The United States has what is quite possibly the most sophisticated law enforcement organization in the world. There is little uniformity in naming function and authority, with most agencies performing somewhat similar functions. This paper provides a practical jurisdictional approach to understanding law enforcement organization in the United States.
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Law enforcement agencies in the US operate under one of three jurisdictions; federal, state, and local. Close to four-dozen federal law enforcement agencies are distributed in the numerous US government departmental and non-departmental entities (Schmalleger, 2017). For instance, the department of defense encompasses the army criminal investigation division, the naval investigative office, the defense criminal investigative office, and the Air force office of special investigations while under the department of justice lie the more famous law enforcement agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigations, the Drug Enforcement Administration and US marshals services (Schmalleger, 2017). Federal agencies are typically involved in conducting criminal investigations, executing search warrants and making arrests on federal jurisdiction (Schmalleger, 2017).
At the second tier of law enforcement are state-level agencies. At this level, law enforcement agencies can be organized in a decentralized on centralized form. In the centralized model, states typically have one law enforcement agency that; undertakes criminal investigations, operates identification bureaus, maintains criminal records, patrols state highways and provides training to municipal and county officers (Schmalleger, 2017). Examples of states that have adopted the centralized model include; Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Vermont, and Delaware. In the decentralized model, states typically establish several law enforcement agencies that have distinct jurisdictions. In South Carolina for instance, there is a clear separation between highway patrol and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (Schmalleger, 2017). Apart from these two distinctions, states may also have several adjunct state-level law enforcement agencies such as; Fish and wildlife agencies, Alcohol law enforcement agencies, State pork services, Port authorities, University police, weigh station operations, enforcement and theft bureaus, etc. (Schmalleger, 2017).
On the third tier of law enforcement organization are the local agencies. These include city agencies, county agencies, municipal departments, sheriff’s departments, and specialized law enforcement groups like campus police and transit police (Schmalleger, 2017). The New York Police Department (NYPD), which is the largest law enforcement agency in the country, is an example of a municipal law enforcement agency. In smaller municipalities, local state agencies may consist of one officer who serves as chief, investigator, highway patrol and carries all functions and titles relate to law enforcement in the community. Majority of local agencies have a staff of up to five full-time officers, others contract with private firms for security services while others have no active police department.
Adjunct to the municipal police departments is the sheriff’s department (Schmalleger, 2017). Sheriffs are elected public officials responsible for law enforcement in the unincorporated areas of the county. In communities where an active police department has not been established, residents often depend on the sheriff’s departments to deal with criminal offenses. In larger municipalities, sheriff’s departments are typically involved in serving court summonses, running court jails and maintaining security in courtrooms (Schmalleger, 2017). At the bottom tier of law enforcement are the private protective services. While the government does not employ private personnel in the enforcement of criminal law, they do provide security for corporate employers (Schmalleger, 2017).
Law enforcement in the United States is organized into federal, state, and local agencies. Numerous federal agencies exist under virtually all US departmental and non-departmental entities. At the state level, law enforcement follows decentralized or centralized organization models. In the centralized models, all law enforcement functions are consolidated into one agency. In the decentralized model, there is a clear distinction in law enforcement function among state agencies. Municipal departments, sheriff’s departments, and private protective services constitute local law enforcement agencies. This jurisdictional framework provides an easy and practical way to understand law enforcement in the US.