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Police forces are government organisations ostensibly charged with the responsibility of maintaining law and order. The word comes from the French, and less directly from the Greek politeia, referring to government or administration. The word police was coined in France in the 18th century. The police may also be known as a constabulary, after constables, who were an early manifestation of police officers.

For the band, see The Police. For the Polish town, see Police, Poland.



In most Western legal systems, the major avowed role of the police is to discourage and investigate crimes, with particular emphases on crime against persons or property and the maintenance of public order, and if able to apprehend suspected perpetrator(s), to detain them, and inform the appropriate authorities. See criminal law.

Police are often used as an emergency service and may provide a public safety function at large gatherings, as well as in emergencies, disasters, and search and rescue situations. To provide a prompt response in emergencies, the police often coordinate their operations with fire and emergency medical services. In many countries there is a common emergency service number that allows the police, firefighters or medical services to be summoned to an emergency.

Police are also responsible for reporting minor offences by issuing citations which typically may result in the imposition of fines, particularly for violations of traffic law. Police sometimes involve themselves in the maintenance of public order, even where no legal transgressions have occurred -- for example, in some Australian jurisdictions, people who are drunk and causing a public nuisance may be removed to a "drying-out centre" until they recover from the effects of the alcohol.

Multiple levels of police agencies

In many countries, particularly those with a federal system of government, there may be several police or police-like organisations, each serving different levels of government and enforcing different subsets of the applicable law.

The United States of America

In the United States of America, there are thousands of separate police forces. Local policing is usually conducted by the police departments at the city, township or village level. County sheriffs, state police, and highway patrols assist the local police with investigations and also operate county jails and state prisons. They also enforce laws in their particular jurisdictions and are usually the only police in unincorporated areas beyond the jurisdiction of the cities.

Several dozen federal law enforcement agencies (such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the United States Marshals Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the United States Secret Service) operate at the highest level and are endowed with police or quasi-police roles. The FBI has the most general investigative powers, while the other federal agencies are highly specialized.

All federal agencies are supposedly limited by the U.S. Constitution to investigating only matters that are explicitly within the power of the federal government, like interstate commerce. But because everything in the U.S. affects interstate commerce nowadays, federal investigative powers are in practice very broad.

Because of all this complexity, at a crime or disaster scene affecting large numbers of people, there will be many different police agencies involved. Usually the highest state agency or the highest federal law enforcement agency (the FBI) will take command in such confusing situations, as depicted in movies like The Negotiator.


In Canada, there are 3 levels of police forces: municipal, provincial, and federal. In some provinces, the provincial and municipal levels are contracted out to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and the force remains the only one in the world to service 3 distinct levels.


See article Police in France

In France, there are two separate national police agencies, with overlapping but different jurisdiction:

Additionally, French municipalities may have a local police called the police municipale, garde municipale or garde champetre , with restricted powers: they can only enforce the municipal by-laws (amongst which those related to the road circulation) and participate in prevention actions (survey, evacuation of buildings, protection against accidents, etc.).

Note that in French, the term "police" does not only refers to the forces, but also to the general concept of "maintenance of law and order" (policing). There are two types of police in this general sense:

  • administrative police (police administrative): preventative actions (patrols, signalizing accident areas, overpowering a violent person, taking care of a lost or abandoned child, etc.);
  • judicial police (police judiciaire): noticing infringements of the law, searching for the proofs and for the authors of the crime, investigation.

Thus, the mayor has the administrative police power on the town (i.e. he can order the police forces to enforce the municipal by-laws), the judge has the power of police on the court.

Until 1984, the National Police was involved in the prehospital care and casualty transport (Police secours). The prehospital care is now performed by firemen; however, mountain rescue is performed by the Gendarmerie (PGHM, peloton de gendarmerie de haute montagne) and the CRS (Compagnies républicaines de sécurité, National Police's Republican Security Company).

Some other coutries follow this model and have separate police agencies with the same role but different jurisdictions.


Most countries are members of the International Criminal Police Organization - Interpol, established to detect and fight trans-national crime and provide for international co-operation and coordination of other police activities, such as notifying relatives of the death of foreign nationals. Interpol does not conduct enquiries nor arrests by itself, but only serves as a central point for information on crime, suspects and criminals. Political crimes are excluded from its competencies.

Police armament and equipment


In many jurisdictions, police officers carry firearms in the normal course of their duties.

Police often have specialist units for handling armed offenders, and similar dangerous situations, and can often, in extreme circumstances, call on the military, sometimes including special forces like the SAS. They can also be equipped with non-lethal (also known as "less than lethal" or "less-lethal") weaponry, particularly for riot control. Non-lethal weapons include batons, shields, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and stun guns. The use of firearms or deadly force is typically a last resort only to be used when necessary to save human life, although some jurisdictions allow its use against fleeing felons and escaped convicts. Police officers often also carry handcuffs to restrain suspects.

Modern police forces make extensive use of radio communications equipment, carried both on the person and installed in vehicles, to coordinate their work and share information. In recent years, vehicle-installed computers have enhanced the ability of police communications, enabling criminal background checks on persons of interest to be completed in a matter of seconds, and updating the officer's daily activity log and other required reports on a real-time basis. Other common pieces of police equipment include flashlights, whistles, and paper notebooks.

