“Feds”, “cops” … how to find your way in the various American police services

There’s Axel Foley Beverly Hills Cop, Agent Clarice Starling from Silence of the lambs… So many police officers idealized by American cinema and television series. And then there is Derek Chauvin, accused of the murder of George Floyd, or Daniel Pantaleo, dismissed from the police five years after the death of Eric Garner, but also members of different agencies who brutally dispersed the crowd at Lafayette Square, in Washington, so that Donald Trump could pose for a photo session in front of the windows of the Saint John Episcopal Church… all of the reasons why the Fuck the police (from the NWA group) remains relevant, more than thirty years after its release, in the protests denouncing police violence in the United States, as the magazine website aptly recalls Rolling Stone.

However, between these two extremes, there is a more complex reality than the pejorative terms for the “Feds “, Federal (FBI) agents, “Dicks”, detectives, “Blue”, “Cops” and others “Pigs”. The American police system is a reflection of the political and geographic structure of the United States. This is the reason why there are local police forces (Local Enforcement Agencies), county police forces (Sheriff and County Law Enforcement Agencies), State police forces (State Polices) and federal services (Federal Law Enforcement Agencies) , a mille-feuille of more than 17,980 services made up of acronyms (NYPD, LAPD, FBI, DEA, CBP…) which employ more than 796,000 agents.

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  • City and field fonts

New York police officers, the NYPD, during a Black Lives Matter demonstration, in Times Square, June 1, 2020.

Most cities have a municipal police force, the size of which can range up to several tens of thousands of agents grouped together in one police department, as in New York (NYPD), Chicago (CPD), Los Angeles (LAPD), responsible for security on the territory of the municipality. Large cities can have specialized services, such as the SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics), responsible for risky interventions or a counter-terrorism service, as in New York.

In these cities, the chief of police is the subject of an appointment and depends, as the case may be, either directly on the mayor in person, or on municipal councilors in charge of police matters. (police board).

The United States is also 3,141 counties: some of them have a police force, called county law enforcement agency. In rural areas, the police are provided by the sheriff. He is a public servant generally elected every four years. There are just over 3,000 sheriff offices across the United States.

If, traditionally, a sheriff is the chief of the local police, he may have, particularly in the States of the East and North Coast, a mission limited to the management of the courts, detention in the county prison, the transportation of prisoners or the security of courthouses. Some may have to exercise, by contract (contract law enforcement), local police powers in small towns without local police. In Los Angeles, the county sheriff’s department (LASD) provides police services in forty-four municipalities without their own police force.

Members of the Sheriff's Department of Polk County Sheriff, Iowa, protect access to the state’s residence during a protest on June 2, 2020.

Some infrastructures also have their own police force: this is the case for the port and airports of New York City, with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey Police Department or the Los Angeles airport, with the Los Angeles Airport Police. Private universities also have their own sworn police force, such as the Harvard University Police Department.

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  • A state police or several police

A Connecticut state trooper prays with a protester in the middle of Interstate 84, which was closed during a demonstration in memory of George Floyd on June 1, 2020.

Each state has a state police, highway patrol, state highway patrol, or one state patrol. They are police forces headed by an official appointed by the governor. They are responsible for monitoring the road network and assisting the state prosecutor in criminal investigations under the jurisdiction of the state. Their uniformed police bear the name of state trooper.

Generally, the highway patrol deals with roads and highways (offenses and accidents), while the state police deals with serious crimes, which are not managed by the local police force or when the latter need assistance due to lack of resources.

Some of these state policies are also responsible for providing – under contract – a police function within small municipal entities.

  • Competent federal agencies throughout the territory

Members of the Secret Service and the FBI near the White House, June 2, 2020.

There are dozens of federal agencies, the law enforcement agencies. They are each responsible for a field and operate throughout the territory of the United States, sometimes abroad. They are attached to a federal authority.

The FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) is the best known of these. Created in 1908, it depends on the Department of Justice. Its 35,000 agents are involved in counterterrorism, counterintelligence, organized crime, the fight against drug trafficking and the defense of civil rights. The FBI has offices abroad, as does the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which also depends on the Department of Justice and is responsible for combating the trafficking and distribution of drugs in the United States. , competing with the FBI. If a crime is committed in violation of local, state, and federal laws, the FBI does not necessarily take charge of the investigation. Rather, investigative resources from the FBI and state and local agencies are often combined in a joint effort to investigate and resolve the cases. The DEA also assists local and state police forces.

Agencies such as the US Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and the United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are attached to the Department of Homeland Security. The CBP fights against illegal immigration and patrols the borders, while the ICE fights transnational crime and illegal immigration.

For its part, the United States Secret Service (USSS) has gone from fighting counterfeit money and financial fraud to protecting the President, Vice President of the United States and their families.

Finally, two agencies depend on the legislative and judicial powers: the Capitol police are responsible for their security and for members of Congress, while the Supreme Court police are responsible for the security of the building and of judges of the highest American jurisdiction.

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  • Cities, states, congresses and White House plan for police reform

More than two weeks after the death of George Floyd during his arrest, cities and states are taking steps to respond to demands from protesters and to reform their police and improve practices. Elected Democrats have presented a bill to Congress that plans to create a national registry of police officers who commit violence. For its part, the White House announced Wednesday that it is finalizing its proposals to reform the police, but it warned that a decline in the immunity of police officers was not envisaged.

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