Becoming a Police Officer: Law Enforcement Glossary

Updated on Dec 2, 2010

Below is a list of commom law enforcement terms:


arrest. An arrest occurs when any sworn officer deprives a person of his/her liberty by taking that person into custody to answer for an alleged criminal offense or a violation of a code or ordinance that the officer's jurisdiction is authorized to enforce. Most arrests are made by police officers, peace officers, troopers, or sheriff's deputies, but depending on the jurisdiction or circumstances, probation, parole, or court officers may be authorized to arrest all or certain categories of people.

auxiliary/reserve/part-time officer. Designations that refer to different types of officers in different areas of the United States; regardless of title, they are found in many police departments and sheriffs' offices but rarely in state police agencies. Depending on local usage, these officers may be volunteers or may be paid. They generally perform in uniform a certain number of hours per week or per month supplementing regular officers during certain times of the year, such as in resort communities when populations increase substantially, or for certain events including traffic control or work at fairs or civic or cultural events. In other jurisdictions they have the same duties as fully-sworn, full-time officers. Although candidates for these positions may not be interested in employment as full-time law enforcement officers, many are and in some jurisdictions this type of employment is viewed as a stepping-stone to attaining that, offered first to those who are Police Explorers or others involved in similar programs or those who are on the civil service eligibility list, awaiting being called for full-time police employment.

background investigation. A key element of the hiring process, a background investigation delves into a candidate's past life, including education, employment, military service if any, criminal history, credit and driving records, and past associations. A candidate must provide information which is verified by the hiring agency as part of the process of determining whether the candidate is suitable for law enforcement employment. Deliberate falsehoods are automatic grounds for a candidate to be dropped from further consideration for employment.

beat. The smallest geographical area that an individual officer is assigned to patrol. In large cities and in high-density jurisdictions (airports, large train stations, etc.) an officer will likely be assigned to walk the beat; in rural area or agencies that cover a large geographical area (state police, suburban agencies) an officer will most likely be assigned to patrol the beat from a vehicle.

bureaucracy. Any organization with a strictly defined hierarchy; a defined promotion policy generally based on written tests; a career path; reliance on rules and regulations; and a formal and impersonal style of management. Police agencies, regardless of size, are generally considered to be bureaucracies.

chain of command. Each person in the organization is supervised and reports to one person, generally one or two ranks above him or her. For example, a police officer reports to a sergeant in most agencies—sometimes to a lieutenant, but almost never to a captain. A lieutenant reports to a captain or higher rank, never to a sergeant or police officer, both of whom are lower in the chain of command than the lieutenant.

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