Policing | Section 2.4

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

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Local Agencies

In the United States today, there is a Hollywood generated myth that the federal government does a major fraction of the law enforcement workload.  This is not true. The vast majority of criminal cases are generated by local agencies such as sheriffs’ departments and local police departments.  To understand policing in the United States, you must first understand the concept of local government.  By process of elimination, we can define a local government as any governmental entity that cannot be identified as federal or state government.  Local control of government services is a long-standing tradition in the United States, and policing services fall under that umbrella.

The BJS defines a local law enforcement officer as “an employee of a local law enforcement agency who is an officer sworn to carry out law enforcement duties.”  The defining characteristic of such officers is the power of arrest “while acting within the scope of explicit legal authority.” Examples of this class are sheriffs, deputy sheriffs, chiefs of police, city police officers, and sworn personnel of law enforcement subunits of port and transit authorities.  While some departments employ part-time officers, most local officers are full time, permanent employees of a local government entity. When part-time officers are encountered, it is usually in rural communities with relatively small populations.

Sheriffs’ Offices

According to the BJS (Burch, 20012), an estimated 3,012 sheriffs’ offices performing law enforcement functions in the United States employed 369,084 sworn and civilian personnel.  Sheriffs’ offices represented approximately a fifth of the estimated 15,600 general-purpose law enforcement agencies operating in the United States. Although sheriffs’ offices may have countywide responsibilities related to jail operation, process serving, and court security, their law enforcement jurisdictions typically exclude county areas served by a local police department.  In certain counties, municipalities contract with the sheriffs’ office for law enforcement services. Large agencies (employing 100 or more sworn personnel) represented about 12% of all sheriffs’ offices but employed nearly two-thirds (65%) of all full-time sworn personnel.

Local Police Departments

About half of local police departments employed fewer than 10 sworn personnel, and about three-fourths served a population of less than 10,000.  In 2007, about 1 in 8 local police officers were women, compared to 1 in 13 in 1987. About 1 in 4 officers were members of a racial or ethnic minority in 2007, compared to 1 in 6 officers in 1987.  In 2007, more than 4 in 5 local police officers were employed by a department that used physical agility tests (86%) and written aptitude tests (82%) in the hiring process, and more than 3 in 5 by one that used personality inventories (66%).

The phrase “local police” conjures up images of small towns and small police departments.  It must be understood that the term “local” means that an agency is not federal or state; it cannot be interpreted to mean that the agency is small.  In fact, most local law enforcement officers work for very large departments. Both academic research and media attention have a “big-city focus.”

Auxiliary and Reserve Officers

In the world of policing, human resources are the most valuable asset that an agency has.  Often, financial resources are insufficient to provide communities with a sufficient number of officers to accomplish the agency’s objectives.  This gap in services is often filled by volunteers that work less than full time, often unpaid. What such officers are called varies between jurisdictions.  The two most common designations are auxiliary officers and reserve officers.  

What law enforcement powers these individuals have varies by jurisdiction and state laws.  In the early days, a major problem with reserve officers was a lack of training and insufficient background checking.  This situation has dramatically improved in recent decades as states have passed laws and administrative regulations that require reserve officers to receive a similar level of training and vetting as full-time officers.  In California, for example, reserve officers must complete the same academy training as full-time officers. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Arkansas reserve officers are only required to complete a fraction of the training that full-time officers undergo, and this is usually done in special “reserve training” courses.

The major purpose of reserve officers (as with part-time officers) is to provide a heightened level of police services with a minimal expenditure.  Often, departments find that the need for officers spikes during specific periods of time, such as at fairs and festivals. Extra human resources are often needed when natural and manmade disasters strike, such as with wildfires, tornadoes, and floods.  Another important aspect of the reserve systems of many law enforcement agencies is the ability to leverage the expertise of the community at a low cost. For example, some departments have aviation units composed of reserve officers. The LAPD has a “Motion Picture Unit” mostly staffed by reserve officers.

Agency Organization

Since there are so many different law enforcement agencies in many disparate jurisdictions across the country, it is impossible to make precise, general statements about how police organizations are structured.  Police management experts often separate agencies into divisions based on the tasks for which a particular group is responsible. The three most commonly used divisions are operations, staff, and auxiliary.  The operations division is often divided into primary and secondary components.  

Primary line functions consist of the patrol division and their generalist police work.  Secondary line functions are performed by more specialized units such as traffic, investigations, and vice.  Staff functions serve to assist line functions by creating and assisting better personnel. Recruitment, selection, promotion, training, and planning are all staff functions.  Auxiliary services should not be confused with auxiliary (reserve) officers.  As a subdivision of a police department, auxiliary services provide technical and supportive functions for the department.  

Detention, records, and evidence storage are examples of auxiliary functions.  While primary line functions (patrol) is often touted as the “backbone” of the police department, no department’s mission can be accomplished without auxiliary and staff functions being performed.  Some police activities, such as community relations, do not fall neatly into any one of these traditional categories. The rise of community policing has further blurred the lines.

Traditionally, police departments have divided officers into groups by task, constituting divisions of work.  This is necessary for organizational, management, and evaluation efforts to be efficient.  Such divisions can be made in several ways, but the most common is to consider the purpose (as opposed to methods, times, areas, etc.) of several officers working together to achieve a common goal.  By far, the most common system to organize officers into divisions based on the particular category of crime that those officers are tasked with resolving.  As a general rule, the larger the department, the more such divisions are likely to be present. Common examples are homicide, vice, accident reconstruction, and property crimes.  Most departments require that officers attain veteran status with a good service record before moving into a specialized division. In most departments, everyone starts out in the patrol division.

Key Terms

References and Further Reading


Modification History

File Created:  08/15/2018

Last Modified:  02/21/2019

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This work is licensed under an Open Educational Resource-Quality Master Source (OER-QMS) License.

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


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