrying a gun and making arrests requires that one be in excellent physical condition. Click here for an overview of physical training requirements.

Job location: Most Federal jobs do not guarantee a specific geographical assignment. Generally speaking, unless you are ready and willing to be stationed anywhere in the U.S., do not bother to apply for a Federal job. Even if you "luck out" in your initial assignment, you will probably have to relocate to advance in rank.

Job duties: This is the most important thing to consider. Unlike police departments, differences between Federal jobs are extreme. Find out what employees of Federal agencies really do before you get to the oral interview.

· If all you want to be is a criminal investigator, concentrate on special agent jobs with ATF, FBI, DEA, Customs, Postal Inspection, Air Force OSI, Navy CIS and Defense CIS. Keep in mind that the primary mission of the Secret Service is protection, and that of the Marshal´s Service is court security and prisoner transport.

· On the other hand, if you are also interested in security and protection, look first to the Secret Service and the Dept. of State Diplomatic Security Service.

· If you would like to be posted in another country or to travel internationally, look first to the State Department and any position in the military or Dept. of Defense. If you like to travel within the U.S., try the Secret Service.

· If you like the idea of being a uniformed cop, your best Federal option is the U.S. Park Police.

· If you wish to minimize physical risk, stay away from the Park Police, the Border Patrol or from special agent jobs with ATF, FBI, DEA or Customs.

· If you like the idea of conducting complex white collar investigations, look to the FBI, Customs, E.P.A., IRS, Postal Inspection Service and Defense CIS.

· If you are interested in intelligence work, consider the FBI or the CIA (keep in mind that the CIA does not conduct criminal investigations).

· If you are a hardy person and like the idea of patrolling the outdoors, consider serving as a ranger for the BLM or U.S. Forest Service. If you like the outdoors but want to be a criminal investigator, a good option is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Salaries: Federal salaries are "capped" by the lowest salary of a U.S. Representative, currently about $150,000. Starting salaries for criminal investigators are in the $40,000 range (FBI is somewhat higher to start, but other agencies catch up within three years.) Inspectors earn considerably less. A "journeyman" Federal criminal investigator - say, five to eight years on the job - currently earns about $85,000. Experienced first-level supervisors make about $100,000 - $130,000, which, because of the cap, is not much less than their bosses.

Criminal investigator retirement benefits are good but inferior to California PERS/public safety. Inspector retirement benefits vary. Gun-carrying inspectors enjoy benefits similar to criminal investigators. Unarmed inspectors are covered by the normal Federal retirement plan, which is mediocre.

Bottom line - if money is your motivator, you will earn more - possibly considrably more - in a local (meaning, California) police department.

Good luck!