Law enforcement in the United States

There are three main sections within the law enforcement field. Although there are many different branches, within each of the three, they mostly fall within Local, State and Federal.. While there are common responsibilities between each agencies, and although many may share apparent similarities, there are great differences in statutory responsibility (USDOJ, 2008).

One of the primary differences between law enforcement agencies is the issue of jurisdiction. Jurisdiction is considered to be the areas where the law enforcement agency has authority to arrest and enforce laws and regulations.  Although exceptions do exist, the general rule is that the scope of an agency’s responsibility rest within the intended municipality, state or geographical location.  Although all law enforcement agencies share a similar responsibility in upholding the law, each agency is focused on different aspects (Hess, 2008).

When one thinks of local law enforcement, they generally think of the word police, primarily as this is the most common type of law enforcement. According to the Bureau of Justice’s 2002 statistics, local law enforcement was the most prevalent when compared to other agencies (USDOJ, 2008)  The most common purpose of local law enforcement is to provide police services to a city or a county.

County law enforcement is merged with city law enforcement in some cases when the city and county government is combined. Local law enforcement has very broad authority to enforce all laws, codes, and ordinances, however within limited jurisdiction. Local law enforcement deals with a very small portion, and very rarely affects the country as a whole. Generally local law enforcement’s authority rest within the municipality that they serve.

A federal agent, on the other hand, has broad jurisdiction, but limited authority. This however, depends on what agency he or she works for.  Federal law enforcement deals with the entire country as a whole. Most federal law enforcement is centered around two areas, uniformed agencies, and investigative agencies which focus on specific areas (Hess, 2008).

For example, Capitol Police, whose jurisdiction is only the grounds of the capitol building, will differ from the FBI or DEA whose jurisdiction is nation-wide.  However, even within the agencies that have nationwide jurisdiction, each has different areas of focus.  While the DEA’s scope of authority rest primarily with drug related crimes, the ATF’s authority rests with alcohol, tobacco and firearms. On the other hand the Custom’s department focuses on import and export regulations. Anything outside their scope of authority will be referred to another agency (Bumgarner,2006).

State law enforcement is similar to that of local law enforcement, except on a larger scale. While local agencies are funded locally such as through property tax in the county that they serve, state law enforcement is funded by the state. The amount of state law enforcement depends upon the needs of the state. In more populated states local law enforcement agencies prevail, however the opposite is true for states with many rural area. Most state law enforcement consists of state highway patrol (State Troopers) or state police departments.

Like local law enforcement, they operate full service agencies, servicing calls, pro-active patrolling, traffic control etc. The state law enforcement may be divided up into many different specialized departments such as highway patrol or drug enforcement. These departments operate similar to the individual departments within the federal system, however within the state area (Stevens, 2008).

To some, local police, state troopers and federal agencies seem like different versions of exactly the same thing. They all enforce laws and regulations and provide protection to citizens with the same sort of procedures and responses. Although at first glance they might appear to be very similar, the intricate system that each agency is built on is distinctly different working together yet independently to solve and address the many different areas of need within the United States.


Bumgarner, J (2006) Federal Agents: The Growth of Federal Law Enforcement in America

Greenwood Publishing Group, Westport, Connecticut

Hess K (2008) Introduction to Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice

Cengage Learning, New York

IACP (2007) Enforcing Immigration Law: The Role of State, Tribal and Local

Law Enforcement. Available [Online]

Stevens, D (2008)  An Introduction to American Policing Jones and Bartlett Publishers New


US Department of Justice (2008) Law Enforcement Statistics. Available [Online]