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Thread: Structure of Law Enforcement in the US?

  1. #1
    Join Date
    May 2000
    Perth, Western Australia
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    Default Structure of Law Enforcement in the US?

    This is probably going to sound like a silly question, but I'm from Australia, so bear with me please!

    Is there a set structure or hierarchy for police departments in the US? How do they all interact?

    I pretty much understand that at a small town level they have a Sheriffs Department, the Sheriff is an elected official, he employs deputies.

    That leads me to ask is the Sheriff generally purely a politician, or is he a law enforcement officer? Is training required, if so what level? What about the deputies, do they get standardised training? What level of law do they enforce, civic bylaws, state laws, federal laws, all of the above?

    Then there seems to be a state pollice force. The troopers are employed by the state, but where does their juristiction cover? Do they cover the same level of law enforcement as the Sheriffs or specific areas?

    I'm pretty right with the federal law enforcement crowd, I think, but where I do get confused is in major cities.

    In Los Angeles they have the LAPD, LASD, CHP and presumably state police (forget the feds for now), but are there also sheriffs in the municipalities? How do all these relate and interact? Is there a clear delineation of roles and juristictions?

    Now I read about the LAFD and other fire departments that all have arson investigators that are gun carrying LEO's with powers of arrest, etc. But the police also have arson investigators, as do the ATF at a federal level, where is the delineation here?

    How did American law enforcement get so confusing?

    And that's without getting into coroners, CSI's and district attorney's who also seem to vary in status and power across the US. I must stop watching TV!!


    Neil Hawkins
    "The one thing that must be learnt but
    cannot be taught is understanding"

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jan 2004
    SE Michigan
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    Things vary from place to place, but in general:

    State Police - (Troopers, Rangers) Provide the overall enforcement throughout the state. Generally provide the indepth scientific crime labs where evidence is sent for testing. Typically responsible for enforcement of traffic laws on federal and state highways within the state. Invited in to support local law enforcement when asked, as well as conduct things necessary to enforce state laws.

    Sheriffs - A county (a sub-set of a state in the US) is patrolled by the sheriff and his deputies. Yes he is elected and is a political position, but he is responsible for enforcing state laws in his county in those areas that do not have their own police forces. Most of them have law enforcement experience and training, but I don't think it is required.

    Police - Hired by the city, town, township or village to enforce the laws within the community. Those places that can't afford to hire their own usually work a deal with the Sheriff to provide the necessary patrols and safety officers for a fee.

    In some cases, police may be sworn deputy sheriffs, so that they can arrest people that 'escape' from their jurisdiction without causing problems. The various groups have well layed out areas of responsibility. While the State will cover one section of the highway, the Sheriff will cover the other section.

    Crimes are tracked by the unit having jurisdiction over the area where the crime was committed. For instance, the FBI is called in whenever there is a kidnapping, even if they aren't sure that a state line has been crossed. The Feds enforce Federal laws, State enforces State laws and Communities enforce community laws. And any one can enforce the other laws in their jurisdiction.
    Last edited by Blackwood; 5th January 2005 at 02:31.
    Mark W. Swarthout, Shodan

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Aug 2001
    Likes (received)


    So many questions...

    In part it deals with the concept of "federalism" whereas the national government holds significant power, but the smaller political subdivisions also hold significant power.

    Federal laws are enforced by the designated federal agencies. We do not have a pure national police force, but we have the FBI, ATF, United States Marshals, The Secret Service etc. all with their niche of law enforcement activity as designated by Congress or the Executive Branch.

    Now we have fifty states in the USA.

    The leading "law enforcement official" in each state is called the "Attorney General" and YES he/she is a politician running for office every two or four years.

    States have their own police forces.

    States may set-up various State Authorities or Agencies that may have police powers especially in regards to specific crimes (e.g., arson investigations, probation officers).

    States are divided into county governments, which may be strong or weak in relation to the parent state government.

    Then we have cities and town governments, with their own police departments.


    Maybe it is a case of diversity is a good thing.

    There is no standard logic of how each state set-up their police forces.
    Population density is a factor.
    Geography is another factor.
    What is the tax base to support the local LEO?
    History, tradition and previous political turf battles have an impact - perhaps a separate large city "metropolitan police force" exists today because one hundred years ago a powerful politician wanted to create his own patronage fiefdom.

    Also, I hate to break this to you Neil, but the interaction of law enforcement agents portrayed on American TV supports the writers' contrived story lines.   Not how it is done in real life.   Every police force cop and their commanders will fight for their designated piece of the law enforcement pie, eh maybe I should call it "donut delineation."
    John McPartland
    Well, but you can't expect to wield supreme executive power just 'cause some watery tart threw a sword at you!  I mean, if I went 'round saying I was an emperor just because some moistened bint had lobbed a scimitar at me, they'd put me away!

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