5 Tips for a Successful Criminal Justice Career

4 min read
USD LEPSL criminal justice careers

Building a successful, fulfilling and long career in law enforcement requires commitment, resilience and passion. But the most successful law enforcement professionals know that there are also additional skills and traits that are essential for longevity and growth within the field. Here are the top five skills every law enforcement professional needs to learn and practice in order to create a long and fruitful criminal justice career.

1. Be continuously learning and developing

Today, more than ever, as technology changes at a rapid pace and the law enforcement landscape undergoes a significant evolution in the way it operates and interacts with the community, it is vital that those in law enforcement take it upon themselves to be constantly learning and developing their skills. Curating a love of learning is important for officers who wish to have a long career in the field, as staying up to date on the latest advances in law enforcement, police practices and tactics, along with changes to the law, can have a significant impact on an officer’s effectiveness.

For those serious about the profession and hoping to move into leadership positions or to simply have a long and successful criminal justice career, higher education is essential. While a bachelor’s degree will go a long way, a master’s degree will make the real difference. Especially today, as law enforcement departments face a leadership crisis and need professionals in the field who can excel across a multitude of disciplines and possess a strikingly diverse skill set. A strong master’s degree program will teach the analytical skills, critical thinking strategies, legal awareness, financial and budgetary acumen, and superb communication skills that departments today require.

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2. Value ethics, honesty and integrity above all else

It is said that with great power comes great responsibility. This is true for law enforcement professionals who have a power that must be used ethically and in accordance with the law. Especially today, as law enforcement has come under increased scrutiny in the wake of Eric Garner and Freddie Gray among others, integrity among law enforcement is of paramount importance. It is at the root of the widespread mistrust of police and is extremely important for effective policing. An officer found to be acting unethically can face serious repercussions, drastically affecting their reputation and career. On the other hand an officer known to abide by the strictest ethics and highest level of integrity will find great rewards within the field, building a lasting criminal justice career on the trust they have engendered with not only their fellow officers but from within the community as well.

3. Ensure you have strong legal knowledge

Law enforcement professionals must be constantly on alert and able to make split second decisions, in often-volatile situations. This requires a certain decisiveness and confidence that can only come from a strong knowledge of the law. Officers that are properly educated and understand the nuances and implications of the law can make better and faster decisions, protecting themselves, the individuals they are dealing with and the greater community. The work that law enforcement officials do in the field is often the first step in bringing individuals to justice. Therefore, despite the complexities of the legal system, it is important that officers stay up to date on court decisions, any changes to the law, and how legal standards will apply to new technologies. An officer who is uninformed and uneducated when it comes to the legal system can be an extreme threat not only to himself and his department, but also to those around him.

4. Stay compassionate, but avoid compassion fatigue

In the challenging field of law enforcement, where you may be dealing with very difficult situations and witness some of the worst parts of society, it can be difficult to find empathy and respond with compassion. Yet, it is compassion that is often times most needed when dealing with these difficult situations. Officers that carry compassion with them on a daily basis are the ones who many times go above and beyond without ever asking for recognition and build the most trust within their communities.

As a Police Chief Magazine article stated, “The November 2012 action of New York City police officer Larry DePrimo went viral when a passing tourist captured a video of Officer DePrimo giving a homeless man a pair boots and helping him to put them on his feet. The tourist filmed the action with her cellphone camera and then shared the experience. News organizations worldwide picked up the story. Throughout the coverage of this act of compassion there were additional stories published giving local accounts of officers buying meals, pitching in to help put gas in cars, paying for bus tickets, hotel rooms, groceries, all without asking for recognition or public acknowledgement of their kindness and compassion.”

Yet, because police work can be stressful and working with people day in and day out can be draining it is important to be aware of the signs of compassion fatigue and know when to take a break. According to Police Chief Magazine, some signs of compassion fatigue include:

  • Exhaustion
  • Difficulty separating work life from personal life
  • Hypersensitivity or insensitivity
  • Increased cynicism at work
  • Anger and irritability
  • Absenteeism, missing work, taking excessive sick days
  • Problems with intimacy and personal relationships

5. Hone your writing skills

As part of the job, law enforcement professionals are required to do a lot of writing, mostly in the form of reports. From arrest, crime, and incident reports to clearance reports and evidence collection reports, law enforcement professionals spend a great deal of time documenting the various situations they are involved with on a daily basis. And because these reports are used in court and seen by commanding officers, it is important that they are clear, well written and professional. Not only does a poorly written report give a bad first impression, but more importantly it could negatively affect a court case, resulting in wrongful conviction or not providing enough information to convict a guilty person.

The University of San Diego offers a Master of Science in Law Enforcement and Public Safety Leadership that is offered completely online. This multifaceted law enforcement degree examines leadership, management, organizational theory, critical issues, community assessment, budget and finance, public safety law, conflict resolution and additional criminal justice topics in a format that allows for collaboration with other law enforcement professionals from agencies around the country.


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