In specific countries

Police in the United States usually carry a pistol (Glocks and Sig-Sauers are the most common) and an impact weapon, a baton. Most police departments have elite SWAT units which are called in to handle situations which require greater force, such as hostage situations or building raids. Some departments also use nonlethal weapons like Mace, pepper spray, Tasers, and beanbag rifles. To efficiently cover the sprawling layout of the typical American city, American police officers usually patrol in pairs called "units," and ride in specialized cars (such as the Ford Crown Victoria Police Interceptor) called "cruisers" or "prowl cars." High-speed car chases are common in the United States, so police officers are usually trained in high-speed driving techniques and the PIT maneuver. Some police departments allow their officers to carry shotguns or assault rifles in their vehicles for additional firepower.

In the United Kingdom and some other countries of the British police tradition, the police are not normally issued firearms, but are issued other weapons (truncheons, batons, pepper spray, CS spray etc.), although some officers may be issued firearms in special situations. This originates from the formation of the Metropolitan Police in the 19th Century when police were not armed, partly to counter public fears and objections concerning armed enforcers. However, the Ministry of Defence Police, UK Atomic Energy Authority Constabulary and Police Service of Northern Ireland (formerly known as Royal Ulster Constabulary) are issued firearms as a matter of routine. Every force can also call upon armed response units in a matter of minutes, and certain special squads, such as the Flying Squad, Special Branch and officers protecting airports, government buildings and diplomats are routinely armed.

The Republic of Ireland has an unarmed police force, An Garda Síochána, although they are all trained to use firearms and all detectives and special units carry them.

Restrictions upon the power of the police

In order for police officers to do their job well, they are vested by the state with a monopoly in the use of certain powers. These include the powers to arrest, search, seize, and interrogate; and if necessary, to kill. In many First World nations, particularly the United States, the law of criminal procedure has been developed to regulate officers' discretion, so that they do not exercise their vast powers arbitrarily and ruin the lives of innocent people.

In American criminal procedure, the most famous case is Miranda v. Arizona which led to the widespread use of Miranda warnings. American police are also prohibited from holding criminal suspects for more than an unreasonable time (usually two days) before arraignment, using torture to extract confessions, using excessive force to effect an arrest, and searching suspects' bodies or their homes without a warrant obtained upon a showing of probable cause. There are exceptions for exigent circumstances such as the need to disarm a suspect who is resisting arrest. The Posse Comitatus Act prevents the use of the U.S. military for police activity, giving added importance to police SWAT units.

British police officers are governed by similar rules, particularly those introduced under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 , but generally have greater powers. They may, for example, legally search any suspect who has been arrested, or their vehicles, home or business premises, without a warrant, and may seize anything they find in a search as evidence. Unlike the system in many countries, a British police officer's rank has no bearing on his or her powers - all police powers are derived from the "office of constable" into which every police officer has been sworn and the newest probationary constable (or part-time volunteer special constable ) has exactly the same powers as the Commissioner of Police of the Metropolis, Britain's most senior police officer.

Difficult issues

Some police organizations, especially in multi-racial or multi-ethnic areas, may be faced with a perception that racial profiling is occurring. Police organizations also must sometimes deal with the issue of police corruption which is often abetted by a code of silence that encourages unquestioning loyalty to one's comrades over the cause of justice. In the US, this is accomplished by having an independent or semi-independent organization investigate such as the FBI, internal affairs, or the Justice Department. Finally, in many places, the social status and pay of police is now leading to major problems with recruitment and morale.

Critics, especially those mindful of the potential for state tyranny, (see "police state"), argue that police organizations are a means by which the state implements its monopoly on the use of force.

Police forces also find themselves under criticism for their use of force, particularly deadly force when a police officer of one race kills a suspect of another race. In the United States, such events inevitably spark protests and accusations of racism against police.

For more information on extreme forms and various views of policing, see secret police, police state, corporate police state, thought police, and police brutality.

Policing structures

Most police forces contain subgroups whose job it is to investigate particular types of crime.

In most Western police forces, perhaps the most significant division is between "uniformed" police and detectives. Uniformed police, as the name suggests, wear uniforms, and their jobs involve overt policing operations, traffic control, and more active crime response and prevention. Detectives, by contrast, wear 'business attire' when their job is to more passively investigate crimes, usually on a longer-term basis. In some cases, police are assigned to work "undercover", where they do not identify themselves as police, sometimes for long periods, to investigate crimes, particularly organized crime, unsolvable by other means. This type of policing shares much with espionage.

Specialized groups exist within the branches either for dealing with particular types of crime (for instance, traffic policing, murder, or fraud) or because of particular specialised skills they have (for instance, diving, operating helicopters, bomb squad, and so on). Most larger jurisdictions also retain specially-trained quasi-military squads armed with small arms for the purposes of dealing with particularly violent situations. These are sometimes called SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) teams.

Police agencies



North America


South America


  • Interpol International police ogranisation

Obsolete or Disbanded Agencies

Facist Italy

Nazi Germany

Soviet Union

  • KGB (Committee for State Security)

East Germany

Communist Romania

Other Agencies

See: List of Law Enforcement Agencies

Related articles

Police roles

Ethical issues related to police

Related concepts

Notable historical police personalities

For fictional accounts of police work, see: Crime fiction.

Notable former police officers

External links

  • Law Enforcement News

Last updated: 02-05-2005 14:29:41
Last updated: 02-18-2005 14:20:24