In this Article
Federal law enforcement personnel work to keep our country safe from threats both at home and abroad. Their work encompasses a wide range of activities, from investigating terrorist activity, to assisting law enforcement on a large and small scale, to lesser known duties such as ensuring invasive agriculture or pests are not brought into the country. This type of work requires many different kinds of agents and officers with a variety of skills, education and knowledge in their areas of specialty.
What is a federal law enforcement agent?
Federal law enforcement agents have duties similar to those of state and local police officers. Agents enforce the law, investigate crimes, collect and preserve evidence, write reports for government prosecutors, apprehend criminals, and testify in court.
That said, the duties, responsibilities and scope of federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, such as the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), differ greatly.
Officers for the CIA, for instance, have no law enforcement authority. They focus on gathering, storing and analyzing intelligence on foreign countries and their residents—not American citizens.
“[A CIA agent’s] specific purpose is to primarily go overseas. They recruit sources, and those sources provide information to them. So essentially, they’re international source handlers,” said Ghani Iqbal, a special agent with Homeland Security Investigations, an arm of the Department of Homeland Security. “Criminal investigators are very, very different. We run sources, of course, but we do a whole other range of law enforcement-type of services.”
Many federal law enforcement agents are highly trained experts in a specialty field. These include computer security specialists, surveillance experts and Secret Service agents.
Law enforcement agencies and roles
Law enforcement jobs are available in most agencies across the entire federal government. These jobs call for a wide variety of special skills and experience, ranging from entry level in some cases all the way through those requiring advanced education and specialized training.
Below are some of the top federal agencies for law enforcement positions and an example of a popular role within it.
- The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) investigates a wide variety of serious crimes, including domestic and foreign terrorism, violent crime, cyber crimes, organized crime and public corruption. Special agent is one position available that’s very well-known.
- The CIA collects and analyzes foreign intelligence on national security topics to support making and executing policy decisions, including by the National Security Council and the President. Personnel may also conduct counterintelligence and other special activities to support their goals. Cyber Threat Analyst is one example of a position available.
- The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) provides security for people traveling through major transportation hubs, such as airports and mass transit systems. It develops and implements security policies aimed at minimizing security and terrorist threats. Transportation Security Officer is a common position with the TSA.
- U.S. Secret Service:
- The Secret Service is charged with providing security to the President, Vice President, their families, visiting heads of state and other distinguished individuals. In addition, these officers investigate financial crimes against the United States, such as counterfeiting. One position that’s well-known is Secret Service Special Agent.
- U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency:
- The Drug Enforcement Agency (commonly called the DEA) is charged with tracking and halting illegal trafficking and distribution of controlled substances within the United States. This includes both illegal street drugs and prescription drugs that are illegally dosed prescription drugs. Special Agent is one role within the DEA.
- U.S. Marshals Service:
- U.S. Marshals serve as law enforcement for the federal court system and are responsible for apprehending federal fugitives and prisoners, and protecting federal judges. They also operate the Witness Protection Program, and manage and sell seized assets. One role with the service is Deputy U.S. Marshal.
- The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives:
- The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (commonly shortened to ATF) ensures public safety by investigating and preventing the illegal manufacture, use and possession of explosives and firearms. It also tracks illegal trafficking in alcohol and tobacco products. One role in the ATF is Intelligence Research Specialist.
Where you’ll work
People who work in federal law enforcement can end up working all over the country and even the world, depending on their position.
Federal: Most federal law enforcement agencies are headquartered in or near Washington, D.C. For example, FBI and Secret Service headquarters are located in Washington, D.C. CIA headquarters are located in Langley, Virginia, just outside Washington, D.C.
Regional: Many federal agencies have field offices throughout the United States. The FBI has 56 such offices around the country, and the Secret Service also has offices in many major U.S. cities. The TSA operates in most airports and other large transportation centers.
Overseas: Due to the nature of their work, some agencies maintain offices in other countries. The FBI maintains nearly 100 offices and sub offices around the globe, and the DEA has more than 90.
Chances are good that you won’t have much say in where you are assigned, at least as a new agent. On its website, the FBI states that after training, you’ll be assigned to an office—and that office is generally different from the one where you applied. The CIA, however, states that new hires must be willing to move to the Washington D.C. area and be prepared for overseas travel.
Overseas positions as a criminal investigator are very competitive. “You have to have a significant amount of the right experience. You have to have done great casework. You have to have a good reputation. And then you apply and you go before hiring and during your face time with interview boards,” Iqbal says. “Whereas with the (CIA), … going overseas is kind of a no brainer.”
Length of time overseas will vary, depending on the assignment. “It all varies depending on the location,” Iqbal notes, adding it can depend on the host government and how friendly the country is. “For example, a really difficult country at the time was Afghanistan when we were there. Nobody really did more than a year because it’s hard work to be there.”
What education is required to work in federal law enforcement?
At minimum you will need a bachelor’s degree from an accredited college or university for many federal law enforcement jobs. Some jobs, particularly requiring technical, scientific or language expertise, may call for a more advanced degree.
Criminal justice is often a popular major for those seeking a career in federal law enforcement. But other degrees are suggested or may be in higher demand for some specialty jobs. Some example of other in-demand degree types include:
Forensic accountants can help investigate financial crimes and analyze financial data and are frequently employed by the FBI.
Linguists provide translation services in investigations and may testify in court. These roles are hired by the FBI among other agencies.
Juris Doctor (JD):
Trained attorneys with litigation experience are in demand. As a federal prosecutor you’ll be part of the United States Department of Justice.
Geographers and cartographers research reference maps to support intelligence operations. These roles may be hired by the CIA’s Directorate of Intelligence (DI).
A bachelor’s degree generally takes four years of full-time studies to complete. If finances prevent you from completing four years of school, you may consider earning an associate degree, which typically requires two years and provides a basic education in the field. You may be able to then continue your studies part time while working full time. Online degree programs are available and may offer flexibility and can be a good option for many people—just make sure you select an accredited program.
If you’re eager to enter the field quickly, becoming a transportation security officer is an alternative if earning a four-year program is not viable. These jobs are readily available across the country and only a high school diploma or GED is required. Homeland Security provides all the additional training you’ll need to perform your job duties.
Many federal law enforcement jobs require several years of experience, either in law enforcement or a specialized field. For example, in the Department of Homeland Security’s job description for the Criminal Analyst role, you must have three years working in criminal investigations. Electronics Technicians for the FBI must have at least one year of experience.
Once hired, all federal law enforcement agents will undergo specialized training. Most will train at one of four Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers (FLETCs) located throughout the U.S.: Glynco, Georgia; Artesia, New Mexico; Cheltenham, Maryland; and Charleston, South Carolina. FBI agents train at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia.
Federal agents are trained in a wide variety of subject areas. Some examples are:
- Weapons and firearms handling
- International Banking and Money Laundering
- Covert Electronic Surveillance
- Boat Operation
- Computer Evidence Recovery
Job outlook and salary
Federal law enforcement salaries are based on a federal pay scale that factors in your position and your experience, as well as your performance and cost-of-living adjustment for where you are based. This means salaries can vary quite a bit. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics includes federal law enforcement salaries in the same category as criminal investigators and detectives. It projects an increase of about 13% in jobs through 2030, which is faster than other professions. The BLS also records median annual salaries for police and sheriffs officers and projects job growth through 2030 to be 7%, or as fast as all professions nationally.
The BLS also says that federal investigator roles earn significantly more than local and state government. At the federal level, the median annual wage for criminal investigators and detectives is $114,040, compared to $70,470 for state jobs and $78,730 for local positions.