Sunday, May 03, 2015

Why are there so many American local law enforcement characterizations and how do they all work together?

Why are there so many American local law enforcement characterizations and how do they all work together?

We have: police officers, constables, and sheriffs (others?)
Are they all the same?

By Tim Dees, Retired cop and criminal justice prof... 

To answer your first question, there are so many law enforcement agencies in the United States because Americans have something of an obsession with local control. Virtually every political subdivision and government agency can have its own police, and many do. Most incorporated (meaning one with a dedicated local government) cities, towns and villages have some kind of law enforcement function, as do counties (parishes in Louisiana) and all states except Hawaii. The only state without sheriffs is Alaska--because there are no counties there.

In addition, some hospitals, parks, convention centers, most public colleges and some private colleges have their own police departments, as do some other quasi-government functions like water districts, local school districts, transit operations, railroads and Indian tribes. Some law enforcement agencies have their own police. If you try to get into the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C. or the Criminal Justice Information Services Center in Clarksburg, WV, you will first deal with the FBI Police--a police department dedicated to protection of a single law enforcement agency.

This makes for about 18,000 separate law enforcement agencies in the United States, each with its own chief/sheriff/superintendent or other CEO, its own policy manual, its own distinctive uniform and badge, etc. They range in size from about 39,000 sworn officers in the NYPD to the roughly 3000 one-man police and sheriff's departments in the U.S.

These agencies do work together--usually well, but there are the usual expected turf wars and duplication of effort. It is not efficient, but efficiency wasn't the objective. The idea was to give people control over the local administration of laws and maintenance of order, to allow them to determine what issues should have priority in their community. This ideal often doesn't live up to expectations, but that is the case with virtually all democratic republics, especially as they grow larger.

The adjective "sworn" comes up a lot when discussing cops. A sworn employee differs from a non-sworn employee by virtue of having arrest powers, the ability to carry a firearm openly or concealed, and the power to serve search and arrest warrants and to administer oaths (the precise assortment of powers varies from place to place). Non-sworn employees are everyone else--dispatchers, clerks, secretaries, etc. Some of these also take oaths when they start the job, but they are not "sworn" in the context of law enforcement officers. As for the various titles that law enforcement officers have, here are the ones that come to mind, roughly in order of commonality:
  • Police Officer: sworn employees of city and other police departments.
  • Deputy sheriff: sworn employees of sheriff's departments and sheriff's offices (the terms are interchangeable, although most use one or the other exclusively), other than the elected sheriff. In some sheriff's offices, the sheriff can appoint or fire deputies at will. In others (more commonly), deputies have civil service protection and cannot be fired without cause.
  • Trooper: in most states, sworn employees of the state police, highway patrol, or state patrol. California is an exception: California Highway Patrol sworn employees have the title "State Traffic Officer" and are addressed as "officer."
  • Special Agent: sworn employees of most federal and some state investigative agencies. The "special" part was originally intended to restrict the agent's powers and responsibilities to specific crimes and laws, but it has now come to be a part of the standard vernacular. Some railroad police departments call their uniformed employees "special agents."
  • Constable: this is the equivalent term to "police officer" in Canada and the UK. In the United States, depending on the jurisdiction, it can be a sworn officer of a smaller local government, such as a village (some states classify communities as villages, towns or cities, depending on population), the sworn employee of a court who serves civil sand criminal process and provides some security services in the court, or an elected official who serves civil process in exchange for a small salary and a per-service fee. In Texas, some constable's offices have patrol functions with marked patrol cars and uniformed deputy constables who mainly work traffic details.
  • Marshal: marshals are sworn enforcement officers dedicated and responsible to the courts. Marshals serve arrest warrants, pursue fugitives, escort prisoners and others under the supervision of the court. In some cities with marshal's offices, a police officer or deputy sheriff who stops a person who is found to have an outstanding arrest warrant will call for a marshal's unit to come and pick them up. The marshal takes custody of the prisoner and escorts them to the jail or the court.

Most law enforcement agencies are organized on a para-military model, with the basic rank as listed above, and supervisors/managers/administrators with ranks of corporal, sergeant (some have multiple grades of sergeants, like staff sergeant, master sergeant and first sergeant), lieutenant, commander, captain, major, colonel, inspector, assistant/deputy sheriff or chief, and undersheriff (the hierarchy of these varies from place to place, and most agencies won't have all these ranks), plus chiefs, sheriffs, commissioners and superintendents. The police powers of the different ranks are no different from the basic rank, but they have administrative authority over those of lower rank. Detectives are generally investigative sworn personnel who may or may not outrank police officers/deputy sheriffs/troopers.In the "special agent" organizations, the supervisors usually have titles of supervisory special agent and senior supervisory special agent.

In most cases, any sworn officer can enforce any law or exercise his police powers without limit so long as he is within his jurisdictional authority. For everyone except federal cops, this is usually limited to the state where the officer is appointed. Federal agents can exercise their police powers anywhere in the country, but their powers are often limited to federal (not state or local) statutes, and sometimes to statutes specifically delimited in their agency's charter.

The federal Law Enforcement Officers Safety Act (LEOSA) permits any full-time sworn officer to carry a concealed weapon anywhere in the United States, regardless of where he is commissioned. This also applies to honorably retired sworn officers with at least ten years of service and who qualify annually with their weapon. LEOSA does not grant police powers outside the officer's jurisdiction. It is, in essence, a national concealed weapons permit.

All of this only sounds confusing because it is.

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