Tales from the Man who would be King

Rex Jaeschke's Personal Blog

Law Enforcement in the US

© 2019 Rex Jaeschke. All rights reserved.

I arrived in the US in August 1979. Like many other immigrants, I'd seen a lot of American movies and TV shows showing various law enforcement officers. Everyone seemed to have guns (with a spare in an ankle holster), there was a high body count each episode, and for detective shows, the whole story was completed in 45 minutes. And very rarely was it that the good guys didn't win! Oh, and most importantly, the cops ate doughnuts, lots of them! However, once I settled into life in that great—crime-free NOT—city of Chicago, and followed the local, state, and national news, not surprisingly, I found that things were much more complicated than that.

In this essay, I'll outline some of the layers of law enforcement I've discovered in my nearly 40 years in the US, and I'll talk a bit about court systems.

My Background with Law Enforcement

I was born in, and for 25 years lived in, the state of South Australia. Australia has two kinds of police: State and Federal. However, as I never went through a federal point of entry until I left in 1979, I never had any contact with Federal police. The South Australian Police force was (and still is) an agency of the state government, headed by a Commissioner (a non-political, permanent department head) who reports to an elected Cabinet Minister.

To be a policeman in my state, one had to attend the Fort Largs Police Academy fulltime for three years. During that period, cadets were trained in all aspects of policing and some law, and they rode around with officers to get on-the-job training. On graduation, they could be posted to any police station in the state (which is about the size of France and Germany combined), and throughout their careers, they could be moved anywhere in that state.

Until about 20 years ago, SA police did not carry guns. [If you watch movies or TV shows from the British Commonwealth countries, the only police that typically are armed are SWAT-like teams. But then again, way fewer citizens can own—indeed, want to own—guns.]

When I got my driving license at 16, the theory and practical tests were administered at a state police station by a policeman. (That process has since been taken over by the state's Motor Vehicle Department.)

My home-town police station had four or five officers headed by a sergeant, a few administrative staff, and some holding cells. Police patrolled in cars or a "dog box", a pickup truck (AU: ute) with a camper-van-like unit on the back, which was lockable.

During my teen years, I did have a couple of encounters with police, one of which I'll mention here. I was walking home from my girlfriend's house around 1 am, along a major road, and I was in the gutter with my thumb out trying to hitch a ride. Unbeknown to me, a patrol car quietly came up behind me, and two officers "wanted a word with me." As you might expect, they didn't much care for any lip from a young lad, so they gave me a ticket for "walking on a roadway where there was a footpath provided." And, so began my career in crime! [When it came time for me to apply for US citizenship, I had to document my criminal past; however, on inquiry, I was told that they were only interested in felonies, not misdemeanors; phew! And just in case you think I'm descended from convicts, I tell people, "No, I'm descended from the Prussian immigrants who were brought out to guard said offenders!"]

Chicago, Here I come!

This city was where I had my "baptism of fire" in the US, for 12 months in 1979–1980. Despite all the crime that went on during that time, only once did I see serious police activity. One day, I was looking out the window of my high-rise Federal Government building downtown when I saw several patrol cars pull up 10 floors below, officers drew weapons, and they went down into a subway station. I never did find out what was going on.

A couple of things I remember were the three-wheel motorcycles some police rode, and how overweight some of the officers were. A sketch from a local comedy club show had an overweight-and-out-of-shape policeman trying to chase a crook, shooting him, and then yelling, "Freeze!"

During that year, a big scandal broke. Apparently, some officers would park their cruisers, leave them unlocked, and then walk off. By prearrangement, a gang of thieves came along and ripped out all the communications equipment, which they subsequently sold back to the Police Department through some front organization! Now is that entrepreneurial, or what!

Not having a car, I rented one for a weekend getaway with a friend. In suburban Chicago, the Police stopped us. We didn't ask them why, but we figured there were two likely reasons: We were driving a rental car that happened to have out-of-state plates (which raised the chances it might be stolen), and we were a black guy and a white guy traveling together, so we were probably up to no-good!

According to Wikipedia, "The Chicago Police Department is … the second-largest municipal police department in the United States, behind only the New York City Police Department." It also says, "The United States Department of Justice has criticized the Chicago Police Department for its poor training, lack of oversight, and routine use of excessive force."

