Law enforcement in the United States

Law enforcement in the United States
Officers from US Customs and Border Protection boarding a ship

Law enforcement in the United States is one of three major components of the criminal justice system of the United States, along with courts and corrections. Although there exists an inherent interrelatedness between the different groups that make up the criminal justice system based on their crime deterrence purpose, each component operates independently from one another. However, the judiciary is vested with the power to make legal determinations regarding the conduct of the other two components.

Apart from maintaining order and service functions, the purpose of policing is the investigation of suspected criminal activity and the referral of the results of investigations and of suspected criminals to the courts. Law enforcement, to varying degrees at different levels of government and in different agencies, is [1] also commonly charged with the responsibilities of deterring criminal activity and of preventing the successful commission of crimes in progress; the service and enforcement of warrants, writs and other orders of the courts.

Law enforcement agencies are also involved in providing first response to emergencies and other threats to public safety; the protection of certain public facilities and infrastructure; the maintenance of public order; the protection of public officials; and the operation of some correctional facilities (usually at the local level).



In 1626, the New York City Sheriff's Office was founded. In 1635, the Town of Boston started its first "Night Watch". The first local modern police department established in the United States was the Boston Police Department in 1838, followed by the New York City Police Department in 1845. Early on, police were not respected by the community, as corruption was rampant. In the late 19th and early 20th century, there were few specialized units in police departments.[2]

The advent of the police car, two-way radio, and telephone in the early 20th century transformed policing into a reactive strategy that focused on responding to calls for service.[2] In the 1920s, led by Berkeley, California police chief, August Vollmer, police began to professionalize, adopt new technologies, and place emphasis on training.[3] With this transformation, police command and control became more centralized.

O.W. Wilson, a student of Vollmer, helped reduce corruption and introduce professionalism in Wichita, Kansas, and later in the Chicago Police Department.[4] Strategies employed by O.W. Wilson included rotating officers from community to community to reduce their vulnerability to corruption, establishing of a non-partisan police board to help govern the police force, a strict merit system for promotions within the department, and an aggressive, recruiting drive with higher police salaries to attract professionally qualified officers.[5] Despite such reforms, police agencies were led by highly autocratic leaders, and there remained a lack of respect between police and minority communities. During the professionalism era of policing, law enforcement agencies concentrated on dealing with felonies and other serious crime.[6]

Following urban unrest in the 1960s, police placed more emphasis on community relations, and enacted reforms such as increased diversity in hiring. The Kansas City Preventive Patrol study in the 1970s found the reactive approach to policing to be ineffective.[7] In the 1990s, many law enforcement agencies began to adopt community policing strategies, and others adopted problem-oriented policing. In the 1990s, CompStat was developed by the New York Police Department as an information-based system for tracking and mapping crime patterns and trends, and holding police accountable for dealing with crime problems. CompStat, and other forms of information-led policing, have since been replicated in police departments across the United States and around the world.

In 1905, the Pennsylvania State Police became the first state police agency established, as recommended by Theodore Roosevelt's Anthracite Strike Commission and Governor Samuel Pennypacker.[8] See also Coal Strike of 1902.

California municipalities were among the first to hire women and minorities as officers. The first female police officer was Alice Stebbins Wells, who was hired by the Los Angeles Police Department in 1910. The LAPD also hired its first two African American police officers, Robert William Stewart and Roy Green, in 1886. The first female deputy sheriff, Margaret Q. Adams, was hired by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department in 1912.

Types of police

Policing in the United States is conducted by numerous types of agency at many different levels. Every state has their own nomenclature for agencies, and their powers, responsibilities and funding varies from state to state.


Federal police possess full federal authority as given to them under United States Code (U.S.C.). Federal Law Enforcement Officers are authorized to enforce various laws at the federal level.

U.S. Park Police officers standing by during the 2005 Inauguration Day

Both types operate at the highest level and are endowed with police roles, both may maintain a small component of the other (for example, the FBI Police). The agencies have nationwide jurisdiction for enforcement of federal law. All federal agencies are limited by the U.S. Code to investigating only matters that are explicitly within the power of the federal government. However, federal investigative powers have become very broad in practice, especially since the passage of the USA PATRIOT Act.

The Department of Justice (DOJ) is responsible for most law enforcement duties at the federal level.[9] It includes the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), the United States Marshals Service, the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) and others.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is another branch with numerous federal law enforcement agencies reporting to it. U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), United States Secret Service (USSS), United States Coast Guard (USCG), and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are some of the agencies that report to DHS.

