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The Local, State and Federal Policing Levels

The policing structure in the U.S follows a decentralized system. Since the colonial era, America’s policing structure has been aimed at ensuring order and peace at the lowest levels of government. This philosophy is informed by the argument that policing should be a delegated function of the local government (Palmiotto & Unnithan, 2011).

The business of law enforcement in the U.S is complex.

Although each policing level works separately, there are times when they may be called upon to complement each other to enforce the law and fight crime (Palmiotto & Unnithan, 2011). This report seeks to discuss the functions and responsibilities of local, state, and federal agencies. The paper will also endeavor to examine possible changes in the US laws and the potential impact they may have on the functioning of various policing agencies.

The U.S.A. has a policing structure that involves three levels: federal, state, and local. Since the U.S system of administration is comprised of three levels of government, it is logical to arrange the policing structure into three distinct, yet complementary levels as well that would fit into the U.S. structure. The Tenth Amendments of the Constitution of America mandates the federal government to establish a policing structure that would help to protect and maintain law (Palmiotto & Unnithan, 2011).

The state police were established to give support to local police agencies, investigate all crimes cutting across jurisdictions, provide protection to rural or local communities, and be neutralizers of strikes (Palmiotto & Unnithan, 2011). The state of Pennsylvania served as a model state to all other states. Today, all states in the U.S have robust state police agencies charged with numerous functions, especially enforcing laws.

The state policing functions are wide and include performing highway state patrols in the entire state and conducting investigations on crimes affecting the state (Palmiotto & Unnithan, 2011). Unlike other levels of policing, state police have a jurisdictional power to capture, maintain and use criminal records, crime statistics, fingerprint files, and perform oversight over police training facilities.

The legal system vests a lot of power on the state policing level in which the police are allowed to receive and investigate complaints leveled against local police and local police agencies (Palmiotto & Unnithan, 2011). The fact that the local policing agencies are subject to investigation by the state police creates an interesting scenario—that while the local police officers are independent branches of the state security system, they cannot be detached from the state policing.

The state police division is divided into two major agencies: Highway Patrol, which is charged with the responsibility of ensuring that state traffic laws are complied with. They enforce laws guiding the conduct of users of state highways and adjacent to state highways. However, it is important to note that the role of state police may extend beyond their jurisdiction and include exercising their policing and law enforcement authority in local communities where there are no local police agencies.

Examples of states that do not have local police or have a less established local policing mechanism include Kansas, Colorado. To help ensure that order is maintained, such states have established the Local Bureau of Investigations supported by the state police to investigate crimes and enforce the law (Palmiotto & Unnithan, 2011).

The local police agencies

The local police officers are the first group of law enforcement agencies that fight crime at the lowest level of government. The local policing agencies comprise the municipal park, the sheriff’s department, and campus police (Palmiotto & Unnithan, 2011). These agencies have the responsibility of protecting society and ensuring their security needs are met.

According to Palmiotto & Unnithan (2011), the functions of the local policing agencies include patrols, traffic duties, responding to distress calls for service, and provision of public services. However, as opposed to the state police departments, most of the local police officers are usually engaged in such activities as attending to calls, related to family violence, other local emerge calls, 911 reports, performing patrols. They are responsible for enforcing city ordinances and ensuring that specific city and town laws are observed (Walker & Katz, 2008). In the US only, there are nine state policing and traffic patrol agencies with over 56,000 sworn officers (Walker & Katz, 2008).

State Policing agencies

According to Walker & Katz (2008), the role of state policing agencies is defined under the federal statute. When considered in all respects, the federal police agencies are charged with less complex duties compared with the roles of the local or municipal agencies. The state highway patrol police agencies have statewide jurisdiction. However, their primary function is to enforce law and control crimes on state highways. State police agencies manage criminal investigative mechanisms alongside undertaking investigations together with their uniformed patrol categories. State police agencies handle calls from the public for service, especially to help maintain law in unincorporated areas (Walker & Katz, 2008).

Federal Agencies

The police unit comprises numerous departments each dealing with a different matter touching on crimes that affect society, such as drugs. The primary role of the state police is investigative. However, they also perform correction-related duties, protection, court operations, and general police service (Walker & Katz, 2008). The only difference is that the federal police officers have wider jurisdiction compared to the other two levels of policing.

Overlapping functions of the three policing levels

The policing structure is such that all the law enforcement agencies perform similar responsibilities to ensure the rights and safety of the citizens. The federal policing agencies exercise their roles over a larger jurisdiction, the state police have authority throughout the state while the local policing level is only confined to a city, a town, or a municipal. As the U.S laws continue to change, it is expected that the functions of each policing level will change dramatically to align with the existing law.

Walker & Katz (2008) noted that the difference between local, state, and federal police officers is the magnitude of the resources, budgets, and jurisdictions.

The local, state, and federal police agencies are guided by the same administrative rules and enforce similar laws. The difference between local and state law enforcement agencies is their resources, staff, budgets in some cases, and jurisdictions.

In some circumstances, the jurisdictions of the federal and state governments overlap, such as robbery and drug trafficking. These crimes are classified as both state and federal ones. Therefore, the functions of the state and federal law enforcement agencies may as well overlap.

Leadership characteristics and responsibilities pertaining to each organizational level

Federal policing level

Since the federal police leadership is charged with the task of ensuring that police officers and other law enforcement agencies protect the rights of the people, the need for these leaders to be resolute cannot be underestimated.

While it is arguable that directives guiding various policing levels are incredibly important, effective communication skills and sound judgment are important attributes that law enforcement leaders must demonstrate. This is necessary for ensuring that officers at all levels perform their duties ethically and professionally while respecting the rule of law (Walker & Katz, 2008).

Local policing level

The leadership of local police will need to develop good communication and problem-solving skills to be able to address the needs of the locals whose needs revolve around service. Additionally, the local police agencies are the first to be approached by the public, so they need to have good critical thinking skills to be able to offer first-hand solutions.

State policing level

The state policing agencies are charged with enforcement of the law through conducting investigations. Besides having good communication skills, state and federal law enforcement agencies need to exhibit excellent research skills to be able to research and interpret the law. This is to ensure that they only exercise their responsibilities within the law (Walker & Katz, 2008).

Since serious risks come with discharging responsibilities by the state police, and the fact that the police are left to do their work with the utmost discretion, law enforcement leaders are expected to be accountable and transparent to the extent that they deal with abuse of human rights (Palmiotto & Unnithan, 2011).


Palmiotto, M., & Unnithan, N. P. (2011). Policing & society: A global approach. New York, NY: Delmar Cengage Learning.

Walker, S., & Katz, C. M. (2008). The police in America: An introduction (6th ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

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