Police Officers Make Less Money Than You Think

While it might seem like police officers have standardized pay (especially given that officers have fairly similar duties across cities, counties, and states), you might be surprised to learn just how varied their pay can be. Everything from geographic location to the specific type of police work an officer does can affect their pay. While higher-ranking members of a police department obviously boast more substantial salaries, the average uniformed patrol officer in the United States is by no means wealthy.

In 2022, the lowest 10% of patrol officers and detectives in the U.S. earned less than $41,660 while the highest 10% earned over $109,580. That same year, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) calculated that the average salary for police patrol officers was $65,790. While this is slightly above the national average salary of $59,428, cost of living and inflation can definitely affect how comfortably certain officers might be able to live on their salary.

While police officer pay might be quite varied, it's important to realize that salary is only one part of a much larger benefits package given to officers. Police officers often have additional benefits, including health care, retirement, and union protections that can, in some cases, far exceed the benefits options available in other industries. These benefits, including a generally very high amount of available overtime, can inflate a police officer's base salary in financially significant ways. This means that calculating an officer's pay involves considering a multitude of contributing factors, some financial but many not.

Geographic location

One of the biggest factors that can affect law enforcement pay is geographic location. Larger city police departments generally have a higher need (and subsequently more dangerous work) for police officers. This can lead larger city police departments, and even departments in more wealthy areas and states, to pay substantially more than smaller police departments in less populated regions.

This ultimately creates a wage gap that can hurt citizens who might need police intervention the most. David Harris, a University of Pittsburgh law professor who studies policing, explained to NBC News, "In areas without a tax base to speak of, where residents live in poverty already, communities are saddled with a police force that is underpaid and under-resourced in other ways. It's another form of a penalty for being poor."

Per salary data from U.S. News & World Report, five cities in California top the list of highest-paid patrol officer salaries, with San Jose ranking as the best-paying city in the nation with annual salaries of over $125,000. Washington, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Alaska fill out the top 5 highest-paying states (behind California), according to BLS, with average annual patrol officer salaries ranging from $78,000 to over $87,000.

While these officers earn well above the national average salary, it's important to note that many departments offer substantially less than the national average. The bottom five states for officer pay are Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, South Carolina, and West Virginia. Officers in Mississippi earn a whopping $23,000 less than the national average salary, with the average Mississippi police officer salary being just $36,290.

Overtime and benefits

While police officer salaries can vary wildly, benefits and supplemental pay options can still make it an attractive career for many. Longevity pay, in particular, can serve as a guarantee that an officer's pay will increase the longer they serve while accumulative service years can amount to bonuses and automatic raises when an officer hits certain milestones. On top of these salary bonuses, most departments offer health care insurance, retirement programs and pensions (usually after 25 years), paid leave, disability, and even life insurance. Plus, night differential pay can ensure officers working graveyard shifts earn more than day-shift officers, and there's always the promise of overtime.

However, due to recent shortages of available and interested officers, more and more departments are offering special perks for new recruits, especially officers who already have degrees, special training, and/or language skills. Many departments are even offering monetary signing bonuses just for joining, such as Washington D.C., which promises new officers a $25,000 bonus, or Alameda, California, which offered a $75,000 enlistment bonus in 2023.

These shortages have caused unintended side-effects for existing officers, specifically around overtime. While these overtime hours can obviously create financially lucrative paychecks (one officer in D.C. earned $361,000 in 2022 due to overtime), the mandatory nature of these often 12- to 18-hour shifts has increasingly pushed more officers to resign. In fact, there were almost 50% more officer resignations in 2022 than there were in 2019, according to a survey conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum on staffing numbers for 2019, 2020, and 2021. Even so, police departments still market overtime as a perk in their recruiting tactics.

Areas of law enforcement

There's a lot of variability within areas and types of law enforcement, and officer pay is definitely one of the factors with the widest range of options. For instance, different roles can be employed at the city, county, or even state level, which can affect officer pay. Fish and game wardens and officers, who are primarily state employees, average an annual salary of around $59,500 compared to transit and railroad police officers whose average salary is over $69,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

State troopers (also called highway patrol) also have different jurisdictions than local officers who serve a specific community. Since they serve at the state level, they're also responsible for protecting the governor and state capitol complex. State troopers have an average annual salary of $65,695, per Indeed, making them about even with the average salary for police patrol officers in city departments.

Sheriff's departments, which operate at the county level, are a little different in that the actual sheriff must be elected. However, sheriff's deputies are selected and operate more like traditional police departments. The average salary for deputy sheriffs is $50,518, which is below state troopers and some city police officers.

Meanwhile, elected sheriffs have varied pay depending on the state they're elected in. Plus, as elected officials, they face regular elections, which can affect their ability to maintain their position and therefore, their pay. However, most states don't have term limits meaning sheriffs can make a long career out of the elected role.

Federal law enforcement

Unlike officers at the city, county, or state level, federal officers enjoy more standardized and public pay scales. Federal law enforcement encompasses multiple agencies with different focuses, including the U.S. Marshal's Service; U.S. Customs Service; Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF); Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS); Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA); and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). These agencies all employ a wide variety of officers and offer different pay ranges depending on duties.

For instance, FBI agents can earn anywhere from $78,000 to $153,000 annually depending on the role and the geographic location, whereas the 2021 base salary for ATF agents was between $37,512 to $61,443. However, ATF offers locality pay which adds an additional 14% to 35% of an agent's base salary, depending on location, as well as law enforcement availability pay (also known as LEAP), which adds an additional 25% of their base salary.

Most agencies have equally complex pay structures that can make an individual agent's pay substantially more inflated than the base pay would initially suggest. Plus, federal agents also receive special incentives for things like relocation, retention, and recruitment, along with performance awards and pay increases. As federal employees, they're eligible for a host of federal offerings, including student loan repayment, child care and commuting subsidies, paid parental leave, health insurance coverage, and life insurance. This is all in addition to disability, retirement programs, and survivor benefits that ensure an officer's family is financially taken of in the event of an accident.

Police unions

One of the more popular elements of joining the police officer ranks has to do with their union protections. While most of these unions formed in the early 1900s as a way to combat low pay and poor working conditions, in more recent years, these police unions have increasingly become something else entirely. In fact, police unions now unfortunately serve as one of the largest hurdles for reform within the country's policing system.

A 2018 University of Oxford study found a direct positive correlation between police violence and the protections offered to officers by their police union. In other words, the more protections unions guarantee for officers, the more likely abuse against citizens will happen. Another study, also published in 2018, in Chicago Unbound, the institutional repository for the University of Chicago Law School, found that when collective-bargaining rights were given to Florida sheriff's deputies, there was a 40% increase in violent misconduct cases across the state.

There's a significant increase in calls for police reform in light of recent cases involving police brutality. From the broad application of qualified immunity (which, in most cases, protects law enforcement officers from individual liability) to a dysfunctional disciplinary process, police unions have unfortunately become a positive protector for abusive police officers to the detriment of normal citizens. With that being said, these unions are also instrumental in ensuring pay, benefits, retirement, and a host of other rights for officers. These protections can obviously be a significant factor when deciding to join a police department, and, while not monetary, definitely function as part of an officer's overall benefits.