County Sheriff or City Police?

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I have seen lots of questions online recently about the County Sheriff. These are questions like Does the Sheriff report to the Police Chief? or Can someone help me understand the differences between detectives in a Sheriff Department and a city police department? Titles, reporting, cases across counties…any subject will help. I don’t know what I don’t know.

In this post I will explain the differences. As always, these are general guidelines and there are always local or regional exceptions. I will also explain some of those. Let’s start with the police department.

Police Department

Most cities have their own police department. These are funded by the city. The department head is the chief, who is hired by the city and reports to the mayor and city council, who are all elected. Some cities have a city manager, who is hired by the mayor and council. His job is to handle the day-to-day business needs of the city. The chief would also report to the city manager.

This department is responsible for policing inside the city limits. This includes traffic, patrol, detectives, etc. Some larger cities will have their own jail that may or may not be run by the police department. The larger the city, the more complete the forensics team will be. They will usually contract with a neighboring city, county, or state for more complex forensics work. Extremely large cities, like New York, have anti-terrorist units as part of the police department.

The org-chart of a police department is often made up of a Chief, a handful of Assistant Chiefs, followed by Captains, Lieutenants, Sergeants, and Officers. In many departments, Detective is not a rank, but an assignment. Some departments have different organizations. San Francisco has Inspectors rather than Detectives. Baltimore has Colonels. If you’re writing about a real city, check the department website or contact the department to learn how it’s organized.

Cities without a police department contract with a neighboring city or the county sheriff to provide police services. In this case, the city pays for those services.

Sheriff Department

The Sheriff Department is run by and funded by the county. The head of the department is the Sheriff, who is elected by all people of the county. He reports to the citizens but the department funding is controlled by the county commission, who is also elected.

The Sheriff has policing responsibility for areas of the county that are not inside a city, often called unincorporated areas. The Sheriff is also in charge of a county jail, prisoner transport (to and from court), and courthouse security. If your county has a search and rescue team, it is run by the sheriff.

The organization of a sheriff department is similar to a police department. Again, check with the department where your story is set to find out it is organized.

Cooperation and Exceptions

Often times a city or county needs help that it doesn’t have internally. This could be anything from forensics to murder investigation to traffic control to handle a multiple location or large-scale crime.

The city and county will know who to call for help. A few years ago there was a shooter driving through Salt Lake City, randomly shooting at cars and buildings. The crime scene stretch for many blocks. Salt Lake City police put out a general call for assistance because of size of the crime scene. Officers from as far away as 30 miles came to help. I remember seeing a line of nine police cars from outside Salt Lake City heading toward downtown, lights and sirens going.

There are also specialized needs that a city may not have. A smaller city is unlikely to have SWAT or a bomb squad, but the know who to call. The city that asks for help will get a bill from the city that helped to pay for the costs.

Other times, there may be a joint task force that works in multiple cities. A Gang Task Force is commonly setup with neighboring cities to fight this type of crime. The task force is paid for by each participating city and the command structure is determined by the agreement.

Other times, cities may be mandated to work together in different ways. In Utah, the state legislature passed a law that the three largest departments in Salt Lake County rotate over who investigates each other in the case of officer involved shootings or crimes committed by an officer.

If a city does not have a jail, it will contract with a neighboring city or usually the county, for jail services. The city needing jail service is billed by the jail.

In one unique and strange organization, the Salt Lake County Sheriff Department does not provide policing services. Instead, the Unified Police Department, of which the Sheriff is the Chief, provides those services. So cities without a police department will contract with Unified Police. The Sheriff Department handles the jail, prisoner transport, and search and rescue.

Forensics techs are not police officers. Contrary to what you see on CSI, forensics do not question suspects. They do not have arrest authority. They are civilians. Most states have a crime lab to handle things not done by a city. My city can process finger and shoe prints, photographs, ballistics, etc. But DNA, fibers, hair, and many other things are handled by the state crime lab.

I’m going to mention the coroner/medical examiner here even though they are not law enforcement. Remember that a coroner and ME are not the same thing. A coroner is elected and needs no medical training. A medical examiner has a medical degree and is hired. In Utah, the state runs the medical examiner’s office and it is part of the Utah Department of Health. No city or county has their own.

Finally I need to mention jurisdiction. You hear this all time on TV and in the movies, “We’re outside your city, cop, so you don’t have jurisdiction.” That may not be true. In Utah, all Law Enforcement Officers are certified by the state of Utah. This means they have can make an arrest anywhere in the state.

I hope this helps answer any question you have. And again, if you are writing about a real place, find out how that department is organized.

There are many more intricacies around crime investigation that are often shown incorrectly on TV and in movies. I have a presentation that discusses many of these tropes and how things are really done. Contact me if you are interested in having me speak to your group.

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