4.4. Levels of Policing and Role of Police

Tiffany Morey

Section Learning Objectives

After reading this section, students will be able to:

  • Understand the various options for careers in the policing and law enforcement arena
  • Discuss educational requirements that are required for law enforcement positions at the federal, state, county, local level
  • Explain what a state police officer’s main objectives are
  • Describe the difference between sworn and civilian roles
  • List several divisions that a sworn officer can be promoted to
  • List several departments in which a civilian can work within a law enforcement agency
  • Discuss how different police departments work with each other

Critical Thinking Questions

  1. What education does a candidate need for jobs in federal law enforcement?
  2. What education does a candidate generally need for city or county jobs as a police officer?
  3. Is there a difference between a person who is considered commissioned and a person who is considered a civilian?
  4. Does every law enforcement agency have the same opportunities for advancement?
  5. Why do different police departments work together?
  6. Can a person be a homicide detective without being a police officer?

Policing Types

It is an exciting time for those entering the law enforcement field. All too often, candidates only think of local police departments; i.e., city or county agencies, while the options available are genuinely multi-faceted. Whether one is looking for a “typical” police officer career, criminal forensics, or environmental law enforcement, the options are diverse. While the below list is not exhaustive, it does give a detailed look at the array of careers one could have in the policing or law enforcement.

Federal Level: The federal arena for law enforcement careers is vast. The options are almost endless, and many would argue that the rewards of federal law enforcement career are superior to those offered at the local level. However, there is a catch, namely education and experience requirements. Most law enforcement-related careers in the federal arena require a bachelor’s degree, at a minimum, plus several years of related full-time work experience before applying.

Candidates interested in the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) as a special agent, for example, are looking at the following educational requirements:

  • A bachelor’s degree in either accounting, computer science/information technology, or foreign language (only a criminal justice major if the candidate is planning on working full-time for a law enforcement agency for at least three years before applying),
  • OR a JD degree from an accredited law school,
  • OR a diversified bachelor’s degree AND three years of professional experience, OR a master’s degree, or Ph.D. along with two years of professional experience.

Federal job possibilities (the list is not comprehensive)

  • Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)
  • Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF)
  • Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA)
  • Secret Service
  • Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)
  • National Security Agency (NSA)
  • United States Marshals Service (USMS)
  • U.S. Park Police
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)
  • Department of Justice
  • Federal Bureau of Prisons
  • U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID)
  • U.S. Army Counter Intelligence
  • Dept. of Ariculture-Office of Inspector General (USDA-OIG)
  • U.S. Forest Service Law Enforcement & Investigations (USFS LEI)
  • Department of Commerce-Office of Inspector General (DOC-OIG)
  • Office of Security (DOC-OS)
  • US Commerce Department Police
  • Office of Export Enforcement (OEE)
  • National Institute of Standards and Technology Police
  • United States Pentagon Police
  • Department of Defense-Defense Criminal Investigative Service (DCIS)
  • United States Pentagon Police (USPPD)
  • Department of Defense Police
  • Defense Security Police
  • Defense Logistic Agency Police
  • United States Coast Guard (USCG)

State Level: As you’d probably guess, there are 50 state police agencies in the United States! You may also know that the Pennsylvania State Police represent the oldest state-level law enforcement agency in the U.S. State police departments go by different names across the country; consider, for example, the Pennsylvania State Police, the Nevada Highway Patrol, and the Colorado State Patrol. The sworn (certified by the state with powers of arrest) employees of these departments are generally called troopers (a.k.a. police officers), their uniform is blue (except for California Highway Patrol who wear tan and dark brown uniforms), they wear round tipped hats, and their primary duty is to patrol the highways and interstates; however, many state police also investigate different crimes, run criminal forensic labs, or work with the divisions of fish and wildlife. The duties of each state agency are slightly different and unique to each state. For example, OSP has an explosives unit (see photo below).

State Police Commissioner Colonel Robert Evanchick
State Police Commissioner Colonel Robert Evanchick speaks with the press in April 2022, concerning new state laws around “ghost guns.”

County Level: There are 3,142 counties in the United States. [1] Each county has an elected Sheriff and deputies (a.k.a. officers) who work directly under the Sheriff. Deputies’ work is similar to that of other local police officers, with one twist: sheriff’s departments are often responsible for the courts and jails (a.k.a. detention facility) in their respective county. This means that some deputies have the option to perform correctional work; they may even be required to begin their career in corrections, if their Sheriff’s department is a single-entry agency. Departments that are dual-entry will officer separate application tracks for candidates who wish to perform correctional or law enforcement work.

A K-9 vehicle for the Allegheny County Sheriff's Department
The Allegheny County Sheriff’s Department operates 12 different divisions, including a K-9 unit.

