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What Police and Detectives Do

Police officers protect lives and property. Detectives and criminal investigators, who sometimes are called agents or special agents, gather facts and collect evidence of possible crimes. Law enforcement officers' duties depend on the size and type of their organizations.


Uniformed police officers typically do the following:

Detectives and criminal investigators typically do the following:

Police officers pursue and apprehend people who break the law and then warn them, cite them, or arrest them. Most police officers patrol their jurisdictions and investigate any suspicious activity they notice. They also respond to calls, issue traffic tickets, investigate domestic issues, and give first aid to accident victims.

Detectives perform investigative duties such as gathering facts and collecting evidence.

The daily activities of police and detectives vary with their occupational specialty and whether they are working for a local, state, or federal agency. Duties also differ among federal agencies, which enforce different aspects of the law. Regardless of job duties or location, police officers and detectives at all levels must write reports and keep detailed records that will be needed if they testify in court.

The following are examples of types of police and detectives who work in state and local law enforcement and in federal law enforcement:

State and Local Law Enforcement

Uniformed police officers have general law enforcement duties. They wear uniforms that allow the public to easily recognize them as police officers. They have regular patrols and also respond to calls for service.

Police agencies are usually organized into geographic districts, with uniformed officers assigned to patrol a specific area. Officers in large agencies often patrol with a partner. During patrols, officers look for any signs of criminal activity and may conduct searches or arrest suspected criminals. They may also respond to emergency calls, investigate complaints, and enforce traffic laws.

Some police officers work only on a specific type of crime, such as narcotics. Officers, especially those working in large departments, may also work in special units, such as horseback, motorcycle, and canine corps or special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams. Typically, officers must work as patrol officers for a certain number of years before they may be appointed to one of these units.

Many city police agencies are involved in community policing, a philosophy of bringing police and members of the community together to prevent crime. A neighborhood watch program is one type of community policing.

Some agencies have special geographic and enforcement responsibilities. Examples include public college and university police forces, public school district police, and transit police. Most law enforcement workers in special agencies are uniformed officers.

State police officers, sometimes called state troopers or highway patrol officers, have many of the same duties as other police officers, but they may spend more time enforcing traffic laws and issuing traffic citations. State police officers have authority to work anywhere in the state and are frequently called on to help other law enforcement agencies, especially those in rural areas or small towns. State highway patrols operate in every state except Hawaii.

Transit and railroad police patrol railroad yards and transit stations. They protect property, employees, and passengers from crimes such as thefts and robberies. They remove trespassers from railroad and transit properties and check the IDs of people who try to enter secure areas.   

Sheriffs and deputy sheriffs enforce the law on the county level. Sheriffs’ departments tend to be relatively small. Sheriffs usually are elected by the public and do the same work as a local or county police chief. Some sheriffs’ departments do the same work as officers in urban police departments. Others mainly operate the county jails and provide services in the local courts. Police and sheriffs’ deputies who provide security in city and county courts are sometimes called bailiffs.

Detectives and criminal investigators are plainclothes investigators who gather facts and collect evidence for criminal cases. They conduct interviews, examine records, observe the activities of suspects, and participate in raids or arrests. Detectives usually specialize in investigating one type of crime, such as homicide or fraud. Detectives are typically assigned cases on a rotating basis and work on them until an arrest and conviction is made or until the case is dropped.

Fish and game wardens enforce fishing, hunting, and boating laws. They patrol hunting and fishing areas, conduct search and rescue operations, investigate complaints and accidents, and educate the public about laws pertaining to their environment.

Federal Law Enforcement

Federal law enforcement officials carry out many of the same duties that other police officers do; however, they have jurisdiction over the entire country. Many federal agents are highly specialized. The following are examples of federal agencies in which officers and agents enforce particular types of laws.

See the Contacts for More Information section for more information about federal law enforcement agencies.

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2012-13 Edition