The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







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

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.



In most Western legal systems, the major 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, there are several levels of policing and law enforcement services, federal police, state police, special-purpose district police (parks, schools, housing, transit, etc), county police (sheriffs, constables, and some county police agencies), and local police. There are thousands of separate police forces.

Local policing is usually conducted by the police departments at the county, city, township or village level and may range from one person offices (sometimes still called the town marshal) to the 40,000 men and women of the New York City Police Department. County sheriffs, county police, state police, and highway patrols may 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. Special district police tend to be security police forces with little or no off-site authority.

Federal police fall into two broad categories:

Both types operate at the highest level and are endowed with police or quasi-police roles. The investigative agencies have nationwide jurisdiction, while the uniformed agencies tend to have rather limited territorial jurisdictions. The FBI has the most general investigative powers, while the other federal agencies are highly specialized. All federal agencies are 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 local agency, or the highest federal law enforcement agency (the FBI), if a federal law was involved, will take command in such confusing situations, as depicted in movies like The Negotiator or Die Hard'.


In Canada, there are three levels of police forces: municipal, provincial, and federal. Constitutionally, law enforcement is a provincial responsibility, although most urban areas have been given the authority to maintain their own police forces. Many municipalities contract out their law enforcement to the provincial authorities, and all but three provinces in turn contract out their law enforcement responsibilities to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the federal force, which therefore is the only police force in the world to service three distinct levels.

Ontario, Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador maintain their own provincial police forces. Smaller Candadian Cities often contract police service from the RCMP, while larger cities maintain their own force.


See article Police in France

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

A similar diffusion exists, or has existed, in several other countries following the French system.

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.). These personnel may or may not be armed. 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, and full powers of arrest.

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 (i.e. he can have people who disrupt the proceedings expelled from the court room).

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 countries 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 (more accurately known as "less than lethal" or "less-lethal") weaponry, particularly for riot control. Non-lethal weapons include batons, shields, riot control agents, 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, most importantly, notebooks and "ticketbooks" or citations.

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 also known as a "nightstick". Most large 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, electroshock guns, and beanbag rifles. Some police departments allow their officers to carry shotguns or assault rifles in their vehicles for additional firepower.

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", or in the New York City Police Department "RMPs" (Radio Mobile Patrol). High-speed car chases are common in certain areas of the United States, so police officers are usually trained in high-speed driving techniques and the PIT maneuver.

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 gas 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, Civil Nuclear 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 specialist squads, such as the Flying Squad, Special Branch, Diplomatic Protection Group , Royalty Protection Branch, and officers protecting airports and government buildings, are routinely armed.

The archetypal British "bobbie" walked his beat alone. Apart from rapid response units, motor vehicles were rarely used except in rural districts (and even there bicycles were more common). However, in the last few decades the police have become increasingly motorised and it is now rare to see an officer on foot patrol except in city or town centres, and then rarely alone. Patrol cars, known as panda cars (or sometimes jam sandwiches), are in use everywhere and may be crewed by one or two officers. Except for rapid response and traffic patrol vehicles, they are generally smaller and less powerful than American vehicles.

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 nations with democratic systems and the rule of law, 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 routinely 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. There are also "plainclothes" officers, who are allowed to dress in more casual attire for purposes of blending in better. 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

  • Argentina
    • Gendarmería Nacional
  • Brazil
    • Grupo de Ações Táticas Especiais (GATE; Special Tactical Actions Group)


  • Interpol (International Police Organisation)

Disbanded agencies

Note: Many of these fall under the definition of secret polices and derive from that list.

See also

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

Last updated: 10-22-2005 13:38:09
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