At a crime or disaster scene affecting large numbers of people, multiple jurisdictions, or broad geographic areas, many police agencies may be involved by mutual aid agreements, for example the United States Federal Protective Service responded to the Hurricane Katrina natural disaster. Command in such situations remains a complex and flexible issue.

The federal government is prohibited from exercising general police powers due to restrictions in the constitution, because the United States is organized as a union of sovereign states, which each retain their police, military and domestic law-making powers. For example, the State's National Guard is the state's military. The constitution gives the federal government the power to deal with foreign affairs and interstate affairs (affairs between the states). For policing, this means that if a non-federal crime is committed in a state and the fugitive does not flee the state, the federal government has no jurisdiction. However, once the fugitive crosses a state line he or she violates the federal law of interstate flight and is subject to federal jurisdiction, at which time federal law enforcement agencies may become involved.


Most all states operate statewide government agencies that provide law enforcement duties, including investigations and state patrols. They may be called State Police, State Patrol or Highway Patrol, and are normally part of the state Department of Public Safety. In addition, the Attorney General's office of each state has their own state bureaus of investigation. In Texas the Texas Ranger Division fulfill this role though they have their history in the period before Texas became a state.

Various departments of State Governments may have their own enforcement division such as capitol police, Campus Police, State Hospitals, Departments of Correction, Water police, environmental (fish and game/wildlife) Game Wardens or Conservation Officers (who have full police powers and statewide jurisdiction). In Colorado, for instance, the Department of Revenue has its own investigative branch, as do many of the state funded universities.


Also known as parishes and boroughs, county law enforcement is provided by Sheriffs' Departments or Offices and County police.

County police

County police tend to exist only in metropolitan counties and have countywide jurisdiction. In some areas, there is a sheriff's department which only handles minor issues such as service of papers such as a constable in other areas, along with security for the local courthouse. In other areas, there are no county police and the local sheriff is the exclusive law enforcement agency and acts as both sheriff and county police, which is much more common than there being a separate county police force. County police tend to fall into three broad categories:

  • Full-service - provide the full spectrum of police services to the entire county, irrespective of local communities, and may provide contractual security police services to special districts within the county.
    • Hawaii - Hawaii has only county police, there are no local police.
  • Limited service - provide services to unincorporated areas of the county (and may provide services to some incorporated areas by contract), and usually provide contractual security police services to special districts within the county.
  • Restricted service - provide security police to county owned and operated facilities and parks. Some may also perform some road patrol duties on county built and maintained roads, and provide support to municipal police departments in the county. Some northeastern states maintain county detectives in their county attorneys' offices.

Sheriffs' offices

  • Full service - The most common type, provide all traditional law-enforcement functions, including countywide patrol and investigations irrespective of municipal boundaries.
  • Limited service - along with the above, perform some type of traditional law-enforcement function such as investigations and patrol. This may be limited to security police duties on county properties (and others by contract) to the performance of these duties in unincorporated areas of the county, and some incorporated areas by contract.
  • Restricted service - provide basic court related services such as keeping the county jail, transporting prisoners, providing courthouse security and other duties with regard to service of process and summonses that are issued by county and state courts. The sheriff also often conducts auction sales of real property in foreclosure in many jurisdictions, and is often also empowered to conduct seizures of chattel property to satisfy a judgment. In other jurisdictions, these civil process duties are performed by other officers, such as a marshal or constable.


See Municipal police departments of the United States for a list

Municipal police range from one-officer agencies (sometimes still called the town marshal) to the 40,000 men and women of the New York City Police Department. Most municipal agencies take the form (Municipality Name) Police Department. Many individual cities and towns will have their own police department, with larger communities typically having larger departments with greater budgets, resources, and responsibilities.

Metropolitan departments, such as the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department, have jurisdiction covering multiple communities and municipalities, often over a wide area typically coterminous with one or more cities or counties. Metropolitan departments have usually have been formed by a merger between local agencies, typically several local police departments and often the local sheriff's department or office, in efforts to provide greater efficiency by centralizing command and resources and to resolve jurisdictional problems, often in communities experiencing rapid population growth and urban sprawl, or in neighboring communities too small to afford individual police departments. Some county sheriff's departments, such as the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, are contracted to provide full police services to local cities within their counties.


U.S. Territories - Commonwealth of Puerto Rico - Puerto Rico State Police Puerto Rico Police Department

It traces back to 1837, when Spanish governor Francisco Javier de Moreda y Prieto created La Guardia Civil de Puerto Rico (Puerto Rico Civil Guard) to protect the lives and property of Puerto Ricans who at the time were Spanish subjects, and provide police services to the entire island, even though many municipalities maintain their own police force. The United States invaded and took possession of Puerto Rico in July 1898 as a result of the Spanish American War and has controlled the island as a US territory since then. The Insular Police of Porto Rico was created on February 21, 1899, under the command of Col. Frank Thacher (US Marine officer during the Spanish American War), with an authorized strength of 313 sworn officers. As of 2009, the PRPD has over 17,292 officers.