A Bit of US History

The move by Europeans to what is now the US started out as a few and then many separate groups of people seeking a better life, often with respect to religious freedom, the ability to own land, and to succeed on one's own merits. They formed small then large communities, and created their own systems of government. Eventually, large governmental areas were created, but the local communities wanted to keep control of law enforcement, education, and such, rather than give that up to a county, state, or federal government. To that end, the US Constitution is quite short, and any rights it doesn't claim for the Federal government, belong to the states, whose own state constitutions often have similar wording, leaving many rights to local government. As a result, there are separate law enforcement agencies at all levels of government.

As one might expect, a local law cannot override a state law, which in turn cannot override a federal law, but each level of law enforcement can enforce laws as created by their corresponding governments. So, if a state has numerous counties (as they do) there are the federal laws, the laws of the 50 states and several federal territories, and at least 5,000 sets of county and town laws and their separate enforcers!

Local Law Enforcement

I live in the rural half of Loudoun County, Virginia, one of the most affluent counties in the US. Many residents in that county are serviced by county law enforcement, but one very large and a few quite small towns have their own police forces. One of the small ones is Purcellville, a town of about 9,000 residents, an hour west of the national capital, Washington DC. It has around 15 officers, and I live just outside the town limits. Although the town has uniformed officers, it doesn't have detectives, and major crimes are handled with support from county and state services. In fact, if town residents dial the emergency number, 911, that is handled by a county law-enforcement dispatcher.

But, of course, not all neighboring law enforcement jurisdictions get along! What happens if a town policeman is pursuing a suspect, who leaves the town limits and goes into a neighboring town, county, or state?

The Purcellville police chief is appointed by, and supervised by, the town council, which is headed by a mayor. [After a major investigation that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and during which the police chief was on paid-suspension for about a year, she was exonerated of all charges and has resumed her job.]

Contrast this with my previous place of residence, the unincorporated town of Reston in neighboring Fairfax County, Virginia. Reston has a population of around 65,000, but it does not have its own police force; instead, it uses that from the parent county.

So, when I say "local" law enforcement, I mean, "the lowest unit of local government", be it a 1,000-person town, a 65,000-person city, or a mega-city like Chicago or New York.

Interestingly, the borders of a number of towns around America include a small section (perhaps as little as a half mile/kilometer) of a major road or even an interstate highway. As such, a major source of revenue for such a town's coffers could come from tickets given to motorists speeding by, possibly without their knowing the town even exists!

Regional Law Enforcement

I lived for 30-odd years in Fairfax County where the "regular" law enforcement agency is the Fairfax County Police Department. However, this does not do all the policing for that county. Specifically, law enforcement within the county's court system is handled by the Fairfax County Sheriff's Office. Here in Loudoun County, the law enforcement agency is the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office, which handles public and court policing. All officers are called deputies, not policemen/women. The sheriffs in both counties are elected, while the Fairfax County Chief-of-Police is not.

Sadly, pretty much all middle schools (grades 6–8) and high schools (grades 9–12) in these counties have a full- or half-time county law-enforcement officer on-site. Some of them have drug-sniffing dogs. Gangs and drugs are big problems in parts of both counties. Some schools even require students and their bags to go through metal detectors/screening devices!

State Police/Troopers

As best as I can tell, these all seem to wear what are called campaign hats! They definitely look smart in their uniforms.

So, if a state is made up entirely of counties, cities, and incorporated towns, which are policing their territories, what's left for the state police to do? Here's an example: Roads in Virginia designated as "state highways" are patrolled by state police. Route 7 is a major highway that runs through my county and right alongside my town. One state trooper I spoke to spends his whole shift driving back and forth along the western half of that highway, dealing with motorist-related problems such as breaking the law, accidents, and broken-down vehicles.

And just as county police help police in towns in their county, state police can help county and town police. Each such relationship has its own protocol as to when it's okay to call in a "higher" authority.

State police are typically used in protection details for the state's top elected official, the governor, and sometimes other civic leaders and ranking politicians or visiting dignitaries.

Several of the better-known state police groups are the Texas Rangers (think Chuck Norris and the TV show, Walker: Texas Ranger) and the California Highway Patrol (think the TV show ChiPs). [When Arnold Schwarzenegger was Governor of California, I toured the State Capitol in Sacramento. And there right outside the door to the Governor's office suite was a CHP officer, standing guard. I smiled at him before entering, and inside the receptionist gave me one of the Governor's business cards.]

