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Law Enforcement | What Are the Branches of Law Enforcement?

Shawn Custer, Natalie Boyd
  • Author
    Shawn Custer

    Shawn Custer has taught college-level English, composition, and literature for over six years. She has a Master’s in English and Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University and a Bachelor's in English from Thomas Edison State University.

  • Instructor
    Natalie Boyd

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

Discover the different law enforcement types and identify their levels and jobs. Explore the various law enforcement branches, agencies, and hierarchies. Updated: 12/07/2021

Table of Contents


What is Law Enforcement?

The term "law enforcement" refers to the collection of agencies that are charged with protecting the citizens and communities, maintaining the peace, and enforcing the laws of the different states and municipalities around the United States. Because that is such a large-scale operation, the task of law enforcement is divided by jurisdictions: federal, state, county, and local cities and towns. The largest agencies are federal agencies, which are responsible for the country as a whole. State agencies work at the state level, while county and city agencies handle situations in those communities.

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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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City police car

City police car

Levels of Law Enforcement

There are different levels of law enforcement depending on the type of crime and where it was committed.

  • Federal law enforcement agencies are responsible for maintaining the laws at the federal level and are overseen by the federal Department of Justice and Department of Homeland Security. These agencies include the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and U.S. Marshalls.
  • State law enforcement agencies usually include the state bureau of investigation, various state troopers, and highway patrol departments.
  • At the county level are the sheriff departments.
  • Local city and municipalities have police departments.

The main differences between the levels of law enforcement have to do with jurisdiction. While police officers are responsible for their own cities and communities, state patrol officers are responsible for enforcing state laws and can handle crimes that happen across city and county lines. For example, local police officers will usually handle traffic violations and accidents that happen within their cities and communities, but state patrol officers will often handle incidents that occur on interstate highways. State law enforcement agencies also step in when crimes occur in places where there is no local police force, such as in certain small towns and unincorporated areas.

Federal agents work on a much larger scale, handling crimes that violate federal laws. They also step in when crimes are committed that cross state lines, such as kidnappings where the victim is transported from one state to another and serial bank robbers who commit crimes in multiple states. Federal agents usually work within different organizations depending on their focus. The Drug Enforcement Administration focuses on drug crimes, such as interstate drug trafficking and the importation of drugs into the country. The Federal Bureau of Investigation handles crimes that violate federal laws, such as domestic terrorism and bank robberies.

Federal Agent

Federal Agent

Types of Law Enforcement Jobs

Within each level of law enforcement, there is a wide variety of different types of personnel and job positions:

Uniformed Officers- These officers typically work at the municipal, county, and state levels. They are usually the first line of responders to assist citizens in need and work to maintain the peace in their assigned jurisdictions. Typical duties for uniformed officers include patrolling routes (both on foot and in marked patrol vehicles), handling traffic violations and vehicle accidents, directing traffic, and assisting in providing first aid to injured citizens. This is typically considered an entry-level law enforcement position. Unformed officers include:

  • Local Police Officer
  • Deputy Sheriff
  • State Trooper

Plainclothes Officers- As their title suggests, plainclothes officers are not in uniform. They do not typically patrol routes and instead work more in the investigation of crimes, including questioning witnesses and suspects and making arrests. They may also work undercover and many of them specialize in various departments, such as homicide, robbery, or drug enforcement. Plainclothes officers include:

  • Detective
  • Criminal Investigator

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Frequently Asked Questions

What are the 5 levels of government law enforcement agencies?

The different levels of law enforcement agencies include federal agencies such as the FBI, DEA, and U.S. Marshals, and state agencies such as state bureaus of investigation, state troopers, and state highway patrol. Counties have local sheriff's departments, and cities and municipalities have local police departments.

What are the different law enforcement jobs?

There are several different levels and types of law enforcement jobs. The most common of these are uniformed police officers, plainclothes officers, and federal agents, though there are also numerous support personnel jobs as well.

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