Local cops and Federal cops on TV shows/movies

A lot of TV shows and movies that feature local cops always show them complaining that they have a lot of, say, murder cases, and they actively try to get out of new murder cases. But then sometimes, the FBI or DEA or some other Federal agency comes up and wants to take over the investigation, and the local cops get pissed off and don’t want to give up the investigation.

Is this an accurate portrayal of the relationship between cops and Feds? It seems to me that if I was a cop and someone wanted to take over a case, I’d be happy to let them.

See the beginning of Season 2 of The Wire for a more accurate portrayal. 22 years of police work and I’ve never been involved in a case that was unexpectedly taken over by the feds. Usually the lines of jurisdiction are clear. Most things we deal with are strictly state crimes. Bank robberies are run by the FBI. When we find counterfeit money we contact the Secret Service and they usually don’t want to get involved because we don’t have enough. The FBI can be very helpful with child porn cases and we are happy to hand them over because they usually turn out to be out of our jurisdiction.

Robert Ressler (author of Whoever Fights Monsters: My Twenty Years Tracking Serial Killers for the FBI) worked both sides of that divide, first as military police and later as an FBI agent. He said flat out that the FBI likes to let local law enforcement do all the heavy lifting, then swoop in, assert jurisdiction, and take credit for everything.

I have no idea what the reality is, but that trope always bothered me. Who in their right mind gets upset when somebody tries to make their job easier?

People who care about the job getting done right who don’t believe the newcomer will do as good of a job as them, either because they don’t understand the local situation or just because they care less or have otherwise different priorities.

The departments that get the credit are the departments that get the budget.

Those kinds of cases are few and far between. Most departments across the country will never have a case like that. The FBI can’t assert jurisdiction in most things. Most crimes are state crimes.

Local department budgets come from local property taxes. Credit in the press is meaningless when it comes to local budgets.

From what TV has taught me, what usually happens is an agent from a higher-ranking agency comes in, asks who’s in charge, and states “Not any more, you’re not!


I guess the question is when or what kinds of cases will the state police handle it vs. leaving it to the city/county department? One I’m aware of (at least in MI) is if there is an officer-involved shooting, that brings the county sheriff and state police in.

I imagine whoever pulls in that drug lord’s millions in petty cash will get to add it to their department’s budget. Or maybe they’ll just confiscate his tricked-out Escalade and put lights and sirens on it? Either way, you don’t want to let the feds just walk away with all that sweet civil asset forfeiture without putting up a fight for it. If nothing else the mayor will be pissed.

I, as a county detective, worked extensively with local DEA and FBI, mostly on narcotics cases. I would say the relationship was very good for the most part and mutually beneficial. The Feds could bring more resources to the table along with the jurisdiction to cross state lines. We had the manpower and local knowledge. We would be sworn in as federal task force officers, sometimes for a particular case and sometimes for extended task force ops that targeted an area rather than an individual or gang. Asset forfeiture was a big plus for us. If there was a large seizure, the feds generally took 10% for administrative costs and divided the rest up among the participating agencies. Sometimes we would unwittingly target and charge someone that the FBI was already investigating or using as an informant and feelings would get hurt but that was the exception and not the rule.

It will vary from state to state. In my state the State Police don’t really step in anywhere except in rural areas where they already handle things. What the county prosecutor’s office gets called in on is a matter of established procedure. They don’t sweep in and take it. They get notified by us and then come in and work it with our detectives. In places with very small departments they may have to do much more. It’s usually very cooperative.

A local department is not taking down an international drug lord. It’s not TV.

The trope does not work in real life.
Most people would welcome the help and resources.
Except in rare and extreme circumstances the roles of various agencies are defined by policy and statute long before any specific incident.

Almost nothing regarding Hollywood’s portrayal of law enforcement in general has any basis in reality. In fact, you could devote an entire thread to listing the things TV/movie cops do that real cops virtually never do.