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Police Departments

Police departments are made up of a number of different offices and titled positions.

Police departments in large cities cover several precincts. [©Jupiter Images, 2010]
©Jupiter Images, 2010
Police departments in large cities cover several precincts.

Police Departments

A typical large city police department is organized into geographic districts patrolled by uniformed officers who either work alone or with a partner.

According to the Fraternal Order of Police, hallmarks of police departments can include:

  • Promoting and fostering the enforcement of law and order
  • Continually improving the efficiency of department members in the performance of their duties
  • Encouraging department-sponsored charitable activities within the community
  • Establishing the confidence of the public in law enforcement services

Sheriff's Departments

Sheriff's departments are structured similarly to police departments. Sheriff's departments run county jails, police parts of a county not inside a city's borders, and issue certain licenses and permits. Sheriffs are usually elected to their posts and perform similar duties to a local or county police chief. Deputy Sheriffs have duties similar to uniformed police officers. Sheriffs transport prisoners to and from jails, serve papers in civil lawsuits, act as courtroom bailiffs and marshals as well as assist public safety agencies in the county. Sheriffs may also be coroners in some counties.

U.S. Marshals

U.S. Marshals differ from police departments in that they enforce the laws of federal courts. Their authority is divided into 94 districts. U.S. Marshals are responsible for apprehending and transporting federal fugitives, and protecting the federal judiciary as well as federal witnesses.

Community Policing Programs

In 1994, the U.S. Department of Justice created the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services (COPS) to advance the practice of community policing, a program to address the root causes of crime through the development of mutually beneficial relationships between law enforcement and the community.

Community policing programs place officers on long-term assignments to specific neighborhoods or areas. Community policing entities often provide law enforcement representation at town hall or neighborhood association meetings. They may even have a physical neighborhood presence beyond the beat through an office or storefront.

Community policing programs often partner with authorities that include:

  • State legislatures
  • Federal, state, and city prosecutors
  • Probation and parole offices
  • City public works departments
  • Neighboring city law enforcement agencies
  • Child support services
  • Local schools


Police Department Ranks

Typical large city police department ranks include:

  • Police Officers: In large police departments, uniformed police officers are typically assigned to a specific type of duty. Officers may patrol their community districts on horseback, bicycle, motorcycle, in a patrol car, or by harbor patrol. Officer specializations can include training and firearms instruction, canine corps, Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT), emergency response teams, jail-related duties, court officer duties, animal control, property storage, evidence collection and analysis, traffic direction at scenes of accidents, burglary investigations, giving first aid to accident victims, issuing and controlling certain types of business permits and even crossing guard duties.
  • Police Detectives: Police detectives are plainclothes investigators who gather facts and evidence for criminal cases under the jurisdiction of a police department. They are usually assigned to specific types of crimes, such as homicide or fraud. Police detectives are assigned to divisions that specialize in areas like narcotics investigations, surveillance operations, juvenile gang crimes, crime scene investigation, expert testimony court liaison, polygraph operations and business permit investigations.
  • Police Sergeant: Police sergeants are assigned to geographic patrol areas and specialized divisions. They prepare daily patrol car plans, conduct roll calls, inspect equipment for conformity to department standards, supervise foot patrol officers, investigate personnel complaints and supervise new officers.
  • Police Lieutenant: Police lieutenants are officers in charge of specialized divisions within the police department. They supervise patrol sergeants, police officers, and detectives. They act as a commanding officer in the police captain's absence. Specialized divisions include narcotics, organized crime and vice, anti-terrorism, juvenile narcotics, child abuse, air support and surveillance as well as SWAT.
  • Police Captain: Police captains are commanding officers of a division. They inspect and oversee compliance of officers to police department policies and standards. They also provide a liaison with municipal government, civic organizations and private citizens to promote community policy programs.
  • Chief of Police: The chief of police is the highest ranking officer in a police department. He or she acts as police department general manager responsible for the administration and operation of the department under the authority of the Board of Police Commissioners.
  • Board of Police Commissioners: In some large cities, a Board of Police Commissioners oversees the police department, setting overall policies that are implemented by the chief of police. They are typically civilians who donate time to the city while engaging in their own professional careers.

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