Choosing a career path can be a complicated decision, even if you already know which field you are interested in. If you are interested in the criminal justice field, for example, there is a wide range of specific career options available, from park ranger to FBI agent to lawyer. Students who are interested in law enforcement, but are not quite sure that they want to become police officers, may instead consider becoming a public safety officer.
What does a public safety officer do, and what is the process for becoming one? This career defies a specific definition, as the job duties and eligibility requirements for these officers can vary considerably from one jurisdiction to the next. In general, however, public safety officers are charged with protecting the public, enforcing laws and keeping the peace — much like police officers.
Where Do Public Safety Officers Work?
The term “public safety officer” is a catchall phrase that can refer to a wide range of professionals. Some public safety officers are de facto police officers who work on college campuses, in hospitals and at public buildings, such as state legislature buildings. A public safety officer may also be an animal control officer who may need to travel throughout the community. Some jurisdictions may even designate their school crossing guards as public safety officers.
It is not uncommon for public safety officers to be cross-trained, particularly in smaller communities. For instance, an officer may also be trained as a firefighter or as an EMS paramedic. Officers who work in larger jurisdictions, such as metropolitan areas, may be more likely to serve as de facto police officers who guard or patrol a designated property or area than those who work in smaller jurisdictions.
What Does a Public Safety Officer Do?
The duties and authority of a public safety officer largely depend on their jurisdiction. In some areas, for instance, a public safety officer may have the ability to make arrests. In other areas, public safety officers do not have the authority to arrest suspects, but they may detain suspects to be turned over to police officers.
Similarly, some public safety officers have the ability to carry firearms. These officers are typically those who have completed training at the police academy or a firearms course as part of a security guard training program. Other public safety officers are designated civilians, and they may not be authorized to carry firearms.
There is no typical day in the life of a public safety officer; every day looks a little different. Depending on the jurisdiction, individual assignments and the authority of public safety officers, these professionals may complete any of the following tasks:
- Patrolling a designated area, watching out for anyone in distress or indicators of suspicious activity
- Responding to incidents and calls for assistance, apprehending suspects and turning suspects over to police custody
- Investigating incidents by interviewing alleged victims, suspects and witnesses and by securing evidence
- Writing and filing incident reports and testifying at trials
- Directing traffic, maintaining order at gatherings and assisting the public with their questions and concerns
Public safety officers who also serve as firefighters, medics or animal control officers will have additional responsibilities pertaining to those specialty areas.
Requirements for a Public Safety Officer
There is no single path that all aspiring public safety officers must follow. Job candidates within each jurisdiction, and even within each agency, must demonstrate varying qualifications. The following are some common eligibility requirements:
- U.S. citizenship
- At least 18 or at least 21 years of age (varies based on position and jurisdiction)
- High school diploma/GED
- Criminal justice degree or related degree
- Valid driver’s license
- CPR/AED certifications
- Police officer certification or security guard training/certification
In addition, job candidates are generally required to pass a background check. Felony convictions and certain misdemeanor convictions can be grounds for ineligibility. It is also common for aspiring public safety officers to be required to meet certain physical and medical requirements, including physical fitness standards and drug testing.
If you are confident about your ability to meet the eligibility requirements for the jurisdiction in which you would like to work, you can begin the process of becoming a public safety officer. Students who are still in high school should meet with their school guidance counselor to discuss adding relevant classes to their schedule, such as introductory law or psychology courses. Taking a communications class and joining a debate team are also good ideas.
As you near your graduation date, consider exploring criminal justice degree options. Although it is possible to enter this field with just a high school diploma or a security officer certification, individuals who hold a bachelor’s degree tend to encounter better opportunities. For example, you are more likely to secure a job at your dream agency and to qualify for a higher salary and eventual advancement.
After graduating with a criminal justice degree, you can begin to earn additional certifications that may be required, such as CPR and first aid certifications. You will also need to enroll in an officer training program. Depending on your jurisdiction, you may need to graduate from a local or state police academy or complete a security guard training program and acquire its associated license.
Graduating With a Criminal Justice Degree
People come to the criminal justice field with a range of academic degrees. For example, you may find public safety professionals with degrees in English, history, sociology or psychology. However, if you already know that you want to work in public safety, then it would benefit you to major in criminal justice or a similar program, such as emergency management or homeland security.
These criminal justice programs would give you a strong academic foundation for your future career. Although specific curricula vary from one program to the next, you can expect to study topics such as the following:
- Criminal behavior and victimology
- The function of the police, including strategies, tactics, perspectives and interagency relationships
- Criminal law, criminal procedural processes and public policies pertaining to justice
- Behavioral analysis and its role in developing threat assessments
- The professional ethics of public servants
A bachelor's degree in emergency management and homeland security focuses less on criminalistics and more on community hazard mitigation. You may also study topics such as disaster response and recovery, terrorism prevention, and strategies to minimize the human and environmental consequences of incidents.
