Section 2.4: Local Agencies

Fundamentals of Policing by Adam J. McKee

Contrary to what movies might show, in the United States, it’s not the federal government that handles most law enforcement duties; it’s actually local agencies. This means your local police and sheriff’s departments are the real heroes in keeping our communities safe. To get a clearer picture, let’s dive into what “local government” means. Essentially, it’s any government body that isn’t part of the state or federal government. Local government is like your community’s own team, handling services close to home, including policing.

What Makes a Local Law Enforcement Officer?

According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), a local law enforcement officer is someone employed by a local agency, like your city’s police department or county’s sheriff’s office. These officers are sworn in, meaning they’ve taken an oath, to perform law enforcement duties. A key part of their role is the power to arrest people, but only when they’re acting within their legal rights.

You might see different kinds of local law enforcement officers around your town or city. These include sheriffs, deputy sheriffs, police chiefs, city police officers, and even officers working for specific places like ports or transit systems. While some areas, especially smaller or rural communities, might have part-time officers, most local officers are full-time, dedicated members of the local government.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

Think about your local community. Can you identify different types of local law enforcement officers and their roles? How do they contribute to the safety and well-being of your area?

Sheriffsโ€™ Offices

The Role and Scale of Sheriffs’ Offices

When we discuss law enforcement in the United States, sheriffs’ offices deserve significant attention. These agencies play a vital role in maintaining public safety across the country. According to the latest data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), there are 3,081 sheriff’s offices in the United States, employing around 375,574 people. This workforce comprises both sworn officers and civilian staff.

To put this into perspective, sheriff’s offices constitute roughly 17.2% of all general-purpose law enforcement agencies in the nation. This means that nearly one in five law enforcement agencies in the U.S. falls under the umbrella of a sheriff’s office.

These statistics highlight the substantial footprint of sheriffs’ offices within the American law enforcement landscape. They represent a sizable and crucial segment of the workforce responsible for safeguarding communities across the country.

What Do Sheriffs’ Offices Do?

Sheriffs’ offices have a range of responsibilities. While they might handle things like running jails, serving court documents, and ensuring court security, their main job is law enforcement. But here’s an interesting point: their law enforcement duties usually don’t cover areas that already have a local police department. In some counties, though, towns and cities might actually hire the sheriffโ€™s office to provide law enforcement services.

Big and Small Sheriffs’ Offices

There’s quite a variety in the size of sheriffs’ offices. About 12% of these offices are considered large, meaning they have 100 or more sworn officers. Even though they’re a small portion of the total number of offices, these larger ones employ around two-thirds (65%) of all full-time sworn officers in sheriffs’ offices nationwide.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

How do you think the size of a sheriffs’ office might affect its operations and the services it provides to the community? Consider the difference between a large office with many officers and a smaller, local one.

Local Police Departments

The Size and Scope of Local Police Departments

When we imagine local police, iconic images of small-town cruisers and familiar faces spring to mind. But this snapshot only captures a sliver of the diverse and dynamic reality of local law enforcement in the United States. While it’s true that nearly half of all local police departments (around 47%) operate with less than 10 sworn officers, serving communities often under 10,000 residents, this by no means defines the entirety of local policing. In fact, the term “local” itself masks a spectrum of sizes, structures, and responsibilities.

Beyond the picturesque rural stations, a significant chunk of local police forces operate within larger metropolitan areas, serving populations exceeding hundreds of thousands. Take the Los Angeles Police Department, with over 12,000 sworn officers, or the Chicago Police Department, boasting a force of nearly 18,000. These giants of local law enforcement illustrate the fact that being “local” doesn’t equate to small-scale operations.

This size disparity is just one facet of the multifaceted world of local police. The responsibilities entrusted to these departments vary greatly across jurisdictions. In some rural areas, local police might be the primary law enforcement presence, handling everything from traffic patrols and crime investigations to community engagement and school resource officer duties. In contrast, urban areas often have specialized units within their local police departments, dedicated to tasks like K-9 patrols, narcotics investigations, or SWAT operations.

Further complicating this intricate landscape is the patchwork quilt of funding and oversight. Local police departments can receive funding from various sources, including municipal budgets, state grants, and federal initiatives. This can lead to disparities in resources and equipment, impacting the capabilities and effectiveness of different departments. Moreover, oversight structures vary, with some local police falling under the purview of elected officials, while others answer to independent boards or commissions.

Changes in Diversity and Hiring Practices

While the image of a local police officer may have remained rooted in a certain mold for generations, the reality behind the badge has undergone a significant transformation. The past few decades have witnessed a notable shift in the makeup of local police departments, paving the way for a more diverse and inclusive force.

