Unlocking your benefits: The critical HR questions every police candidate should ask
From understanding pension systems to decoding health benefits, here’s everything you need to ask before accepting a police officer position
Whether you’re considering a new career in policing or choosing a new department for a lateral position, you must understand you are also screening potential employers during the hiring process.
Things that seem like nitpicky HR details when you’re excited about fighting crime and serving your community may make the difference between thriving and barely hanging on someday. Choose to thrive.
To help with that, here’s a list of questions all officer candidates must ask before accepting a police officer job.
What kind of pension system is on offer?
Retiring might be the last thing on your mind during a job hunt but you owe it to yourself and your family to bump that priority up. Law enforcement isn’t the kind of job people can do into old age; a retirement system can make the difference between struggling and living with dignity when your knees and lower back tell you it’s time to hang up the duty belt.
Is it a defined benefit (or traditional) pension? If so, what percentage of your pay can you expect, and at what age or number of years in service? Is only base pay considered or are overtime and special pays - say, for bilingualism, advanced POST certificates, or college degrees - calculated into the formula? How long do you have to work for the agency to be vested?( “Vesting” means owning an asset, in this case, the funds contributed to your retirement account. In most places, that transfer of ownership takes place after a certain length of employment.)
Is it a defined contribution (stock-based 401K style) retirement fund? Those are fickle and subject to market pressures but are also portable. You keep them when you leave the job, no matter how long or short your tenure.
Does the employer contribute? Do you? At what percentage of your pay? Pay scales matter here: lower pay now also means a lower retirement payout later. It’s not greedy to be realistic about the cost of living.
What kind of health coverage is provided?
Health insurance is a standard benefit, but there’s nothing standard about health insurance coverage.
How much does the premium cost each month? Does that cover just you, or are dependents included? If dependents can “buy in” but aren’t paid for by the employer, how much more is the premium for them? If the premium is affordable, ask “How much is the deductible?” Some agencies have offered “affordable” coverage by participating in policies with deductibles in the tens of thousands (no kidding).
Find out if there are in-network providers within a reasonable distance, especially if you will be working in a remote area. I’ve had to drive 70 miles for an in-network urgent care appointment when there was a local clinic two miles away.
How is overtime handled?
This is a trick question: if the department is very small, it can be exempt from Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulation and not have to pay overtime at all.
There are multiple formulas for calculating when overtime begins, and they can be complex. Ask for a written copy of the policy. Some departments don’t pay time and a half, but use “comp time” instead: extra time off calculated at time and a half (work two hours overtime and get compensated with an extra three hours in your paid-time-off bank).
If that’s the case, ask what the policy is for using comp time, and whether or not it can be cashed out at the end of the year if it goes unused. “Extra” time off that you don’t get to take because of short staffing isn’t useful compensation. You’ll want to know before having to deal with that.
How is on-call or court time compensated? Again, ask for a written policy.
How do they accommodate military service?
Many law enforcement officers serve in the military. What is the department’s policy for dealing with members of the military reserves or National Guard? Make sure you have a solid grasp of your rights as a reserve or Guard member. Clear, diplomatic communication matters.
Does the department participate in Social Security and all related withholding?
Every state is different, and in some states every single department is different. The time to find out whether you can access Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) is before you get hurt, not after.
Likewise, many law enforcement agencies do not participate in Social Security at all and that exemption will affect your ability to access benefits when you retire. When departments elect not to withhold SS and FICA from the pay of employees who draw a government pension, the employee’s Social Security benefits may be reduced when they retire, even if they were vested by contributions from other employment before or after their law enforcement career — and those reductions will also affect your survivors’ benefits.
These laws affect other public employees as well, like teachers and firefighters, and it’s wise to understand them when making an employment decision.
How is workers’ compensation managed?
Law enforcement officers are subject to assaults, accidents, toxic exposures and work-related illnesses. Being realistic isn’t being alarmist, and assuming “it won’t happen to me” isn’t a plan.
When you get hurt or sick on the job, workers’ comp is how you access treatment and a continued paycheck. It’s one of the most complex questions you’ll ask because no two states are the same. Illness and injury don’t have to be catastrophic to interrupt your career trajectory and seriously impact your finances.
Depending on where you work, a department may participate in a state workers’ comp insurance program, buy into a commercial one, or self-insure. Self-insurance may mean benefits that are capped at a level that’s not actually useful, should you need it. (In Texas, employers are even permitted to “go bare,” i.e., opt out of workers compensation insurance entirely. I don’t know if that includes law enforcement agencies, but I’d definitely ask.)
Understand that workers’ compensation is really about keeping employer costs in check, not making an injured employee whole.
Is there a medical/disability retirement system?
Despite the myths perpetuated by TV cop shows, the existence of disability retirements varies from state to state, and sometimes from department to department. No one plans to get sick or hurt and never be able to return to work, but life happens, and proximity to crime and public tragedies magnifies the risks. Too often, officers who cannot return to work in six months or a year are simply terminated. Know what you can expect.
In some places, the conditions for disability retirement and access to health insurance once retired are so narrowly prescribed that very, very few disabled officers ever qualify. In others (New York, for instance) quite generous benefits are available, but only for certain officers.
If there is a disability retirement system in place, find out if vesting applies as if it were a regular retirement; if so, the benefit may not be available till after a certain number of years of continuous work. An officer disabled before vesting could be let go rather than retired.
Is long-term/short-term disability insurance available?
If it is, who pays? Even with reasonable workers’ comp coverage, you will experience a reduction in income and an increase in expenses if you’re off work because you get sick or hurt.
Disability insurance helps to cover some of those costs and can be the difference between inconvenience and disaster.
Certain kinds of disability insurance can be purchased privately and if you can swing it, you should. Others can only be accessed through an employer, and while some employers pay for them as a benefit, others only provide them for the employee to purchase. If it’s available, make sure you do whatever you need to do to access it.
What if I’m a part-time or reserve officer, or moonlighting?
In many states, smaller departments rely heavily on part-time or unpaid volunteer reserve officers. Often those officers are not covered by the same benefits as full-time officers. Find out what applies to your situation and what does not: if you are a reserve who gets hurt and can’t return to your day job, what obligations does the department have to you, if any? If you are part- time - and some young officers may cobble together full time pay from several part-time LE jobs - what benefits apply to you?
In the same way, many departments permit their officers to work side gigs in uniform. Especially in an area with low pay, these kinds of security jobs are (unfortunately) necessary to meet expenses. Will you be paid directly by a retail establishment, apartment complex, or sports arena? Or will the department bill them for your time, and pay you themselves?
If you get hurt on the security side gig, whose work comp will be responsible- the business, or your department?
And the grab bag of random questions experienced officers wish they’d asked
Ask for a written copy of pursuit and use-of-force policies.
What equipment does the department provide and what are you expected to buy yourself?
Do they issue vests on a regular maintenance schedule? How about uniforms or uniform allowance? Firearms?
Do they issue practice ammo?
What kind of training schedule can you expect?
Besides simply asking about formal policy, your best strategy will include multiple ride-alongs and talking to officers about their experience. This especially applies to squishy topics like department attitudes toward time-off usage, and drill weekends or deployments for military reservists.
Job searches are complex and stressful. When the job is law enforcement, the search is exponentially complicated by background investigations, physical testing, drug testing, multiple interviews and psychological screening. The stakes are just too high to learn some details after accepting the job. Make a list, address it systematically, and make good choices using what you learn.