Policing | Section 2.3

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

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State Agencies

Among the four main categories of law enforcement agencies in the United States,  state police
agencies were the last to be created. Sheriffs’ offices existed in colonial times, and the first municipal police departments appeared in the 1830s. A few federal agencies sprang up at the nation’s founding, including the U.S. Marshals Service and the Revenue Cutter Service (predecessor of today’s Customs and Border Protection), while other federal agencies were established in the 1800s, including the Secret Service (Johnson 1981). At the state level, however, only the Texas Rangers can claim continuous operation since the 1800s. Massachusetts briefly established a state police force but then disbanded it in 1875. Pennsylvania cast the modern mold when it formed its state police in 1905, with most other states following suit by the 1960s.

The first state-level law enforcement agency was the famous Texas Rangers, which was formed in 1835.  Arizona soon followed the example of Texas in establishing the Arizona Rangers. These early state police officers were tasked with dealing with outlaws and cattle rustlers.   Massachusetts briefly established a state police force but then disbanded it in 1875. Today, every state in the United States has a state-level police force with the exception of Hawaii.  The largest of these state-level agencies is the California Highway Patrol.

There were many reasons that Americans began to develop state-level law enforcement agencies, despite the general disdain for centralized power (as was discussed in the section on Federal law enforcement). Among the reasons was rampant “labor strife” in the early 1900s. Strikes and other labor actions against mining companies and railroads often took place in rural areas where the sheriff and other local police either sympathized with the workers or were simply too outnumbered to reliably protect the business owners and their property.

The usual alternatives were to employ private police or call in the National Guard, neither of which was particularly palatable or politically popular. This led to pressure to create a state-level police alternative that would, hopefully, be effective, fair, and reasonably neutral in handling conflicts between workers and business owners.

During the First World War, many National Guard units were activated and deployed overseas, leaving states without their principal resource for dealing with large-scale civil disputes and emergencies. A number of states created or expanded their state police during this period, sometimes with the intention that it would be a temporary solution until the war ended, but by then the usefulness of a state police agency had usually been demonstrated.

Another important reason for the establishment and growth of state police agencies beginning in the early 1900s was the automobile. The introduction of cars and trucks quickly led to significant traffic safety problems. Moreover, the United States then decided to build a vast highway network to take economic and social advantage of the new modes of personal and commercial transportation created by motor vehicles. The construction of state and federal highways throughout the country, often passing mainly through rural areas, created new policing responsibilities that largely fell outside the domains of sheriffs, municipal police, and federal law enforcement agencies.

Today, the jurisdictions and functions of state police vary considerably among the 50 states.   The main distinction is between state police and highway patrol, with each model taking hold in a significant number of states. In general, state police agencies have relatively broader missions and perform a wider range of police functions, such as patrolling, responding to calls, and investigating crimes. Highway patrol agencies, however, usually have more limited missions, sometimes restricted solely to state and federal highways, and consequently, their duties tend to be concentrated much more on traffic control and enforcement. Naturally, one needs to consult any particular state’s constitution and statutes to determine the precise mission, authority, and jurisdiction of their state police or highway patrol agency.

One of the major purposes of the state police in most jurisdictions is to provide patrol services, especially on remote highways where local law enforcement is sparse.  State police are often called upon to aid local law enforcement in criminal investigations that are complex or cross local jurisdictional lines. Often they are responsible for maintaining centralized criminal records for the state, operating crime labs, and training local officers.

State police/highway patrol agencies represent a relatively small slice of the entire policing system in the United States, accounting for less than 7% of the nation’s full-time sworn law enforcement officers.

Support Services

An important consideration regarding state police functions is that many state police agencies provide a wide range of support services to other law enforcement agencies as well as to residents in their states. It is common for state police agencies to operate state crime labs, statewide law enforcement information systems, criminal record and criminal history repositories, firearm registries, sex offender registries, Amber Alert systems, fusion centers, and similar support activities.

In some states, the state police also provide or oversee police academies and police training. Typically, these support functions are assigned to the state police by governors or state legislatures, whether in response to federal mandates or to state-level initiatives. Frequently, they take the form of unfunded mandates, adding responsibility while effectively reducing the resources available to the agency for general-purpose policing throughout the state.


State police often assist smaller local agencies with serious criminal and internal investigations, complex traffic crash investigations, special event security, dignitary protection, and critical incident (SWAT) response. State police are also sometimes assigned to assist specific local jurisdictions experiencing emergencies or crises, such as Detroit, Michigan, and Oakland, California in recent years. Post-9/11, many state police agencies were assigned additional homeland security-related responsibilities, including serving as lead state agencies for intelligence analysis and information sharing, counterterrorism operations, and fusion centers. Additionally, during the last decade, state police have been expected to fill niches and gaps previously covered by federal law enforcement agencies, such as assisting local agencies with cybercrime and white-collar crime investigations when those federal agencies were required to shift their focus more toward counterterrorism.

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.

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