More than 1 million Americans are employed in law enforcement jobs across the country, whether as patrolmen or patrolwomen, sheriff’s deputies, detectives, parole officers, parking enforcement agents or more. But employment of full-time officers has fallen in recent years, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics, with the number of full-time sworn police officers declining by about 3% between 2013 and 2016.
Many law enforcement agencies across the country are struggling to recruit and retain qualified individuals, which is leading to negative consequences like police forces that can’t uphold basic service levels and positive consequences like police departments offering cops and candidates a more appealing job experience.
It’s not exactly hard to understand why becoming a police officer is a tough sell for a lot of people. After all, any law enforcement job is likely to be a relatively thankless one, and for law enforcement officers who work in dangerous communities, the risk to their lives could be very real.
In fact, we recently conducted an analysis into which U.S. cities were the best (and worst) for police officers, which included looking at things like safety but also income, cost of living and job availability. But we wanted to zoom out a bit from that city-level analysis and look at law enforcement employment from a capitalist standpoint: Which states give officers the best chance today or into the near future to find a good job that pays a better-than-average salary?
Jump to the bottom of the page to see the full methodology of our Police Employment Index, but here’s a quick explanation of how we created it. For every state (we excluded the District of Columbia for the purposes of this analysis because its unique nature makes it more comparable to a city), we compared data on income, employment and job growth. The states’ average figures in each category were then compared to the national average.
What that means for officers considering a job change is that the higher a state ranks on this index, the better its job situation is for law enforcement officers relative to the average state. And the lower the score … let’s just say you may be better off staying in your current role.
Police Employment Index
According to our Police Employment Index, the most attractive state for law enforcement officers (our analysis was limited to police and sheriff’s patrol officers, detectives and corrections officers) is Nevada with an index score of 5.988, or nearly six times the national average.
Nevada was followed closely by Utah at 4.910 and Colorado at 4.231, putting three Western states in the top spots, but the top 10 is dominated by the South with that region accounting for five of the top 10.
Twenty states are below the national average, with four states achieving negative scores on the index, led by New Jersey’s -1.083, and several other states were barely better than the national average.
What’s the Job Situation for Police in Your State?
Generally, the majority of states are better than the national average when it comes to jobs and salaries for police and other law enforcement officers, but fewer than half are considerably better than the average state.
Let’s take a look at some of the data that was used to create the national police employment index and see how your state performed.
Index factors, top 10 states
Here’s a look at the highest-performing states in some of the factors we used to create our index:
What About Crime?
We did not consider crime rates as a factor in our ranking, but we still feel they merit closer examination. No state has a higher concentration of jobs for police officers, detectives and corrections officers, the three occupations we examined for this analysis, than New Mexico. In that state, more than 12 law enforcement officers are employed per 1,000 jobs. That compares with Delaware, which has a per-1,000 job rate for law enforcement of just 4.2, about one-third that of New Mexico.
One might reasonably assume, then, that New Mexico’s crime rate would be lower. After all, if part of the role of law enforcement is to reduce or prevent crime, then having lots of cops should equate to lower crime rates. But FBI data tells a different story, though it’s a complicated one, to say the least.
In fact, New Mexico has the highest average rate of crime at 950.29 per 100,000, which takes into account rates of both violent crimes and property crimes. Only three states in the top 10 for law enforcement employment have average combined crime rates below the national average of 571 per 100,000.
So can it be said that high-crime states also tend to employ lots of police? Well, not necessarily. Among the 10 states with the lowest crime rates, four have law enforcement employment rates lower than the overall national average of 7.7 per 1,000 jobs.
Remember that only three of the states with the highest rates of police employment have lower-than-average crime rates but four low crime-rate states are high police employment states. A one-state difference is hardly conclusive, but it’s also important to note that most states have seen crime rates fall considerably over the past several decades, and all but four states saw their average combined crime rate fall between 2017 and 2018, according to FBI data. Just one of those states, North Carolina, has a higher-than-average rate of police employment.
Diversity in Police Hiring
Another factor that we did not consider in our ranking but one that’s increasingly important as the typical idea of a police officer shifts with the changing demographics of the nation is the rate at which police departments and law enforcement agencies hire women and people of color.
In no state are women hired as law enforcement officers at even half the rate of men, but there’s a huge amount of variation by state in the ratio of women to men in law enforcement.
Detailed numbers on the percentage of police and other law enforcement officers who identify as racial or ethnic minorities is more difficult to come by, but according to federal officials, the rate of racial/ethnic minority employment in local police departments doubled between the late 1980s and the mid-2010s.
The most recent available federal data is from 2013, so likely the situation has shifted even further, but at that time, about 12% of officers were black, while another 12% were Hispanic or Latino.
While confidence in the police has taken some hits over the past few years, the call to serve and protect the public remains strong for millions of Americans, and a career in law enforcement still can be a rewarding and challenging one. For current officers or future candidates who have the freedom of movement, there’s no doubt that some states have far stronger job markets for police officers than others.
Our Police Employment Index was calculated using a formula that compared average metrics in each state to the overall national average across two broad statistical categories:
Employment: We used Bureau of Labor Statistics data, which we accessed by building custom tables, for police and sheriff’s patrol officers, detectives and investigators, and corrections officers, the three law enforcement occupations for which the most broad, comprehensive data was available. The metric used across these three jobs was employment per 1,000 jobs, meaning the number of officers employed per 1,000 jobs across the economy. We also consulted projections published by the Projections Managing Partnership, which uses BLS and other data to project the rate of growth of various occupations in the U.S. We used short-term (2018-2020) and long-term projections (2016-2026).
Wages: BLS data also provided the financial component of our index, and we used average annual amounts for each occupation in the following categories: overall average, 10th percentile wage, 25th percentile wage, 75th percentile wage and 90th percentile wage. Using this broad data tells us what the average wage is but also what officers can expect to make at various stages throughout their careers.
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