There are a number of different types of law enforcement agencies with many superficial similarities. The difference between these different organizations is essentially one of jurisdiction. These jurisdictional distinctions are often geographical in nature but can also be a function of the specific type of law each is authorized to enforce. Among the law enforcement roles that look to be very similar at first but have clearly defined differences are that of a police officer, sheriff deputy, and state trooper.
LOCAL/CITY POLICE OFFICER:
Although there are many types of police officers including military police and college campus police the most common jurisdiction is within the geographic boundaries of a city or a town. The job of the police officer is to enforce the laws of their jurisdiction, to serve as a crime prevention presence and to protect the citizens and ensure their safety.
While police officers in a specific department share the same jurisdiction there is a wide variety of jobs and roles within the organizational structure. The most common role associated with police work is that of the ‘beat cop’. These are the officers ‘on the ground’ that patrol a certain area or neighborhood within a city or town. Their job is a microcosm of the entire department’s function.
The ‘beat cop’ is there to enforce laws, but thanks to their familiarity with the area they become a high profile presence in the community. This geographic focus allows them to know when things ‘aren’t right’ and to take appropriate action. They may become acquainted with members of the community who then provide them with information and input.
Beyond the ‘beat cop’ role, there is a wide variety of other jobs–some of them are simply different functional areas while others are further up the hierarchy of the department. These jobs include detectives that investigate a wide variety of crimes, parking enforcement (that may or may not be under the jurisdiction of the police force). There are dog trainers that work with K-9 dogs, officers that patrol on motorcycle, mountain bike or horses. Other functions include community outreach and education, clerical and administrative work or highly specialized skills such as bomb disposal.
In most US communities, the sheriff is an elected official but the deputies that work under him are law enforcement officers roughly analogous to police officers. The primary distinction is that while police officers have jurisdiction within a city or town limits a sheriff deputy enforces the laws in the entire county or similar geographic area. In addition, a sheriff’s department may serve the role as the police in small communities without their own force.
Many of the functions of the sheriff’s deputy are identical to that of the police officer. They prevent and investigate crimes, serve in a liaison role to the community and patrol within a specific area to maintain safety and order. In some counties, the sheriff’s department serves in the role of coroner investigating deaths. Additionally, the sheriff’s department often works in junction with local police departments, highway patrol organizations or park rangers.
While the role of the sheriff’s deputy and the police officer are very similar there are some distinct differences between these law enforcement professionals and a state trooper. Depending on the state, the organizations that a ‘state trooper’ serve are known as the highway patrol, state police or state patrol. These terms reflect their wider jurisdictional range–while police officers or sheriff’s deputies enforce the law within a specific area, the state trooper sometimes has authority throughout the entire state.
There is an important distinction between the jurisdictional oversight of the ‘state police’ or ‘state patrol’ and a ‘highway patrol’ organization. The state police or patrol has full authority throughout the state, a jurisdictional range known as ‘general authority’. Highway patrol officers have ‘specific authority’ or jurisdiction within a specific set of parameters. While a police officer enforces the law within city limits and a sheriff deputy within a county, a highway patrolman is limited to state roads and other properties.
The organizational structure of these law enforcement agencies also varies from one jurisdiction to another. In some states, the highway patrol or state police are organized under the department of public safety or a specific law enforcement agency. In other states, it is run as an autonomous entity. On average, highway patrolmen/state troopers make more money than police officers or sheriff’s deputies though that’s not always the case. The salary inconsistencies between the three agencies doesn’t make any sense since the training and qualification process is similar.