See Specialist police departments of the United States for a list

There are other types of specialist police department with varying jurisdictions. Most of these serve special-purpose districts and are Special district police. In some states, they serve as little more than security police, but in states such as California, special district forces are composed of fully sworn peace officers with statewide authority.

These agencies can be transit police, school district police, campus police, airport police, park police or police departments responsible for protecting government property such as the Los Angeles General Services Police. Some agencies, such as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department, have multi-state powers. There are also some private (non-governmental) agencies, such as the Co-op City Department of Public Safety.

Police functions

A Florida Highway Patrol state trooper at the scene of a motor vehicle accident

Textbooks and scholars have identified three primary police agency functions. The following is cited from The American System of Criminal Justice, by George F. Cole and Christopher E. Smith, 2004, 10th edition, Wadsworth/Thomson Learning:

  • Order maintenance. This is the broad mandate to keep the peace or otherwise prevent behaviors which might disturb others. This can deal with things ranging from a barking dog to a fist-fight. By way of description, Cole and Smith note that police are usually called-on to "handle" these situations with discretion, rather than deal with them as strict violations of law, though of course their authority to deal with these situations are based in violations of law.
  • Law enforcement. Those powers are typically used only in cases where the law has been violated and a suspect must be identified and apprehended. Most obvious instances include robbery, murder, or burglary. This is the popular notion of the main police function, but the frequency of such activity is dependent on geography and season.
  • Service. Services may include rendering first aid, providing tourist information, guiding the disoriented, or acting as educators (on topics such as preventing drug use). Cole and Smith cited one study which showed 80% of all calls for police assistance did not involve crimes, but this may not be the case in all parts of the country. Because police agencies are traditionally available year-round, 24 hours a day, citizens call upon police departments not only in times of trouble, but also when just inconvenienced. As a result, police services may include roadside auto assistance, providing referrals to other agencies, finding lost pets or property, or checking locks on vacationers' homes.

Styles of Policing

Given the broad mandates of police work, and yet having limited resources, police administrators must develop policies to prioritize and focus their activities. Some of the more controversial policies restrict, or even forbid, high-speed vehicular pursuits.

Three styles of policing develop from a jurisdiction’s socioeconomic characteristics, government organization, and choice of police administrators. According to a study by James Q. Wilson (”Varieties of Police Behavior”, 1968, 1978, Harvard University Press), there were three distinct types of policing developed in his study of eight communities. Each style emphasized different police functions, and were linked to specific characteristics of the community the department served. (Wilson’s field of study was in the United States, and it is not clear if similar studies have been done for other countries with different governmental organization and laws.)

  • Watchman. Emphasizes maintaining order, usually found in communities with a declining industrial base, and a blue-collar, mixed ethnic/racial population. This form of policing is implicitly less pro-active than other styles, and certain offenses may be “overlooked” on a variety of social, legal, and cultural grounds, as long as the public order is maintained. Smith and Cole comment the broad discretion exercised in this style of policing can result in charges of discrimination, when it appears police treatment of different groups results in the perception that some groups get better treatment than others;
  • Legalistic. Emphasizes law enforcement and professionalism. This is usually found in reform-minded cities, with mixed socioeconomic composition. Officers are expected to generate a large number of arrests and citations, and act as if there were a single community standard for conduct, rather than different standards for different groups. However, the fact that certain groups are more likely to have law enforcement contact means this strict enforcement of laws may seem overly harsh on certain groups;
  • Service. Emphasizes the service functions of police work, usually found in suburban, middle-class communities where residents demand individual treatment. Police in homogeneous communities can view their work as protecting their citizens against “outsiders”, with frequent but often-informal interventions against community members. The uniform make-up of the community means crimes are usually more obvious, and therefore less frequent, leaving police free to deal with service functions, and traffic control.

Wilson’s study applies to police behavior for the entire department, over time. At any given time, police officers may be acting in a watchman, service, or legalistic function by nature of what they’re doing at the time, or temperament, or mood. Individual officers may also be inclined to one style or another, regardless of supervisor or citizen demands.

