Public Law Enforcement: Levels & Agencies

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  • 0:02 Law Enforcement
  • 1:05 Federal
  • 3:05 State
  • 4:20 Local
  • 6:15 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Police, rangers, FBI...There are so many different types and levels of law enforcement that it can get confusing. Never fear! In this lesson, we'll break down the three different levels of law enforcement and their responsibilities.

Law Enforcement

Kim loves to watch true crime television shows. She finds it fascinating when, each episode, the narrator talks about a crime that was committed and then about how the criminal got caught. Each show includes interviews with the people who cracked the case and arrested the perpetrator.

But Kim has noticed something strange. Sometimes, the people investigating the crime are called police officers, and sometimes they're called marshals or rangers or FBI agents. What's the difference between all these different titles?

Law enforcement is an umbrella term that refers to a professional group of people tasked with keeping order through the investigation and prevention of crime. So whether someone is an officer, detective, marshal, or an agent, they are part of law enforcement.

In the United States, there are three general levels of law enforcement: federal, state, and local. Let's take a closer look at each one.


Kim is watching a show one day, and she notices that the law enforcement official being interviewed is from the FBI. She wonders what the FBI oversees and when they get involved in a case.

The FBI is one of many different agencies that are part of federal law enforcement, or departments in charge of upholding federal law and supporting state and local law enforcement agencies. In fact, FBI stands for Federal Bureau of Investigation, so the fact that it's a federal law enforcement agency is right in the title! Other federal law enforcement agencies include the Federal Marshal Service, the Bureau of Prisons, Customs and Border Protection, Secret Service, and Transportation Security Administration, among others.

Federal law enforcement agencies are overseen by either the Department of Justice or the Department of Homeland Security. For example, the FBI (along with the marshals and others) is overseen by the Department of Justice. Customs, on the other hand, is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, which oversees several other agencies, as well.

Federal law enforcement only has the power to investigate and enforce laws at the federal level. Kim has heard some crimes referred to as federal crimes, which is one example of when a federal law enforcement agency might get involved. They also investigate when criminal activity happens across multiple jurisdictions. For example, if someone steals a television set from a store, it is a local crime. But if that person then drives across state lines to sell the stolen television, they are acting in multiple states, or jurisdictions, so it becomes a federal issue.

The other thing that federal law enforcement does is to help support state and local law enforcement. If a town or state does not have the resources necessary to investigate a crime, they can ask federal law enforcement to step in and help.


Kim understands that there are a lot of federal agencies and that their primary purpose is to investigate crimes that involve federal crimes or multiple jurisdictions and to provide support for state and local law enforcement if they ask. But what, exactly, does state law enforcement do? And how does it differ from what local law enforcement does?

State law enforcement is made up of investigators and officers in charge of crime detection and prevention at the state level. The primary law enforcement agency in each state is generally called state police, state patrol, or highway patrol. They are in charge of patrol and investigations throughout the entire state, including rural areas where there might not be a local police force. For example, if someone is driving drunk on a highway in the middle of nowhere, the state police are the ones who will pull that person over and arrest them.

In addition to the state patrol, each state has its own Bureau of Investigations that works out of the Attorney General's office. The purpose of these law enforcement agents is to investigate crimes that take place over several jurisdictions. They may be called investigators or rangers.

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