Gender Parity on the Rise

Back in 1987, women were a rare sight in local police stations, making up only about 7.7% of sworn officers. However, this landscape drastically changed within a generation. By 2007, the percentage of female officers had nearly doubled to 12.5%, and the trend continues upward. This progress signifies a crucial step towards gender parity within local law enforcement, ensuring a wider range of perspectives and experiences are represented at every level.

Embracing Racial and Ethnic Diversity

The diversification of local police forces extends beyond gender. In 1987, only 16.7% of officers belonged to a racial or ethnic minority. Yet, by 2007, this number had jumped to 25.1%, reflecting a growing commitment to inclusivity and representation. This shift is particularly significant in light of the historically strained relationships between certain communities and law enforcement. Having officers who share the backgrounds and experiences of the communities they serve can foster trust and understanding, paving the way for stronger police-community relations.

Challenges and Ongoing Efforts

While these advancements are commendable, the journey towards a truly representative and inclusive local police force is far from over. Disparities in recruitment, promotion, and retention persist, particularly for women and certain minority groups. Additionally, ensuring diversity is not simply a matter of numbers; it requires addressing implicit biases and fostering a culture of cultural sensitivity within departments.

The ongoing efforts to diversify local police departments represent a crucial step towards a more just and equitable society. By embracing these changes and acknowledging the challenges that remain, we can continue to build a future where local police forces truly reflect the communities they serve.

When it comes to hiring new officers, most local police departments are pretty thorough. More than 80% use physical agility tests and written aptitude tests as part of their hiring process. Additionally, over 60% use personality inventories to evaluate potential new officers.

Big City Focus in Academia and Media

Both academic research and media coverage often emphasize the work of police departments in larger cities. This big-city focus can sometimes overshadow the important work done by smaller, local police departments in maintaining public safety.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

How do you think the size of a police department and the community it serves might influence the types of challenges it faces? Consider the differences between a small, local police department and a larger city department.

Valuable Volunteers in Law Enforcement

In the world of law enforcement, people are the most important resource. Sometimes, there aren’t enough funds to hire as many officers as a community needs. That’s where auxiliary and reserve officers come in. These volunteers, often working part-time and sometimes without pay, play a crucial role in supporting their communities. Different places might call them different names, but “auxiliary officers” and “reserve officers” are the most common terms.

Training and Legal Authority

The kind of power and duties these volunteers have can change a lot depending on where they are and the state laws. In the past, a big issue with reserve officers was not having enough training or proper background checks. However, that’s changed a lot. Now, many states require reserve officers to get training and vetting similar to full-time officers. For instance, in California, reserve officers go through the same academy training as full-time officers. On the other hand, in Arkansas, reserve officers only need to complete a part of the training, often in special courses designed for them.

Why Are Reserve Officers Important?

The main goal of having reserve officers is to boost police presence and services without spending a lot of money. Sometimes, there’s a sudden need for more officers, like during festivals or emergencies like wildfires and floods. Reserve officers are perfect for these situations. They also bring unique skills and expertise from the community into the police force. For example, some police departments have special units, like aviation squads, made up of reserve officers. The Los Angeles Police Department even has a “Motion Picture Unit” mostly staffed by reserve officers, showcasing how diverse their roles can be.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

Consider how auxiliary and reserve officers contribute to the overall effectiveness of a law enforcement agency. What do you think are the benefits and challenges of incorporating volunteers into policing?

Agency Organization

Diverse Organization Across Agencies

Law enforcement agencies in the United States are as varied as the communities they serve, which means there’s no one-size-fits-all structure for these organizations. However, experts in police management often categorize the different parts of an agency into three main divisions: operations, staff, and auxiliary.

Understanding the Divisions

  1. Operations Division: This is typically split into primary and secondary components. The primary line functions are your generalist police work, like the patrol division, which is often considered the backbone of a police department. Secondary line functions include specialized units such as traffic, investigations, and vice.
  2. Staff Functions: These functions support the line functions by focusing on personnel management. They deal with recruitment, selection, promotion, training, and planning. They are crucial in building a strong team within the department.
  3. Auxiliary Services: This should not be confused with auxiliary (reserve) officers. As a part of the department, auxiliary services provide technical and supportive functions, such as detention, maintaining records, and evidence storage.

While patrol is often highlighted as the core of a police department, the missions of these agencies cannot be accomplished without the crucial support of auxiliary and staff functions. Additionally, some police activities, like community relations, don’t fit neatly into these categories, especially with the increasing focus on community policing.