Entry qualifications

Nearly all U.S. states and the federal government have by law adopted minimum-standard standardized training requirements for all officers with powers of arrest within the state. Many standards apply to in-service training as well as entry-level training, particularly in the use of firearms, with periodic re-certification required. These standards often comply with standards promoted by the US Department of Justice. These standards typically require a thorough background check that potential police recruits:

  • Be a United States citizen (waived in certain agencies if the applicant is a lawful resident).
  • Must have a high school diploma or a G.E.D. and if necessary a college degree or served in the United States military without a dishonorable discharge;
  • Be in good physical and psychological condition;
  • Maintain a clean criminal record without either serious or repeated misdemeanor or any felony convictions;
  • Must have a valid driver's license with a clean driving record and that is not currently or has a history of being suspended or revoked;
  • Be of high moral character;
  • Not have a history of prior narcotic or repeated marijuana use or alcoholism;
  • Not have a history of ethical, professional, prior employment, motor vehicle, or financial improprieties;
  • Not have a history of domestic violence or mental illness;
  • Not to pose a safety and security risk;
  • Be legally eligible to own and carry a firearm.

Repeated interviews, written tests, medical examinations, physical fitness tests, comprehensive background investigations, fingerprinting, drug testing, a police oral board interview, a polygraph examination and consultation with a psychologist are common practices used to review the suitability of candidates. Recruiting in most departments is competitive, with more suitable and desirable candidates accepted over lesser ones, and failure to meet some minimum standards disqualifying a candidate entirely. Police oral boards are the most subjective part of the process and often disqualifies the biggest portion of qualified candidates[10] .Departments maintain records of past applicants under review, and refer to them in the case of either reapplication or requests from other agencies.

Despite these safeguards, some departments have at times relaxed hiring and staffing policies, sometimes in violation of the law, most often in the cases of local departments and federally funded drug task forces facing staffing shortages, attrition, and needs to quickly fill positions. This has included at times the fielding (and sometimes the arming) of uncertified officers (who may be working temporarily in what is supposed to be a provisional limited-duty status prior to certification) and the hiring of itinerant "gypsy cops", who may have histories of poor performance or misconduct in other departments. Several serious cases of police misconduct such as the Chicago Police Department's torture of felony suspects between 1972-1991 by and under Jon Burge, LAPD's 1991 beating of Rodney King and late-1990s LAPD Rampart Scandal, the NYPD's 1970s fatal shootings of Clifford Glover (1973) and Randolph Evans (1976), the 1980s chokeholds and shootings of Michael Stewart, Eleanor Bumpers and Edmund Perry, the 1990s torture of Abner Louima and shooting of Amadou Diallo, the 2000s shootings and record-publicizing of Patrick Dorosmund, and Sean Bell, Philadelphia Police Department's torture of suspects in the 1970s to improve then-mayor Frank Rizzo's reputation and Torrington, Connecticut's Tracey Thurman incident all raised questions surrounding the screening of potential recruits.


Salary varies widely for police officers, with most being among the top third of wage-earners, age 25 or older, nationwide.[11] In May 2008, the overall median was $51,410. The median salary for those at the federal level was $46,620, compared to $57,270 for those at the state level and $51,020 for those employed by local law enforcement agencies. The top 10% earned more than $79,680 and bottom 10% less than $30,070.[12]

Rank Minimum Salary Maximum Salary
Police Chief $90,570 $113,930
Deputy Chief $74,834 $96,209
Police Captain $72,761 $91,178
Police Lieutenant $65,688 $79,268
Police Sergeant $58,739 $70,349
Police Corporal $49,421 $61,173
Reserve Officer $0.00 $0.00

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Labor, 2010[12]

Police weapons


Police in the United States usually carry a handgun on duty. Many are required to be armed on-duty and off-duty. Among the most common sidearms are models produced by Glock, Smith & Wesson, SIG Sauer, and Beretta, usually in 9mm, .40 S&W, or .45 ACP. Until the 1980s, most US police carried revolvers, typically in .38 Special or .357 Magnum calibers, as their primary duty weapons. Since then, most have switched to semiautomatic pistols. Two key events influencing many US police forces to upgrade their primary duty weapons to weapons with greater stopping power were the 1980 Norco shootout and the 1986 FBI Miami shootout.

Some police departments allow qualified officers to carry shotguns and/or semiautomatic rifles in their vehicles for additional firepower.

Less lethal weapons

ASP 21" tactical baton in expandable and collapsed states.

Police also often carry an impact weapon - a baton, also known as a nightstick. The common nightstick and the side handle baton, have been replaced in many locations by expandable batons such as the Monadnock Auto-Lock Expandable Baton or ASP baton. One advantage of the collapsible baton is that the wearer can comfortably sit in a patrol vehicle while still wearing the baton on their duty belt. The side handle night stick usually has to be removed before entering the vehicle. Many departments also use less-lethal weapons like mace, pepper spray, electroshock guns, and beanbag shotgun rounds.

