Explain US Law Enforcement to Me

From references on these boards, and also TV and other media, American law enforcement jurisdictions and responsibilities seem almost incomprehensible to me. From the thread on interfering with railroad crossings, somebody said “you’d get a federal rap for interfering with the railroad, and also a local one for holding up traffic”. This I understand, but it reminded me to write this thread which i’ve been meaning to start for a while. I specifically don’t get the whole city, county, state thing, nor the difference between police officers, sheriffs, rangers, ATF, FBI, and more importantly who busts you for what.

I’ll give you a bit of background on my local situation (state of New South Wales, Australia).
1. The New South Wales Police
This is the biggie. This is the one that 99% of people will interact with if they’ve committed, or been the victim of, a crime. When you call emergency, these guys come out, when you’re speeding, these guys pull you over, they walk the beat, they bust drug gangs, help cats out of trees, control crowds, and generally just go about being cops. They have authority from the centre of Sydney all the way to the outback. Anywhere within state borders. I suspect they do broader work than their US counterparts (if I can be sure who they are). They will arrest you on behalf of the police in other states, and arrange extradition (subject to certain warrants and such). I think they also do a lot of arrests for the Federal Police (especially if time is of the essence - they are quicker with the flashing lights and guns stuff because there are more of them), and then they’ll hand you over.

The police in the other states have pretty much identical powers (for our purposes). State police often organise themselves into specialised branches such as highway patrol, drug squad, licensing (alcohol and gaming) etc, but that is more for their own internal convenience and you generally can’t tell where a cop works by his uniform or by the car he drives - a bored drug squad detective can pull you over for speeding, just as a highway patrol cop can issue a fine to a pub for breaching opening hours.

2. The Federal Police
Most Australians only ever see these lads at the airport. They do general police work in our small territories (not states), but elsewhere they are concerned with big stuff like conterfeiting currency or illegal immigration, that sort of thing. Much more specialised, and I think they are responsible for fewer areas than their US colleagues.

These are state officers who are unarmed, and are only marginally “law enforcement” at all. They are really court officers, and do the legwork for the local court, as well as, as far as I’m aware, peform a sort of function as the state’s own repo men.

Unarmed local officials (municipal or town) who will attend to such trivialities as barking dogs, kids drinking in the park, etc (though NSW Police can do this too).

There are a few other minor, self-explanatory ones like Parking Patrol, Customs and Excise, and the like.

The majority of the time though, it’s generally the State Police doing ALL the old-fashioned policing. Now this is where I get confused with the US situation. You have city police? Do they really have to screech to a stop at the city limits? Can Highway Patrol cops not arrest you for sitting in your front yard smoking pot? What are troopers? Do local police arrest people for federal crimes then hand them over, or do they just have to hope there are feds around?

Enquiring minds. Cheers.

The US operates under a Federal system, which means overlapping areas of responsibility and government. What this means in a partical sense is that what you do in your home or hometown is dealt with by the local cops. If you are on the freeways, then Highway patrol has primary responsibility. The County Sheriffs are in charge of the unincorporated areas, and semi-overlap the previous two agencies. In California, for example, the Highway Patrol are the State Police. Other states have State Troopers. Federal crimes are handled by the FBI, and yes, you will be arrested by local cops, who will then hand you over to the Feds. If the Feds don’t get you first. There is a tangled web of who gets first crack at your sorry ass. City cops can pursue out of jurisdiction, but only “in hot pursuit.”

Cecil addresses some of this here.

In short, the local cops are in charge of investigating state crime. They often have a primary jurisdiction decided by the state legislature or a city charter, but when necessary they can make an arrest anywhere in the state. Most states have highway patrols, some have separate state police forces, and some have separate-still non-uniformed forces for investigating white-collar crime and the like.

The role of sherriffs varies greatly depending on what state you’re in. In some states, the sherriff’s office is the primary law enforcement agency for a county outside of any incorporated municipalities that may have their own police departments. In other places, the county may have its own police department that serves smaller municipalities and unincorporated areas. Cooperation between all these agencies is important and is usually a matter of routine procedure.