Division by Task and Specialization

Police departments typically divide officers based on the tasks they perform, which helps in organization, management, and evaluation. The most common way to do this is by the category of crime they deal with. For example, there are divisions like homicide, vice, accident reconstruction, and property crimes. Generally, in larger departments, you’ll find more of these specialized divisions. Officers usually start their careers in the patrol division and may move into specialized divisions as they gain experience and a good service record.

๐Ÿ” Reflect

How do you think the structure of a law enforcement agency impacts its efficiency and effectiveness in serving the community? Consider how the different divisions work together to achieve the overall goals of public safety and law enforcement.

Roles in the Operations Division

What is the Operations Division?

In any law enforcement agency, the operations division is where the action happens. It’s the frontline of policing, where officers are directly involved in day-to-day activities to ensure public safety. This division is critical because it’s where most of the visible police work occurs, the kind you see when officers are patrolling the streets or responding to incidents.

Primary Line Functions: The Patrol Division

The heart of the operations division is the patrol division. These are the officers you most commonly see around your neighborhood or city, patrolling the streets, responding to emergency calls, and ensuring law and order. They’re the generalists in police work, handling a wide range of duties from enforcing laws to providing first response in emergencies. It’s their job to be the first on the scene, whether it’s a traffic accident, a burglary, or a community event.

Secondary Line Functions: Specialized Units

While the patrol division handles a broad spectrum of police work, there are specialized units that focus on specific types of crime or issues. These might include:

  • Traffic Units: Focused on road safety, handling everything from traffic violations to serious road accidents.
  • Investigations: These units take over after the initial response, diving deeper into crimes like theft, assault, or more complex cases.
  • Vice Units: Specialized in dealing with crimes like illegal gambling, narcotics, and other vice-related activities.

Each of these units has officers trained in specific areas, equipped to handle the unique challenges of their particular field. They work closely with the patrol division, supporting and supplementing the generalist work with their specialized knowledge and skills.

The Importance of Operations in Community Safety

The operations division, with its mix of generalist and specialist roles, is essential in maintaining public safety and order. By having a division dedicated to active policing and emergency response, law enforcement agencies ensure that they’re always ready to serve and protect the community.


In the United States, most law enforcement duties are not managed by the federal government, as often depicted in movies, but by local agencies like police and sheriff’s departments. These local bodies play a crucial role in ensuring community safety. A local law enforcement officer, as defined by the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS), is a sworn official working for a local agency, such as a city police department or county sheriff’s office, and is authorized to perform duties like arrests within their legal jurisdiction.

Local law enforcement officers vary in roles and include sheriffs, deputy sheriffs, police chiefs, city police officers, and those working in specialized areas like ports or transit systems. Most officers in these roles are full-time employees, though part-time officers are more common in smaller or rural communities.

Sheriffs’ offices, accounting for about one-fifth of all U.S. law enforcement agencies, have diverse responsibilities extending beyond law enforcement to managing jails, serving court documents, and ensuring court security. Their jurisdiction typically excludes areas with a local police department, but they may provide services under contract in certain counties. Large sheriff’s offices, although fewer in number, employ the majority of full-time sworn personnel.

Local police departments exhibit significant diversity in size and scope. About half of these departments employ fewer than 10 sworn officers, and most serve populations under 10,000. There has been a notable increase in diversity and changes in hiring practices over the years. For instance, the proportion of women officers and officers from racial or ethnic minority groups has risen since the 1980s. Hiring processes in these departments are thorough, often involving physical agility and written aptitude tests, as well as personality inventories.

Auxiliary and reserve officers, often volunteers working part-time or without pay, fill critical gaps in law enforcement resources. Their training and legal authority vary by jurisdiction, with some states requiring similar training and vetting as full-time officers. These officers play a key role during specific periods of increased demand, such as festivals or natural disasters, and can bring specialized skills to the force.

Law enforcement agencies in the U.S. are organized into various divisions based on tasks and responsibilities. The operations division, split into primary (e.g., patrol) and secondary (e.g., traffic, investigations, vice) functions, is the frontline of policing. Staff functions focus on personnel management, including recruitment and training, while auxiliary services provide technical and supportive functions like detention and records management. Specialized units within these departments address specific crime categories, with officers generally starting in the patrol division before moving into specialized roles.

The structure and organization of these agencies significantly impact their efficiency and effectiveness in serving the community, with each division playing a vital role in ensuring public safety and law enforcement.

Key Terms

References and Further Reading

Modification History

File Created:ย  08/15/2018

Last Modified:ย  12/13/2023

[ Back | Content | Next]

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

Open Education Resource--Quality Master Source License


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.