Exploring Careers in Law Enforcement: Overview of Police Departments
Policing in the United States (U.S.) is divided into four broad categories: federal, state, county, and municipal agencies. There is no real hierarchy between these categories. Each branch of law enforcement has been created to enforce a specific set of laws within a specific geographical area. This means that the key to understanding which law enforcement agency has the authority to respond to a crime is two-fold. First, one must determine which governmental unit prohibited the act. For example, homicide is an act that is prohibited at the state level. So, as a general rule, only law enforcement agencies with authority (jurisdiction) to enforce state laws may investigate the crime of murder. Second, one must look at the place (venue) where the criminal act occurred. If the murder occurred in Alabama, the Alabama authorities would be responsible for investigating the crime. Thus, if you are primarily interested in becoming a homicide detective, you would most likely be interested in applying to a state or local policing agency rather than to federal law enforcement agencies.
The following overview of law enforcement agencies is intended to provide a brief understanding of the various categories of police departments in the United States. Use this list as a starting place for determining which type of law enforcement agency seems the most interesting to you. Then, contact that agency directly to seek information concerning the application process. Much of this information may also be available on the Internet. A list of many state agency Web site addresses is included in the materials of this book. In addition, federal and local agencies are also likely to have information available on the Internet. To find a local agency, look up the city's Web site and you will usually find a link to the police department.
Public expectations for police officers often seem immense. The public expects the police to prevent crime and make arrests. In addition, the police are expected to perform numerous other duties: including operating detention facilities, search and rescue operations, business licensing, supervising elections, staffing courts, and chauffeuring officials. Since the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington D.C., the police have also been given the responsibility of monitoring for signs of possible terrorism at the municipal level.
Still, most police departments, regardless of their size, provide the same types of services to their communities. Although modern television dramas have created the impression that police officers race from one murder scene and arrest, to the next, police officers do much more. They investigate crime, enforce traffic regulation, maintain social order, provide emergency services, rescue animals and vulnerable people, patrol to deter crime, and work to keep the peace. They may also report potholes in the roads, malfunctioning streetlights, or children that appear in need of social service intervention. In short, police do whatever is necessary to allow people to continue living and working together in a safe and healthy environment.
A brief review of the specific responsibilities of the different levels of police agencies follows.
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