For more details than you could possibly want about state police, click here.

Federal Police: FBI

According to Wikipedia, "the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the domestic intelligence and security service of the United States, and its principal federal law enforcement agency." Historically, it has been part of the Department of Justice. It, "has jurisdiction over violations of more than 200 categories of federal crimes."

The FBI gets involved with crimes that cross state borders, which cannot otherwise be handled by state or local authorities. The FBI is also involved in some crimes within a state, such as kidnapping and bank robbery.

The FBI has agents in various US embassies and gets involved in certain US-related crimes. Examples include the bombing of the USS Cole and attacks on US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. [Security at US embassies and consulates is provided by the US Marines.]

Almost certainly the best-known FBI leader was J. Edgar Hoover.

Federal Police: Immigration and Borders

According to Wikipedia, "The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is a law enforcement agency of the federal government of the United States tasked to enforce the immigration laws of the United States and to investigate criminal and terrorist activity of foreign nationals residing in the United States." ICE is part of the (massive) Department of Homeland Security.

"U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is the largest federal law enforcement agency of the United States Department of Homeland Security, and is the country's primary border control organization. It is charged with regulating and facilitating international trade, collecting import duties, and enforcing U.S. regulations, including trade, customs, and immigration."

Federal Police: DEA

According to Wikipedia, "The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is a United States federal law enforcement agency under the United States Department of Justice, tasked with combating drug smuggling and distribution within the United States."

Federal Police: ATF

According to Wikipedia, "The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF) is a federal law enforcement organization within the United States Department of Justice. Its responsibilities include the investigation and prevention of federal offenses involving the unlawful use, manufacture, and possession of firearms and explosives; acts of arson and bombings; and illegal trafficking of alcohol and tobacco products."

Unfortunately, ATF might best be known for the disastrous outcome of the Waco Siege of the Branch Davidian sect in 1993.

Federal Police: Secret Service

Think "Secret Service" and you probably think "protection of the US President". However, that is just one of their jobs, and it wasn't their first. In fact, it wasn't until 1902 (after three Presidents has been assassinated) that the protection aspect was added.

According to Wikipedia, "The United States Secret Service is a federal law enforcement agency under the United States Department of Homeland Security, charged with conducting criminal investigations and protecting the nation's leaders. Until 2003, the Service was part of the U.S. Department of the Treasury, as the agency was originally founded to combat the then-widespread counterfeiting of U.S. currency."

Federal Police: US Post Office

According to Wikipedia, "The United States Postal Inspection Service (USPIS) is the law enforcement arm of the United States Postal Service. Its jurisdiction is defined as "crimes that may adversely affect or fraudulently use the U.S. Mail, the postal system or postal employees." The mission of the U.S. Postal Inspection Service is to support and protect the U.S. Postal Service, its employees, infrastructure, and customers by enforcing the laws that defend the nation's mail system from illegal or dangerous use."

Federal Police: IRS

You've probably heard the old adage, "The only things certain in life are death and taxes!" Well, if you don't pay Federal taxes to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), they will hunt you down!

Federal Police: US Park Service

According to Wikipedia, "The United States Park Police (USPP) is one of the oldest uniformed federal law enforcement agencies in the United States. It functions as a full-service law enforcement agency with responsibilities and jurisdiction in those National Park Service areas primarily located in the Washington, D.C., San Francisco, and New York City areas and certain other government lands. The United States Park Police is one of the few full-service police departments in the federal government that possess both state and federal authority. In addition to performing the normal crime prevention, investigation, and apprehension functions of an urban police force, the Park Police are responsible for policing many of the famous monuments in the United States."

So, when a depressed veteran commits suicide at or near the Vietnam Memorial in the heart of Washington DC, that's handled by the Park Police. In some parks, Park Police are mounted on horses and/or armed. Not only might they have to deal with aggressive, large animals (think bears and mountain lions), they might also encounter armed people tending and defending their marijuana gardens grown on Federal government land!

Capitol Police

The US Capitol is the area enclosing the Capitol building housing the Senate and House of Representatives, and their nearby office buildings. According to Wikipedia, "The United States Capitol Police (USCP) is a federal law enforcement agency charged with protecting the United States Congress within the District of Columbia and throughout the United States and its territories. The USCP is the only full-service federal law enforcement agency responsible to the legislative branch of the U.S. government."