Another less lethal weapon that police officers often carry is an electroshock gun, also known as a taser. The handheld electroshock weapon was designed to incapacitate a single person from a distance by using electrical current to disrupt voluntary control of muscles. Someone struck by a Taser experiences stimulation of his or her sensory nerves and motor nerves, resulting in strong involuntary muscle contractions. Tasers do not rely only on pain compliance, except when used in Drive Stun mode, and are thus preferred by some law enforcement over non-Taser stun guns and other electronic control weapons.

Specialized weapons

Most large police departments have elite SWAT units which are called in to handle situations, such as barricaded suspects, hostage situations and high-risk warrant service, that require greater force, specialized equipment, and special tactics. These units usually have submachine guns, automatic carbines or rifles, semiautomatic combat shotguns, sniper rifles, gas, smoke and flashbang grenades, and other specialized weapons and equipment at their disposal. A few departments have an armored vehicle for especially dangerous work.

Body armor

Uniformed police officers are often issued body armor, typically in the form of a lightweight Level IIA, II or IIIA vest that can be worn under service shirts. SWAT teams typically wear heavier Level III or IV tactical armored vests, often with steel or ceramic trauma plates, comparable to those worn by US military personnel engaged in ground operations. Officers trained in bomb disposal wear specialized heavy protective armor designed to protect them from the effects of an explosion when working around live ordnance.

Police communications

Most American police departments are dispatched from a centralized communications center, using VHF, UHF or, more recently, digitally trunked radio transceivers mounted in their vehicles, with individual officers carrying portable handsets or ear-worn headsets for communication when away from their vehicles. American police cars are also increasingly equipped with portable computers linked by radio to a network allowing them access to state department of motor vehicles information, criminal records, and other important information.

Most police communications are now conducted within a regional pool of area 911 operators using 911 and 911 telephone taxation. A large number of police agencies have pooled their 911 tax resources for Computer Aided Dispatching (CAD) to streamline dispatching and reporting.

National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System

National Law Enforcement Telecommunications System is a secure information sharing system for state and local law enforcement agencies. It provides electronic messaging to allow information exchange between state, local, and federal agencies and support services to justice-related computer programs. The network is operated by Nlets, a non-profit corporation owned and operation by the states and funded solely by fees for service.

The network operates primarily through a secure private network through which each state has an interface to the network, and all agencies within the state operate through this portal. The federal and international components operate very similarly. Users include all U.S. states and territories, Federal agencies with a justice mission, and certain international agencies. The primary operational site for the network is housed in Arizona, with a secure backup site located in the East Central U.S. for full continuity of operations in less than thirty minutes.

Information exchange is voluntary and includes everything from motor vehicle registrations, driver's data, Interpol warrants, Canadian 'Hot File' records, and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) databases, to state criminal history records. Nearly 90 million messages are sent each month.

See also



  1. ^ U.S. Pentagon Police
  2. ^ a b Reiss Jr, Albert J. (1992). "Police Organization in the Twentieth Century". Crime and Justice 51. 
  3. ^ "Finest of the Finest". TIME Magazine. February 18, 1966.,9171,899019,00.html. 
  4. ^ "Guide to the Orlando Winfield Wilson Papers, ca. 1928-1972". Online Archive of California. Retrieved 2006-10-20. 
  5. ^ "Chicago Chooses Criminologist to Head and Clean Up the Police". United Press International/The New York Times. February 22, 1960. 
  6. ^ Kelling, George L., Mary A. Wycoff (December 2002). Evolving Strategy of Policing: Case Studies of Strategic Change. National Institute of Justice. NCJ 198029. 
  7. ^ Kelling, George L., Tony Pate, Duane Dieckman, Charles E. Brown (1974). "The Kansas City Preventive Patrol Experiment - A Summary Report" (PDF). Police Foundation. 
  8. ^ Mayo, Katherine (1920). Justice to All: The Story of the Pennsylvania State Police. Houghton Mifflin. 
  9. ^ Langeluttig, Albert (1927). The Department of Justice of the United States. Johns Hopkins Press. pp. 9–14. 
  10. ^ The Law Enforcement Oral Board Interview -
  11. ^ "U.S. Census Bureau. (June 24, 2005). PINC-03. Educational Attainment--People 25 Years Old and Over, by Total Money Earnings in 2008, Work Experience in 2004, Age, Race, Hispanic Origin, and Sex.". Retrieved 2007-11-23. 
  12. ^ a b "U.S. Department of Labor. Police and detectives: Earnings. Retrieved from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: Occupational Outlook Handbook,, 2010-11 Edition". Retrieved 2010-03-18. 

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