Municipal/Local Level: Municipal or local police work for a specific municipality or city. The vast majorities of individuals in law enforcement work for local police agencies, and most police departments serve municipalities. Unlike their federal counterparts, most municipal (and state and county) police departments do not require future candidates to have a bachelors’ degree, although many require some higher education (ex. 60 credits, or roughly 2 years of college). Increasingly, college degrees represent a required credential when an officer wants to enter management; in fact, many Chiefs and Sheriffs have either a Masters or Ph.D.

A vehicle from the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police Bike Patrol
Officers with the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police can work five different types of patrol: foot, vehicle, motorcycle, mounted (horse), and bicycle.
Learn more about every law enforcement agency in the U.S.

For a complete list of law enforcement agencies (state, county, municipal/city) visit: http://Discoverpolicing.org

Other Policing Jobs: There are many other police jobs that may fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, state, county, or city, including civilian (non-sworn) positions. Here’s an incomplete list:

  • Bailiff for a Court
  • Animal Control or Animal Cruelty Investigator
  • Computer Forensics
  • Correctional Counselor
  • Court Clerk or Court Reporter
  • Criminologist
  • Private Investigator
  • Criminal Justice Administration
  • Crime Prevention Specialist
  • Protection Officer
  • Forensic Accountant, Anthropoligist, Artist, Hypnotists, Nurse, Pathologist, Psychologist, Scientist, Serologist, Toxicologist
  • Judge
  • Juvenile Probation Officer
  • Latent Print Examiner
  • Legal Secretary/Paralegal
  • Loss Prevention Officer
  • Mediator/Negotiator
  • Pre-trial Officer
  • Security Analyst
  • Security Officer
  • Social Worker
  • Victims Advocate

Divisions within Law Enforcement Agencies

 Law enforcement agencies, whether federal, state, county, or local, generally have jobs available within two major areas: sworn or commissioned, and civilian. A sworn or commissioned employee has been through police training, is certified or licensed as a police officer, and has arresting powers in the state. A civilian employee is one who has not been through police training and does not have arresting powers.

One of the exciting aspects of policing is the vast array of jobs available, whether an individual is interested in sworn or civilian employment. Every department offers slightly different specialized divisions, depending on its size. For example, the McKeesport Police Department is relatively small department (55 full-time officers), but still operates several unique divisions (for example, traffic, patrol, and crime prevention), alongside its Detective Bureau (itself comprising four different investigative divisions.) Officers within this department may be promoted to management, but in order to access even more specialized work, individuals would have to seek employment within a larger agency, such as the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police. An officer at PBP can be promoted to one of 12 specialty units.

Police work is multifaceted, and every-changing, always keeping officers engaged. Moreover, unlike many other professions, the daily job of a police officer, depending on the respective department, can change dramatically with their particular division. One year a police officer may be writing a traffic citation from a patrol car, and the next year the same police officer may be driving an off-road motorcycle, patrolling the local park, or riding a mounted horse in the downtown area. The choice to have a career in policing is enormous, but all candidates should go one step further and start researching to decide what type of policing, what kind of agency, and what possible divisions the candidate would like to join.

Sworn Officers: Different Divisions within a Law Enforcement Agency:

  • Detective/Investigations (Persons Crimes, Property Crimes, Homicides, Rape, Robbery, Burglary, Auto Theft, DUI, Domestic Violence)
  • Traffic
  • Narcotics
  • Human/Sex Trafficking
  • Vice
  • Crime Scene Investigation (CSI)
  • SWAT
  • K-9 (patrol, drug, and search & rescue dogs)
  • Crisis Negotiator
  • Mounted Unit (horses)
  • Air Unit
  • Training/Range Master
  • Academy/Tac Officer
  • Bike Patrol
  • Recruiting
  • Internal Affairs
  • Public Information Officer
  • Gangs
  • Search & Rescue
  • Forest and Fish & Wildlife
  • Marine
  • Various Area Task Force (usually made up of various law enforcement agencies in the area- to sometimes include federal agencies too)

Civilian Employees: Divisions within a Law Enforcement Agency:

The civilian areas of each police department are also fascinating. Not every person is meant to go into law enforcement as a sworn officer. Civilian employees represent an important half of the police equation, and are a much-needed in every law enforcement agency. When a citizen dials 9-1-1, a dispatcher answers the phone, and that dispatcher is a civilian. When a police officer finds controlled substances on a suspect, takes custody, and later books them into evidence at the police station, the evidence technician is a civilian that logs and follows through with the chain of custody for the evidence. Civilians are just as important as the sworn positions at any law enforcement agency.

Example civilian positions at law enforcement agencies:

  • Dispatch/911 Operator
  • Records
  • Crime Analysis
  • Forensic Unit/CSI
  • Training
  • Fleet Management
  • Support/Facilities
  • Human Resources
  • Operations Support Unit
  • Recruitment Coordinator
  • Volunteer Coordinator
  • Administrative Support

  1. U.S. Department of the Interior (2018, September 23). How many counties are there in the United States. Retrieved from https://www.usgs.gov/faqs/how-many-counties-are-there-united-states.


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4.4. Levels of Policing and Role of Police Copyright © 2019 by Tiffany Morey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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