The overwhelming majority of Americans are law-abiding citizens, who more or less support the basic premise of police and what services they are supposed to be performing. In fact, even with the current buzz about law enforcement in general becoming too militarized (i.e. using military grade weapons and vehicles), Americans still respect the police, who are essentially there for all of our protection.
What most of us do not understand, however, is how to actually deal with police on their level. The average person has very little knowledge of what powers the police possess and an even smaller knowledge of what rules they need to play by, which are the questions that this guide will seek to answer.
First and foremost, let’s establish a set of ground rules, so we can better understand law enforcement and law enforcement contacts. With a myriad of federal, state, and municipal agencies, it is sometimes difficult to keep the rules straight as far as knowing which agency can do what, and how. Know this, however; federal law defines the vast majority of police contacts and rules in America, namely because the protections you enjoy as an American are derived from the Constitution of the United States. Additionally, many Supreme Court decisions have gone into the creation and maintenance of rules that govern police contact with the citizenry. Thus, we can make a pretty decent generalization that police contact with you, Joe American, will more or less follow the same set of rules, regardless of what state you happen to live in.
Are there exceptions? Absolutely. Some states have adopted stricter rules, which are not federal standards, in their interpretation of law enforcement contacts. As an example, some states have what is known as a “stop and identify clause”. What this means is that when asked by a law enforcement officer for identification (even as a non-motorist), it is illegal to refuse the officer ID. Other states do not have this provision in their state’s law books. It is outside of the scope of this guide to examine the nuances of all fifty states; instead, we will focus more on basic federal standards that apply to all states. Check the laws regarding the state in which you live!
Consider that there are literally thousands of law enforcement agencies in the United States. Many of them wear uniforms with badges, even though they are not “police” in that sense of the word. Many of them also wear the moniker “POLICE” on raid jackets and other articles of clothing, even though their job is really not policing. In theory, every designated law enforcement officer is capable of making an arrest for a felony committed in their presence, and can even do so relating to a misdemeanor in some cases. In practice, many agencies will not touch crimes or infractions outside of their purview. As an example, the U.S. Postal Service maintains a uniformed force of “Postal Police” whose main job is to protect sensitive postal sites and offices. They have uniforms, guns, and badges. They drive vehicles marked police. In theory, they can arrest anyone for any crime. In practice, however, they refer all crimes not involving the post office to the local police or sheriff’s department!
Therefore, even though there are hundreds upon thousands of police agencies that operate in the United States, you as a citizen mainly only have to deal with your local police or county sheriff’s office, since generally speaking, federal agents don’t often deal directly with the citizenry, and special police (school police, park rangers, BLM rangers, fish and game police, et cetera) only interact with the citizenry within their areas of control.
This takes us to an important point, one which bears reflecting on:
If you are ever stopped or questioned by a police officer or agent who seems to be out of his jurisdiction, you should always dial 911 and ensure that a local police officer, local sheriff’s deputy, or state police officer arrives at the scene.
Here’s an example of why: You are driving along one night, and you get lit up by reds and blues. The officer comes to the car door, and you see that he is actually a fish and game officer. Even though you know that in your state fish and game officers have the same powers as general police, you are not on any hunting grounds, unincorporated areas, or areas where fish and game normally operate. Therefore, comply with everything the officer says but call 911 just in case, so the dispatcher will roll out a local police officer to oversee the encounter.
You would be surprised at how many law enforcement agents (federal, state, and local) will exceed not so much their authority but their jurisdiction. When we say jurisdiction, we don’t really mean their legal jurisdiction, which is often state wide, but we mean their virtual jurisdiction. As a member of a state law enforcement agency, this author can in theory investigate crimes, make arrests, and write cites statewide. In practice, however, this author will find himself reprimanded and even fired should he attempt to police outside of his lane. Keep that in mind!
Most states will have three layers of policing that work in harmony, with three separate and distinct police agencies with more or less the same powers, overseeing more or less the same areas. They are:
Most states have something that resembles a state police agency. In some states, it might go under the name highway patrol, but it is still a state agency. These agencies mostly concern themselves with the patrol of highways, protection of the state capitol and other important buildings, and personal security for the governor and state law makers. Although they operate within cities and counties with their own law enforcement officers, they generally do not overlap local functions by courtesy; however, they can!
Most counties have a county police force headed by a sheriff. Keep in mind that an elected sheriff is a uniquely American tradition, and that the sheriff is almost always the chief law enforcement officer in the county. This is why some sheriffs find themselves in conflict with other police agencies, but the sheriffs usually win those conflicts. There is no higher law enforcement authority in a given county than the sheriff. County police also usually run the jails, and they provide bailiffs and court security officers as well as secure key infrastructure, like airports.
Municipal or city police are the police force for a local area. It could be as small as Podunk, Iowa, with three officers, or it could be as large as Los Angeles, California, with 10,000 officers. Either way, the city’s officers are usually headed by a chief or commissioner, and while in most states, city cops have statewide jurisdiction, in practice, they are bound to operate more or less within their city.
The distinction within these layers of policing are important for you as a citizen to understand, because many bad law enforcement contacts are a direct result of some overzealous officers attempting to exert authority where they shouldn’t.
Here’s another example: You are camping in Humboldt County, in northern California. Your neighbor states he is a police officer and is concerned with something he sees in your tent. He asks to take a look and presents a Los Angeles Police Department shield and valid ID card, even though he is in civilian clothes.
Let’s examine this a little. Under California Penal Code 830.2, the officer standing before you is a valid peace officer with powers throughout the state, 24 hours per day. Again, in theory, they are within their jurisdiction. In practice, look at the following, however:
- The off duty officer is not acting in an official capacity during this encounter, and he will not likely have the support of his department.
- If the situation at hand is not a true “life or death matter”, the officer could face a complaint or reprimand.
- This situation is highly unusual, and you as a citizen should be extremely wary of it and call 911 if the officer insists.
- The way this would normally go down, if the officer is smart, is that he would call the local police, have them come out, identify himself as an off duty officer, and then tell them what he suspected he saw in your tent.
Remember, a smart cop will always refer a matter that is outside his purview to a local cop, so that you are always dealing with someone within your jurisdiction. Even federal agencies, like ATF, DEA, ICE, and US Marshalls will almost always include a couple of local cops from the area when they conduct raids, as a jurisdictional courtesy to the local law enforcement agency.
Okay, so we have basically established that police contact from someone far outside your local area is an anomaly, and while it could technically be legitimate, in practice it is rare, unusual, and should be treated with suspicion. But how about the local cops? Well, these are the local police you see almost every day, and if you do have a law enforcement encounter, it is likely to be with these officers. Therefore, we will now examine how to deal with these people.