The FBI is in charge of investigating most federal crimes. There are also some more specialized federal law enforcement bodies that investigate specific crimes; the ATF was originally a revenue enforcement service (and thus used to be part of the Department of the Treasury.) They investigate crimes dealing with illegal weapons and explosives and whatnot. The DEA was formed in the 1970s to focus on drugs (they also run international operations with the cooperation of many governments in Latin America.) The US Secret Service investigates counterfeit currency (their original job) in addition to protecting the President. The US Marshalls Service guard federal courthouses and chase federal fugitives across the country. And there are also much more specialized federal agencies like the US Federal Park Police, Fish and Wildlife officers, the Capitol Police, the Postal Inspectors, and so on.

Aside from the FBI, most of these other agencies spend most of their time in administrative, rather than law-enforcement roles. When they do their law-enforcement activities, they’re often sharing concurrent jurisdiction with the FBI, and for large investigations they’ll work under the auspices of an FBI task force. The vast majority of federal crime is handled by the FBI.

Local (city/town/village) police are usually armed, have powers of arrest, and each department is headed by a “Chief of Police”. The police chief is usually appointed by the mayor or town/city council.

In the U.S. Sheriffs are usually elected, for a term of 2-4 years depending on the location. Each county has one Sheriff, and the officers who work under him/her are called deputy sheriff. They are armed and have full arrest powers. They have enforcement powers through out the county.
The sheriff is the usually the CLEO (Chief Law Enforcement Officer) of the county, and, if push came to shove, has more authority than the local police.

The State Police (state patrol/highway patrol/Capitol Police. Name differs per state) usually have more authority than the sheriff, and are also armed with arrest powers.

The federal agencies (FBI, DEA, etc.) are also armed with arrest powers and have more authority than local/county/state police.

The people have (in some places) powers of citizens arrest, and are armed to the teeth!:smiley:
These are all general statements as it differs per state. For instance, here in Wisconsin the Capitol Police overall have more authority than the State Patrol. Both are state departments but for 2 different agencies.

Well, it works like this:

There are a number of national police bodies. The FBI are the superbly trained experts at solving complex crimes. They handle the majority of general Federal criminal cases and are called in whenever possible to assist in major crimes owing to their expertise. (Federal penal law allows for quite a bit of overlapping jurisdiction; if you’ve committed a serious state crime, chances are there’s something in the federal law books that can be used to justify federal jurisdiction, at least to the extent of getting the FBI in on a case). ATF agents are federal, and work crimes related to offenses involving alcohol, tobacco, or firearms (criminal possession or sale, not use of firearms), nearly always with some interstate component. Treasury agents work counterfeiting, money laundering, embezzlement, and related crimes. The U.S. Marshalls serve court orders and sometimes provide police protection. Both the National Park Service and the Forest Service have rangers that provide police protection in the national parks and monuments and the national forests.

All these get substantially more publicity than their numbers merit because of the nature of the crimes they deal with.

Every state has a state police force, which may be called the State Police, the State Troopers, or other similar names. They tend to be the major highway patrollers and the people called for crimes in more rural areas.

States often have other officials with particular limited jurisdictions as well. For example forest rangers for state forests, environmental police as adjuncts to the state environmental management office, state park police, etc.

Every county in the U.S. has an elected county sheriff, with appointed deputies. He may have three primary functions, two of which are optional: To be the enforcement agent for court orders, summonses, etc., in that county and to collect civil judgments (always); to run a jail for minor offenses (petty offenses and misdemeanors, and sometimes short-term felonies) – in many states; to run a sheriff’s patrol complementing the state police operations for either or both traffic and criminal investigations (generally, in rural areas). While the sheriff is technically the top law enforcement officer within his county, unless he is an expert he tends to defer to the state police, whose senior men are experienced and trained beyond his own skills.

Most cities have their own police department, as do many smaller towns. Their job is principally to provide police service within the city limits, usually with a lockup for people held for arraignment. The city police have jurisdiction within the city for services they provide. Communities may have enforcement officers of various descriptions: parking meter attendants, zoning enforcement officers, and so on.

All these forces tend to work together, complementing rather than duplicating services. And the law defining their jurisdiction always has provision for “hot pursuit” – if a criminal flees across a given boundary, with them giving chase, they’re completely legally justified to pursue and make an arrest outside their own jurisdiction. (The sole exception, IIRC, is with reference to state lines, where officials of state A pursuing a culprit into state B may only detain him until state B officials arrive to make the arrest.)

