Exploring Careers in Law Enforcement: Overview of Police Departments (page 4)
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.
Federal Law Enforcement Agencies
Police officers that work for the national government are generally called federal police officers. These police officers enforce criminal federal laws that are passed by the United States Congress and signed into law by the President. They have the authority to arrest anyone who commits a violation of federal criminal laws within the specific area they are hired to protect.
Police agencies that hire federal police officers include the White House Police, Capital Police, Supreme Court Police, and Park Police. Each of these police agencies has specific responsibilities. For example, the Park Police enforce federal criminal laws in the nation's parks. Those individuals who would like a position as a federal police officer are required to take a federal police examination for that position.
In addition, there are federal law enforcement agencies designed to protect the rights and privileges of all U.S. citizens. While these agencies have not been created with a particular hierarchy of power, each has been created to enforce specific laws or address certain specific situations.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is probably the best known of the federal law enforcement agencies. The FBI is a branch of the United States Department of Justice (DoJ). This agency is not a police agency; instead it investigates matters involving violations of federal law including civil rights violations, espionage, treason, bank robbery of federally insured institutions, serious crimes that cross state lines, and terrorism. The FBI is estimated to have more than 12,000 agents employed primarily in the United States.
The United States Marshals Service is the nation's oldest federal law enforcement agency. Marshals serve to protect federal judicial officials, maintain security in federal courthouses, and protect the safety of those witnesses in federal trials who are endangered by testifying. U.S. Marshals also track down fugitives from justice from across the world, transport federal prisoners who need to be moved across jurisdictions, and maintain detention facilities for unsentenced prisoners.
Other federal agencies are designed to enforce specific federal laws. The Secret Service has two primary missions: protecting all living current and former U.S. Presidents and their families and controlling counterfeiting. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives assists in controlling the sale of untaxed liquor and cigarettes, illegal firearms, and explosives. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is the federal agency that enforces federal drug laws. Agents of the DEA primarily carry out their responsibilities by assisting local and state authorities in investigating illegal drug use and drug trafficking. They also work with foreign governments to reduce the amount of illegal drugs entering the United States, as well as operate independent investigations into drug crime.
State Law Enforcement Agencies
All 50 states have state police agencies. Generally, there are two models of state police agencies. Some states like New York, Pennsylvania, and Michigan have a single State Police Department that is responsible for both traffic and criminal investigative responsibilities. These state level policing agencies are divided into two primary units. One unit is responsible for patrolling state turnpikes and highways. The second unit is responsible for investigating criminal offenses.
The second model of policing used by state agencies has been adopted by states such as California, Florida, Georgia, and Kansas. These states have two separate state police agencies. One agency is called the Highway Patrol. The Highway Patrol monitors state turnpikes and highways. The second state level policing agency is assigned the responsibility for state level criminal investigations. The names of these agencies are varied and include the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Georgia Bureau of Investigation, and Kansas Bureau of Investigation.
In addition, state law enforcement may be responsible for running state law enforcement training academies, providing emergency medical services, maintaining a crime lab, and providing other services that are needed to support local level law enforcement efforts.
County Law Enforcement Agencies
The third level of policing occurs at the county level and typically involves an elected sheriff and appointed deputies. A few states may forego the title of sheriff and maintain a county police department.
The duties of a sheriff's department vary according to the size and population of the county. Nearly all sheriffs' offices provide basic law enforcement services to areas outside incorporated municipalities. These duties include routine patrol, responding to citizen calls for service, and investigating crimes. They are authorized to enforce state law within their county as well as enforcing county-level laws including traffic enforcement and, in many counties, animal control.
In addition, sheriffs' departments are usually responsible for the county jail or detention facility. Although some states still maintain separate local detention facilities in every city and town, most have consolidated this function into a single county area facility utilized by all municipalities within the county. Detention duties may be rotated among all appointed deputies, or deputies may be hired for the single purpose of staffing and monitoring the detention facility.
Finally, the sheriff's department is typically assigned duties associated with court services. These duties include serving civil court summons, providing court security, providing courthouse security, and dealing with criminal warrants.
Municipal Law Enforcement Agencies
Municipal law enforcement agencies are those police departments created to serve an incorporated city, town, village, or borough. The greatest opportunity for those interested in policing is at the municipal level because most policing occurs at the municipal level. There are about 17,000 municipal police departments in the country; more than 70 of those police departments employ in excess of 1,000 police officers, and 83 police departments employ 500 to 999 police officers. The majority of municipal police departments, however, employ 10 or fewer officers. In the United States 75 percent of police officers are employed by departments that serve communities with a population of fewer than 10,000 residents. This means that although there are large police departments like New York City, Chicago, Houston, and Los Angeles, the vast majority of police departments and the vast majority of police officers are found in smaller communities.
The primary reason municipalities establish a police department is to maintain order. For example, it is important that all drivers follow traffic regulations to reduce the likelihood of accidents or injuries. Most drivers occasionally ignore traffic regulations without concern for the danger they are causing to others. Police officers enforce the traffic regulations to remind drivers of their responsibility to drive in a manner that is safe for the entire community. This may not seem like a critical policing task, but protecting the communities' health and safety by preventing vehicle accidents is a primary goal of all municipal law enforcement agencies.
The American Bar Association (ABA) outlines the functions of the municipal police officer to include a broad range of activities. Municipal police officers are expected to:
- Identify criminal offenders and criminal activity and where appropriate, to apprehend offenders and participate in subsequent court proceedings.
- Reduce the opportunities for the commission of some crimes through preventive patrol and other measures.
- Aid individuals who are in danger of physical harm.
- Protect constitutional guarantees.
- Facilitate the movement of people and vehicles.
- Assist those who cannot care for themselves.
- Resolve conflict.
- Identify problems that are potentially serious law enforcement or governmental problems.
- Create and maintain a feeling of security in the community.
- Promote and preserve civil order.
- Provide other services on an emergency basis.1
1American Bar Association, The Urban Police Function, (New York: American Bar Association, 1, 1973).
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