In any criminal justice program, students develop strong communication, critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills, all of which are necessary for becoming an effective public safety officer. You will have the opportunity to take electives, and you might also consider declaring a minor. Some good options to consider include psychology, sociology, Spanish and communications. Other options, which would allow you to develop a wider perspective, are history and international relations.
Earning Your CPR and AED Certifications
After you graduate with a criminal justice degree, you can turn your attention to acquiring the additional necessary qualifications. Many employers of public safety officers require that job candidates hold a certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automated external defibrillator (AED) usage. The most widely accepted credentials are administered by the American Red Cross.
The American Red Cross offers certification programs via online, in-person and blended formats. You can use their website to search for a class near you. Be aware that minimal fees may apply, and you will need to renew your certification periodically.
In addition to earning CPR and AED certifications, you may wish to enhance your job qualifications further by earning any of the following certifications from the American Red Cross:
- First aid
- First aid for opioid overdoses
- Pediatric CPR, AED and first aid
- Basic life support
Graduating From a Police Academy
Some jurisdictions require their public safety officers to graduate from a police academy. Every state’s police academy training program is slightly different, depending on the requirements and standards of that particular jurisdiction. However, most police academies are intensive and rigorous.
Recruits can expect a blend of classroom instruction and hands-on learning activities. Academic topics that you will study include state and local laws, patrol procedures, criminal investigations and media relations. You may also study the following:
- Cultural diversity
- Ethics and professionalism
- Bias-related incidents
- Crisis intervention
- Active shooter response
- Professional communication
Police academy recruits spend a great deal of time on physical fitness. You can expect to complete group fitness activities, such as calisthenics and runs, on a daily or near-daily basis. In addition, you will undergo hands-on courses such as firearms training, self-defense, defensive driving and emergency vehicle operation training.
Since most police academies are quite rigorous, many recruits spend some time preparing before entering the training program. It is not necessary to learn how to safely handle and discharge firearms before entering the academy, but you should spend several weeks improving your physical fitness. You can research the physical fitness requirements of the academy you intend to enter and strive to meet those standards in advance.
Completing a Security Guard Training Program and Acquiring Licensure
If your jurisdiction does not mandate that public safety officers complete police officer training, then you may instead be required to graduate from an approved security guard training program, which may lead to a state license or certification. The curricula and requirements for these training programs vary from one jurisdiction to the next.
In Arizona, for example, aspiring security guards must complete an eight-hour training program that covers topics such as criminal law, use of force and professional ethics. Security guards who wish to carry firearms must complete an additional 16-hour firearms training course.
Elsewhere, training requirements may be more extensive. For instance, New Yorkers are required to complete a 47-hour firearms training course in addition to the other security guard training courses, and they must complete an 8-hour firearms refresher course each year.
After completing your security guard training program, you may be required to pass an exam before receiving your license or certification. Then, depending on your jurisdiction, it is likely that you will have met the requirements necessary for pursuing a job as a public safety officer.
Note that certain employers may have their own on-the-job training programs. For instance, a large university or hospital campus may require new officers to complete their own field officer training program within a certain time following their hire date. These employer-specific training programs generally acquaint new officers with the policies and procedures of that campus or organization.
Developing the Essential Skills and Traits of a Public Safety Officer
Throughout your baccalaureate studies and your subsequent training programs, you can work toward developing the essential skills and characteristics of an effective officer. Because these professionals must routinely interact with colleagues, members of the public and people from all walks of life, strong communication skills are essential. In addition, the following skills and traits are helpful:
- Analytical reasoning
- Critical thinking
- Observation skills
- Conflict resolution and mediation skills
- Uncompromising sense of ethics and professional responsibility
- Physical fitness and dexterity
- Sound judgment, decision-making and problem-solving skills
Grand Canyon University is a leading destination for students who aspire to work in criminal justice and public service. If you feel called to become a public safety officer, you can choose from a range of criminal justice degree programs, such as the Bachelor of Science in Justice Studies degree or the Bachelor of Science in Homeland Security and Emergency Management program. In addition to program-specific knowledge, you will emerge with strong critical thinking, communication, ethical decision-making and servant leadership skills.
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1Arizona Department of Public Safety, Security Guards, Frequently Asked Questions in September 2021.
2New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, Mandated Security Guard Training Courses in September 2021.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.