Though it sounds very complex and duplicative, in practice it works out to provide the most comprehensive and flexible police service at the least cost: the town with significant problems beefs up its local force, the state police cover the areas with little crime as part of wide-area patrols, etc. And if a serial killer holes up in Podunk County, the sheriff has the entire state police and FBI help to call in for assistance.

And then there’s ERIC CARTMAN

:smiley: I just HAD to!

Hawaii does not have a state police force. That state is divided into four counties, each of which has its own police force.

Until just a few years ago, California had both the Highway Patrol and the State Police. The State Police was absorbed by the Highway Patrol.

Not every county. A few years ago, Connecticut abolished the county sheriffs.

According to the Hawaii Department of Public Safety website, the Sheriff Division is responsible for state wide law enforcement, so they are the state police. They do have a variety of divisions, including for the various counties, but that is not any different than the state police of other states.

Thank you all very much for the informative replies. I do have a better understanding of the situation now. The two things very alien to me are:

  1. The idea of armed cops with full powers operating at anything less than state level (municipal and city stuff here is the parking ticket-type childs play), but I can dig that.
  2. The idea of elected law enforcement officers of any type. That political aspect of an inherently apolitical job takes a bit more to get my head around, but I’m working on it.

It’s interesting to see where various responsibilities fall under your system and mine. For example, counterfeiting is a big, mega-serious federal freak-out in both countries, but here it doesn’t have its own law enforcement unit - the Feds do it. Tobacco and alcohol, likewise (unless it’s an overseas import racket) will be a mere state police job. We don’t have anything like your Secret Service - those functions are for the Feds.

Thanks again.

BTW, pkbites, Officer Cartman was the one piece of US law enforcement I was sure about. I’m a fan from way back. Thanks for the reminder of it. :smiley:

The Secret Service are Feds. They are agents of the United States Department of the Treasury.

Heck, here in California, the University of California has its own police force, separate from the parking-ticket people. They are heavily armed and have full arrest powers, as well as jurisdiction within 1 mile of a UC campus.

We used to joke about the overlapping jurisdictions. If there was an incident on the highway, adjoining my campus at UC Davis, the following law enforcement agencies would arrive on scene:

California Highway Patrol (state police)
Yolo County Sheriff
City of Davis Police
University Police

if something happened near the north end of town, the city police from the neighboring city of Woodland might even show up. It was a pretty slow place.

IIRC, there was a student party that got out of control a few years ago, and cops from 3 different agencies showed up in riot gear to quell the insurrection.

Sorry, I didn’t explain that very well. The situation in my country is such that regular Federal Police Officers* will do that extremely high profile body guarding stuff. As I understand it the US Federal Police (is that their proper name?) and the Secret Service are distinct entities. The Australian equivalent is of one body doing everything.

*Though I’m sure a rookie wouldn’t be assigned to guard the Prime Minister, and there is lots of classified back-up and support arrangement, but in a basic sense, it’s down to the cops.

There is no US Federal Police. We have the FBI, the Secret Service, ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms), Federal Marshalls, and probably a few others. They all have their own area of enforcements and chains of command.

How well do the elections work in practise? Do you have vigourous campaining every few years? Does everyone know who the sherrif is? Is voter turn out large? If I got a bunch of friends together, could we steal the vote and make me sherrif? Is there anyone who is barred from being sherrif?

Regulations vary between State & State, each being semi-autonamous.

However, you can usually run for the office of Sherrif if you have no criminal record, are resident in the county in question, and are an American citizen. You typically need to pay a small filing fee, & in some districts, need a petition signed by a number of registered voters to run.

Voter turnout tends to be low, unless the Department is ineffective, scandal-riddled, or has budgetary problems. Elections can get nasty if the Sherrif is challenged from within the Department, by one of his Deputies.

Oh, BTW–the Secret Service is also in charge of investigating cyber-crime.

My Brother, who works computer security for a major University & teaching hospital, got a certificate of official thanks from the Secret Service for his contribution in investigating a case.

Yes anybody, Hunter S Thompson once ran for sheriff.

From wikipedia:

Well, in larger counties the Sheriff is really more of an administrator than actual law enforcement officer. The deputies who do most of the actual work aren’t elected, AFAIK, but knowing the right people can be a help in getting hired.

They were. They’re under Homeland Security now.