A number of states also have separate police departments for their state capitols.

Military Police

Now if you are in the military and fall foul of the law, some sort of military law-enforcement group will be involved. (Think the TV shows JAG and NCIS, and the well-known military prison Leavenworth.)

The National Guard

According to Wikipedia, "The United States National Guard, part of the reserve components of the United States Armed Forces, is a reserve military force, composed of National Guard military members or units of each state and the territories of Guam, the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia …" Basically, each State or Territorial Governor has this militia that can be used in an emergency. The US President can also activate the National Guard of a state. This is typically done after a large hurricane or tornado devastates an area, or there is extensive flooding or fires. Unfortunately, such situations lead to looting and other illegal activities, and the Guard is used in police roles as well as for rescue.

An infamous event involving the Ohio National Guard was the Kent State shootings, in which four unarmed university students were killed by guardsmen.

University Campus Police

Many universities have their own police forces, and their officers are often armed. During the third and fourth years of his bachelor's degree, my son was a resident advisor, and in exchange for free room and meals, he was responsible for the well-being of some 25 students who lived in his building. At times, he had to report incidents (such as underage drinking and bringing a handgun on campus) to the campus police. While serious offences might lead to charges with the local police, lesser offences are usually dealt with in-house, often by student councils.

Miscellaneous Topics

Hunting is big in the US, but you'd better carry a license with you along with appropriate permits to hunt certain animals, such as deer, moose, or bear. Such things are typically enforced by a game warden who is part of the local government or state Parks and Recreation Department.

From 1919–1933, there was a nationwide ban on the production, importation, transportation, and sale of alcoholic beverages. This was known as Prohibition, which was enforced by the U.S. Treasury Department's Bureau of Prohibition, whose most famous agent was Elliot Ness.

As you've no doubt seen in movies, a mayor might personally control the local police chief. At the local level there certainly is plenty of opportunity for corruption. And oftentimes, local force officers might get little formal training. Law enforcement can be used as a political tool!

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) is not a law enforcement authority, but rather is focused on intelligence collection abroad.

With the myriad of law enforcement groups and the sometimes-loose laws regarding firearm ownership, there is an on-going debate about gun sales at gun shows with respect to background checks.

When the Summer Olympics were held in Los Angeles in 1984, the events spanned a large area and covered the jurisdictions of more than a few local law-enforcement groups. Because those groups had different and incompatible communications equipment, an officer in one area had to radio a dispatcher who patched them through to a dispatcher in another area, who then radioed an agent there, so the two agents could speak!

There are many "private armies" in the US, from banks, to casinos, to shopping malls, to personal security.

Some Native American reservations are recognized as sovereign nations. As such, they may well have their own legal system and Tribal Police to enforce it. "The Bureau of Indian Affairs Police, usually known as the BIA Police, is the law enforcement arm of the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs which polices Indian tribes and reservations that do not have their own police force, and oversees other tribal police organizations."

According to Wikipedia, "The United States Coast Guard (USCG) is a branch of the United States Armed Forces and one of the country's seven uniformed services. The Coast Guard is a maritime, military, multi-mission service unique among the U.S. military branches for having a maritime law enforcement mission (with jurisdiction in both domestic and international waters) and a federal regulatory agency mission as part of its mission set. It operates under the U.S. Department of Homeland Security during peacetime, and can be transferred to the U.S. Department of the Navy by the U.S. President at any time, or by the U.S. Congress during times of war." So, break the law when you are out cruising in your yacht, and you might get a visit!

For even more information on law enforcement in the United States, click here.

Comments (2) -

  • Tom MacDonald

    4/25/2019 7:29:48 PM | Reply

    Why, just today I was riding my bicycle past the Minneapolis Federal Reserve Building when I rode by a police car that was marked "Federal Reserve Police."  I didn't know that the Federal Reserve had their own police force.  I knew they had guards inside but I didn't think it qualified as a police force.

    • Rex Jaeschke

      4/28/2019 7:23:02 AM | Reply

      Thanks Tom; that's news to me as well. According to Wikipedia, "The U.S. Federal Reserve Police is the law enforcement unit of the Federal Reserve System, the central banking system of the United States. ... Federal Reserve officers have the same authority as any other federal law enforcement officer while on duty, regardless of their geographic location."