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I recently picked up a novel that featured an FBI agent as a first responder to a burglary investigation at a city residence. The author immediately lost her credibility with me and I put the novel aside. Why? The Feds are about four levels too high for the job. Can federal agents investigate a burglary? Absolutely. Are they the first responder in a city? No.

At some point, a story you’re writing will likely involve a law enforcement character. It may be on a traffic stop, in response to a crime, an encounter in a coffee shop, in another character’s school, or over the neighboring fence. Our nation has more than 700,000 law enforcement officers, so for art to mimic life, there are a couple of things you need to know.

What is Jurisdiction?

Jurisdiction is easiest to imagine as geographical boundaries, but is best thought of in terms of power. Jurisdiction defines the statutory authority of a government agency—in this case, law enforcement—to act and investigate based on the location of the incident, the type of crime, or the dollar amount at stake.

Who are you going to call?

Most people don’t worry about jurisdiction. If they need help, they dial 911 and then wait for help. As the master manipulator of your novel, however, you are the dispatcher and it’s up to you to decide who goes. Need a quick response? Local police almost always arrive first.

The Locals

The backbone of law enforcement is the patrol force. New York City employs approximately 34,500 patrol officers—that’s just the uniformed division. A rural agency may only employ a single peace officer. Throw in a county agency and your first responder could be an officer, marshal, or deputy.

So how do you know the difference? If you are writing about an actual agency, it’s easy. Find a computer. Nearly all agencies have a wealth of information regarding size, jurisdiction, rank structure and community outreach on their websites. Photos will reveal the types of vehicles they drive, how they dress and the color of their uniform (which varies considerably).

Every county has a sheriff’s office. The sheriff is an elected official and is statutorily required to provide public safety for the county. Deputy sheriffs perform the patrol grunt work. They also carry out civil law responsibilities, such as serving subpoenas.

By comparison, cities often operate their own municipal police departments. An appointed Chief of Police runs the agency, and the first responders are referred to as officers. But police agencies are expensive to administer, and many cities contract for public safety services from the county sheriff. Likewise, most towns and villages contract from the county, although some operate their own office, and may be called marshals.

On very rare occasions, cities and counties combine agencies, for example the Miami-Dade Police Department and the agencies in San Francisco and Denver. Usually this occurs when the city and county share the same geographical boundaries.

State Agencies

State agencies differ across the nation—and it gets murky fast. Many states have multiple public safety agencies that focus on either investigation or enforcement. Other states run one agency with different divisions.

California combines these functions under the umbrella of one massive agency. Remember the television show CHPs? Well, they do a lot more than ride motorcycles. In addition to patrolling the state’s highways, they also staff a Protective Services Division tasked with capitol, dignitary, judicial and governor protection. The agency oversees the State and Regional Threat Assessment Centers, Counterterrorism and Threat Awareness Section, and the Emergency Operations Center.

Our home state operates the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE). According to their mission statement, they seek to promote public safety and strengthen domestic security by partnering with all levels of criminal justice agencies. Want an FDLE officer to respond? Set your story in the state capitol, or overwhelm a small local agency so that it needs to request the support of the state crime lab.

Federal Agencies

Think state agencies are confusing? Wait, until the Feds get involved. According to the USA Government website, there are 19 federal agencies tasked with law enforcement or corrections-related duties. Many of them have additional large divisions. The Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Drug Enforcement Administration, and of course, the Federal Bureau of Investigations are familiar names. But don’t forget the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco Firearms and Explosives, or everyone’s favorite, the Transportation Security Administration.

Involving federal agencies in a story typically requires more than casual research. Introducing a character as an officer from the FBI will mark you as a rube. While it is true that they are sworn peace officers, the FBI hierarchy is paved with agents, not officers (although depending on your characters they may also be called G-men, Feds, and Feebs). Law enforcement officers in the TSA are Federal Air Marshals. The U.S. Marshals Service, the oldest federal law enforcement agency, is the enforcement arm of the Federal Court System. Their enforcement officers are called U.S. marshals (as opposed to a town marshal).

Who is the best?

That’s an easy one. It depends on what you need. Every agency thinks it’s the best. Law enforcement is remarkably similar to a family—complete with sibling rivalry, petty jealousies, and intense loyalty. Some departments welcome assistance; others not so much. The truth? The world is shrinking. People are far more mobile, crimes cross borders, and the Internet links continents. Law enforcement cannot be conducted in a vacuum. Departments rely on each other.

Federal task forces give smaller agencies the opportunity to tackle major issues in their communities. The US Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency launched a task force to address Internet child exploitation. They also assist with cyber crimes, human trafficking and smuggling investigations. The Marshals Service routinely spearheads fugitive task forces. The Drug Enforcement Agency partners with local law enforcement on narcotic task forces.

Truth is stranger than fiction

Jurisdiction can be tricky. Regardless of genre, the takeaway for authors is that with a little bit of background information, the truth can be manipulated to fit your story needs. The author at the beginning of the article could have legitimately had an FBI agent respond to a burglary investigation with a few easy tweaks. If the responding local officer noticed something in the home indicative of a federal issue—such as a tie to a bank robbery suspect, a terrorist threat, or if the investigation grew to include a kidnapping that crossed state lines—then the FBI would become involved. There’s even a way to legitimize a responding FBI agent. Set the crime on a Native American Indian Reservation. Some tribes have their own agency, but for those that don’t, the FBI holds jurisdiction.

In the end, the criminal justice system is a tangled network of agencies with overlapping jurisdictions and operational goals. But the people who make up those agencies are remarkably similar. Every officer swears to uphold the public trust, and they share a common goal. They tend to be strong-willed, opinionated and honorable. By virtue of law, they have enormous authority, and what they do with it can make great fiction.

Who’s In Charge Here? The Who, What and Where of Law Enforcement was originally published in The Florida Writer.