Police Officer Law & Legal Definition


People depend on police officers and detectives to protect their lives and property. Law enforcement officers, some of whom are State or Federal special agents or inspectors, perform these duties in a variety of ways, depending on the size and type of their organization. In most jurisdictions, they are expected to exercise authority when necessary, whether on or off duty.

Uniformed police officers who work in municipal police departments of various sizes, small communities, and rural areas have general law enforcement duties including maintaining regular patrols and responding to calls for service. They may direct traffic at the scene of a fire, investigate a burglary, or give first aid to an accident victim. In large police departments, officers usually are assigned to a specific type of duty. Many urban police agencies are becoming more involved in community policing—a practice in which an officer works with the citizens of local neighborhoods and mobilizes the public to help fight crime.

Police agencies are usually organized into geographic districts, with uniformed officers assigned to patrol a specific area, such as part of the business district or outlying residential neighborhoods. Officers may work alone, but in large agencies they often patrol with a partner. While on patrol, officers attempt to become thoroughly familiar with their patrol area and remain alert for anything unusual. Suspicious circumstances and hazards to public safety are investigated or noted, and officers are dispatched to individual calls for assistance within their district. During their shift, they may identify, pursue, and arrest suspected criminals, resolve problems within the community, and enforce traffic laws.

State law enforcement agencies operate in every State except Hawaii. Most full-time sworn personnel are uniformed officers who regularly patrol and respond to calls for service. Others are investigators, perform court-related duties, or work in administrative or other assignments.

Police officers enforce the law, investigate crimes, preserve evidence, write reports for government prosecutors, apprehend fugitives, and testify in court.

  • Urban police officers have general law enforcement duties including maintaining regular patrols and responding to calls for service. Many are assigned to patrol a specific area, such as a business district or residential neighborhood.
  • Sheriffs and deputy sheriffs enforce the law on the county level. Sheriffs, who are elected to their posts, perform duties similar to those of a local or county police chief. A deputy sheriff in a large agency has duties similar to those of officers in urban police departments.
  • Detectives gather facts and collect evidence for criminal cases. They conduct interviews, examine records, observe the activities of suspects, and participate in raids or arrests.
  • State police officers, also known as highway patrol officers, arrest criminals statewide and patrol highways to enforce motor vehicle laws and regulations. At the scene of accidents, they may direct traffic, give first aid, and call for emergency equipment.