How Does Police Jurisdiction Work?

In the U.S. it’s common for multiple police agencies to overlap geographically, making jurisdiction a matter of both location and type of crime. Many states have a variety of law enforcement officers, which makes jurisdiction an important issue for those reporting crimes and those prosecuting crimes.

Because states have different types of towns and rural areas may not be large enough to support an independent police department, the descriptions below are general and may not fit every location.

The concept of jurisdiction is based on common law principles that originated in England. Then, there were certain boundaries (perhaps a kingdom’s property lines) that law enforcement could not cross. Now that is largely a myth, and laws are written to allow officers in pursuit of a suspect or on official duties (such as serving a warrant or in “fresh pursuit”) to cross jurisdictional barriers.

Police Jurisdiction

Town Police

Local police officers are generally limited to working within the boundaries of the town that hired them but may cross boundaries to collaborate with officers from other towns on investigations. These officers too may take part in a regional special police force, such as one that deals with massive demonstrations, national events, or hostage situations. These officers are hired by the police chief, who is responsible to local elected officials such as a city council or board of administrators.

Sheriff’s Departments

These departments have a sheriff and deputies and exist at the county level. As such these departments report to a board of commissioners or the sheriff may be elected.  Their roles vary according to location, as congested East Coast jurisdictions may be limited to working with prisons transporting inmates and serving warrants for prosecutors. In more rural areas sheriff’s deputies are likely to be patrol officers in unincorporated expanses, including as first responders to 9-1-1 calls.

Law Enforcement Jurisdiction

Fish and Game Wardens

These law enforcement officials have the same powers of arrest and ticket-writing as local police officers do, but have jurisdiction over not only wildlife areas, geographic boundaries of lakes, ponds, and seashores, but also the wildlife in the vicinity. Therefore, if a person is suspected of poaching deer outside of hunting season or is poisoning wildlife, a warden is likely to take the case. These officers check hunting and fishing licenses and may take part in tagging game.

State Police

These officers patrol highways and state-owned facilities like airports and shipping ports, assist local departments with specialized training and coordinate security around major events. Most states organize state police under a department of public safety. State police duties have been tested recently with major demonstrations in cities like Charlottesville, Virginia, and Chicago, Illinois.

Special Jurisdiction Police

Within a city may exist many small law enforcement agencies, from university police to transit police, constables, and marshals, each with its own jurisdiction. Different rules may apply to each as well, such as which agencies’ officers may carry firearms and how criminal prosecutions are handled. Constables and marshals generally work for a specific legal entity, such as city government or the prosecutor’s office, and their duties may be limited to carrying official documents like summonses and writs, to their required destinations. The state department of public safety may attempt to coordinate responses across jurisdictions and to host exercises such as mock emergencies for the different organizations to use as practice and to test communications and command hierarchy.

Police Department Jurisdiction

City Policing

In densely populated areas, policing may be broken down into precincts to ensure an even number of patrol officers and detectives throughout each. These officers are expected to specialize in the issues of that specific neighborhood while providing information to detectives and other overlapping police jurisdictions to lower crime in general.

Relationships Among Police

At times jurisdictional issues flare up between law enforcement agencies. Oftentimes this is a result of labor issues like competition for overtime pay for road construction details in states where that applies. On a larger scale, issues like deporting illegal immigrants have underscored the various law enforcement jurisdictions at work, as some cities have declared that their police will not take part in such enforcement while others use police to enforce what may be seen as political positions. The current attorney general has threatened to withhold law enforcement funds from the federal government unless noncompliant cities changed their policies about offering sanctuary to immigrants.

Tribal police handle policing and application of the law on Native American reservations. Their jurisdiction is notoriously challenging to understand and dissect, as a Washington Supreme Court case, State v. Eriksen found when a tribal officer followed a drunk driving suspect into another jurisdiction and held the woman for arrest by local police. One explanation for the confusion was that the state had frequently changed aspects of police jurisdiction over many years, resulting in a gray area of the law.